Looking for the land ‘down under’ became a passionate pursuit in Europe during the eighteenth century. While many may be inclined to think otherwise Christopher Columbus was not the first European explorer to reach the Americas, nor was Captain Cook the first European to reach Australia, although both loom large in our collective memory because their contact would prove to be longest lasting.
The impossible missions are the only ones which succeed*
Today many Australians do not realize the French played a very strong and significant role in the European discovery of Australia. During the 18th and early 19th century, French rulers ancient and modern pursued a policy of exploration and scientific study of our wide brown land and its inhabitants.
Combining politics with scientific interest was the preserve of each ship’s captain, who sailed on an adventure in the north and south Pacific during what are often seen as the glory days of world exploration. They were all charged with bringing back flora, fauna and documentation to support any claims that they made upon the land.
They came searching for new horizons and new opportunities and today the collections of our libraries and museums are rich in the records of these pioneers, whose enduring story is a tribute to the very powerful French connection that still exists between France and Australia.
King Louis XV (1710 – 1774) sent Louis-Antoine de Bougainville to look for the Southern lands. He claimed Tahiti for the French and sailed westward, past Samoa and Vanuatu, until his passage was blocked by a mighty reef.
However his men were ill and when he could not find a way through he turned and sailed north.
When he returned to France in 1769, he was hailed as the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. It would not be for some time that it was realised that he had also been the first European known to have seen the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of what is now known as Queensland named for England’s Queen Victoria.
Louis XV also empowered the French explorer and mariner Marc-Joseph Marion Du Fresne (1724 – 1772), who had enjoyed a distinguished career in the French navy, before heading off in 1761 taking astronomer Alexandre Gui Pingré to the Indian Ocean to observe the transit of Venus.
A man of means Du Fresne also organized an expedition to the Seychelles in 1768 before settling on the Isle de France (Mauritius).
In 1770, the year British Explorer James Cook discovered and explored the East coast of what he re-named New South Wales, the Tahitian noble warrior Aotourou, who as a representative of Tahitian society had journeyed back to France with Louis-Antoine Comte de Bougainville (1729 – 1811), arrived on the island of Mauritius. He requested that return passage to his native Tahiti should be arranged for him.
It was Du Fresne who volunteered to convey Aotourou home with an idea that he would also explore southern waters along the way.
In 1772, when Napoleon Bonaparte was only 3 years of age, while on the voyage that he financed himself to the South Pacific, Du Fresne and his party rounded the most southerly point of Van Diemen’s Land, a small land mass south of the Australian mainland.
He went ashore and claimed it for France.
Du Fresne and his party became the first Frenchmen to reach that part of the Antipodean paradise. He anchored his vessels off Cape Frederick Hendrick in what is now called Marion Bay and North Bay leading a party ashore in two boats on 7 March 1772.
They were the first French explorers to reach any part of Australia and the first Europeans to encounter the Aboriginal people of Van Diemen’s Land.
Disappointed in his search for timber and fresh water, after six days he made for the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, where he attempted to re-mast his vessel. However at Te Hue on 12 June 1772 the Maoris killed Du Fresne and twenty-four of his crew. The survivors fled back to Mauritius.
While all this was happening early in 1772, and also on behalf of Louis XV and France Louis François Marie Aleno de Saint Aloüarn (1738 – 1772) landed on the coast of western Australia at Flinders Bay, which is on the eastern side of Cape Leeuwin.
Saint Alloüarn surveyed much of the western Australian coastline up to and near the present-day city of Darwin. After exploring and charting the area, he raised the French flag and claimed a section of that coastline for France and then headed off to France via Timor and Batavia.
Napoleon Bonaparte was only a young man of 16 in 1785 when Louis XVI (1754 – 1793) sent Jean François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse to explore the coasts of the Far East and Australia.
Napoleon had dearly wanted to join the expedition but was a ‘gentleman cadet’ in the École Militaire at Paris at the time.
La Perouse sailed with two ships, the Boussole and the Astrolabe out of Brest, visiting the newly founded penal colony of Port Jackson on the coast of New South Wales. La Perouse arrived within a few days of Captain Arthur Phillip, who was busy moving the colony from the bleak shores of Botany Bay to the shelter of Sydney Cove in Port Jackson. They all had to ride out a fierce gale while they were there.
The British received them courteously and La Pérouse spent six weeks there observing before setting sail towards the Solomon Islands.
Fortunately la Perouse left dispatches to be forwarded on to France with a British Naval Ship from the First Fleet, Sirius, before his two ships sailed away never to be seen or heard from again. The documents therefore duly arrived at Paris and were published posthumously.
Despite many expeditions since, no one has ever found enough facts to support a first hand account of what happened to La Perouse and his men. Debris from their ships was recovered in 1826 by an Irish sea captain endeavouring to piece together the events of the tragedy.
His reconstruction was later confirmed by the discovery, and subsequent examination in 1964, of what was believed to be the shipwreck of the Boussole.
Despite his own misfortunes, Louis XVI often sought news of his explorer as his passion for scientific discovery remained at the forefront of his mind. Even on the day of his execution in 1793 he inquired “Is there any news yet of Monsieur de La Pérouse?“
Plant exploration was so important in the eighteenth century that it became a matter of state in France when the botanist Jacques-Julien Labillardiere (1755–1834), who was a republican sympathiser that had studied with England’s famous botanist Joseph Banks, travelled with Rear Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux in search of Lapérouse.
His expedition followed Lapérouse’s proposed path through the islands northwest of Australia while at the same time making scientific and geographic discoveries along the way. Although d’Entrecasteaux died en route Labillardiere returned to France in 1799 and published his Relation du Voyage à la Recherche de la Pérouse, in 1800.
Following his adventure Labillardiere settled at Paris and began working on the first major account of Australian flora ever to be published. Two illustrated volumes appeared in 1804 and 1806. Napoleon’s wife Josephine by this time was busy growing the Australian plants bought back on the voyage at her Château Malmaison.
Mariners from the Netherlands had previously charted much of the western Australian coastline. These included the 17th century Dutch sailor and explorer Dirk Hartog (1580 – 1621), who went ashore on an island off the coast of Shark Bay in Western Australia in 1616. He left behind an inscribed flattened pewter plate nailed to a post announcing his claim
Subsequent explorers, including Baron Emanuel Hamelin, skipper of the Naturaliste and a member of Nicolas Baudin’s French Expedition, respectfully copied the message on the plate. He decided not to remove the copy made of Hartog’s plate by another Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh in 1697.
Baron Hamelin although his young officers – including Louis de Freycinet who felt it should be taken to France, honoured its survival replacing its post so that it remained there for another 17 years. Baron Hamelin interestingly left his own inscription on a piece of lead sheet, nailed to a post on a prominent headland on the island, without recording a precise description of its location.
That lead plate has remained undiscovered and may still lie buried in the sand on what is now known as Dirk Hartog Island.
As first Consul of France Napoleon supported the proposal that Nicolas Baudin put forward to mount an expedition to antipodean shores in 1800 on the ships Le Geographe and Naturaliste.
His scientific and cartographic achievements would add enormously to the sum of knowledge of Terres Australes, including its flora and fauna, some of which would later appear on Paris Porcelain tea and coffee services.
Napoleon’s instructions to Baudin had been quite specific
‘You will make up this collection of living animals of all kinds, insects, and especially of birds with beautiful plumage. As regards animals, I don’t need to tell you how to choose between those intended for the menageries and those for a collection of pure pleasure. You will appreciate that it must comprise flowers, shrubs, seeds, shells, precious stones, timber for fine works of marquetry, insects, butterflies, etc. …’
The records of anthropological and natural sciences produced from Nicolas Baudin‘s exploration of the south-eastern coastline together with Lieutenant Louis de Freycinet’s charts, encompassing Victoria, means that it was originally claimed and named Terre Napoléon for France.
It would appear that it was just as well Baudin died on his journey home to France otherwise it was rumoured that Napoleon would have had him hanged for failing to do away with Matthew Flinders when their two ships met up in Encounter Bay.
Baudin made his way to Port Jackson, having being invited to winter there by Matthew Flinders and he and his crew were made very welcome there over the next 5 months.
Before leaving Baudin purchased the Casuarina, which he would need as the Naturaliste sailed home to France taking a large collection of animals and plants with her.
Louis de Freycinet, although not the most senior available ranking officer, was given command of the Casuarina and he was less than complimentary about its seaworthiness.
Baudin was very well treated by Governor King during his stay and so he sent a letter to the Governor of Mauritius asking him to extend the same courtesy to Matthew Flinders if ever he should happen to stop there. Flinders continued sailing east and eventually completed the first close circumnavigation of the Australian mainland.
Returning to England, Flinders called in to Île-de-France (Mauritius) and was imprisoned for seven years because Britain and France were again at war. Ironically Nicolas Baudin had died on the island the previous day. Baudin’s expedition left no less than 240 surviving French names on the west coast of Australia and his own name was eventually to grace eight different features.
In France he is still virtually unknown
After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France. Keen to raise the prestige of France, Louis Claude de Saulces de Freycinet (1779-1841) lobbied the King and when successful, he embarked on a scientific expedition to the southern ocean between 1817-1820.
His ship The Uranie arrived in Sydney in November 1819 where they rested for six weeks, met a number of notables and re-provisioned before sailing away. As a young man Freycinet had been horrified by his master Baron Hamelin’s decision to leave the engraved plate behind. When he arrived back in Australia on his own ship in 1818 he returned to Cape Inscription, recovered it and subsequently took it back to Paris.
This plate is now the oldest-known artifact of European exploration in Australia still in existence and is therefore evidence of the first confirmed visit to the southern continent by Europeans. The French Government returned it to Western Australia in 1950.
The most fascinating aspect of Freycinet’s story is that his wife Rose de Freycinet, despite mariners being alarmed at the idea of women on board, joined her husband on the Uranie disguised as a man until they left port.
Rose was the first woman to complete an account of the three-year circumnavigation in a ‘series of intimate letters, which took the form of a diary’.
Her observations of life on board and stories about the people and places they visited, the scientific work of the expedition, the relationships between men and women, and the work of artist Jacques Arago were recorded in the ‘diary’.
It survived the dangers of the voyage and the Uranie being shipwrecked in the Falkland Islands.
It would however take until 1927 for the account of her journey to appear in a French publication of her letters, with the first English translation not happening until 1962.
Rose died tragically aged 38 of cholera, having nursed Louis through the disease.
Louis de Freycinet was admitted into the French Academy of Sciences and became a founder of the Paris Geographical Society. He died in 1842 still grieving the loss of his Rose.
Other voyages followed, including that of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville who was one of the most knowledgeable French navigators charged with finding good anchorages, collecting scientific samples and making astronomical observations.
The images he had recorded of his friendly encounters with the Aboriginal people as well as the thousands of specimens and objects brought back from the new worlds of nature and mankind, were indeed startling. The natural history specimens and collections from his voyages, several of which were new species, were destined for the Muséum nationale d’Histoire naturelle at Paris.
Meticulously drawn specimens of flora and fauna were later collated into large volumes, all of which were lavishly published by the French government.
In 1839 King Louis Phillippe of France signed a decree creating a French consulate in Sydney, convinced that the town would become a major political and commercial centre of the Pacific.
It was the first foreign consulate in Australia and the very first French Consul, Jean antoine Marie Faramond arrived in 1842 to take up residence first at Millers Point, where with the French flag flying overhead. it provided the colony with a distinctive way of recognising the French support for culture in the colonies.
French artist Eugene Delessert stayed in the colony for nearly two years and on his return to Paris om 1847 he published two illustrated accounts of his travel experiences.
After 1852 the French consulate moved to Hunter’s Hill where another Frenchman Jules Joubert became the first President of the Hunter’s Hill Council (1861-2 before the position of Mayor had been adopted. When it did he became its first Mayor as well (1867 – 69).
These early explorers and adventurers were only but a few of the French men and women who have settled in Australia since forging the lasting links that led to our men and women fighting side by side with their French comrades through two World Wars in the 20th century.
Today those links have only been made stronger by the sharing of fine cuisine and culture.
While the British may have claimed the land and colonized it, it was the French explorers who first made known the richness and diversity of Australia and its life forms all over the world.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2015
*Jacques Cousteau French Explorer 1910 – 1997
Further information contact Les amis de Nicolas Baudin, 23 rue de Paris, 94190 Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, Société nationale, France