Flinders Island. Flinders Ranges. Flinders Ranges National Park. Flinders Column. Flinders University. Flinders Medical Centre. Flinders Street. Flinders Peak. Flinders Bay. Flinders Highway. You’d think the guy famous enough to have hundreds of places in Australia named after him would be buried in a recognized place of honor. Yet the grave of Captain Matthew Flinders — the English navigator, leader of the first circumnavigation of Australia and first person to identify the island as a continent – has been lost since shortly after he died in 1814. Now it’s been found and his remains will be moved. Will the place he lies next be named for him as well? And what about his almost-as-famous cat, Trim?
“This is a very exciting moment for Australia. It is serendipitous the discovery of the remains of Matthew Flinders, one of the great early explorers, should come in the week of Australia Day.”
Australian High Commissioner to the UK George Brandis told ABC News it was serendipitous, but what led to the confirmed finding of the remains of Matthew Flinders is better described as ‘controversial’. The expensive High Speed 2 (HS2) train network will eventually run for 531 kilometers and link London to the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester. The controversy is in the construction and destruction in communities along the route – in this case, the area around London’s Euston railway station, which is partly over the St James’s Gardens burial ground which was covered by Euston’s expansion in the 1840s … when Flinders’ grave there was lost.
“We are coming face to face with our ancestors and people who are buried here are dealt with dignity and care and respect.”
Helen Wass is the Head of Heritage for the project to uncover and move the tens of thousands of coffins and remains buried in the St James’s Gardens grounds between 1788 and 1853 to a currently undecided location. That project employs about a thousand archeologists who were likely as excited as Wass to find a coffin with a non-corroding lead breastplate identifying the person inside as Captain Matthew Flinders. (Pictures of the breastplate and the site can be seen here.)
“Cpt Matthew Flinders put Australia on the map due to his tenacity and expertise as a navigator and explorer. We’ll now be able to study his skeleton to see whether life at sea left its mark and what more we can learn about him. This discovery is particularly exciting for me as an archaeologist as Cpt Matthew Flinders was the grandfather of renowned Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, commonly known as the ‘father of archaeology’.”
While grandpa Flinders is not the father of Australia, he played a key role in its early look-what-we-Europeans-found days. He made three voyages between 1791 and 1810, with the third one a circumnavigation of the island whose eventual name he suggested. While under house arrest in France during the war with Britain, he wrote what became “A Voyage to Terra Australis,” published on the day of his death – July 19, 1814 – at the age of 40.
While a new gravesite for the remains of Captain Flinders will be much more dignified than being under a railway station, the same can’t be said for his almost-as-famous cat, Trim, who has his own statues, namesakes (a café in Sydney is named for him) and story. The first cat to circumnavigate Australia, Trim was born on an earlier voyage and survived falling overboard by making an uncatlike swim and climbing a rope back up to the deck. While in prison with him, Flinders wrote that Trim was “one of the finest animals I ever saw… [his] robe was a clear jet black, with the exception of his four feet, which seemed to have been dipped in snow and his under lip, which rivaled them in whiteness. He had also a white star on his breast.” Unfortunately, that was the last he saw of Trim, whose unexplained disappearance was blamed on a (brace yourself) hungry slave.
Where will Captain Flinders finally dock? While some are pushing for Australia, Flinders University honorary senior researcher Gillian Dooley, says the captain picked a spot himself.
“Even in death, after his short and unsettled life, he hasn’t been allowed to rest in peace in the English countryside, which is what he wished for. Let’s hope this can now be achieved.”
Hopefully, high on a hill with a nice bed of catnip for Trim.