Friday, August 16, 2013

Flinders, Mr Thistle and Cape Catastrophe

In the Recherche Archipelago, they try fishing from the Investigator but their work is impeded by three monstrous sharks, in whose presence no fish dared to appear. They manage to catch one of the sharks but getting it aboard is an operation akin to hoisting one of the wooden launches. The circumference of the shark is eight feet and it is twelve and a half feet long. Amongst the vast quantity of substances contained in the stomach was a tolerably large seal, bitten in two, and swallowed with half of the spear sticking in it with which it had probably been killed by natives.

On to South Australia and Flinders and his right hand man Mr Thistle spend the night pondering the fierce currents that flow past the island, in an ocean devoid of king tides. Does the current mean there is a massive water course that travels through the centre of the continent from the Gulf of Carpentaria ... large rivers, deep inlets, inland seas ... and the prospect of making an interesting discovery seemed to have infused new life and vigour into every man on the ship.

The next morning Flinders and Mr Thistle launch a boat from the Investigator and visit the island. They climb a hill and at the peak they find a snake sleeping on a warm rock. The snake is speckled and yellow. They decide to take it back to the ship for the naturalists to examine. While Flinders presses the butt of his musket against the snake's neck to keep it down, Thistle sews shut its mouth with a sail needle and twine.

As they continue exploring the island, Thistle holding the writing snake in his hands, two huge white eagles rush at them from the sky and then retreat to the nearest tree, watching them. These birds sit watching in the trees, and should a kangaroo come out to feed in the daytime, it is seized and torn to pieces by these voracious creatures. Flinders thinks that the two men are mistaken for kangaroos and about to be attacked. Perhaps the eagles are really after that speckled yellow snake.

In the evening Mr Thistle sails from ship to shore in the cutter, to gather water and verify Flinders' longitude observations. The watchman sees his returning sail in the gloom of dusk and then there is no more sight of Mr Thistle. Shots are fired. A light is shown. Lieutenant Fowler leaves in a boat with a lanthorn to see what might have happened. Two hours passed without any tidings ... no answer to be heard to the hallooing and the firing of muskets ... Fowler reports that he was nearly upended himself by that fierce, rippling tide.

Another boat leaves in the morning and returns towing the wreck, bottom upward, stove in from being dashed against the rocks. On shore they find an oar and Mr Thistle's keg. They never find Mr Thistle or his seven crew. On board that night, Fowler tells Flinders strange story of the fortune teller Mr Pine, whose palm Mr Thistle had crossed on a whim one day whilst the ship was lying idle at Spithead. The cunning man informed Mr Thistle that he was going out on a long voyage, and that the ship, on arriving at her destination, would be joined by another vessel. That such was intended, he might have learned privately; but he added, that Mr Thistle would be lost before the other vessel joined.

Lieutenant Fowler then relates to Flinders the rest of the prophesy; that the remaining crew would be shipwrecked, but not in the ship they went out in. The whole of the Investigator's crew knows this story, he reminds Flinders.

I remarked with some pain in a future part of the voyage, that every time my boat's crew went to embark with me in the Lady Nelson, there was some degree of apprehension among them that the time of the predicted shipwreck had arrived. I make no comment upon this story, but recommend a commander, if possible, to prevent any of his crew from consulting fortune tellers.

(Turns out Flinders' crew should have been more worried about getting aboard the Porpoise than the Lady Nelson.)

A Voyage to Terra Australis, Matthew Flinders, Text Publishing, Melbourne, (1814) 2000.


  1. Wonderful Sarah!

    I wish you had written the history books I studied at school.

    You tell the story with so much more colour than those musty smelling, staid old texts I was required to read.

    One thing that stuck me as disturbing about this post, and subsequently distracted my attention to your narrative, is the fact that most of the names in use around the 16th century had a common use meaning.

    In fact all the names in the above tale, (Flinders, Thistle, Fowler, Pine and Nelson), are also common nouns in wide usage during the day.

    Flinders are fragments or splinters, a thistle is a prickly plant, a fowler is someone who hunts wild birds for food, a pine a tree and a nelson is a wrestling hold.

    Do you care to comment on my observations, or would you rather I just keep them to myself from now on?

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  3. Not at all Spencer, don't keep them to yourself. Would you consider a warm undershirt? Heh.
    The thing I love about Flinders' journal is the imagery - the snake with its mouth sewn shut, the eagles rushing out of the sky, monstrous sharks ... wonderful stuff!