France’s fortunes changed enormously in the final years of the 18th century. The French fleet suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign and designs on British India subsequently collapsed. In 1799, Napoleon was made First Consul, strengthening his grip on power in France. It was not the ideal time to send an expensive expedition around the world.
But many parts of the Australian coast still hadn’t been charted in detail (despite D’Entrecasteaux’s surveying achievements). And the discovery of Bass Strait in 1798 added further urgency, as it underlined the possibility of further European settlements in Australia.
Unlike La Pérouse and D’Entrecasteaux, Nicolas Baudin’s nautical experience wasn’t purely naval. He’d worked in the merchant marine, the French East India Company and the Austrian navy, and served with the French navy during the American War of Independence. Because he’d led several botanical collecting expeditions for the Emperor of Austria, he was known to influential elements of the French scientific community. When Baudin applied for a post in the French navy in 1798, he was successful. He then lobbied to lead a French scientific expedition around the world. The Institut National recommended this to Napoleon, who supported it on the condition that the expedition focused only on Australia. Baudin was given command of the expedition, the ships Géographe and Naturaliste and 256 men. They sailed from France in October 1800.
Despite his experience at sea, Baudin appears to have lacked the leadership skills so essential to the expedition’s success. When they reached Mauritius (Isle de France) in March 1801, 10 scientific staff, four officers, six midshipmen and 40 seamen all abandoned the voyage. While the loss of senior scientists and officers seriously compromised the expedition, it also opened up opportunities for those still on board. Among them were zoologist François Péron and a young sub-lieutenant, Louis de Freycinet (who both later shared responsibility for publishing the official account of the voyage).
In New Holland
Baudin had planned to start by surveying the south coast of New Holland. But by the time the ships reached Cape Leeuwin it was winter. He turned north instead, and began investigating the west coast. Baudin was on Géographe and Jacques Hamelin captained Naturaliste. They gathered collections and surveyed various points along the coast, particularly around Geographe Bay, Rottnest Island, Swan River and Shark Bay, as well as parts of the northwest coast. During these months the vessels were separated for long stretches – poor coordination that became a hallmark of the expedition. They eventually rendezvoused at Timor.
In November 1801 Géographe and Naturaliste sailed south, heading for Van Diemen’s Land. They explored parts of Storm Bay and the east coast before becoming separated again. By late March 1802 Baudin had entered Bass Strait. He began a westward survey of the south coast from Wilson’s Promontory, when he made the unwelcome discovery of Matthew Flinders’ HMS Investigator on 8 April.
Dr Nigel Erskine,
ANMM curator of exploration and European settlement