CHAPTER 2. AT SCHOOL AND AT SEA.
Young Flinders received his preparatory education at the Donington free school. This was an institution founded and endowed in 1718 by Thomas Cowley, who bequeathed property producing nowadays about 1200 pounds a year for the maintenance of a school and almshouses. It was to be open to the children of all the residents of Donington parish free of expense, and in addition there was a fund for paying premiums on the apprenticeship of boys.
At the age of twelve the lad was sent to the Horbling Grammar School, not many miles from his own home. It was under the direction of the Reverend John Shinglar. Here he remained three years. He was introduced to the Latin and Greek classics, and received the grounding of that mathematical knowledge which subsequently enabled him to master the science of navigation without a tutor. If to Mr. Shinglar's instruction was likewise due his ability to write good, sound, clear English, we who read his letters and published writings have cause to speak his schoolmaster's name with respect.
During his school days another book besides those prescribed in the curriculum came into his hands. He read Robinson Crusoe. It was to Defoe's undying tale of the stranded mariner that he attributed the awaking in his own mind of a passionate desire to sail in uncharted seas. This anecdote happens to be better authenticated than are many of those quoted to illustrate the youth of men of mark. Towards the end of Flinders' life the editor of the Naval Chronicle sent to him a series of questions, intending to found upon the answers a biographical sketch. One question was: "Juvenile or miscellaneous anecdotes illustrative of individual character?" The reply was: "Induced to go to sea against the wishes of friends from reading Robinson Crusoe."
The case, interesting as it is, has an exact parallel in the life of a famous French traveller, Rene Caille, who in 1828, after years of extraordinary effort and endurance, crossed Senegal, penetrated Central Africa, and was the first European to visit Timbuctoo. He also had read Defoe's masterpiece as a lad, and attributed to it the awaking in his breast of a yearning for adventure and discovery. "The reading of Robinson Crusoe," says a French historian, "made upon him a profound impression." "I burned to have adventures of my own," he wrote later; "I felt as I read that there was born within my heart the ambition to distinguish myself by some important discovery."* (* Gaffarel, La Politique coloniale en France, 1908 page 34.)
Here were astonishing results to follow from the vivid fiction of a gouty pamphleteer who wrote to catch the market and was hoisted into immortal fame by the effort: that his book should, like a spark falling on straw, fire the brains of a French shoemaker's apprentice and a Lincolnshire schoolboy, impelling each to a career crowded with adventure, and crowned with memorable achievements. There could hardly be better examples of the vitalising efficacy of fine literature.
A love of Robinson Crusoe remained with Flinders to the end. Only a fortnight before his death he wrote a note subscribing for a copy of a new edition of the book, with notes, then announced for publication. It must have been one of the last letters from his hand. Though out of its chronological order, it may be appropriately quoted here to connect it with the other references to the book which so profoundly influenced his life:
"Captain Flinders presents his compliments to the Hydrographer of the Naval Chronicle, and will thank him to insert his home in the list of subscribers in his new edition of Robinson Crusoe; he wishes also that the volume on delivery should have a neat, common binding, and be lettered. - London Street, July 5, 1814."
It seems clear that Flinders had promised himself the pleasure of re-reading in maturity the tale that had so delighted his youth. Had he lived to do so, he might well have underlined, as applicable to himself, a pair of those sententious observations with which Defoe essayed to give a sober purpose to his narrative. The first is his counsel of "invincible patience under the worst of misery, indefatigable application, and undaunted resolution under the greatest and most discouraging circumstances." The second is his wise remark that "the height of human wisdom is to bring our tempers down to our circumstances, and to make a great calm within under the weight of the greatest storm without." They were words which Flinders during strenuous years had good cause to translate into conduct.
The edition of the book to which he thus subscribed was undertaken largely on account of his acknowledgment of its effect upon his life. The author of the Naval Chronicle sketch of his career* (* 1814 Volume 32.) wrote in a footnote: "The biographer, also happening to understand that to the same cause the Navy is indebted for another of its ornaments, Admiral Sir Sydney Smythe, was in a great measure thereby led to give another studious reading to that charming story, and hence to adopt a plan for its republication, now almost at maturity;" and he commended the new issue especially "to all those engaged in the tuition of youth."
One other anecdote of Flinders' boyhood has been preserved as a family tradition. It is that, while still a child, he was one day lost for some hours. He was ultimately found in the middle of one of the sea marshes, his pockets stuffed with pebbles, tracing the runlets of water, so that by following them up he might find out whence they came. Many boys might have done the same; but this particular boy, in that act of enquiry concerning geographical phenomena on a small scale, showed himself father to the man.