HMS Investigator (1798)

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For other ships of the same name, see HMS Investigator.
20th century drawing of Investigator.
Career (UK)
Name: HM Sloop Investigator
Builder: Unknown, at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland [1]
Launched: 1795 as civilian collier Fram[1]
Acquired: 1798 as Xenophon[2]
Renamed: 1801 as Investigator[2]
Fate: Broken up about 1872[3][4]
General characteristics
Class and type: 22-gun sloop-of-war
Tons burthen: 334 Builders' Measurement[3]
Length: 100 ft 6 in (30.63 m)[3]
Beam: 28 ft 6 in (8.69 m)[3]
Draught: 15 ft (4.6 m)[3]
Propulsion: Sails
Complement: 88[3]
Armament: 22 guns
Flinders around about this time.

HM Sloop Investigator was a survey ship of the Royal Navy. In 1802, under the command of Matthew Flinders, she was the first ship to circumnavigate Australia.


The ship was built in Sunderland as a collier, and was named Fram when launched in 1795. She operated off the north-east coast of England before being purchased by the Royal Navy in 1798. She was then refitted with 22 guns to serve as an escort vessel, and renamed Xenophon.

Australian voyage[edit]

At the urging of the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, the Admiralty decided to launch an expedition to map the Australian coastline, as well as further study the plant and animal life on the new colony. Attached to the expedition was the botanist Robert Brown,the botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer and the landscape artist William Westall. The Xenophon was chosen for the expedition: her former mercantile role meant that she had a small draught and ample space for supplies, making her particularly suitable for a long exploratory voyage. On the other hand, she was in relatively poor condition, and could therefore be spared from service in the war against France.

After a refit/conversion at Deptford dockyard, which included making additional cabins for scientists and space on the deck for plant specimens, she was renamed Investigator.[1]

On 19 January 1801, the Navy appointed Lieutenant Flinders commander of the Investigator, and he would arrive to take command on 25 January. He would later write:

The Investigator was a north-country-built ship, of three-hundred and thirty-four tons; and, in form, nearly resembled the description of a vessel recommended by Captain Cook as best calculated for voyages of discovery. She had been purchased some years before into His Majesty's service; and having been newly coppered and repaired, was considered to be the best vessel which could, at that time, be spared for the projected voyage to Terra Australis.

Circumnavigation (6 Dec 1801 - 9 June 1803)[edit]

The Investigator set sail from Spithead for Australia on 18 July 1801, calling at the Cape of Good Hope before crossing the Indian Ocean and sighting Cape Leeuwin off South West Australia on 6 December 1801. The expedition put into King George Sound (Albany) for a month before beginning a running survey of The Great Australian Bight which stretched 2300 kilometres to Spencer Gulf. On 21 February 1802 a tragic accident occurred when a shore party which included Ships Master John Thistle, midshipman William Taylor and six seamen were lost when a boat capsized attempting to return to the ship at dusk in choppy waters. No bodies were recovered. Flinders named the headland Cape Catastrophe. Proceeding into the gulf, Flinders surveyed Port Lincoln (which he named after his home county). Working eastwards Investigator next charted Kangaroo Island, Yorke Peninsula and St Vincent Gulf. On 8 April, at Encounter Bay, a surprise meeting with French corvette Géographe under Nicolas Baudin was cordial, the Captains being unaware the Treaty of Amiens had only just been signed and both believed the two countries were still at war with one another. Sailing eastward through Bass Strait, "Investigator" visited King Island and Port Philip before arriving at Port Jackson on 9 May 1802. Investigator spent the next ten weeks preparing and took aboard 12 new men including an aborigine named Bungaree with whom Flinders had previously sailed with on the sloop Norfolk. On 22 July she left Port Jackson, sailing north in company with the brig Lady Nelson, (which soon proved to be crank and returned to Port Jackson), Investigator hugged the east coast, passed through the Great Barrier Reef and transited Torres Strait (which Flinders had previously sailed with Captain William Bligh on HMS Providence). While surveying the Gulf of Carpentaria the ship's timbers were examined; the Deptford dockyard refit/conversion had failed to rectify and fix major faults with the ship, and as the voyage to Australia had revealed, she was in poor shape, the wood was rotting and there were serious extensive leaks. The ships carpenter reported that she would not last more than six months.

Flinders sailed to the Dutch settlement in Timor hoping to find a replacement, but was unsuccessful. By now a number of the crew were unwell with numerous diseases such as dysentery and scurvy, so the survey was reluctantly cut short and the ship was forced to sail back to Port Jackson "with all possible sail, day and night", abandoning his desire for a running survey on the north and west coasts of Australia, to undergo repairs. He did, however, complete the circumnavigation of Australia, not without lightening the ship by jettisoning two wrought-iron anchors. These were found and recovered in 1973 by divers at Middle Island, Archipelago of the Recherche, Western Australia.[5] The best bower anchor is on display at the South Australian Maritime Museum while the stream anchor can be seen at the National Museum of Australia.[6][7][8]

Further information: HMS Investigator Anchors

Investigator reached Port Jackson on 9 June 1803 and, on its return to Sydney, Governor Philip Gidley King requested that a survey of the vessel be carried out:

… being the state of the Investigator thus far, we think it altogether unnecessary to make any further examination; being unanimously of opinion that she is not worth repairing in any country, and that it is impossible in this country to put her in a state fit for going to sea.

—Letter from W. Scott, E. H. Palmer and Thomas Moore to Governor King, from Book II, Chapter X, A Voyage to Terra Australis

Flinders left the now decommissioned Investigator as a hulk at Port Jackson and attempted to return to England as a passenger aboard HMS Porpoise.

Later years (1804 - 1872)[edit]

In 1804, Governor King of Sydney ordered a survey, which found that the Investigator could be repaired and returned to service. The work involved cutting down the front deck and re-rigging the ship, to prepare her for another voyage.

In 1805 Investigator sailed back to England, carrying two of Flinders' botanists, Robert Brown and Ferdinand Bauer and their collections. The ship endured several fierce storms en route but arrived safely. She continued in naval service for another few years, but was eventually sold to be broken up in November 1810, a "noble, hard-working ship which did not deserve this fate".[9]

In fact Investigator was not broken up, but rebuilt as a commercial sailing vessel, brig or snow rigged, and reverted to her former naval name Xenophon. As such she continued to sail extensively around the globe until putting into Geelong on 30 July 1853 during the Australian gold rushes with a cargo of timber and other goods from Liverpool.[10] The vessel later continued on to Melbourne, where she was sold and was converted into a storage hulk. Reregistered in Melbourne in 1861 as a hulk of 367 tons, 101.5 x 28.2 x 18.9 ft. depth of hold, the last change of ownership was in 1868 and the register was closed with the comment 'broken up' in 1872.[4]


  1. ^ a b c Essay: Flinders and the voyage of the Investigator 1801–1803, The Flinders papers
  2. ^ a b Vessels: Xenophon, The Flinders papers
  3. ^ a b c d e f Vessels: Investigator, The Flinders papers
  4. ^ a b Register of British Ships, Melbourne
  5. ^ Christopher, P. & Cundell, N. (editors), (2004), Let’s Go For a Dive, 50 years of the Underwater Explorers Club of SA, published by Peter Christopher, Kent Town, SA, pp.45-49. This describes the search and recovery of the anchors by members of the Underwater Explorers Club of South Australia
  6. ^ Christopher, P. & Cundell, N. (editors), (2004), Let’s Go For a Dive, 50 years of the Underwater Explorers Club of SA, published by Peter Christopher, Kent Town, SA, pp.48
  7. ^ 'HM Sloop Investigator anchor,', retrieved 16/07/2012.
  8. ^ Stream anchor from Matthew Flinders' ship the 'Investigator', National Museum of Australia
  9. ^ - unknown quoter
  10. ^ The Argus newspaper, Melbourne, 3 August 1853.


External links[edit]