In April 1802 when the lookout station situated on the southern headland at the entrance to Port Jackson reported the sighting of a French naval vessel approaching, the news spread quickly through the streets of Sydney. Isolated on the far side of the world from England, it was normal for news of the arrival of a ship to cause excitement at the prospect of news from Europe and the hope of fresh supplies. The armed corvette Le Naturaliste however, was an unusual arrival and unlikely to bring much comfort to the town.
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
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
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