Earlier this year, the ANMM acquired the highly significant Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes – the record of Nicolas Baudin’s 1800–1804 expedition to Australia. It’s made up of four quarto volumes and a magnificent folio atlas.
The great exploratory voyages of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were just like today’s space expeditions. A nation’s prestige was linked with its mission’s success. The journeys were endorsed by political leaders, sponsored by elite scientific societies, and equipped with the most advanced technology of the day. And, just as the world turned on the TV to witness man’s landing on the moon, 200 years ago the medium for communicating huge events was the book. It was, literally, bound to impress, and was often published with grand atlases of charts and views showing the finer details of the latest discoveries.
The Voyage de Découvertes… is the official record of Baudin’s expedition. But it also embodies a wider story of social and political upheaval in France at the turn of the 19th century, and of Baudin’s fall from grace even after leading an expedition that rivalled Matthew Flinders’ exploration on HMS Investigator.
Some historical background
When the Seven Years War (1756–1763) ended, there was new peace between France and Britain. Both countries renewed their interest in exploring the Pacific. Byron, Bougainville, Wallis and Carteret all led expeditions, before Cook’s three great voyages redefined the geography of the Pacific and Australia. For the first time since 17th-century Dutch voyagers had mapped the general outline of New Holland’s north, west and south coasts, most of the east coast was also revealed. But important questions still remained. Was the continent divided by a great gulf? What was the connection between Tasman and Furneaux’s charting in the south and Cook’s survey of the east coast? Were there any potentially strategic harbours and rivers and, if so, where were they?
In 1785, La Pérouse led a new expedition, with instructions from King Louis XVI to:
… run down the western coast and take a closer look at the southern, the greater part of which has never been visited, finishing at Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania], at Adventure Bay …
A Voyage Round the World … under the Command of J.F.G. de La Pérouse, Robinson; Edwards; and Payne, London, 1799
In fact, La Pérouse focused mainly on the western and northern Pacific. Apart from a few weeks in Botany Bay, he had little interest in Australia. And, after he left the east coast in early 1788, all opportunity was lost when La Pérouse’s ships were destroyed on the reefs at Vanikoro (Solomon Islands).
The disappearance of such a high-profile expedition demanded that every effort be made to discover what had happened, and to search for any survivors. The French government ordered Bruni D’Entrecasteaux to lead a new expedition to the Pacific in 1792. There was no trace of La Pérouse, but D’Entrecasteaux extended French surveys of Australian waters, particularly along the south-west coast and in southern Tasmania.
Before his disappearance, La Pérouse had been sending back progress reports. There was enough new geographic information to justify publishing a partial account of his expedition, and his maps in the form of a grand atlas. It would be as significant the one the British published for Cook’s third voyage. No expense was spared in producing a suitably imposing (rival) work in honour of La Pérouse and the French nation. See the elaborate title page alone (pictured), which symbolically refers to advancing the sciences of navigation, botany, astronomy and ethnography! While La Pérouse’s atlas set a benchmark, D’Entrecasteaux’s expedition also resulted in similarly exquisite large publications.
The next French expedition to investigate Australia was led by Nicolas Baudin. He set sail from a homeland that had changed dramatically in the years leading to the new century.
— Dr Nigel Erskine, ANMM Curator of exploration and European settlement