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Voltaire in Van Diemen’s Land: The Noble Savage


Bernard Naudin, Illustration por l’Ingénu de Voltaire, 1767, engraving, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The idea of the noble savage became rooted in Western tradition as a result of French relationships with the Huron in the early days of French colonisation of North America. The Huron lived on the banks of the Great Lakes. Unlike other Iroquoian-speaking peoples, the Huron welcomed the French, because they needed allies in their perpetual wars against their neighbours.[1]

The Huron were also tolerant of Christianity:

Franciscans and Jesuits alike praised them as embodiments of natural wisdom, crediting them with skills in artisanship, building, canoe-craft and farming; and with moral superiority: kindness to strangers and to each other, and a bias towards peace with outsiders and equality among themselves.[2]

Voltaire featured a Huron character in his satirical novel L’ingénu. He wrote of the Huron as a ‘child of nature’ who

having learned nothing (of sciences) in his infancy, he had not imbibed any prejudices. His mind, not having been warped by error, had retained all its primitive rectitude. He saw things as they were; whereas the ideas that are communicated to us in our infancy make us see them all our life in a false light.[3]


The Chaloupe

On 13 January 1802 the French rounded South East Cape and made their way into the d’Entrecasteaux Channel. François Péron described the beauty of the location in affectionate terms. This channel having been recorded by Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux in 1792, it had already become, in the sense of exploration, a part of France. Péron wrote in his journal:

‘Of all the modern discoveries made on Diemen’s Land, that of the channel of Dentrecasteaux is doubtless the most singular and the most important. After successively escaping Tasman, Furneaux, Cook, Marion, Cox, Hunter, and Bligh, the French admiral himself only discovered it by a mistake, which, though it proved fortunate, might have been fatal.

While we were occupied in the pleasing contemplation of this picture, we were disturbed by some cries which we heard on the right shore of the port, whither directing our eyes, we perceived two savages who ran towards the beach, both of them shewing the most extraordinary gestures of surprise and admiration. One of them carried in his hand a kind of torch of lighted bark. We answered them by some shouts, and endeavoured to approach the shore, but instead of wait in for us, they ran into the forest and disappeared.

In pursuing our course we came to a small creek, at the bottom of which is a beautiful valley, that seemed to promise a stream of fresh water: this consideration determined M. H. Freycinet to land there. We had scarcely set foot on shore before two natives appeared on the top of a hill: at the signs of amity which we made, one of them seemed rather to spring from the top of the rock than to descend from it, and in the twinkling of an eye was in the midst of us. He was a young man of from twenty-two to twenty-four years a age, of a strong general appearance, having no other defect than the looseness of the joints of his arms and legs, characteristic of his nation, and of which we shall take occasion to speak in the conclusion of our work. His physiognomy had nothing fierce or austere, his eyes were lively and expressive, and his manner displayed at once both pleasure and surprize. M. Freycinet having embraced him, I followed his example, but the air of indifference with which he received this testimony of good will and friendship, made us easily perceive that to him it had no meaning. What appeared at first to interest him most, was the whiteness of our skin, and doubtless, wishing to ascertain whether the rest of our bodies was of the same colour, he successively crud our jackets and shirts, and expressed his astonishment by loud exclamations of surprize, and by very quick motions of his feet.

Moreover, our chaloupe seemed to attract his attention still more than our persons, and after examining us some minutes, he jumped into the boat: there, without troubling himself with, or even noticing the seamen who were in her, he seemed quite absorbed in his new subject. The thickness of the ribs and planks, the strength of the construction, the rudder, the oars, the masts, the sails, he observed in silence, and with great attention, and with the most unequivocal signs of interest and reflection. At this moment, one of the men an the boat, willing to add to his astonishment, presented him a glass bottle filled with arrack, which made part of the allowance of the crew. The shining of the glass at first made the savage utter a cry of astonishment; he took the bottle and examined it a few moments, but his curiosity soon returned to the chaloupe; he threw the bottle into the sea, seemingly without any other intention than to rid himself, of an object that was perfectly indifferent to him, and immediately returned to his examination of the boat. Neither the exclamation of the seaman, who was vexed at the loss of his bottle of arrack, nor the haste with which one of his comrades threw himself into the water to fish it up again, seemed to give him any concern: he made several attempts to push off the chaloupe, but the small hawser which fastened it, made his efforts of no avail, he was therefore obliged to give up the attempt and to return to us, after giving us the most striking demonstrations of attention and reflection which we had ever seen among savage nations.’


The Woman

The initial fraternal response may have represented the first warming to Tasmanian Aborigines as potential citizens of the Republic. In any event, it is from the combination of Péron’s atlas and Petit’s drawings that named portraits of Tasmanian Aborigines appear. This marks a significant step in personal representation, possibly reflecting Republican ideals of individuality that, unlike the previous French expedition, now dominated Baudin’s. [4] The anarchic threat that individual reason posed to church and monarchic rule had already resonated with the natural, rational figure of the noble savage in French literature, and may well have inclined Péron to reflect this by undertaking the revolutionary act of personalising Tasmanian Aborigines for the first time.

Petit’s portfolio of portraits includes at least eleven different men and two or three women,[5] two with babies, together with a young boy; there are six named individuals. Five of these are reproduced in the published atlas. The artist’s portraits are already discussed above and clearly describe men and women with personality and, above all, intelligent agency.


Nicolas-Martin Petit, Portrait of an Aboriginal Woman Standing, watercolour, Muséum d’histoire naturelle du Havre.

His triumph, as a combination of ethnography and art is surely the full-length portrait of a woman. While she is not named on the ethnographic drawing, her physiognomy, together with the decoration of her face with a characteristic pattern of ochre, suggests that this may be the woman identified in another portrait as Arra-Maida. Péron mentions her by name and refers to his request to Petit that she be drawn, adding of the drawing,

  1. Petit, at my request, drew a likeness of her, and which is a very correct resemblance: in the features may be easily discovered that expression of courage and superiority, which so eminently distinguished her from her companions. The last time I met with her, she had a young child at her back.[6]

There is ample evidence from journal entries, and from differences between Petit’s initial sketches and drawings produced for the engraver, that Péron was directing the artist to not only emphasise certain aspects of anatomical and ethnographic characteristics of several individuals observed throughout their visit, but to combine these in the final rendering of individuals. The woman (Arra-Maida) drawn in full length combines a pose of classical statuary and resists emphasis of the woman’s primitive state usually achieved by exposure of the breasts. Instead, her pelvis is revealed, detailing a shaved pubic area and vulva, as noted in the appearance of a woman seen during Péron’s visit to Cygnet Bay. The artist Petit was not present on that day, instead, making sketches of men and women the following day on Bruny Island, when Arra-Maida was drawn (see above). It is therefore likely that this portrait is rendered as a composite of two women.

Arra-Maida carries her child on her back, conforming to a trope of female savagery that contrasts powerfully with the Christian iconography of the Madonna, in which the Jesus child is always carried to the front. This is also manifest in the drawing by Piron in 1793, and Webber’s similar portrait of 1777. Emphasis on creating a Diemenese type can be seen in the annotation by Péron on Petit’s drawing, directing further modification for the engraving:

No. 17 –  for simple outline – carefully keep the general shapes, but touch up the essential defects; as the slender shape of the limbs are a characteristic of this race, they must be observed with great care.[7]

In some cases, in which the individual made a favourable impression, negative aspects seem to have been de-emphasised.[8] This was almost certainly another example of the effort made to craft a ‘type’ for publication. In this way, Péron aimed to illustrate the collective characteristics of the Diemenese, while at the same time, expressing a finer-grained account of the individuality of the people being met with – especially those who were determined as being ‘courageous and superior’.


The Angry Man

However, by reading the full account by Péron of his visit to Van Diemen’s Land, it becomes clear that the initial openness and optimism of the French to finding the perfect ‘children of nature’, epitomizing the qualities of courage, freedom and natural reasoning that had evolved in their perception of noble savagery on the island, was progressively compromised by a series of conflicts that were absent from d’Entrecasteaux’s experience.

The French attitude on arrival was complementary, but soon degenerated from its early enthusiasm as relations were tested. There are a number of likely reasons for this, which has yet to be fully explored in existing literature.[9] Firstly, as discussed above, in the thirty years since du Fresne’s visit, the region had been visited by numerous other Europeans and while there are no records of conflict, the fear of weapons demonstrated repeatedly by Aborigines suggests that this must have occurred. Notably, instances of conflict involving Baudin’s crew occurred on Bruny and Maria islands, both of which were regularly visited by European ships. The quality of relations may also have been influenced by the poor morale of the crew members, who were continuing to suffer from the effects of dysentery and malaria during their visit to Van Diemen’s Land. It is also clear from the journals, that while Rear Admiral d’Entrecasteaux provided a sound leadership well-respected by his crew, the younger Baudin’s leadership was ‘authoritarian’ and resulted in frequent conflict on board and at one stage, the desertion of forty officers and crew.[10]

Two instances might be seen to reflect poor leadership. The first was reported by Péron and involved a crew member engaging an Aboriginal man in a wrestling match,

  1. Maurouard, one of our cadets, wishing to ascertain from his own experience, the degree of strength so generally ascribed to savage nations, had proposed to one among them, who appeared to be the most robust, to wrestle with him; the Diemenese having accepted the challenge, was several times thrown by the young Frenchman, and compelled to acknowledge his inferiority.[11]

Relations for several hours following this event appeared to remain good, until the French were about to leave:

it was impossible to have the smallest suspicion of any change in the sentiments of the savages; when in a moment a long sagaie, thrown from behind the neighbouring rocks, struck M. Maurouard on the shoulder… The boat’s crew, provoked at the perfidious and cowardly brutality, would have pursued the savages and punished them as they deserved; but they had already escaped.[12]

Over the next three days, they were attacked again with a shower of stones, and an incident involving the artist Petit caused further conflict,

  1. Petit having drawn a representation of several of these savages, the party prepared to return to the ship, when one of the natives sprung on the artist, and attempted to take from him the drawings he had just made: M. Petit resisted, and the furious savage seized a log of wood, with which he would have knocked down our unarmed companion, if the rest had not run to his assistance.[13]

Despite efforts by the French to placate this offence by offering a profusion of gifts, as soon as the French made ready to leave they were again attacked. Over the following days the journal indicates that Aborigines used fire on a number of occasions to try to drive the French away. The souring of relations had an immediate effect on the accounts of a people who had previously been complimented for their ‘boundless trust and quiet.’ The Diemenese were now described in terms of ‘the changeableness of character of these ferocious people’, who were ‘distrustful and perfidious’.[14] The botanist Leschenault de la Tour, who witnessed the wrestling incident, summarised the shift in perspective on the noble savages of Tasmania:

I confess I am surprised that after so many incidents of treachery and cruelty reported in the accounts of all the voyages of discovery, reasonable people still say that natural men are not wicked, that one can trust them and that they are only aggressive when provoked to take revenge. Unfortunately, many travellers have fallen victim to these false arguments, and personally I think that one cannot be too much on guard against men whose character has not been softened by civilisation.[15]

The botanist’s comments act to absolve any responsibility on the part of the French for the aggressive responses they received. Instead, the Aborigines were characterised as unpredictable, changeable and inherently ‘ferocious’. However, a close reading of the journals reveal a litany of actions on the part of the Baudin’s crew that could have been reasonably expected to antagonise. The humiliation of loss in the spontaneous wrestling match, Petit’s unwillingness to surrender a portrait sketch, and several instances where crew members fraternised with women while ‘their husbands’ were absent, are all likely to have contributed to the ill-will that accumulated. [16] These are also events that, perhaps, are unlikely to have occurred under the more mature leadership of Rear Admiral d’Entrecasteaux.

It is not known which of Petit’s sketches was responsible for the fracas on Bruny island. However, one couleur drawing in the Lesueur Collection at Le Havre is notable in two aspects. The first is a menacing scowl demonstrated on the profile face of the un-named subject. Of the numerous drawings, mostly showing smiling and happy men and women, this man is presented as a picture of discontent. The other feature on this sheet is a lighter image in black pencil. It is of another man. In a skillfully drawn pose, his head is turned slightly away from the viewer with the taunt energy of aggression. His mouth is held in a grimace of anger and his predatory eye is focused with all the threatening violence of the hard savage.

Is this Petit’s artifact of the moment of fracture between expedition and their ‘good Diemenese’? If the Couleur 114 sheet does not demonstrate the rupture that occurred between the French and the Aborigines of Bruny Island, then Péron’s journal certainly makes his change of heart abundantly clear. His descriptions of women went from celebrating their ‘cheerful dispositions’, to disparaging their ‘disgusting’ bodies, ‘lean and shriveled’, with hanging breasts and miserable personalities.[17]


Nicolas-Martin, Couleur 114, 1802, drawings, Muséum d’histoire naturelle du Havre.

Considered together, the body of drawings and published engravings, like the published journals of the voyage, results in a contradictory and highly subjective description of Tasmanian Aborigines in terms of their correspondence to the competing themes of noble savagery. In many ways the ambiguity of representation of Tasmanian Aborigines resulting from the Baudin voyage is emblematic of the competing and conflicting notion of the noble savage in the European mind.

In Tasmania, successive Dutch, French and British encounters yielded contradictory impressions – of frightening monstrosity and primitive savagery on one hand, and generous nobility on the other. Outbreaks of conflict and death were accounted for by reference to an enduring template of ‘miserable savagery’. Yet despite this confusion of experience, articulated in great detail in a wealth of published journals, the visual record is almost uniformly of a noble and innocent people, depicted with reference to classical statuary and expressed with ethnographic richness. This ‘optimistic’ representation was to a large degree a result of the need to appease the tastes of the European market for illustrated atlases published by navigators and naturalists who visited the island as part of more extensive Pacific voyages.

While there was a place for ignoble savages in these atlases, this niche was filled by populations living in the most inhospitable (and economically unattractive) environments; such as the Fuegans, or people associated with cannibalism and the deaths of navigators. Tasmanians might easily have been placed with these hard savages, except that they lived in a location of strategic importance and of potential colonial interest to both the French and the British. Their violent resistance to early European incursions was therefore overlooked in the visual record of imperial survey, and they were instead rendered as innocuous place-markers of a future dominion.


Greg Lehman, Project Curator – The First Tasmanians: Our Story


[1] Fernandez-Armesto, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. p. 328.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Voltaire, ‘L’ingénu’, Classic Tales: With Critical Essays on the Merits and Reputations of the Authors (2; London: John Hunt & Carew Reynell, 1807). pp. 248-49.

[4] French philosophes of the eighteenth century, including Voltaire and Rousseau had emphasized ‘enlightened self-interest’, leading to a French Revolutionary ‘Société d’Individualistes’. Steven Lukes, ‘The Meanings of Individualism’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 31/1 (1971).

[5] Rhys Jones refers to Pomley in asserting that three women were drawn. However, a closer reading of Péron’s journal points to the possibility that only two women were sketched by Petit. Jones, ‘Images of Natural Man’. p. 52.

[6] Péron, Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere. np.

[7] Bonnemains, Forsyth, and Smith (eds.), Baudin in Australian Waters: The Artwork of the French Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands 1800-1804. p. 154.

[8] Based on a brief examination of material at Le Havre, the watercolour of Arra-Maida showed low-hanging, irregularly-shaped breasts with extended nipples, as described in Péron’s journal entry. These aspects are modified in the final engraving to create a depiction of breasts more suited to a ‘higher order’ savage.

[9] For example, Dyer makes detailed observations of the difference in reception between the 1773, 1793 and 1803 visits, but does not seek to explain why these were so disparate. Similarly, Jones describes some of the events influencing a change in attitude by Péron, but does not speculate on why such conflicts were absent from the account of the previous French voyage. See Dyer, The French Explorers and the Aboriginal Australians 1772-1839; Jones, ‘Images of Natural Man’. pp. 44-46.

[10] Brosse, Great Voyages of Exploration: The Golden Age of Discovery in the Pacific 1764-1863. p. 99.

[11] Péron, Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere. np.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dyer, The French Explorers and the Aboriginal Australians 1772-1839. p. 128.

[15] Cited in ibid. p. 128.

[16] This occurred in spite of warnings that the French received from Aboriginal men to keep away from the camps of women and children. See Plomley, The Baudin Expedition and the Tasmanian Aborigines, 1802. p. 212.

[17] Jones, ‘Images of Natural Man’. p. 44-5.

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