New acquisition records Baudin’s expedition to Australia – Part three

The British and the French meet

Flinders had arrived off the southwest corner of Australia four months earlier. By the time he encountered Baudin, he had completed surveys of the coast from King George’s Sound along the Great Australian Bight to Spencer Gulf and the Gulf St Vincent. Baudin continued his survey, but had to stop to replenish Géographe at Port Jackson, where he again rendezvoused with Naturaliste.

The two ships spent five months in Sydney Cove. Governor King was a gracious host, arranging for repairs to the ships and medical treatment for the numerous sick. Baudin purchased the small schooner Casuarina, to use for inshore survey work in place of Naturaliste (later sent home). Louis de Freycinet was put in command of Casuarina.  

Governor King was acutely aware that Baudin’s expedition could lay the foundation for a French settlement in Australia. When Baudin left for Bass Strait, King sent Lieutenant Robbins in Cumberland to shadow him and show a British presence (leading to a series of semi-farcical flag-raising events). Whatever colonial ambitions the French might have had, Géographe and Casuarina were soon sailing west, continuing their survey of the south coast. The following year, the British established a permanent settlement in Van Diemen’s Land.

In May 1803, after completing further surveys along the west coast, Géographe and Casuarina anchored again at Timor. Many of the men were sick, and the expedition was exhausted. After a brief attempt to continue working, Baudin gave the order to return to France. He was in poor health as well, and died in Mauritius in late 1803.

Publishing the Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes

When Baudin’s men finally returned to France in March 1804, they brought with them rich scientific collections and observations, detailed surveys of the areas they’d explored, notes on Indigenous culture and the state of the Sydney settlement, and over 70 live animals and birds!

At any other time, the return of a major French scientific expedition would have been widely celebrated. But Baudin was dead and France was poised to invade England. Baudin’s reputation had also been tarnished by unfavourable reports from many of his former officers, and Napoleon’s support had waned. Therefore, collating the many facets of the voyage’s achievements seemed less than pressing.

The task finally fell to zoologist François Péron. The first volume of the account was published in 1807. Péron continued writing, but died in 1810. The responsibility for completing the publication passed to Louis de Freycinet. And so the complete five-volume account of the expedition – with all mention of Baudin himself clinically removed – was progressively published between 1807 and 1812. The final publication included two atlases with exquisitely engraved portraits of Indigenous people, depictions of Australian animals, views of Sydney Cove and charts of the Australian coast. Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes is a testament to French interest in Australia in the early period of European settlement, and tells of a parallel achievement to the work of Matthew Flinders.

Dr Nigel Erskine,

ANMM curator of exploration and European settlement