French coast: the early explorers who sparked British fears of a Francophone Australia

French coast: the early explorers who sparked British fears of a Francophone Australia

From La Perouse in Sydney to Victoria’s French Island and South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, hints of early French exploration dot the country’s coastline.

In fact, French familiarity with our region was such that they were the first to print a near-complete chart of Australia’s coast in 1811, beating the British by three years. But for a few other historical quirks, at least part of the nation might now be Francophone.

The State Library of Victoria holds a book of maps that were first drawn by the French in the early 1800s. They are the first printed maps to chart almost the entire continent of Australia. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The GuardianThat map, contained within an extensive collection of French books held at the State Library of Victoria, was recently shown to France’s ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thébault, in a private viewing.

The ambassador, a history buff and collector of rare books, was cheered by the reminder of the deep connections between his country and the land that became Australia.

Unlike many official visitors, the ambassador “sparked up right away”, says Des Cowley, the principal librarian for the history of the book at the library, recalling a “witty and chatty” visit.

The map was the product of the 1801-04 voyage of the explorer Nicolas Baudin, whose crew charted much of the southern coastline, helping to determine that the continent was a single island. It also includes the description of “La Terre Napoleon”, covering much of what is now Victoria and South Australia.

Portrait of Nicolas Baudin. 1799. The French explorer rose through the merchant navy and, much to the dismay of some of his officers, became adept at keeping collected animals and plants alive during the voyage. Photograph: SLSAFrench explorers had touched on several parts of the continent’s coast in the years before Britain established its convict colony.

Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, had his ship’s westward passage blocked by the outer shoals of the Great Barrier Reef in June 1768, two years before Captain James Cook’s Endeavour passed through the same area and claimed the east coast for Britain.

In March 1772 two French expeditions were at opposite ends of the continent, and in one case made an explicit claim for territory.

Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne visited Tasmania and stayed briefly with the Indigenous people, while off the far north-west coast, Francois de Saint-Alouarn was burying two bottles containing statements of proclamation on Dirk Hartog Island. Archaeologists found one bottle in 1998 – now in Western Australia’’s Maritime Museum.

When the first fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, it was followed a mere six days later by two vessels under the command of Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse.

A young Corsican named Napoleon Bonaparte enlisted, but just missed out on joining Laperouse’s ill-fated exploration voyage – both ships were wrecked in Solomon Islands and the crew lost.

But Baudin’s charting of the southern coast, including his meeting with his much better-known English counterpart Matthew Flinders at Encounter Bay (now in South Australia) is perhaps the most intriguing.

By that time the Napoleonic wars were in full swing in Europe, raising fears among the British that global expeditions might threaten its young and relatively feeble colony.

Danielle Clode, an associate professor in humanities at Flinders University and an authority on French exploration of the Pacific, says the received understanding by many Australians is that after 1788 “from there on in, the British owned the entire continent”.

“But that wasn’t the case at the time – the English claim on Australia was very tenuous,” she says. “The French made them extremely nervous because they kept coming in exploring … and so they were always anxious that the French were going to claim part of the country.”

An illustration of the plants brought back by the Baudin expedition with emus and kangaroos that were let loose in empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison. The text reads: “New Holland better understood – useful specimens transplanted in France.” Photograph: Imaging Studio/State Library of VictoriaBut Clode says France was not “highly motivated to undertake colonial activities” at the time of Baudin’s expedition, having had “a revolution to deal with”.

Rather, the main purpose of the voyage was to map territory, gather scientific knowledge and collect specimens of flora and fauna.

Baudin himself was a product of revolutionary tumult, rising through the merchant navy in contrast to the noble pedigree of many of the officers and even the scientists serving under him.

As Clode notes in her book Voyages to the South Seas, he was an adept gatherer of specimens, having collected them in 1786 and 1792 in India and China in the service of Archduke Franz-Joseph of Austria.

Baudin’s legacy, though, was deliberately obscured for many decades not least because those who wrote up the accounts of the voyage, particularly the naturalist François Peron, intensely disliked Baudin and omitted even naming him in their publications.

Baudin died of tuberculosis in Mauritius in 1803, at the age of 49, but many thousands of pieces of scientific interest made it back to France, some to become part of empress Josephine’s collection.

These included live plants as well as kangaroos, emus and black swans that Baudin had ordered to be kept safe from hungry sailors and cooks alike. Some officers lost their cabins to the menagerie, to give them a better chance of surviving the long voyage. “Les wombats”, sadly, did not make it.

Nicolas-Martin Petit and Charles Lesueur were crew members of Le Geographe. They were among the first Europeans to portray the land, people, animals and plants of South Australia. Lesueur’s ‘Le Wombat’ was sketched on King Island, Tasmania. Photograph: State Library SAWhether Baudin was expected to press French claims for territory more energetically is unclear.

Doubts remain about the veracity of a comment attributed to Napoleon that “Baudin did well to die, on his return I would have hanged him” for failing to contest Britain’s claims.

However, Flinders wrote in his account of his circumnavigation of the continent that one of Baudin’s officers, Henri de Freycinet, told him: “If we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching butterflies at Van Diemen’s Land, you would not have discovered the South Coast before us.”

Although Baudin, like the English, busily gave names to dozens of places along the coast without asking what the Indigenous owners called their home, he expressed doubts about taking possession of them.

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In a letter to governor Philip King in Sydney, whom he had befriended, the French explorer wrote:

“To my way of thinking, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages or cannibals.

“[I]t would be infinitely more glorious for your nation, as for mine, to mould for society the inhabitants of its own country over whom it has rights, rather than wishing to occupy itself with the improvement of those who are very far removed from it by beginning with seizing the soil which belongs to them and which saw their birth.”

Thébault says that sentiment reflects the more universalistic characteristics of the Enlightenment.

For Clode, whose work has also appeared in a documentary screened on SBS, the French forays can help change the way we think about our history.

“We tend to see it as an inevitable progress towards where we are now,” she says. “The interesting thing is to see what could have been, if things had been slightly different.”

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