THE remains of one Britain’s most important explorers are to be reburied in his birthplace after being positively identified during HS2 works in London.
Donington-born Captain Matthew Flinders is widely credited with naming Australia after leading the first circumnavigation in 1798 to establish ‘New Holland’ was an island.
The Royal Navy officer’s grave – ‘lost’ since the 1840s – was identified during excavation work at St James’s burial ground in Euston, London, four years ago.
Unfortunately, the Covid19 pandemic put a halt to any reinternment plans that were being made with the aid of a £35,000 grant.
The move has now been given the green light, meaning Captain Flinders can make his final voyage – to Donington village – on Saturday July 13 2024 where he will be reburied at St Mary and the Holy Rood Church.
“What we want to do is make sure he has the proper tributes to him, the proper grave,” said Jane Pearson of the Matthew Flinders Bring Him Home group.
“He will be buried within the church so we have been through the church authorities, got the faculty permission to dig up the church floor.
“It will be the first burial within the church since the 19th Century.
“His grave will be marked with a splendid black marble ledger stone, all of which is a big expense, so having this UK levelling up fund grant gives us the assurance to go ahead with doing all the right things.”
Speaking to BBC Radio Lincolnshire, Ms Pearson said several places had staked a claim upon Flinders’ final resting place – including Australia – “but we were quite determined that Donington, his birthplace, was the right place”.
An ambitious young man, Flinders enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 15 and was soon part of crews that made a series of expeditions to explore Australia’s coast.
He completed the circumnavigation in 1803 as commander of HMS Investigator – a boat that deteriorated throughout the journey before being judged ‘unseaworthy’ upon its return to Sydney harbour where it was condemned by the Navy.
He was unable to find a replacement vessel to continue with his explorations, eventually resigning himself to return to London as a passenger on board HMS Porpoise which made it only as far as the Great Barrier Reef where it ran aground and was wrecked, leaving survivors on a sandbank. Flinders successfully navigated Porpoise’s cutter back to Sydney where he masterminded the rescue of the stranded crew.
He was then handed command of HMS Cumberland – a 29-tonne schooner to be transported to Britain from where it had been built in Sydney. Unfortunately, the vessel was in poor condition, forcing Flinders to seek repairs in Mauritius on December 17 1803.
Britain and France were, at that time, once again at war, but Flinders had hoped for safe passage due to the ‘scientific nature’ of his mission.
With luck seemingly seldom on his side, Captain Flinders was detained by the French governor – Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen – who was suspicious of the Englishman’s explanations, given there were no scientists aboard the Cumberland. French authorities also discovered a trunk containing despatches – one of which was a request for more Royal Marines to be sent to New South Wales to rebuff a potential French attack on Port Jackson.
Any cordial relations between Flinders and Dacaen soured early on into his detention, but the Frenchman eventually referred the situation to his government.
Napoleon Bonepart himself granted approval for Flinders’ release on March 11 1806. However, Decaen was now convinced that Flinders had made a mental dossier of the island’s defences that would have been vital for any British attempt to capture Mauritius. He refused to release him.
In June 1809, the Royal Navy surrounded the island in a blockade that lasted a year.
Flinders set sail for England via the Cape of Good Hope where he was promoted to Post Captain.
The ‘naming’ of Australia
Once back in England, he was able to present the work he had done on mapping Australia – or ‘New Holland’ as it had been known since the work of Captain James Cook and Dutch explorer Abel Tasman.
He had completed much of the mapping work during his detention on Mauritius, and this was the first time the name ‘Australia’ or ‘Terra Australis’ had been used for the continent.
Captain Flinders died on July 19 1814 at his home in London after suffering with kidney disease, undoubtedly brought on by ill health during his detention in Mauritius. He was 40 years old.
He passed away the day after his book A Voyage to Terra Australis and accompanying maps were published. Sadly, he was already unconscious at the time and never got to see them.
His beloved wife Ann – whom he had attempted to take with him on his voyages, but was reprimanded by the Admiralty and would not see for nine years – had the volumes of his published work arranged on his deathbed for him to touch before his final breath.
He was interred in the graveyard of St James Church, Piccadilly, which, by 1852, had become altered to the point where the locations of many graves were uncertain.
Captain Flinders’ remains will be reburied on Saturday July 13 2024 – almost 210 years to the day of his passing – in the church where he was baptised.