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In the 1790s, Matthew Flinders voyaged to New South Wales in the HMS Reliance, and explored sections of the colony on Tom Thumb I and Tom Thumb II. He circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land [Tasmania] with Bass in HM Sloop Norfolk. On his return to England, Flinders proposed a survey of the 'unknown coast' of New Holland and circumnavigation of the continent. His proposal was forwarded to a leading scientist, the influential Sir Joseph Banks, who was President of the Royal Society. Banks recommended that the voyage be undertaken, and the proposal was subsequently approved by King George III.

In November 1800, the English Admiralty selected the sloop Xenophon for a voyage of discovery to Australia. This ship was a 334 ton sloop, 100 feet [30.5 metres] in length, and was formerly a collier or coal carrier. Xenophon was appropriately renamed the Investigator. Matthew Flinders' commission as commander of the ship was confirmed in January 1801, and in the following weeks, the Investigator was fitted out for the expedition under the direction of Banks and Flinders. Some of the heavy armaments were removed which allowed extra water to be carried. Unfortunately, from early in the voyage, the Investigator leaked.

The Investigator sailed from Portsmouth on 18 July 1801, sighting Cape Leeuwin on 6 December, and nearing the head of the Great Australian Bight on 27 January 1802. Flinders charted the 'unknown coast' travelling eastwards. The Investigator left South Australian waters on 19 April 1802 on the journey towards the eastern coast.

After wintering at Port Jackson, Flinders sailed north to continue surveying the coastline. The Lady Nelson was to accompany the Investigator as a survey vessel. With a small draught of 6 feet [1.8 metres], and overall length of 52½ feet [16 metres], Lady Nelson was designed for close survey work, but Flinders sent her back to Port Jackson because as a poor sailer, she proved unsuitable for the job. Flinders completed the circumnavigation of New Holland on 9 June 1803, arriving back in Port Jackson, where the leaking, rotting Investigator was condemned as unseaworthy.

Flinders then set out for England on HMS Porpoise, which was shipwrecked on Wreck Reef off the coast of Queensland. After rescue of the crew, he continued his journey on the Cumberland which he was forced to land at the Ile de France [Mauritius] for ship repairs. Under suspicion for spying, as the war between France and England had resumed, Flinders was made a prisoner and was detained for 6½ years. The passport issued by the French had been for travel on the Investigator, not the Cumberland, and although Flinders denied knowledge of their contents, he was carrying despatches from Governor King. Flinders finally arrived back in England in October 1810.

After further repair work, the Investigator returned to England in 1805 - a cut down ship with a single deck. On the voyage home she carried Brown and Bauer and their collections of specimens and art.

Collection items




Ford, John, Cards issued from 'Chart the Art of Discovery', an exhibition to celebrate the meeting of Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin in 1802.

Postcard : H.M.S. Investigator, with Flinders' chart superimposed in the background.


Flinders, Matthew. A voyage to Terra Australis [vol. 1] - pages 226-227 : 9 May 1802, '[East coast. Port Jackson]'.

A voyage to Terra Australis: health of the crew of the Investigator on arriving at Port Jackson in May 1802, after surveying the southern coast.


Flinders, Matthew. A voyage to Terra Australis. [vol. 1] - pages 232-233 : July 1802, '[East Coast. Port Jackson]'.

Extract from Matthew Flinders' journal A voyage to Terra Australis: ship provisions bought in Port Jackson, July 1802.

The Mariner's mirror, vol. 56, no. 3, August 1970. - pages 275-298.

Geeson, N.T and Sexton, R.T. 'H. M. Sloop Investigator.'


Image from Mortlock Library South Australiana database

The "Investigator" 1930 [Model of the "Investigator"]

Internet sites

Matthew Flinders Collection: Biographies: HM Sloop Investigator

Atriplex Nature: The Investigator crew

National Maritime Museum: Search station
Trade and Empire - Life at sea : The Navy; Sea stars and time

Hamilton and Scourge project [War of 1812 includes: Life of a sailor in the early 19th century; Glossary of nautical terms]

Race across time: fact sheet [Powerhouse Museum]
[Regulator clock and marine chronometer used by Flinders]

Vancouver Maritime Museum: Exhibits: Treasures [Arnold 176 chronometer: used by George Vancouver to explore Pacific; later used by Flinders. See: Ingleton, Geoffrey C. Matthew Flinders, navigator and chartmaker.,1986, p. 162, note 39]

Further sources

Advertiser 12 March 2002 'Encounter 2002 - Discovery of the unknown coast' Part 4': 'Life on a tall ship' [includes cross section illustration of Investigator]

Austin, K. A. The voyage of the Investigator, 1801-1803: Commander Matthew Flinders, R.N. Adelaide: Rigby, 1964. [includes plans for gun deck and quarter deck of Investigator by R.T. Sexton]

Brosse, J. Great voyages of discovery: circumnavigators and scientists, 1764-1843 / Jacques Brosse; translated by Stanley Hochman; preface by Fernand Braudel. New York, NY: Facts on File, c1983 [includes Flinders' ship and crew]

Brown, Anthony J. Ill-starred captains: Flinders and Baudin. Hindmarsh, S. Aust.: Crawford House Publishing, 2000. [Appendix A: Passports; Appendix D: Roll Call]

Colwell, Max. The voyages of Matthew Flinders. London, New York, P. Hamlyn [1970] [includes plans for gun deck and quarter deck of Investigator]