Matthew Flinders, an illustrious prisoner

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On leaving Port Jackson, Australia, for England in September 1803, Flinders had not planned to stop over at Isle de France although this island was to be used as an alternate port in case of emergency. The British had afforded protection and help to Baudin, the French Navigator, near the coast of Australia. So, Flinders, armed with a document issued by the authorities in Paris, expected similar treatment from the French administration at Isle de France. As hard luck would have it, the schooner of Flinders, the Cumberland, started leaking on the high seas and developed faulty pumps. Flinders had encountered identical problem on leaving Australia, when the Investigator had to be abandoned and replaced by the Cumberland. Sensing the danger with the Cumberland in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Flinders changed the course of his ship and headed for the Isle de France, the nearest port. On 15 December 1803, the Cumberland was sighted off Baie-du-cap. Its appearance sent a cold shiver down the spine of the inhabitants of the south for the war between the British and French had broken out and, since the Cumberland was flying a British flag, the inhabitants thought it could well be a British attack on the island. The commandant of the Savanne district, Major d?Unienville, called out the troops and women and children to retire further in the interior. A party of soldiers then went in a boat to enquire about the intention of the schooner. Flinders explained that he was a scientific explorer and had been compelled to put into the Isle de France in order to have his ship repaired. He came to know from Major d?Unienville that hostility between the British and French had been declared. For his part, Major d?Unienville saw no harm in Flinders putting into the island and, in accordance with usual Mauritian proverbial hospitality, invited him to come ashore and have dinner at his residence in the company of ?a number of ladies and gentlemen?. A special messenger was at once sent off to Port-Louis with a report from Major d?Unienville, informing the Governor, General Decaen, of what had occurred. Flinders was advised to see General Decaen at government House on 17 December and his ship was to berth in the harbour of Port-Louis. Doubtful nature of his visit At Government House, Flinders was made to wait outside for a couple of hours before being shown to the lounge of the Governor. There he saw two officers standing at a table, ?the one a shortish thick man in a laced round jacket; the other a gentle looking man whose blood seemed to circulate more tranquilly. The first, which was the Captain-General Decaen, fixed his eyes sternly upon me, and without any salutations demanded my passport, my Commission. Having glanced over them, he asked in an impetuous manner the reason for coming to Isle de France in a small schooner with a passport for the Investigator?. Flinders tried to explain but the stubborn, brusque and irritable Governor burst out as if in impatience :?You are imposing on me, Sir! It is not probable that the Governor of New South Wales should send away the commander of a discovery expedition in so small a vessel!? Decaen gave back the passport to Flinders and after having murmured a few words to one of the officers, a thorough search of the Cumberland was undertaken. All the papers in the ship were removed and sealed in a trunk. Flinders was then escorted to ?a large house? in the town, the Café Marengo, where he was hustled in a room approached by ?a dirty entry up a staircase? and guarded by a sentinel. It was then that he realised that he was held prisoner by Decaen. The Governor entertained serious doubts about the true nature of Flinders? visit, he could be an imposter because the passport in his possession was meant for travel by the Investigator. he could also be a spy, in the garb of an explorer, coming to reconnoitre the island for an attack, as he had mentioned in his journal that he was eager to be acquainted with ?the periodical winds, the port and the present state of the colony and also to know whether the island could afford resources to myself in my future voyages....? The third reason why doubt crossed the mind of Decaen was that Flinders claimed to be an explorer when in fact dispatches of military nature were found with him. The dispatches were being sent by Governor King to the British government. Flinders was unaware of the content of these dispatches as he would claim in a letter to Sir Joseph Bank, having ?no idea that they had any reference to war, since it was a time of peace when I left Port Jackson, I did not see the necessity of throwing them overboard.....? At the Café Marengo, Flinders spent a very unpleasant time as ?the beds were besieged by swarms of bugs and musketoes...? His detention was going to be short, the Governor?s aide-de-camp, Colonel Monistrol, told him. But Flinders infuriated Decaen by declining an invitation to dinner despite the French officers pressing him to accept the invitation. He replied that he would only accept the invitation if he was set free. There Flinders missed a golden opportunity to discuss his case and he would write later ?my refusal of the intended honour so much exasperated the Captain-General that he determined to make me repent it...? After some months, Flinders was allowed to join the other British prisoners at the Maison Despaux or the Garden prison (to became the bagne later, where Tippoo Sultan?s envoys had stayed). In 1803, Flinders was released from the Maison Despaux and came to stay at the residence of a respectable widow, Madame d?Arifat, at Henrietta. He had also formed friendship with quite a number of ?French gentlemen?. His close friend was Thomi Pitot who, after the British occupation, was to become leader of the white population. Liberation of war prisoners Flinders taught Madame d?Arifat?s sons mathematics and navigation, wrote an essay on the use of barometer for predicting changes of wind at sea and detected errors in the compass caused by the attraction of iron in ships. He studied French and developed a liking for French literature. He visited ?with a mingled sensation of pleasure and melancholy? the ruin of the residence of the French navigator, La Pérouse, at Mesnil and caused a memorial with block of stones to be raised on the site of the residence. In March 1810, Flinders was set free. His joy was great to be back home to see his friends and dearly loved wife, Ann, whom he did not see for ten long years. he visited his ?french? friends, and bade farewell. ?Never, in any place?, he wrote in the Terra Australis, ?or amongst any people have I seen more hospitality and attention than in Isle de france...? All praise for the people of Mauritius, he wrote that they ?sought to alleviate the chagrin which perhaps the strongest minds cannot but sometimes feel in the course of years, when reflecting on their far-distant families and friends....? In England, Flinders obtained the liberation of prisoners of war, natives of Isle de France. He survived his captivity four years and died on 19 July 1814 at the age of 40, on the same day his Voyage to Terra Australis came out of the press. His wife placed the two volumes of his works in his hands. Flinders had devoted almost a hundred pages of his Terra Australis to Mauritius. This was the man who gave the land then known as New South Wales and New Holland, its present name of Australia. Anand Moheeput
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