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Captain Matthew Flinders at the Isle of France [Mauritius], 1803-1810

Captain Matthew Flinders  at the Isle of France [Mauritius], 1803-1810


Captain Matthew Flinders  at the Isle of France [Mauritius], 1803-1810

On 15th December 1803 Captain Matthew Flinders sailed into a quiet bay of the Isle of France, a small French outpost in the southwest Indian Ocean, in the Cumberland.  Only a few weeks earlier, a French ship had brought news of the rupture of the Peace of Amiens. The English crew of the leaky Cumberland, unaware that war had again broken out and believing that their scientific papers guaranteed them safe passage, received not the expected succour, but a frosty reception from the French Governor, General Decaen, who ordered their immediate imprisonment. Flinders, returning from a voyage of exploration of the Australian coastline, for which he is today justly celebrated, was unwisely abrupt with the prickly Decaen and accordingly found himself singled out for particularly harsh treatment. He was to remain a prisoner on the island for six and a half years.

Fortunately Flinders’ scientific credentials and his engaging personality soon made him a favourite with the French settlers, and the voluminous notes he compiled during his lengthy enforced stay on the island constitute not only a valuable source of information about the status, treatment and activities of British POW officers on a French island during the Napoleonic Wars, but offer a remarkable testimony to the mutual tolerance and esteem which generally prevailed between the involuntary expatriate officers and their French ‘hosts’.

Flinders had only a handful of crew with him when he arrived at the Isle of France in December 1803.   His journal gives several reasons for this fateful decision to stop at the Isle of France: chief of them were that the Cumberland needed its ‘upper works caulked’, wood and water and a ‘small supply of spirits’, were wanted, and – ironically – it was hoped that a homeward bound ship which could offer “a more expeditious and convenient passage to England” might be found there [Ingleton: 259].

Flinders received his first taste of island hospitality at the home of Major d’Unienville very soon after his arrival at the Baie du Cap, in the Cumberland. The navigator’s journal records that Monsieur d’Unienville “entertained me very politely”, offered the crew fresh fruit, and:

did not let his hospitality rest here… but pressed me to dine at his house where he invited several of the neighbouring gentlemen … our friendly party, ladies and all, attended me to the shore and sent off a basket of mangos with other refreshments. Monsieur le Citoyen Dunienville and his lady seem to be indeed amiable people.

The next day, Flinders was ordered to the capital, showed a lack of tact in his first meeting with the Governor, General Decaen, and was informed that he was to be treated as a spy and made a prisoner of war. Flinders and John Aken, master of the Cumberland, were taken to a “very dirty tavern of Port Louis”, the Café Marengo, where they spent an uncomfortable night “besieged by swarms of bugs and musketoes”.  They, and a servant, John Elder, were to spend their first 100 nights on the island here, while the ordinary sailors were confined on a guard ship. Shortly afterwards, the latter were transferred to a prison in Flacq, on the eastern side of the island, while Flinders, Aken and Elder remained in the western port capital, having been removed to the Maison Despeaux, which had the advantage of a large garden. Here Flinders enjoyed the society of a number of other British POWs, including “officers and their ladies” and his first French vistors, who would remain among his closest friends during his long incarceration.

In the middle of August 1805 Flinders’ Mauritian friends succeed in convincing General Decaen to permit Flinders to move to ‘Le Refuge’, the country estate of Mme d’Arifat, in the cooler interior highlands of the island at Plaines Wilhems. In his new abode, Flinders was able to enlarge his circle of acquaintances. One of his first invitations was to the estate of Jacques Plumet, situated between the Terre Rouge and Mesnil rivers.

There were numerous reasons why Flinders was given such a warm welcome by the French colonists.  The island had played host to several celebrated explorers, Laperouse and Baudin among them, and a number of distinguished French scientists and artists who had disembarked from such expeditions remained in the colony. The aristocratic Isle of France settlers were increasingly opposed to their own government [the Governor was an envoy of Napoleon], and inclined to sympathise with Flinders, singled out for Decaen’s particular enmity. Flinders was himself more inclined to scientific pursuits than to war, and his attempts to learn French and to immerse himself in local activities, quickly endeared him to his hosts. They, furthermore, well understood the potential benefits to their own friends and relatives serving with the French army and navy or already captives in British hands, of suitable written recommendations from an officer and celebrated navigator such as Flinders.

Flinders was fortunate to encounter a number of remarkable and talented individuals on the Isle of France and to cultivate a wide circle of acquaintances during his years on the island. As well as French officers, he socialized with colonial landed proprietors – some descended from French noble families. At times Flinders felt that if only his wife could be with him, he could be happy for an indefinite period on the island. In a letter to his brother Samuel, written in December 1806, a list of his Isle of France acquaintances was given:

My most particular friends are, first, the family of Madame d’Arifat with whom I reside, consisting of a widow lady, three sons and three daughters; second, Mr. Thomas Pitot, a young man of considerable abilities and a most excellent heart: he is a merchant in the town, in partnership with his uncle and elder brother, and is secretary to the literary Society of Emulation commenced here by the men of science left here by M. Baudin; third the family and extensive friends of Mr. Pitot; fourth, all the relations and friends of the family d’Arifat, are my friends more or less, and anxious well wishers, particularly M. Froberville their cousin and the intimate friend of Mr. Pitot: Mr. F.  is a member of the society,  an author, and a long time editor of the public gazette; and he, as well as Mr. Pitot and his brother are musicians, fifth, Mons. Charles Baudin, ensign de vaisseau on board la Piémontaise frigate: he was a midshipman on board Le Géographe; and lastly our near neighbours Messieurs Chazal and Chevreau, married to two sisters; they are both respectable habitants, or planters and the former has been in England, is an excellent painter, and a man of strong sense: his lady is the first performer on the harpsichord in the I. of France, and I often accompany her with my flute.

This circle of friends helped to support Flinders during the long years that followed, for  it would not be until mid 1810 that Flinders was finally allowed to leave the island.   Flinders’ last days on the Isle of France were spent in a flurry of socializing, as he received the heartfelt congratulations of the many colonists who had offered him hospitality during his years of exile in their land. On 1st April 1810, Flinders spent the day at Rivière Lataniers with Messrs Sauveget and Labauve d’Arifat. Returning to Tamarin in the evening, Labauve presented Flinders with “a pretty tric-trac-board, and also with Chess pieces, to amuse me on the passage to India”. On 6th April 1810, he wrote: “went out in a great cavalcade of chaises, palanquins and horses to Chimère”. This was the residence of the Pitots at Grand River. Many people attended, and, according to Flinders’ journal entry:

some appropriate songs were sung, in one of which was a verse complimentary to the English whom friendship had brought there, and a wish that before a year the two nations might be united as we were at that time. It is my friend Thomi who is always the poet of the occasion. Dancing went on till two in the morning when we supped, and the dancing afterwards continued to daylight.

On 8th May 1810, Flinders was ordered to embark on the ship that would take him off the island, and made a last round of visits to friends. His final goodbyes were for the Pitot family. On the eve of the much longed-for departure, in a postscript to a letter composed for another friend Charles Desbassayns in Bourbon, Flinders made a curious confession:

Now that I am certain of going, the pleasure I had in contemplating this event in perspective, is vanished. My heart is oppressed at the idea of quitting my friends here, perhaps forever. There is some talk of peace. Should it take place, I shall probably be sent to pursue the investigation of New Holland; and before three years, shall, as I hope, visit the Isle of France. Even during the war, if General DeCaen be gone, I propose to call here if permitted.

Such was his regret at leaving, that Flinders was even considering a return to the island if it remained in French hands!  In June the Harriet sailed, from where Flinders transferred to the Otter bound for the Cape of Good Hope, and onwards to England. He would never see the Isle of France again.




Brunton, P. ed. Matthew Flinders Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life, State Library of New South Wales, 2002

Carter, M. Companions of Misfortune: Flinders and Friends at the Isle of France, 1803-1810, Pink Pigeon Press, UK, 2003

Ingleton, G.C.  Matthew Flinders: Navigator and Chartmaker Guildford, Genesis Publications, 1986


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