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Detail of the breastplate from Captain Matthew Flinders' grave. (HS2) Insert: Watercolour miniature portrait of British navigator Matthew Flinders, dated about 1800.

Archaeologists Find the Lost Grave of Captain Flinders – The First to Circumnavigate Australia

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Archaeologists working at a famous burial site in London have identified the remains of a very important British explorer and navigator. They have found the coffin and remains of Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), who played a critical role in the exploration of Australia. The discovery of his remains, which were lost for many years, will allow people to honor his life and achievements more than two centuries after his death.

Euston Station is one of the busiest and most important rail stations in the UK. At present, it is being extended as part of the “controversial HS2 high-speed rail project,” reports Heritage Daily . This almost 100-billion-dollar project means building on one of the most historic burial grounds in London – St. James. Archaeologists are in the process of examining the site and removing remains to another location for re-burial, in what is the “biggest post- medieval graveyard excavation in British history,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald .

The archaeological excavation and research work at St James’s Gardens, Euston. (HS2)

The archaeological excavation and research work at St James’s Gardens, Euston. ( HS2)

The Lost Grave of Captain Flinders

Flinders died over 200 years ago and was buried in a part of the St. James burial ground that was turned into a public park in the 1840s. His headstone was lost, and no-one knew where he was re-buried. During the excavations for the HS2 project, archaeologists have been examining individual coffins to identify the deceased. An expert read a leaden breast plate on a coffin and realized that it contained the remains of Matthew Flinders, whose grave had been lost for over 150 years. The excavation team, led by Dr. Helen Wass, had not been optimistic about finding him because of the sheer number of graves and she was amazed by her team’s discovery.

Flinders’ Amazing Voyage

The find will allow Matthew Flinders to receive more recognition outside of Australia because his achievements were huge and his story an amazing one. In total, he made three voyages to the South Pacific and in one he established that Tasmania was an island. On his 3rd voyage, on board the HMS Investigator, he became the first European to circumnavigate Australia (1802-1803) - thereby proving that it was a continent and one single landmass. Previously there was a controversy over the geography of Australia and many believed that it was two large islands, known to some as “New Holland and New South Wales,” reports news.com.au.

Finder’s circumnavigation of the continent was beset by hazards and dangers. At one point, his ship was wrecked on “the Great Barrier Reef and he ended up sailing a cutter more than 1000 km back to Sydney to arrange for a rescue of the crew,” according to news.com.au .  Flinders was greatly assisted in his voyage by an Aboriginal named Bungaree from the Kuringgai tribe, who lived near modern day Sydney.  Another member of the explorer ’s crew was a cat known as ‘Trim’, who became something of a celebrity and who is often portrayed with Flinders in public monuments in Australia.

Portrait of Captain Matthew Flinders by Antoine Toussant. (Public Domain)

Portrait of Captain Matthew Flinders by Antoine Toussant. ( Public Domain )

After successfully completing his circumnavigation, the Captain sailed for home to announce his discovery. However, the Napoleonic Wars had begun again, and he was imprisoned by the French on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius as a prisoner of war. Flinders was imprisoned for six long years and his health suffered as he developed a serious kidney ailment.

Upon his return to London in 1810 he was widely acclaimed for his remarkable voyage and discovery. But the explorer was a very sick man after his many trials, and according to ABC. News he died “at the age of 40, the day after the book detailing his journey , A Voyage to Terra Australis , was published.” This work not only recorded his voyage, but it was also very important in popularizing the name ‘Australia’.  His family were left destitute after his death, but they received some assistance from grateful Australians. Flinders’ grandson became one of the founders of modern archaeology .

View of Port Jackson taken from South from ‘A Voyage to Terra Australis’. (Public Domain)

View of Port Jackson taken from South fromA Voyage to Terra Australis’. ( Public Domain )

A ‘Fitting Memorial’ for Matthew Flinders

The explorer was never forgotten despite the disappearance of his grave, and he is widely commemorated throughout Australia and Britain. The re-discovery of Captain Flinders’ remains has been welcomed by the Australian High Commissioner in London who called for “a “fitting” memorial to be raised over his final resting place,” reports the Sydney Morning Herald . There are plans to rebury Flinders with honors and on consecrated ground at a new site as close as possible to his former grave.

Archaeologists were able to identify the remains of the explorer by a lead plate placed on top of his coffin. (HS2)

Archaeologists were able to identify the remains of the explorer by a lead plate placed on top of his coffin. ( HS2)

The rediscovery of the remains of Captain Matthew Flinders is very important for the academic community. It proves that the story that the navigator was buried under a platform in Euston Station is an urban myth. Moreover, the discovery of a mariner from the early 19th century will allow researchers to understand how sea-life impacted the health of sailors.

Top image: Detail of the breastplate from Captain Matthew Flinders' grave. ( HS2) Insert: Watercolour miniature portrait of British navigator Matthew Flinders, dated about 1800. (State Library of New South Wales/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

By Ed Whelan

Comments

I think that the graves of our ancestors should be sacred and it is very wrong to disturb them. Have we forgotten the meaning of "rest in peace" in the name of progress?

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