Flinders and Banks – Dr Gillian Dooley

‘My Greatest and best friend’: Flinders and Banks

Gillian Dooley

Flinders University

As I drive southwards from my home in Beverley, South Australia, on the way to my workplace in the library at Flinders University, I pass the junction with Banks Avenue. Banks Avenue is a short, pleasant suburban street which crosses La Perouse Avenue and terminates at Torres Avenue. This suburb, which also includes Baudin Avenue, Westall Avenue, and Captain Cook Avenue, is called Flinders Park.

According to the Australian Museum website, ‘Joseph Banks has been honoured with many place names throughout the South Pacific, including in Australia with a group of islands (Sir Joseph Banks Group) in South Australia, Banks Strait in Tasmania and suburbs in several Australian states bear his name. He is also commemorated in the names of several plants, most notably the Australian wildflower genus Banksia.’[1] Geoscience Australia lists 142 place names including the surname Banks and its variants, including Banksia. I think it’s reasonable to assume that most of them were named, directly or indirectly, after Sir Joseph. He has done quite well in the commemoration stakes in Australia.

For Flinders, there are 223 features listed. Almost all of them would be named after Matthew Flinders, though he did name Flinders Island (the more westerly one, off the coast of South Australia) after his brother Samuel – he never named anything after himself. Apart from Flinders University, there are the massive Flinders Ranges in the mid north of South Australia, and, confusingly, another Flinders Island in Bass Strait. There is Flinders Street, a major thoroughfare in Melbourne which gives its name to the Flinders Street Railway Station. Flinders Street is also one of Adelaide’s main city streets – Flinders University’s city building is on the corner of Flinders Street and Victoria Square. There are 80 plants named after Banks, however, and only 17 species named Flindersia. As the Australian National Herbarium online asserts, Sir Joseph’s ‘impact on the study of natural history in both Britain and Australia cannot be overestimated.’[2]

If we turn the spotlight on South Australia, however, apart from some streets here and there, Banks is commemorated only in the group of islands Flinders named after him, located in the Spencer Gulf, near Port Lincoln, and secondary denominations like Banksia Park, an Adelaide suburb – 25 places altogether, compared with 87 for Flinders. I suppose that’s only natural: Flinders visited us, landing on a beach just a few miles north of modern-day Adelaide, while Banks never came around to the south coast.

In 1804, Flinders wrote to Banks from his detention on Mauritius: ‘If adverse fortune does not oppose me, I will succeed; and although I cannot rival the immortalized name of Cook, yet if persevering industry joined to what ability I may possess, can accomplish it, then I will secure the second place. The hitherto obscure name of Flinders may thus become a light by which even the illustrious character of Sir Joseph Banks may one day receive an additional ray of glory: as a satellite of Jove I may reflect back splendour to the gracious primary who, by shining upon me, shall give lustre to my yet unradiated name.’ [3] This jars on modern ears, perhaps especially on my egalitarian Australian ones, but still, it has come true.

When Flinders had the confidence, brashness, effrontery or whatever you like to call it to write to the most influential man in the world of scientific investigation, the President of the Royal Society etc etc in 1800, to suggest that a ship to be sent out to New South Wales to circumnavigate the continent and resolve its mysteries, and to offer himself as the commander of the expedition, he excused himself, somewhat jocularly (and surely disingenuously), for ‘any informality there may be in thus addressing him, that almost constant employment abroad, and an education among the unpolished inhabitants of the Lincolnshire fens, have prevented me from learning better.’[4] Banks doesn’t seem to have been offended by this slight upon their shared county of origin, and promptly used his influence to have Flinders appointed to command the expedition to Terra Australis.

Flinders had first met Banks in 1793, when on his return from Bligh’s breadfruit voyage on the Providence his shipmate, botanist James Wiles, asked him to visit Banks twice on his behalf. The nineteen-year-old midshipman, according to Kenneth Morgan in his new biography of Flinders, ‘would have been well received, as someone who had sailed in the Providence.’ Morgan goes on, ‘Though he had virtually no contact with Banks for several years thereafter these initial meetings with Banks proved crucial for Flinders’ later career’ (13). In fact, Morgan claims that ‘Banks’s greatest contribution to Australian maritime exploration came with his support for Flinders on his Investigator expedition and his subsequent efforts on behalf of Flinders personally and to disseminate the voyage’s findings.’ (49) He was ‘an indispensable go-between for organizing maritime expeditions at a time when government found its administrative resources stretched’, because of the war with France (54). Flinders agreed, calling Banks ‘that distinguished patron of science and useful enterprise.’ (49) Flinders knew no higher praise than ‘useful’. In a later letter, he drew attention to their shared interest:

Well knowing, Sir Joseph, how much you are interested in the voyage, I take the liberty of speaking at length upon the subject; and if it meets your approbation I shall continue to mention the wants we may have, and the alterations that may be necessary, hoping, for your assistance in forwarding their accomplishment.

In a few days I will send up lists of the extra things that to me appear necessary for us.[5]

Thanking Banks in February 1801 for his part in obtaining his commission as commander of the Investigator, Flinders wrote:

Panygeric (sic), or a long train of sentences of gratitude, would be unpleasant to a mind like that of sir Joseph Banks, I will therefore only add, that it shall be my endeavour to shew by my conduct and exertions that your good opinion has not been misplaced.[6]

A little later Banks had to defend Flinders against ‘many severe remarks’ from the Admiralty. When he was just about to leave on the Investigator voyage, after the Admiralty had insisted that he leave his new wife Ann behind in England, Flinders had some trouble when bringing the ship around from the Nore to Portsmouth – a run of bad luck the Admiralty were inclined to attribute to his mismanagement. Flinders wrote a long letter to Banks, carefully explaining every circumstance and defending himself, finishing the letter thus:

That the admiralty have thrown blame upon me, and should have represented to my greatest and best friend, that I had gotten the ship on shore, had let a prisoner escape, and three of my men run away, without adding the attendant circumstances, is most mortifying and grievous to me; but it is impossible to express so gratefully as I feel, the anxious concern with which you took the part of one who has not the least claim to such generosity; but was I to enter upon this subject, I should write to all eternity; I shall, therefore, only say, that with the highest respect, gratitude, and esteem, I am, Sir Joseph your faithful and obedient servant.[7]

You can almost palpably sense his relief in October when he writes from the Cape of Good Hope, ‘I feel some satisfaction in writing to you, Sir Joseph, now that I have not to trouble you with my wants and complaints; but rather to say that we have thus far advanced prosperously in the voyage.’[8]

Flinders’ reasons for writing to Banks always came back to the same root cause, which he expressed in a letter from the Investigator off Timor in March 1803: ‘You have … many anxious well-wishers, Sir Joseph, on board the Investigator; for besides the gratitude which your attention and favour to many of us has excited, we know of no one who after you will think at all of us or our labours; and truly we are somewhat ambitious of notice from those whose attention confers both information and credit.’[9] Flinders knew that Banks shared his passion for exploration and for the advancement of science and knowledge, and he was a natural ally in promoting his endeavours.

The wants and complaints did return in later correspondence, of course, redoubled when poor Flinders was detained on Mauritius by the French colonial governor there, between December 1803 and July 1810. Banks did what he could to help Flinders, by pleading his cause with the Admiralty and his French colleagues and connections, but the obdurate General Decaen was not to be moved. Banks also corresponded sympathetically with Flinders’ wife Ann and keeping her informed of his efforts on Flinders’ behalf. In 1807 he wrote to her:

It Greives me to hear that Capt. Flinders, after having for so long supported with manly fortitude the very disgracefull treatment he has met with from those Enemies to humanity, the French, has at last given way to oppression, & Sufferd his Spirits to Flag. I can not, however, have a doubt from the well Known Energies of his mind that his Low Spirits are only a temporary Attack of depression, which will not be Lasting.[10]

Finally released from detention on Mauritius in 1810, and back in London, Flinders threw himself with all those ‘well known energies of his mind’ into the completion of his Voyage. Banks’ town house in Soho Square was a hub of Flinders’ activity. He visited there every two or three days, borrowing books, but more importantly consulting Sir Joseph about the writing of his voyage. Mr Yorke, the first Lord of the Admiralty, had appointed Sir Joseph and Flinders, along with John Barrow, the second secretary to the Admiralty, as the committee to undertake the writing of the Investigator’s voyage, so the three of them had much business to take care of at this early stage of the project. But Flinders also frequently asked his advice about his own affairs, such as the vexed question of his promotion to Post Captain. Banks had been advocating on Flinders’ behalf since before his return: in a letter of October 1810 he wrote to John Barrow, ‘I am Gratefull for Mr Yorke’s kindness to Flinders as far as it goes, & Shall always feel for his kindness a proportionate degree of Gratitude,’ but protested at the ‘harsh rule which interdicts the Promotion of a Brave man, however well he has fought, if the fortune of war has placed him in the hands of his Enemies till his Enemies are Pleasd on their own mere motions to Restore his Liberty. Surely this Rule is more like a French one than and English one.’[11] Other letters concerned the question of Flinders’ remuneration while writing the voyage – he was kept on half pay, and estimated that it would therefore put him about £500 out of pocket to write the voyage – and the affairs of his brother Samuel and other members of the Investigator’s company. Banks tried to help as much as possible, but even his influence was not unlimited.

In March 1811, Sir Joseph invited him to attend his Sunday evening ‘conversations’ and the meetings of the Royal Society. It seems that Banks had been wondering why Flinders hadn’t been attending these: Flinders a few days earlier had recorded a conversation with Robert Brown where the subject had come up. In his private journal, Flinders writes, ‘I had indeed thought it somewhat strange, that Sir Jos. had never invited me to these conversations, as he had done in 1800 on my return from N.S. Wales; but as I do not wish to intrude myself into societies where I am not certain of being welcome, I did not chuse to go without an invitation, or some hint that I was expected to go.’ (351) This is so typical of Flinders’ pride and sense of propriety.

From this time on, Flinders attended Banks’ weekly gatherings, where he met many like-minded people and made many useful connections. Their close association continued, and Flinders was keen to return the many favours Banks had done him whenever he could. In July 1812 he arranged to get a book from his French friends in Paris ‘which Sir J.B. wished to obtain. I am very glad to seize any opportunity of being useful to Sir Joseph, from his having done so much (though not every thing) for me.’ Their only significant disagreement was over the naming of Australia. Banks did not give ‘Australia’ his imprimatur and consequently the voyage was named A Voyage to Terra Australis not ‘A Voyage to Australia’, which Flinders would have preferred. It wasn’t long, of course, before Flinders’ preference for the name Australia won out, as it was adopted by Governor Macquarie in NSW – but Flinders didn’t live long enough to enjoy this vindication. He died in July 1814, within days – possibly the day after – his Voyage was published.

I don’t need to tell this audience how ubiquitous Banks’ influence was in the founding of the colony at New South Wales, in botanical research in Australia and the Pacific, and in the geographical exploration of Australia’s coasts and islands. He was clearly a brilliant and well-informed man, and I think Flinders was lucky that he had also possessed practical kindness, generosity and compassion. Readings Banks’ letters about Flinders, it is clear that Flinders was not mistaken in regarding him as his ‘greatest and best friend.’

[1] (http://australianmuseum.net.au/joseph-banks)

[2] (Sir Joseph Banks, anbg.gov.au)

[3] Matthew Flinders, Letter to Sir Joseph Banks, 12 July 1804. Personal Letters 116.

[4] Flinders, Personal Letters 52.

[5] Flinders, Personal Letters 58. (24/1/1801)

[6] Personal letters 60 (18/2/1801)

[7] Personal letters 73-4 (6/6/1801)

[8] Personal letters 77 (21/10/1801)

[9] Personal letters 88 (28/3/1803)

[10] Banks letter to Ann Flinders, 22 May 1807. The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks: A Selection 1768-1829 edited by Neil Chambers (London: Imperial College Press, 2000) 281.

[11] Banks letter to John Barrow, 24 October 1810. Letters 297.