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The Rivals: Flinders -v- Baudin

In 1802, what would be the chances of two ships sighting each other in the lonely seas off the coast of what is now South Australia? They were the French corvette Géographe, and the British corvette Investigator.

On board the Géographe, Captain Nicolas Baudin noted, ‘Before two in the afternoon we stretched eastwards again, and at four a white rock was reported from aloft to be seen ahead. On approaching nearer it proved to be a ship standing towards us, and we cleared for action, in case of being attacked’. [1]

He thought that he was seeing his companion store-ship the Naturaliste which had been separated from the Géographe several times.

Matthew Flinders, captain of the Investigator, went on board the Géographe. This was the first time that Baudin realised that he had a rival; that he was in a great race to be the first to map the unknown coasts of the southern land.

Flinders knew of Baudin’s quest because he had set off from Europe nine months after Baudin, but Baudin had been unaware of the rival expedition.

Let’s backtrack from that encounter at what Flinders later named Encounter Bay.

Here were two courageous and determined captains who both had achieved success in previous expeditions and now were hungry for greater discoveries, success, accolades and the riches that might follow on their return to Europe.

At the beginning of the 19th century France and Great Britain were at war.

It was a period later, called the Age of Enlightenment, where the pursuit of scientific discovery held great sway, and two great scientific expeditions, one French and one British, were being planned to map the southern coast of Terra Australis hitherto unknown to Europeans. Both expeditions were also to collect botanical, zoological and mineral specimens and make other scientific observations. Both were instructed to explore the possibility of a great strait dividing the land north-south as described by the American Captain Williams – he claimed to have sailed through it.  If there were two land masses, then France would have had greater claim to the western one. Both expeditions were organised by the scientific communities of each country.  Baudin, in particular, had requests from many sources, including the Empress Josephine for live animals for her menagerie.

The instructions from their governments were very specific.

To enable safe passage in wartime each expedition applied for and received a passport[2] from each other’s governments – although the passport for Flinders took a long time to arrive, possibly a deliberate delaying tactic. These passports named the captains and their ships. Later, this was to become a crucial factor to Flinders.

Forty-seven-year-old Baudin left Le Havre to great fanfare in October 1800 with his two ships Géographe and Naturaliste. French ports had been blockaded by the British navy, and this had created two problems.  There had been no sea trials, and once under way it was clear that the Naturaliste was a much slower ship. On the expedition, losing each other became common. The blockade also meant that Baudin had to set sail without full provisions.

Baudin had some 250 men including 22 scientists or savants. When Flinders set off nine months later he had 75 men and six scientists.

Before embarkation the British scientists were required to sign an agreement drafted by Flinders’ patron, Sir Joseph Banks, binding them ‘to render voluntary assistance to the Commander of the ship in all orders he shall from time to time issue for the direction of the conduct of his crew, or any part thereof.’

Unfortunately, Baudin had no such restrictions placed on his scientists.

Baudin noted, ‘I must say here, in passing, that those captains who have scientists…must, upon departure, take a good supply of patience…’[3]

Flinders’ scientists were also required to deliver up all their journals, papers, sketches, etc., on their return.

Baudin had a sterling scientific team but they were ill-prepared for life at sea, wallowing in the doldrums on reduced rations. Tensions were high as there were class differences and little to do except indulge in intrigue for these clever men unused to the sea-faring life.

Baudin had stopped at Tenerife but the exorbitant food and wine prices meant that he could not buy much to re-provision, but his government had promised him that he could re-supply his ships from Government stores in Ile de France (now Mauritius).

In Ile de France desertion was actively encouraged by the locals because that colony wanted more fighting men to protect themselves against a feared British attack.[4] Many of the senior scientists deserted the expedition, attracted by the charms of Ile de France and disenchanted with life aboard ship.

Baudin was there for 45 days and finally sighted Cape Leeuwin on the western coast of New Holland in May 1801. Because winter was approaching, he disobeyed his instructions and headed north mapping the west coast before arriving in Kupang, Timor. This decision led to a scourge of illness in his expedition, particularly dysentery which killed valued friends and crew. After nearly three months he again resumed his mission and arrived in the d’Entrecasteaux Channel, Van Diemen’s Land, in January 1802 to begin his survey. Had he gone straight to the south coast he would have arrived there before his rival Flinders.

In July 1801, 27-year-old Flinders departed England after some disciplinary difficulty because he had been trying to sneak his newly-wed wife Ann on board for the voyage (she was not to see him for another 10 years). It was a relatively quick trip via Madeira and Cape Town and, despite leaving Europe nine months behind his rival, he arrived at Cape Leeuwin only six months after Baudin and immediately headed east to begin his exploration of the south coast.

So Baudin was heading west and Flinders east when they met. Baudin realised that Flinders had beaten him in mapping much of the southern coast.

In fact some 600 kilometres of the modern-day Victorian coast had already been surveyed by Grant and Murray[5] (in 1801) aboard the Lady Nelson – a ship that played a large part in founding the colonies in VDL.

In mid-1802 both expeditions arrived in Port Jackson weeks apart. The encounters here were very congenial.  Governor Philip Gidley King and Baudin formed a friendship based on King’s fluent command of French and, perhaps, some bonding over the insubordination of those in their charge – King having to deal with the infamous NSW Rum Corps.[6] King was generous in his help in provisioning Baudin’s ships to the point where Flinders privately complained of King’s perceived favouritism towards Baudin. King allowed Baudin to buy the ship Casuarina so that the Naturaliste could return to France with the bulk of the natural history collection on board.

Flinders left Port Jackson in July 1802, returning nearly a year later having completed his circumnavigation of the continent.

Baudin, with the Géographe and Casuarina, finally left Port Jackson after five months there in November 1802. The question remains: Why did he linger there? Had he withdrawn from the race? Baudin left a letter with King for Flinders describing the excellent treatment he had received.[7] It would later prove very injurious to Flinders that he did not carry a copy of this letter.

In 1803 Flinders had to abandon the rotting Investigator which had always leaked heavily.  He sailed on the Porpoise, which was shipwrecked in the Great Barrier Reef, leading to Flinders and a small crew rowing 1000 kilometres back to Port Jackson to get help for the castaway crew.

At around the same time (17 June 1803), the Naturaliste had already reached France and Baudin, on the Géographe and in grave ill health, broke off his survey of the north coast to head for home.

A major element of the rivalry was to get back to Europe and publish first.

In September 1803 Baudin died of tuberculosis in Ile de France bereft of friends and among his enemies. His friends had died on the voyage and his troubles with others under his command had only worsened during the long expedition, As an example, he moved two officers out of their cabins to house sick kangaroos which he hand fed. He was the fifth French captain who never returned after expeditions to the southern seas.

Shortly after, Flinders departed Port Jackson in the Cumberland, rescued the castaways and then sailed on.

On 15 December 1803 Flinders arrived at Ile de France (south) in the Cumberland. This was exceptionally poor timing, as two days later the Géographe sailed from Port Louis in the north.

Flinders was immediately in trouble – arrested as a spy, his passport not accepted because it named the Investigator and on board he had documents judged to be of a non-scientific nature.  Ironically, back in Port Jackson, the Investigator, which went back to its original name Xenephon, was refitted, sailed back to England and was in naval service for another 10 years (until 1810). It was finally broken up 62 years later, in 1872.

Flinders was extremely fatigued and ill. Seafaring life was very unhealthy and he showed some haughtiness and poor judgement in his dealings with Governor Decaen, an upright, proud and inflexible man[8] who reciprocated to the letter of the law. Flinders was detained for six and a half years.

Meanwhile, in France in 1807, François Péron, who had charge of the Baudin expedition publication, produced an account naming places that Flinders had already mapped and named. Péron, who had despised Baudin, named him only once in his account. He wrote of his death: ‘M Baudin ceased to exist.’ Assigned place names commemorated more junior members of the expedition.

Neither of these intrepid, dogged men achieved the honours they had hoped for.

Baudin, in dying, lost control of the expedition accounts and his reputation. From the tales told it was hard to imagine him capable of steering a canal boat. It was left to his enemies to produce their own accounts, denigrating him and aggrandising themselves. Unlike Flinders, he did not get to edit and revise his journals.

He was blamed for France losing the chance of colonies in the southern continent. Napoleon supposedly said that Baudin did well to die or he would have been hanged on his return.[9] His accounts of the voyage lay unheralded in the archives until last century, as were his resilience, perseverance, and passion for natural sciences which resulted in one of the greatest natural history collections the world has seen. These were crucial in laying the foundations of oceanography, ecology and anthropology. Also unheralded were his enlightened observations on the land rights of indigenous peoples[10] as evidenced in his letter to Governor King.

His writings show a man with an acerbic wit and sarcastic sense of humour – perhaps not that unlike the Australian character.

Since the rivals had set off, the world had changed, and geopolitics had displaced scientific interests.

Flinders did not receive the accolades he had hoped for and, unlike Cook and Bligh, was not invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society[11].  He did, however, get naming rights as his preferred name Australia became accepted. The world he returned to was preoccupied with the Napoleonic War.

He struggled on little money to ready his maps and journals for publication and died a day after The Voyage to Terra Australis finally appeared in 1814.

Flinders’ affairs were in disarray. He was generous to relatives in his will but had overestimated what he would earn from the sale of his account of the voyage and his widow, Ann, was left in poor circumstances. In desperation she wrote several times to the Admiralty seeking the same widow’s pension that Captain Cook’s widow had received.  Four years her claim was determined – with a rejection.

The governments of New South Wales and Victoria each eventually granted Ann a pension of 100 pounds per year. The first payment finally arrived in 1853 — a year after she died. This pension did devolve to her daughter, who raised a son — Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie — who was a noted Egyptologist.[12]

Sadly, both captains’ graves are lost to history.

It was up to the newly formed nation of Australia at Federation (in 1901), keen for heroes, who resurrected Flinders’ reputation. His biographers are largely Australian. He was a brilliant navigator and hydrographer and meticulous map-maker — some of those maps were still in use until World War 2 — and a determined, respected and courageous leader. One biographer, Spate, commented that ‘Baudin could drive but not lead, Flinders was a leader born’.[13]

Today, the name Flinders is honoured in Australia in more than ninety places.  The name Baudin appears in only eight. There are more public monuments to Flinders’ cat Trim than there are to Baudin.

I see the expeditions as complementary. Together they completed the mapping of the Great Southern Land, filling the last great gap, and both captains can be honoured for their unique contributions to Australian and scientific history.

In Governor King’s house Henri Freycinet said to Flinders, ‘Captain, if we had not been kept so long picking up seashells and catching butterflies at Van Diemen’s Land, you would not have discovered the south coast before us!’[14]

Looking around us at this beautiful exhibition I, for one, am very glad.


Lesley Reed, QVMAG Guide



Baudin expedition in blue font

Flinders expedition in red font


October 1800 Baudin left Le Havre

Tenerife 12 days

Ile de France 45 days

May 1801 Cape Leeuwin

May – November Baudin heads north along the west coast to Kupang

19 July 1801 Flinders departs England

August 1801 – Kupang, Timor – nearly 3 months

3 August 1801 Flinders in Madeira 4 days

September 1801 Flinders in Cape Town only 90 days after leaving England

December 6 1801 Flinders sighted Cape Leeuwin he had left Europe 9 months after Baudin but arrived just 6 months after Baudin had landed there. Immediately headed east to begin the exploration of the South Coast.

January 1802 Baudin arrived d’Entrecasteaux Channel to start survey

March 1802 begins survey of south coast in a westerly direction

8 April 1802 Géographe meets Investigator at Encounter Bay

25 April 1802 – explores Nuyts Archipelago

9 May 1802 Flinders arrives in Port Jackson

20 June 1802 Baudin arrives in Port Jackson

22 July 1802 Flinders leaves Port Jackson to complete the circumnavigation of Australia

18 November 1802 Géographe leaves Port Jackson with Casuarina. Naturaliste leaves for France with the natural history collection

31 March 1803 Flinders with very sick crew and leaking boat arrives at Kupang

June 1803 Flinders completes his circumnavigation of Australia landing in Port Jackson

Flinders abandons the Investigator as unfit and sails on Porpoise. (Investigator, back to the name Xenephon, was refitted, sailed back to England and was in naval service until 1810. It was broken up in 1872.)

7 June 1803 Naturaliste arrives at Le Havre

7 July 1803 Baudin, in ill-health, breaks off survey of North coast and heads home via Ile de France

7 August 1803 Géographe arrives at Ile de France

12 August 1803 Casuarina arrives at Ile de France

17 August Porpoise and Cato wrecked. Bridgewater sailed off. Flinders, in a six-foot cutter (renamed Hope), rowed 1000 km to Port Jackson

16 September 1803 Baudin dies

21 September 1803 Flinders leaves Port Jackson in Cumberland, rescuing castaways, and then sails on.

15 December 1803 Flinders arrives at Ile de France (south) in Cumberland – detained until 1810

17 December 1803 Géographe sails from Port Louis

24 March 1804 Géographe arrives in Brittany

1807 Péron’s account published, naming places that Flinders had already mapped and named

1810 Flinders arrives back in England

1814 Flinders dies the day after publication of A Voyage to Terra Australis



Fornasiero, Jean, Monteath, Peter & West-

Sooby, John Encountering Terra Australis: the Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders 2004 Kent Town, SA Wakefield Press

Hill, David, The Great Race 2012 North Sydney William Heinemann

Toft, Klaus The Navigators: Flinders vs Baudin 2002 Potts Point Duffy & Snellgrove

Brown, Anthony J Ill-starred Captains: Flinders and Baudin 2000 London Crawford House

[1] Hill, David, The Great Race 2012 North Sydney William Heinemann p 211

[2] Brown, Anthony J Ill-starred Captains: Flinders and Baudin 2000 London Crawford House pp 478 480

[3] Hill p 198

[4] Toft, Klaus The Navigators: Flinders vs Baudin 2002 Potts Point Duffy & Snellgrove p 51

[5] Hill p 227

[6] Hill, p 230

[7] Hill, p 229

[8] Brown p 468

[9] Hill p 275

[10] Toft p 327

[11] Brown p 474

[12] Brown p 476

[13] Brown p 466

[14] Hill p 230

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