The pioneering French explorers

Cour-rou-bari-gal  (Nicolas-Martin Petit)

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Last week I was chided by a French friend who told me that I wrote too much about the English and too little about the French. After all, it was the French who almost colonised this part of Australia, before the British established a settlement here in 1826.

That’s a fair comment, so in this week that marks the celebration of Bastille Day (July 14) when the French as a nation celebrate the 1789 Revolution that changed the face of modern Europe and arguably the world, what better time is there to discuss French contributions to our society?

While it was Jules César Dumont d’Urville who failed to carry out his orders and survey (the then) King George’s Sound in 1826 for a possible French penal settlement, it is to an earlier scientific voyage that I refer today – that of Post-Captain Nicolas Baudin whose epic journey to Australia took place between 1800 and 1804.

Revolutionary turmoil

France was still in revolutionary turmoil when Baudin’s expedition was approved by the new First Consul of France, General Napoleon Bonaparte. Initially Baudin proposed a world circumnavigation but Napoleon, possibly with an eye on the budget, limited the destination to New Holland.

Nonetheless, Baudin set off with two ships, Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste, from the French naval port of Le Havre in October 1800. On board was a full complement of naval officers, sailors, scientists and artists, since he proposed that this was a voyage of scientific investigation and not of territorial conquest.

Unusually, he was allowed to keep a personal log on top of the official naval journals, and, to assist him in illustrations, he personally appointed two young and talented artists, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit. Their abilities and passion soon won over several of their more experienced colleagues.

Officers deserted

The first stop on the voyage, to refresh the men and reprovision the boats, was on the French island of Ile de France (now Mauritius) in March 1801. This proved a misjudgement as several of the officers and scientists promptly abandoned the expedition in favour of the comforts of the Indian Ocean paradise.

However, these desertions were a bonus for Lesueur, Petit and another scientist, François Péron, who were all promoted to more senior positions. Péron, originally a junior zoologist, became a chief scientist and collected over 100,000 zoological specimens along the journey.

He is also credited with founding the discipline of anthropology with his thorough studies of First Nations peoples around Australia.

Assiduous artists

Lesueur and Petit, meanwhile, were entrusted with the tasks of recording the images of the expedition. They were assiduous and accurate in their work, and it was Péron who sang their praises at its conclusion. He wrote of the duo:
Their enthusiasm and their tireless activity, combined with their talent, have been most useful to our work and if the government is indebted to one of them [Petit] for a precious and complete series of coastal views of New Holland, together with a large number of native costumes whose detail is perfectly true to life, natural history is indebted to the other [Lesueur] for a host of drawings that are as accurate as this type of drawing can possibly be and with which I venture to assure you in advance you will be immensely satisfied.

Péron was right. Petit did indeed specialise in coastal scenes and in portraits of First Nations’ people, while Lesueur concentrated on natural history. Both were vital in bringing to Europe images of the new world which to that time had been limited and often misleading.

Mixed legacy

On the other hand, Péron’s legacy was mixed. While his documentation of Aboriginal customs and his prolific collection of species was admired, he was very critical of Baudin’s leadership and seamanship in his journal entries, probably for his own personal benefit.

After Baudin died of tuberculosis on Mauritius in 1803 before he returned to France, Péron took the lead role in recording and promoting the expedition and he was perhaps overly severe in his assessment of his commander.

Reputation restored

Since then, Baudin’s reputation has been somewhat restored and in 2002, on the bicentenary of the expedition, several busts of Baudin were unveiled at locations around the Australian coastline, including one on the boardwalk at Middleton Beach in Albany.

Lesueur we remember in WA by the large national park inland from Jurien Bay in the mid-West. He was fêted upon his return home to France but he died suddenly in 1846 in his home town of Le Havre from where the expedition had originally left.

Wombat (Charles-Alexandre Lesueur)

Petit had survived several serious illnesses on the voyages but did return to France, only to die of gangrene after an innocuous fall in the street at the young age of 27, and only days before his wedding.
Let us therefore celebrate Bastille Day each July 14 by remembering the work of these extraordinary French artists and scientists, and reflect on how we almost became a French colony ourselves.

Reference: Sarah Thomas (2002), The Encounter 1802: art of the Flinders and Baudin voyages.

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