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Why was France interested in Tasmania? The early accounts of the French expeditions to Van Diemen’s Land.

This exhibition celebrates the scientific expedition of Nicholas Baudin who sailed from Le Havre on 19 October 1880 in command of two ships, the Géographe and the Naturaliste. On board were 22 scholars, scientists and artists (savants), with expertise in botany, zoology, mineralogy, geography, astronomy, cartography and art. The names of the ships were in recognition of the scientific aims of the expedition to the South Pacific with the primary focus on New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land.

Baudin’s was not the first French expedition to the region. Under the patronage of the Bourbon court, Antoine de Bougainville sailed near northern Australia in 1768; Jean-François de Galaup, Compte de La Pérouse, explored the east coast of Australia in 1785; and Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1791.

And of course there were the British, who had already a stated an interest in the region through the voyages of James Cook in the 1770s.  One of his navigators, Tobias Furneaux, made a separate trawl of southern and eastern Tasmania between February and May 1773 before re-joining Cook and the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 at the location of what is now Sydney.  This then led to regular forays up and down the east coast and Van Diemen’s Land.

Why was there so much interest in the Pacific region at this time? Most of it, of course, was geopolitical. England and France had always been competitive, if not at war, for much of the millennium. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the expansion of Europe into what was known as the New World. Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands were out of the block early but by the mid-18th century, Britain and France could see the great benefits of conquest and the reward of empire. This led to a dramatic increase in sea explorations for largely economic gain to help feed the growing aspirations of these two powerful emerging countries.

At the same time the discoveries of the New World encouraged a wave of scientific interest coupled with a curiosity for understanding the people and places of an ever-expanding globe. It became a matter of national pride to explore the world and to publish maps and accounts of the discoveries. It was in part a time of enlightenment where science and learning transcended national boundaries and with a view that it was a benefit to all humanity. Communication across the many science disciplines was good as scientists seemed prepared to share their discoveries. In fact, it became quite ‘the thing’ to publish accounts of expeditions.

The La Pérouse expedition was to complete the Pacific discoveries of Cook (whom La Pérouse greatly admired), correct and complete maps of the area, establish trade contacts, open new maritime routes and enrich French science and scientific collections. The objectives were geographic, scientific, ethnological, economic and political, with a view to establishing possible French bases in the region.

Demonstrating that science can transcend politics, Joseph Banks, the botanist of the Cook voyage to Australia, helped La Pérouse to secure two compasses that had belonged to Cook and recommended maritime suppliers in England to equip the expedition with the best navigational instruments available. A young Napoleon Bonaparte applied to join the expedition but did not make the final list.

The expedition arrived in Botany Bay on 24 January 1788, two days before Captain Arthur Phillip moved the colony from there to Port Jackson.  The British received La Pérouse courteously, and each captain, through his officers, offered the other any assistance and needed supplies. La Pérouse spent six weeks in the colony and this was his last recorded landfall. He took the opportunity to send his journals, some charts and also some letters back to Europe with a British naval ship from the First Fleet. The documents that he dispatched from the in-progress expedition were returned to France, where they were published after his presumed death.

In September 1791 France decided to send an expedition in search of La Pérouse under the command of Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. The plan for the voyage was to proceed to New Holland with particular emphasis on Van Diemen’s Land where it was thought La Pérouse may be—and if he were not found there, then the instruction was to search the wider Pacific.

This expedition made two stops in Van Diemen’s Land, staying about 5 weeks in 1792 and again in 1793 in Recherche Bay, which was named after one of his ships. They did a thorough survey of the southern Tasmanian coastline, recording the flora, fauna and the people that they came in contact with. On board were five scientists including the botanist Jacques de La Billardière; a gardener, Félix de Lahaie; and artist Nicolas Piron.

Although finding La Pérouse was their mission, they clearly were not wasting the trip. The charts of the coastline by the hydrographer Beautemps-Beaupré were published as an atlas in 1807 and were the primary maps used by the British for many years. On the second visit they narrowly missed discovering that Van Diemen’s Land was an island; they hit bad weather while sailing along the southern Victorian coast and headed south for the known protective waters of Recherche Bay. Back there they continued their scientific research of the region, including Storm Bay.  They discovered the mouth of what they called Rivière du Nord, now the Derwent River.

D’Entrecasteaux continued the long vain search for La Pérouse with an ever-increasingly fractious crew who had grown tired of the voyage.  They held largely republican views, while the officers and scientists were royalists. D’Entrecasteaux died of scurvy before the ships made it to Surabaya, in what is now Indonesia. There they discovered that France had been proclaimed a republic and that their King had been beheaded. The then commander, Auribeau, handed the ships over to the Dutch authorities so that the new French government would not profit by them. He died a month later and the subsequent commander, Rossel, sailed the ships to South Africa where they were captured by the British who were now at war with France. After peace was restored in 1802, all the papers of the expedition were returned to Rossel, who then was able to publish a narrative of this important expedition.

Joseph Banks gets another mention in this story, as La Billardière appealed to him for the return of his herbarium collection when he eventually made it back to France in 1796. The collection, considered as spoils of war, had been deposited in the British Museum. Banks was able to secure the return of the collection, noting:

… his Majesty’s Ministers have thought it necessary for the honour of the British nation and for the advancement of Science that the right of the Captors to the Collection should be on this occasion wav’d and that the whole should be returned to M. de Billardière, in order that he may be able to publish his Observations on Natural History in a complete manner … By this her Majesty will lose an acquisition to her herbarium, which I very much wish’d to see deposited there, but the national character of Great Britain will certainly gain much credit for holding a conduct towards Science and Scientific men liberal in the highest degree.

In 1799 La Billardière was able to publish the popular account of his voyage, entitled Relation du Voyage à la Recherché de La Pérouse, and in 1807 he published Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, which was the first general description of the flora of Australia.

Having set the scene, I now move on to Baudin, who sets off one year after La Billardière’s account of d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition was published. My point in providing the preamble is to highlight the great interest that there was, in both France and Britain, in the Pacific region at this time. In many ways the d’Entrecasteaux expedition put Tasmania on the map, despite the strait that separated it from the mainland hot having been found.

Unlike his predecessor, Baudin’s expedition was primarily motivated by science and the discovery of the ‘new’. Baudin, with the backing of the Institut National, had little trouble gaining the financial support of the newly installed First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, who after all had wanted to join the La Pérouse expedition some years earlier. This expedition would have no territorial or military ambition. The benefit for France would be the national prestige associated with the discoveries, and the advancement of science.  These were high ideals for a young republic.

Baudin nearly didn’t get out of French waters. He was intercepted by a British naval ship that was blockading Le Havre to capture French cargo. Despite the war that had been going since 1793, Baudin had secured a British Admiralty passport that provided ships with immunity from seizure. Once his papers had been assessed, a toast was made to the success of the mission. The camaraderie was such that Baudin gave the English captain a tour of his own ship and presented him with one of his expedition medallions minted in celebration of the voyage.

Despite this show of rapprochement, the British authorities, including Banks, were suspicious of the French motives, especially after Bonaparte’s territorial gains in northern Africa. Within a month of Baudin’s departure, Britain supported a voyage of discovery by Matthew Flinders, who had recently returned from Port Jackson, with the ambition to at least match the French scientific interests in New Holland. Baudin and Flinders actually met on the coast of South Australia in what Flinders named Encounter Bay in April 1802. They exchanged pleasantries and swapped scientific notes before each set off on his own course. One can only imagine the rivalry behind the good manners. It was a big continent to explore, and the timing and intent of each expedition must have been galling to the other. It must have been disappointing to Baudin that Flinders had beaten him in charting the greater part of New Holland by a matter of months.

As I am the first of 19 special lunchtime talks on this expedition I don’t intend on going into the detail of the expedition. That is for those following me. However I do want to make a few observations that say a little about their experiences and travails. You will note that the two key artists of the expedition were Charles-Alexandre Lesuer and Nicolas-Martin Petit. They were not included in the official quota of three artists but joined the expedition as Assistant Gunners, to illustrate Baudin’s journal. When the expedition reached Mauritius, 10 scientists left after a dispute which included the three official artists. What hindsight, or luck, for Baudin; without Lesuer and Petit, there would not be the graphic images we can see today. What excitement for these two young artists, who produced some of the earliest European views of Australian fauna and the Indigenous peoples.

You will also note that there are very few plant and landscape illustrations. François Péron, who was the chief zoologist, insisted that the artists record what was of interest to his scientific interest. Fortunately, Lesuer and Petit understood the importance of illustrating the fauna in the natural habitat, so we do have a semblance of the landscapes they saw. Péron was also interested in Anthropology and again, through the artists’ illustrations, we see some of the first realistic recording of Indigenous people and their customs, especially in Van Diemen’s Land where they spent so much time.

There was clearly tension on the voyage, even after Mauritius. Louis Freycinet was very critical of Péron, whom he blamed for the delay in charting the coastline and letting Flinders get the jump because time was wasted collecting and illustrating. He noted ‘we wasted so much time picking up shelIs and collecting butterflies in Van Diemen’s Land!‘  I don’t think we have any idea of the dynamics on the expedition but when one spends nearly four years in cramped quarters far from the normal luxuries of civilisation, it would be surprising if there were not spats and professional rivalry.

In summary, the expedition was an outstanding success for science and France’s reputation. They collected over 100,000 specimens including 2,500 new species. Fifteen hundred illustrations were completed from thousands of sketches. And thanks to Flinders being held under house arrest in Mauritius for seven years from 1803 because France was again at war with Britain, the first complete chart of Australia was that of Freycinet, published in 1811.  Flinders’ map and journal from his expedition was eventually published in 1814, a day before Flinders died.

Seventy-two live animals were penned on the ships, including the King Island dwarf emu and a large quantity of live potted plants, of which many were given to Bonaparte’s wife Josephine for her garden at Malmaison and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

After so much discovery, Baudin didn’t get a triumphant return. He died in Mauritius of tuberculosis on his return voyage, just three months before Flinders was detained there.  Such was the professional rivalry that the expedition account was penned by Péron, who largely wrote Baudin out of the account. There is only one reference to Baudin in the entire expedition journal. In his absence his detractors were able to claim a lot of the glory, including some of the disaffected scientists who had left the expedition in Mauritius.

Despite all the science, were their motives entirely scientific? In an early communication back in France, Péron concluded that ‘New Holland must be taken from the English and, above all, must be taken without delay’. Freycinet’s detailed map of the southern coast was titled Terre Napoleon. They also made detailed plans and drawings of Sydney and its military defences. One can only wonder what might have been if La Pérouse, d’Entrecasteaux and Baudin had made it back to France to report on their discoveries. And if it were not for Bonaparte’s distraction and detention in Europe following the return of the Baudin expedition, the European colonisation of Australia may have been very different.  

In conclusion, I commend The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800-1804 to you. Baudin’s was a special expedition that deserves to return to Australia as this exhibition. Considering its importance to Tasmania, we are fortunate to share this exhibition with TMAG in Hobart, allowing many more Tasmanians the opportunity to see what the French expeditioners witnessed when they first visited this island so many years ago.

I thank the Australian institutions involved with this touring exhibition for their cooperation. It has been a big undertaking. Each venue will include different works so no two exhibitions will be the same. I also commend the wonderful catalogue, which is available in our shop. My thanks to all the QVMAG staff who worked on the exhibition and to the speakers who will be following me. We have an exciting public program around this exhibition, so do look at what is on over the next few months. I strongly recommend that you come back this Thursday to hear Annie Robinson, a Queen Victoria Art Gallery guide, speak about ‘Through my eyes: how Baudin and artists looked at Tasmania’.

Richard Mulvaney, QVMAG Director

Click here to view the Short Talk Series: Lunch with Baudin talks

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