The Flinders 1801-03 HMS Investigator Rock Collection

Matthew Flinders

The rocks collected by Matthew Flinders RN (1774-1814), on his circumnavigation of Australia (1801-03), make up the oldest collection of rocks at The Natural History Museum from a voyage of discovery (BM.75774-75821).

Flinders first came to the attention of the scientific advisors to the Admiralty as an accomplished navigator and maritime surveyor after a voyage under Captain Bligh from Tahiti to the West Indies in 1791-02; it was also at this time that he developed his interest in geology. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Sir Joseph Banks had assumed control of the development and expansion of the then small colony at Sydney and it soon became apparent that if this colony were to grow then it would have to depend more on native supplies and for this to happen the coast would have to be charted. Flinders conceived a plan that combined surveying with the collection and recording of botanical and mineralogical specimens to appeal to Banks and, by July 1801, after being promoted to commander, he set sail from Portsmouth for 'Terra Australis' in HMS Investigator. Also aboard were the botanist Robert Brown; a gardener, Peter Good; and the 'practical miner', John Allen.

Map of Flinders' 1802-03 survey route

Right: Flinders' 1802-03 survey route for northeast and northern Australia.  'Au' marks the zones of current gold mining activity. Manganese is mined today on Groote Eylandt. The Porpoise was wrecked at the point indicated by a red dot.

After sighting land in the southwest of the continent at Cape Leeuwin, Flinders surveyed eastwards to Port Jackson, arriving in May 1802. Rocks were collected on this leg of the voyage but were lost in the wreck of the Porpoise. Investigator set off for the second part in July 1802 to collect and survey from the coast of NSW. to Arnhem Land in the present Northern Territory. A total of 106 rocks were taken, and 48 of these make up the present collection with 29 coming from the south-central Queensland coast, 18 from the Gulf of Carpentaria and one, a limestone, from Kupang, Timor.

Colloform pyrolusite from Drimmie Head, Melville Bay.

Colloform pyrolusite from Drimmie Head, Melville Bay. The deposits of 'Oxyd of Manganese' that Flinders found in NE Northern Territory had to wait a century to be re-discovered.

They range in age from Archaean (Bradshaw Granite, Melville Bay) to Quaternary (calcarenite, Sweers Island), and a comparison with current geological maps shows that the rock types are broadly representative of the area and include: quartz-mica schist (Curtis Island), laminated mudstone, quartzite, quartz dolerite (Pobassoo Island), hypersthene gabbro, granodiorite (Melville Bay) and biotite-muscovite-hornblende monzogranite (Mount Caledon).

Rhyodacite tuff, Charon Point

Rhyodacite tuff, Charon Point. It has weak propylitic alteration, which could be regional metamorphic.

Of particular interest are the volcanic rocks collected in Queensland as they coincide temporally (Permian-Cretaceous), spatially and by rock type (rhyodacite tuff, Charon Point; dacite crystal tuff, Sabina Point; rhyolitic ignimbrite, Mt. Westall,) with the host rocks for the epithermal gold mineralisation in the Charters Towers (near Townsville) and Mt Morgan gold districts.

Rhyolitic ignimbrite, Mt Westall

Rhyolitic ignimbrite, Mt Westall. It is hematised and argillised, probably by supergene processes.

Flinders was unable to complete his survey to the west, as Investigator became unseaworthy, and he returned to Port Jackson on 9 June 1803. He planned to return to England on the Porpoise to find a replacement so that he could continue the survey, but she sank at Wreck Reef, along with a large collection of rocks.

Six weeks later Flinders sailed to Port Jackson and rescued the crew in the Cumberland. This ship leaked badly, and while calling at Mauritius for repairs, Flinders was detained by the French in December 1803 for over six years under suspicion of spying. Upon returning to England, with his health failing, Flinders described his exploits in 'A Voyage to Terra Australis' which was published the day before he died on 18 July 1814. In this book he expressed a preference for Australia to be the new name for the continent he did so much to explore and it is fitting that in 1851 Sir Charles FitzRoy was designated Governor General for the first time under that name.

For further information contact: David Smith

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