Books & Literature

Book Review: A Passion for Exploring New Countries: Matthew Flinders & George Bass, by Josephine Bastian

The ambitions of Matthew Flinders and George Bass, shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

Bastian's scholarship and confident writing allows the reader to appreciate the motivations behind the ambitions of Bass and Flinders.

The narrative begins when the two men meet on the ship Reliance on its journey to Port Jackson in 1795, a time of exploration of new places and ideas in the spirit of the scientific enlightenment. Both men had great, if different, ambitions and New Holland was just the place to fulfil them.

Matthew Flinders was a midshipman, with hopes of becoming a lieutenant but his unstated ambition was to make a name for himself as a scientific explorer, just as his hero, James Cook, did. George Bass was the ship’s doctor, a position he disliked and he was initially more interested in becoming a famous naturalist like his hero, Sir Joseph Banks, and later a rich business man.

Flinders was quickly drawn into the orbit of the more urbane and sophisticated Bass. In less than two months of their arrival, they had Governor Hunter’s permission to explore and map the area around the settlement and later, further afield. The voyages in Bass’ boats, both named Tom Thumb, are vividly described by Josephine Bastion and further enhanced by the use of direct quotes from Flinders’ short book on their journeys.

The pair are remembered for these journeys and for their ‘discovery’ that Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was an island and not part of the mainland. Flinders was the surveyor and map maker on their journeys and it was he who named the waters Bass Strait, in honour of his friend. It was their last joint voyage as Bass moved on to pursue business and trade opportunities. Bass and his ship disappeared on a voyage to South America in 1803.

It was 1801 before Flinders was given the opportunity he longed for: a voyage of discovery around Australia in the Investigator. While waiting for sailing orders, Flinders rashly married his sweetheart Ann, hoping he could take her with him. Of course, nothing was straightforward in naval matters, particularly in the middle of the war with France, and because of the delays they experienced, the Admiralty had the opportunity to forbid Flinders to take Ann with him and it would be many years before they were together again.

I especially enjoyed the section on the Investigator’s incredible circumnavigation of Australia where Bastion’s skill in drawing the reader into the story is again on display. One truly empathises with Flinders’ lack of understanding of the actual extent of the reef he named the Great Barrier Reef. One can feel his anxiety to find open water and escape the maze of passages within the reef. I admire the way the author has seamlessly melded her own words and those from Flinders’ published account of the voyage in these chapters.

Bastian’s detailed research has made excellent use of newly available material and archives of the period. Her account is refreshing in that it fills in the picture of these two men who, in her capable hands, become ‘real’ people rather than just historical figures. Her scholarship and confident writing allows the reader to appreciate the motivations behind the ambitions of Bass and Flinders. Both wanted to be well known to posterity but Flinders had the more altruistic motives and is seen as a far more likeable person than Bass.

The book was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2017.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  8

Distributed by: Australian Scholarly Publishing
Released: August 2018
RRP: $44

Disclaimer: Jan Kershaw is a personal friend of the author’s daughter-in-law.

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