Charting the Gulfs
The exploration and charting of the South Australian coasts were completed thirty years before plans for European settlement were formulated. In 1800 and 1801 two expeditions, one British one French, sailed from Europe to complete charting the coastline of the continent then generally known as New Holland, and to make scientific observations. In particular, both commanders were instructed to determine whether the continent was divided by a strait extending from the unexplored southern coast to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north.
Nicolas Baudin, in command of a large scientific party in Le Géorgraphe and Le Naturaliste, sailed from Le Havre eight months before Matthew Flinders left England in command of the Investigator. Baudin, however, was delayed in the East Indies and Van Diemen's Land. By the time the two expeditions met unexpectedly in Encounter Bay on 8 April 1802, Flinders had already explored most of the South Australian mainland coast eastwards from Nuyts Archipelago, including Spencer Gulf and Gulf St Vincent, and the northern coast of Kangaroo Island. Baudin was the first European explorer of a small section of the mainland coast between Cape Banks and Encounter Bay, an area where some French place-names have been retained.
After the meeting at Encounter Bay, the French expedition retraced part of Flinders' discoveries westward to Murat Bay, giving French place-names to many features already named by Flinders. Both expeditions spent part of the winter of 1802 in Sydney Harbour. Flinders then sailed north to chart the Gulf of Carpentaria, while Baudin in Le Géorgraphe and Louis de Freycinet in command of the Casuarina returned through Bass Strait to the South Australian coast. The French expedition surveyed more thoroughly that part of the coast they had discovered in the previous year and also made the first complete circuit of Kangaroo Island.
Events conspired to delay publication of the charts of both expeditions. England and France were at war for the next twelve years, and Flinders was detained for six-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Mauritius. Baudin died there on the return voyage to Europe in 1803 and the charts of his expedition were completed by Freycinet and published in 1808. After his release from Mauritius, Flinders redrew his charts in England. Engraved by Arrowsmith, they were published by Nicol in 1814 in an atlas accompanying Flinders' narrative of the voyage and, simultaneously, in sixteen separate sheets published by the naval hydrographer.
Flinders' chart included descriptive comments on the physical form of the land and the vegetation along the coast. He also noted 'fire seen' and 'much smoke' on the coast north and south of the present metropolitan area. Flinders explored the gulf waters in March when fires, set accidentally or deliberately by Aborigines, would have burnt readily.
Although some of Freycinet's charts of the Australian coast are of high standard, Flinders' work is generally acknowledged as superior. This is especially so in South Australian waters where the coastlines were surveyed at about the same time and under similar conditions.