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Political posturing: Terre Napoleon and an upside-down flag

At the time of the Baudin expedition, France under Napoleon and Britain under George III (and at the time of the beginning of the expedition, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger) were busily ‘carving up the world’ between them. Both nations went about their colonial and power ambitions in a very similar same way, using their respective expeditions of discovery as promotion.

Partly this was a result of enlightenment ideals that research should benefit all humanity. However this publicity also helped to boost the prestige of the respective rulers.

Although France and Britain had been at war (known as the Revolutionary war) for many years (since 1798), the scientific establishment on both sides maintained contact, with open access to research and results. The war in fact concluded during the expedition, but re-ignited a few years later.

However each nation’ respective governments were not slow to recognise the possible political mileage to be gained from scientific expeditions. Thus despite the war between the two nations, each had given the other voyage passports, allowing their ships free passage without interference by blockading rivals.

Shortly after Baudin in Géographe and Naturaliste had left on their voyage, Mathew Flinders set off on a similarly government sponsored trip in his ship Investigator. The route chosen by Baudin placed suspicions in English minds as to the true motives of the expedition, which they saw as possibly being more about consolidating existing conquests and placing themselves in a position of being able to claim some rights of first discovery than about science alone.

In fact the whole scenario was to play out in miniature off the coast of Tasmania.

On arrival in Sydney, the crews of Géographe and Naturaliste were in desperate need of help, supplies and rest, with much of the crew being ill. They were well looked after by Governor King, with the crew given medical attention and the officers being well-looked after. However the French officers, particularly François Péron injudiciously boasted, in a fit of French pride, that there may have been more to their expedition than merely undertaking scientific investigation, and that there were plans to establish a settlement in the D`Entrecasteaux Channel.

Baudin and King found that despite their respective nations’ conflicts, that they in fact got along quite well. King questioned Baudin about these territorial ambitions and the suggestion was flatly denied by Baudin – he reiterated that the expedition was purely scientific in nature.

The Baudin expedition departed Sydney in their ships Géographe, Naturaliste, and the newly purchased colonial-built schooner Casuarina under the command of Louis Freycinet. This vessel was bought in Sydney to enable the expedition to undertake mapping and research closer inshore than the larger vessels allowed – this rebutted Sir Joseph Banks’ comments that the expedition was altogether ‘too much afraid of the land’ – possibly a reference to Baudin’s choice of deep-draughed ships).

Baudin’s reassurance was not enough to fully reassure King – or at least despite their apparent mutual trust and regard, King was too canny a political operator to overlook the potential political aims of the expedition. In a gesture oddly reminiscent of the larger plans that had played out earlier with the departure of Baudin and Flinders’ respective expeditions (the British being one small embarrassing step behind the French), in late November 1802, he dispatched a ship, the Cumberland, to deliver a letter to Baudin, and ostensibly to prepare for a British settlement in South-East Tasmania. Cumberland was the first sea-going vessel built in the Colony and the first armed vessel belonging to the Colony, being of 29 tons and a length of 40 feet.

Cumberland was under the command of a young and slightly over-enthusiastic Lieutenant named Robbins. The ship was dispatched far too hurriedly. They were short on basic supplies due to the speed of their departure, and patently obviously not prepared to establish any sort of settlement.

There were 17 crew on board Cumberland, including Lieutenant Charles Robbins, Acting Surveyor-General Charles Grimes (1772-1858), Surveyor James Meehan (1774-1826), James Fleming (gardener), Mr. McCallum (doctor), and three marines from H.M.S. Buffalo.

Governor King wrote to Baudin that all Van Diemen’s Land and the south west coast of New South Wales were proclaimed part of the British Empire in 1788, and could not be occupied by the French without a breach of the friendly relations recently entered into between England and France. Robbins was given the dispatch in secret and sent on his way.

Robbins caught up with the Baudin expedition at King Island on the 8th of December 1802. He was actually lucky to have done so, as heavy storms had kept the three ships from splitting up as they had planned. A group of scientists had been sent ashore to the island, and were then stuck there as fierce storms prevented any contact between the ships and the land-based portion of the expedition. The expedition in fact had a longboat break its rope and become wrecked during one of these storms. I suspect you can see the longboat in one of the two images depicting this event.

2017-05-05 12_26_48-Posted_Talk #14_Jon Addison.docx [Read-Only] - Microsoft Word

Image courtesy Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre, 18037


On 13 December 1802, Robbins entered Sea Elephant Bay, King Island, with Baudin’s ships at anchor off shore near the present site of Naracoopa. Robbins launched a longboat with a party of men. Robbins delivered the dispatch to Baudin, pulled out a Union Jack and proceeded to claim Van Diemen’s Land for England. This was possibly the first occasion the newly-created 1801 Union Jack was flown in Australia.

After hoisting it in a large gum tree and firing three volleys in salute low over the nearby French tents (Robbins had to borrow the gunpowder for the salute from the French as he had not brought any with him), he made a garbled proclamation of possession, and then realised that in his haste he had raised the flag upside down!

The French treated the incident with ridicule and not with force. Baudin rebuffed Robbins with the comment that he had ‘no intention of annexing a country already inhabited by savages’. Baudin then sent Pierre Faure, his hydrographer, on a circumnavigation of the island, naming various places whilst Grimes did much the same in his wake.

Commenting later in a private letter to Governor King, Baudin said:

I was quite sure that the arrival of the Cumberland had a motive other than that of bringing me your letter, but I did not think that it was to raise an English flag in the place where we had set up our tents well before her arrival. I will frankly admit that I am vexed this took place. This childish ceremony was ridiculous, and was made even more so by the manner in which the flag was hoisted, the head being downwards and the attitude not very majestic. As I was ashore that day, I saw with my own eyes what I am describing. I thought at first that the flag had been used to strain water and then hung out to dry.

Petit subsequently drew a caricature of the ceremony, but unfortunately for us, Baudin records tearing it up and prohibiting the making of any others like it. In the painting you can see the French sentry sitting down under the flag.

2017-05-05 12_27_01-Posted_Talk #14_Jon Addison.docx [Read-Only] - Microsoft Word

Image courtesy Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre, 18036

So, this concluded a slightly amusing, but ultimately telling small chapter in the history of French-British rivalry, illustrating that even on the other side of the world, national and international politics had a way of influencing events.


– Jon Addison, History Curator

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