CHAPTER 28. CHARACTERISTICS.
Matthew Flinders was a short, neatly-built, very lithe and active man. He stood five feet six inches in height.* (* These particulars are from the manuscript sketch by a friend, previously cited; Flinders' Papers.) His figure was slight and well proportioned. When he was in full health, his light, buoyant step was remarked upon by acquaintances. Neither of the two portraits of him conveys a good impression of his alert, commanding look. His nose was "rather aquiline," and his lips were customarily compressed. "He had a noble brow, hair almost black, eyes dark, bright, and with a commanding expression, amounting almost to sternness." So his friend records.
Mrs. Flinders was not satisfied with the engraved portrait published in the Naval Chronicle, 1814, nor with the miniature from which it was reproduced. In a letter to Captain Stuart she wrote: "In the portrait you will not be able to trace much of your departed friend. The miniature from which it was taken is but an indifferent likeness, and the engraver has not done justice to it. He has given the firmness of the countenance but not the intelligence or animation." It is quite certain that a rapid, piercing, commanding expression of eye and features was characteristic of him. During his captivity, the look in his eyes forbad all approach to familiarity. There is record of an occasion - in all probability connected with the sword incident - when he was addressed in terms that appeared to him to be wanting in respect; and the unlucky Frenchman who ventured thus far was so astonished at the sternness of countenance that immediately confronted him, that he started back some paces. He had been accustomed to command from an early age, and had exercised authority on service of a kind that compelled him to demand ceaseless vigilance and indefatigable vigour from himself and those under him. In a passage written in Mauritius* (* Flinders' Papers.) he makes allusion to the stern element in his character; and surely what he says here is worthy of being well pondered by all whose duty demands the exercise of power over other men:
"I shall learn patience in this island, which will perhaps counteract the insolence acquired by having had unlimited command over my fellow men. You know, my dearest, that I always dreaded the effect that the possession of great authority would have upon my temper and disposition. I hope they are neither of them naturally bad; but, when we see such a vast difference between men dependent and men in power, any man who has any share of impartiality must fear for himself. My brother will tell you that I am proud, unindulgent, and hasty to take offence, but I doubt whether John Franklin will confirm it, although there is more truth in the charge than I wish there were. In this land, those malignant qualities are ostentatiously displayed. I am made to feel their sting most poignantly. My mind has been taught a lesson in philosophy, and my judgment has gained an accession of experience that will not soon be forgotten."
That is a fairly rigorous piece of self-analysis; but there are abundant facts to show that he exercised authority with a kindly and friendly disposition, and did not surpass the limits of wisdom. Men like a commander who can command; the weak inspire no confidence. Flinders had the art of attracting people to him. His servant, the faithful John Elder, willingly endured imprisonment with him, and would not leave him until his own health gave way. John Thistle, who had served under him before 1800, returned to England shortly before the Investigator sailed, and at once volunteered for service under him again. He ruled his crews by sheer force of mind and unsparing example, and though the good of the service in hand was ever his first thought, there is plenty of evidence to prove that the happiness of the men under him was constantly in his mind.
In hours of relaxation he was genial, a lively companion, a warm friend. An intimate friend records: "He possessed the social virtues and affections in an eminent degree, and in conversation he was particularly agreeable, from the extent of his general information and the lively acuteness of his observations. His integrity, uprightness of intention, and liberality of sentiment were not to be surpassed."
A scrap of dialogue written for insertion in the Voyage to Terra Australis, but cancelled with other matter, enables us to realise that he could recall an incident with some dramatic force. Bonnefoy, an interpreter in Ile-de-France, told him a story of an American skipper under examination by one of General Decaen's officers, and he wrote it down as follows: -
"I was amused with his account of a blunt American captain who, having left a part of his people to collect seal-skins upon the island Tristan d'Acuna, had come in for provisions, and to get his vessel repaired. This honest man did not wish to tell where he was collecting his cargo, nor did he understand all the ceremony he was required to go through. The dialogue that passed between the old seaman and the French officers of the port was nearly thus:
Off.: From whence do you come, Sir?
From whence do I come? Haugh! why, Monsieur, I come from the Atlantic Ocean.
Off.: But, pray, Sir, from what port?
Port? You will find that out from my papers, which I suppose you want to see?
Off.: It appears, Sir, that you have not above half your crew on board. Be so good as to inform me where are the rest?
O, my crew? Poor fellows, yes, why, Sir, we met with an island of ice on the road, and I left them there a-basket-making.
Off.: Making baskets on an island of ice? This is a very strange answer, Sir; and give me leave to tell you such will not do here; but you will accompany me to the Captain-General, and we shall then see whether you will answer or not.