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A Researcher’s Perspective: On Board with Baudin – Some Thoughts about Travel and Work at that Time

As an Honorary Research Associate in the Museum History department my particular interests are Tasmanian photography, ephemera and 20th century popular culture – a long way removed from Baudin and his 18th century travels.  So I have approached this talk as a small research project: visited the exhibition, read the catalogue and then undertaken a wider online search.

One of the first things that struck me was the significant role the artists played in providing scientific evidence of the people, the animals and the landscape here in 1801-03, in the days before photography, invented almost 40 years later by another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre.

There is a wealth of information on the French voyages. Of local relevance in Launceston is the library of former QVMAG director Brian Plomley, a noted authority on Baudin and the Tasmanian Aborigines. Plomley’s books form part of the Museum’s Library, the catalogue of which is readily available online.

Baudin’s travel to the great Southern Lands is a story of professional jealousies, desertions, animosity, deaths by drowning and ill health.

The Baudin expedition of 1800-04 had been preceded by a succession of earlier French voyages to this area. A mixture of rivalry and competition characterized French and British attitudes towards each other’s travels.  For those of us growing up in Australia in the 1950s the stories of Captain Cook’s travels have previously overshadowed all other early voyages of discovery. This wonderful exhibition corrects that anomaly.

Although Terra Australis was a strange and far away land, a long sea voyage was not an entirely new experience for Baudin.  On previous voyages he had already visited India, China and the West Indies.  While this expedition was no Mars One adventure, it was never the less the largest scientific expedition ever to leave Europe.

Baudin left Le Havre on 19 October 1800 and was sailing in Australian waters between 1801 and 1803. He deliberately chose to be in Tasmanian waters between January and May 1802 to avoid the southern winter.

What were the essentials for a voyage such as this? And what was happening elsewhere in France? That could well be the subject of another talk.  An illustration in the exhibition catalogue reminds us of the scientific achievements of the French Montgolfier brothers and their first hot air balloon ascent in 1783. At the Bastille ten years later, Marie Antoinette was executed: a graphic reminder of the political climate.

 

THE SHIPS                                                                          

Two ships were prepared for the expedition. Le Geographe, under the command of Baudin, led the expedition.  It was a 40 metre corvette of 350 tons, launched in June 1800. Its deep draft however made Baudin wary of sailing too close to shore and his critics accused him of conducting ‘a survey by telescope’.

Le Naturaliste, slightly larger and under the command of Captain Hamelin, was the store ship with large holds capable of carrying specimens. It was far slower than Geographe, and frequently fell behind.

Both ships were renamed to mark the scientific aims of the expedition and each vessel carried just over 100 young men, a mixture of scientists, officers and seamen.

A third and much smaller 20 ton schooner, the Casuarina, was later purchased in Sydney in 1802 to conduct inshore surveys. Its captain, Louis Freycinet, was not impressed with the vessel, describing it as ‘badly constructed, too short for its masts and taking in five inches of water each day’.

Looking at the model of Geographe in the exhibition you can imagine the immense amount of work, and noise, involved in handling all that canvas, ropes and pulleys under all sorts of weather conditions.

But also consider this contrasting, ephemeral image of a ship, believed to be Geographe or Investigator, the reference taken from a song passed down through Aboriginal generations:

                A big white bird came flying in from over the ocean, then slowly stopped and, having folded its wing, was tied up so that it could not get away.

 

LIFE ON BOARD

Life on board ship was divided into watches. The crew sailed the vessel, maintained rigging, pumped out the constant flood of salt water and, of course, scrubbed and cleaned.

There is little doubt that the crew’s diet, lacking in fresh fruit and vegetables, could sustain the rigours of life at sea. Scurvy was a constant problem. Live goats and sheep were carried to supplement the dried meats.  Fresh water, frequently in short supply or contaminated, was kept in large barrels. Sometimes birds such as black swans, which had been collected as scientific specimens, were taken as food as a matter of necessity.

Cooking was done on a large iron stove sitting on a bed of sand and stone below decks.

The crew had to deal with the usual challenges of the times: sea sickness was common; damp conditions on board caused viruses and bacteria to flourish; stale air from burning candles and tobacco lingered below decks; and running low on supplies of every kind was a constant threat as was separation of the vessels.

One source suggests that 46 sailors and ten scientists abandoned the expedition in Mauritius on the way to Terra Australis on the pretext of ill health, but more likely because of differences of opinion based on their French Navy/merchant navy or aristocratic/working class backgrounds. There were deaths from scurvy and, following a resupply stopover in Timor, more deaths from tropical fevers and dysentery; men were lost overboard and stranded ashore.

Space on board was limited and for the officers, scientists and artists a sea chest held their personal items and a small desk was their workspace. Wet specimens were preserved in alcohol, such as rum, used both in the interests of crew and science. The bread room was used to dry the plants because it was the driest part of the ship.

At every opportunity in good weather all bedding and clothing was brought on deck, exposing them to the sun and fresh air. Personal hygiene and ventilation were paramount. A frayed rope was used in lieu of paper for toileting.

 

THE TOOLS OF THE ARTIST AND THE SCIENTIST

Sheets of paper were precious cargo. Conditions at sea made it difficult to keep the paper (and the finished drawings made over the three year period) from going mouldy.

On the ships inventory were 200 red pencils, 200 black pencils, 12 ebony rulers, 4 wooden set squares, 2 ivory palettes, 4 boxes of coloured paint and 4 dozen brushes for miniatures and easels. Imagine misplacing or losing the pencils?

The scientists too needed notebooks, labels and many flasks for their specimens.

Twenty-three year old Charles Lesueur, who sailed initially as an assistant gunner, moved to the role of artist after the official artists absconded at Mauritius. His drawings provide a glimpse into life on the ship: for example, an easy day at sea showing ‘one of the botanists relaxing on board, his nose in a book, his legs stretched out across the roof of a poultry cage, his back against the ships railing, his elbow resting on a coil of rope’.

In short, the ships were both the artists’ studio, floating laboratories and menageries as well as a temporary home on the high seas.

Voyages such as these were the ultimate challenge for early maritime navigators who depended on telescopes, sextants and chronometers. On Baudin’s expedition they carried four marine chronometers made by Frenchman Louis Berthoud. We know from Berthoud’s workshop records that Geographe carried chronometers number 31 and 38 and Naturaliste carried number  27 and 35.

Their importance is indicated by a quote of Bernier, the astronomer, describing their carriage by stage coach to the port of Le Havre. ‘I always had them on my knees. They did not suffer any impact’.

Chronometers enabled navigators to determine their longitude, in this case the distance east or west of the Paris Observatory, as opposed to the British system and the distance from Greenwich. An accurate record of Paris time was determined by observing the sun using the difference between the two to calculate distance east or west of the Paris Observatory.

At the conclusion of the voyage we know that number 27 was in a very bad state (a number of pieces broken and rusted); 35 was in good condition and only had to have the mechanism cleaned and minor repairs to the suspension; 31 had very little damage.

From Baudin’s journal we also know that, along the way

no 31 stopped in the morning shortly after sunrise. When it was taken out of the box to be looked at, it began, but at midday we realized that it must have been stopped for about half an hour.

Historic chronometer number 31 returned to Tasmania 200 years later and is on display today.

 

AN UNUSUAL MEETING

Have you ever been surprised to meet someone you know in a place far from home? Then imagine Baudin meeting Matthew Flinders off the coast of South Australia in April 1802.

A contemporary article from The Monthly, 2013 describes the meeting between the two rival maritime explorers.

Baudin was 20 years older than the intensively competitive Flinders. Flinders did not speak French and Baudin’s English was very bad. Even with Dr Robert Brown, the Investigator’s botanist translating, misunderstandings flew thick and fast.  Baudin was somewhat star struck, enthusiastic to the point of excitement. Flinders was formal and reserved. On departing, Flinders recommended nearby Kangaroo Island as a good spot for a feed.

 

A NECESSARY BREAK IN SYDNEY AND A REUNION

As I mentioned earlier, separation of the vessels and ill health were ongoing problems. For example, at Sydney in 1802 Geographe limped into port to find Naturaliste had departed four weeks earlier. It was suggested that only four of the men on board were fit for duty and the English crew from Investigator had to help tow the ship into port.

At this time the French took the opportunity to resupply their ships with 60 casks of flour and 25 casks of salt meat. Baudin and Flinders met again when Governor King, who conveniently spoke French, entertained the officers.

Back in Sydney Captain Hamelin prepared to sail Naturaliste to France with the valued collections. A number of people who, in Baudin’s estimation, ‘had been less than zealous in the performance of their duties’ were similarly despatched. Even after Baudin’s death fellow expeditioners Peron and Freycinet continued to tarnish his reputation.

According to Christine Cornell, an Australian who translated Baudin’s records

He was misunderstood, much maligned, and had a lot of trying situations and people to cope with. He could be crusty and impatient, and unnecessarily formal in his attitude to people.  

Another important consideration is the many voices represented in the surviving records, and the complexity of various translations.

 

A PRECIOUS CARGO ON THE VOYAGE HOME                                                            

Baudin did not ever return to France, having died of tuberculosis en route to Mauritius in September 1803. However, more than 100,000 dried and preserved specimens and objects were shipped back to France.

Included in the cargo were 72 live animals: kangaroos, turtles, parakeets, emus and black swans, collected on the instructions of Napoleon Bonaparte and intended for the gardens of his wife Josephine at Malmaison on the outskirts of Paris. On the way home in the Gulf of Carpentaria heavy seas affected the kangaroos and emus so badly that they had to be force-fed rice mash, wine and sugar to be kept alive. The last emu survived in Paris until 1822.  A ceramic plate in the exhibition shows kangaroos grazing in the menagerie at the Museum of Natural History, Paris.

Incidentally, not all of these animals were collected by the expeditioners. Two black swans which became well-known inhabitants of Josephine’s gardens were purchased from local collectors at Port Jackson, and live emus, a tame kangaroo and three wombats were purchased from sealers on King Island.

 

THE LEGACY OF THE EXPEDITION

Baudin’s legacy was a significant visual record and an extensive collection of scientific specimens. In addition, he charted for the first time nearly two-thirds of the Australian coastline, some 600 kilometres. These artistic, scientific and cartographic achievements added immensely to the knowledge of Terra Australis and the richness and diversity of life here.

In this exhibition we are privileged to see authentic objects and images from the expedition. Each work is a memory fragment of the adventures, trials and tribulations of the voyage.  When you stand before these works a connection is created between the object and the viewer, a portal into another time. It is something that cannot be replicated in this digital age and, for me, emphasises the significance of museum collections and the countless stories they reveal.

 

AND FINALLY

Travel on board would not be complete without a stowaway. Last night, as I did a last minute Google search, I came across the name of Mary Beckwith, transported to Sydney with her mother in 1801. It is suggested that she may have been a clandestine passenger on Geographe when it sailed from Sydney in November 1802, in the company of Baudin…

 

Rhonda Hamilton, QVMAG Honorary Research Associate

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