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Mapping the continent

1801–03: Matthew Flinders circumnavigates the continent that he names ‘Australia’

National Museum of Australia
1800 1900
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Learning area


Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Do we focus too much on Flinders’ personal achievements and not enough on his crew? Give reasons for your answer.

2. Why do you think Flinders included the two Aboriginal guides, Bungaree and Nanbaree, on his journey? Read more about Bungaree on the ABC’s website. 



3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p><em>Portrait of Matthew Flinders, RN, 1774–1814</em>, Toussaint Antoine De Chazal De Chamerel, 1806–07, Mauritius, oil on canvas 64.5 x 50 cm.&nbsp;</p>
Gift of David Roche in memory of his father, J.D.K. Roche, and the South Australian Government 2000, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

In a snapshot

British explorer Matthew Flinders was the first person to circumnavigate Australia. He produced the first maps showing Australia as we now know it, including large areas of coastline that had been previously unknown to Europeans. Flinders proved that Australia was a single continent. By using the name ‘Australia’ in his maps and writings, he helped the name become popular.

Portrait of Matthew Flinders, RN, 1774–1814, Toussaint Antoine De Chazal De Chamerel, 1806–07, Mauritius, oil on canvas 64.5 x 50 cm.&nbsp;

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What did the Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia prove?

2. What problems did Flinders face on his journey?

3. Why did Flinders need to take Aboriginal guides on his journey?

Why did Flinders circumnavigate Australia?

During the British colonisation of Australia, many people wondered if New Holland (western Australia) and New South Wales (eastern Australia) were part of the same continent. Dutch explorers had created maps of the western coast in the 1600s, but it still wasn’t clear whether the two areas formed one continent.

Matthew Flinders was an English sailor who was given money by the British Government to circumnavigate the continent. Flinders had already explored much of Australia’s eastern coast, including circumnavigating Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1798.

Research tasks


Examine the anchor of the Investigator held at the National Museum of Australia. How was this anchor discovered? Why was it such an important find?

National Museum of Australia

‘Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term Terra Australis, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and as an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.’


Flinders in Voyage to Terra Australis, 1814

What happened on the journey? 

On 18 July 1801 Flinders and his crew set sail from England on a ship called the Investigator. Less than six months later they arrived at Point Leeuwin, Australia’s south-western tip. From there they sailed east, exploring Fowler Bay, Kangaroo Island, the Spencer Gulf and Gulf St Vincent. 

Flinders then set sail for Sydney, where he stayed for two months to repair his ship and let his crew rest. In Sydney, he took on board two Aboriginal men named Bungaree and Nanbaree, who helped Flinders when he went ashore to meet Aboriginal people.

Research tasks


Find out what you can about Trim the cat and what Flinders said about him after his voyage around Australia.

Watercolour miniature portrait of Matthew Flinders, about 1800.

Flinders and his crew travelled north from Sydney. Flinders carefully mapped the southern Queensland coast then passed through the Torres Strait into the Gulf of Carpentaria. There the Investigator started to leak and rot. Because of this, Flinders had to finish the rest of his circumnavigation quickly. This meant that he couldn’t map the west coast in detail. 

By the time he returned to Sydney on 9 June 1803, several of Flinders’ crew had died from scurvy and dysentery

Flinders, his remaining crew and their two Aboriginal guides were the first people to circumnavigate the continent. 

How did Flinders help to name the continent?

After the circumnavigation Flinders wrote a book about his journey called A Voyage to Terra Australis. He also shared his new map of the Australian coastline. His map proved that Australia was a single continent. 

Flinders believed that this continent needed a new name. He labelled his map ‘A chart of Terra Australis or Australia’ and wrote in his book that he preferred the name ‘Australia’. After reading Flinders’ book, the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, also began using the name ‘Australia’. Britain officially called the continent Australia in 1824 and the name has been used ever since.


Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research tasks


Read the first part of the interview with Pip McNaught, a National Museum of Australia curator. Who was Flinders’ rival, and why did they hate each other so much?

Interview with Pip McNaught

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What did the Flinders‘ circumnavigation of Australia prove?

2.What problems did Flinders face on his journey?

3. Why did Flinders need to take Aboriginal guides on his journey?