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Companions of Misfortune

Companions of Misfortune

BOOK REVIEW

 

Companions of Misfortune:

Flinders and Friends

at the Isle of France, 1803-1810

 

In 1803, Captain Matthew Flinders, returning from an important voyage of discovery, was imprisoned on the then French island of Mauritius.

This book tells the story of his 6 ½  year exile and of the men and women there who befriended him.

These were the tumultuous times of the Napoleonic Wars and the Indian Ocean was just one of many theatres of conflict.Yet on this remote French colony encircled by a blockading English naval squadron, which threatened their safety and their very subsistence, small group of local inhabitants – and their prisoners – provided a lesson in mutual tolerance and esteem which showed that nobility of spirit can transcend cultural and national divides.

This book of 200 pages describes the occupations and distractions of the celebrated Captain Flinders while at the Isle of France and furnishes new information gleaned from letters written to him by his friends from the island.

It is an inspiring story of a lone Englishman in a francophone environment who overcame initial feelings of awkwardness and social isolation to become a cause celebre and a well-integrated member of colonial society.

Admirers of the exploits of Captain Matthew Flinders are aware that a number of biographies of this remarkable man’s life are already in existence and several collections of his letters. This book, therefore, does not seek to replicate such studies by providing a complete account of Flinders’ life, nor even to detail all the whys and wherefores of his arrival at and imprisonment on the Isle of France (this latter aspect of his story is already covered in Huguette Ly Tio Fane’s book In the Grips of the Eagle).

Instead this volume offers a perspective on Flinders’ forced sojourn at the Isle of France which has not hitherto been given much attention by his biographers. It focusses on the circle of friends acquired by Flinders at the Isle of France. The idea for this book arose from the author’s discovery of superb collection of letters written to Flinders by correspondents whom he had met at the Isle of France, in British archival collections.. The published studies of Flinders’ correspondence have concentrated on the letters the Englishman wrote, not on those which were addressed to him. The wonderfully detailed letters written by Thomi Pitot on the Isle of France and Charles Desbassayns on Bourbon, for example, describing their feelings as the British conquering forces stormed their islands in 1809 and 1810 have never before been examined. Similarly, the amusing letters written by fellow English prisoners of war whom Flinders met on the island, like William Fitzwilliam Owen, provide new insights into the Anglo-French relationship. The warmth and closeness of Mme d’Arifat and Flinders in particular, as detailed in their letters and in his diary, is remarkable evidence and perhaps a unique case of a cross-cultural and cross-gender platonic friendship in this period. Of course, many of the details in this personal correspondence, which was never designed to be published, are obscure, mundane or repetitive, while no letters written by other important friends of Flinders have survived. Consequently, the book provides only those extracts of the correspondence which have been judged to be fresh and insightful, and has been written as a narrative designed to contextualise and explain the nature of Flinders’ relationships on the island. The story that unfolds of the networks of support which surrounded Flinders is a tribute to man’s humanity to man in the midst of war.

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