the Art of Science

The Art of Science

Nicolas Baudin's voyagers 1800-1804

The Art of Science
Nicolas Baudin's voyagers 1800-1804

Ed by Jean Fornasiero
Lindl Lawton and
John West-Sooby.

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With some twenty expert contributors this publication; the story of Nicolas Baudin, his voyagers and artists and their expedition to Australia, has moved from being an obscure curiosity to a well-known, well-researched, well-written and much discussed episode in the early history of Australia, and particularly South Australia. Born on 17 February 1754 Baudin joined the French navy in 1775. After more than twenty years sailing the various oceans, during which time he also worked for the Austrian government, was held captive in Spain, visiting among other places, the Cape of Good Hope, Genoa, Malaga, the Caribbean, Canary Islands, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and America, he finally returned to France in 1798.

During these years his main concern had been the collection and transportation of exotic flora and fauna specimens for European botanists, scientists and museums. No sooner had he arrived back home than he began preparing plans for an expedition to South America, New Holland and Africa. His final plan, focussing on New Holland and Tasmania was presented to Napoleon Bonaparte who approved it and even provided the finance for the nearly four years it would take to accomplish.

When Baudin left Le Havre on 19 October 1800 his ships Geographe and Naturaliste were soon stopped by the British who blockaded the harbour as France and England were still at war. Being able to show them his British Admiralty passport, which he had previously obtained with the help of Joseph Banks, Baudinís scientific expedition was on its way, the first one since the execution of Louis XVI in 1793.

After calling at Tenerife and Mauritius they finally sighted Cape Leeuwin, named by the Dutch, on 27 May 1801. Not too happy about it all, the British soon approved Matthew Flindersí plans for a circumnavigation of Australia. There had always been, and still was, a strong rivalry between France and Britain. Tahiti had been claimed by the French while two years later Cook had claimed New South Wales for England. Britain became even more concerned when they learnt of Baudinís discovery and mapping of Geographe Bay.

His interest in the unknown south coast, part of it already named New Holland, and his interest in Bass Strait and Tasmania gave still more reasons for concern. It was this animosity by some members of both nations which resulted in Flinders being held prisoner on Mauritius for nearly seven years.

With winter approaching Baudin decided to give Tasmania a miss for the time being and started surveying the western coastline of Australia, including Rottnest Island and the Swan River. Extensive notes were compiled on the vegetation, geological features, fauna and flora, the Aborigines and their man-made structures. Astronomical readings were also taken and a start was made on the first charts of the area.

During their six months on the West Coast they discovered hundreds of new species of flora and fauna. It is here were this book differs from many other publications as it describes the process and shows many of the artistsí sketches, drawings and paintings. Baudinís voyagers made, and kept, an immense number of notes and specimens, a large number of them have since been named by scientists in their honour.

On 19 August 1801 Baudin left the north-west coast and headed for Timor where they stayed until the middle of November. On 13 November both ships left Timor for Tasmania where they started surveying the south-east and eastern areas. During March 1802 Bass Strait was surveyed and a start made with the survey of the Ďunknowní coast of New Holland. While in and around Tasmania Baudin and his men did some valuable work.

Francois Peron was an astute zoological observer and noted differences in species from different areas. He recognised that species and their environment were intimately related, well before ecology was established as a science. He also noted and named the two sub-species of Echidnas.

Both of Baudinís ships, after having been separated from each other, called in at Port Jackson. Not all of his voyagers reported on scientific matters while there. Peron recommended that the colony of New South Wales should be destroyed as soon as possible. According to him it could be done easily now, whereas it would not be possible in 25 yearsí time.

While at Port Jackson, Baudin and his men examined in detail the first English settlers and their interaction with the local Aborigines. They made detailed sketches of their weapons, artefacts, decorations and utensils. Baudinís long stay at Port Jackson resulted in a large and varied collection of specimens, most of which went to Paris. He even bought another ship, the Casuarina, to have more space for his scientists and their collections, which included two black swans.

These thousands of images are now very significant as only very few of the implements, weapons and other items of their material culture have survived, and those that have are mostly in overseas museums. Baudinís expedition also did a huge amount of charting and naming of geographical features, even some which already had been named by Dutch, English and French explorers who had visited the Great Unknown Southland. This proved that he was not altogether immune from the tensions between science and politics.

Sailing against the wind the Geographe met Flindersí Investigator on 8 April 1802 at what is now known as Encounter Bay. Baudinís hydrographic work was a major scientific achievement; it included the first map of Kangaroo Island, discovered by Flinders but circumnavigated by the French, who published the first complete map of Australia while Flinders was imprisoned. When Baudin met Flinders at Encounter Bay they proved that New Holland and New South Wales were all part of one land mass, but also that neither of them could claim sole right of discovery over the full length of the south coast.

Despite the many challenges, an enormous amount of material was collected, with many tens of thousands of specimens. Among them were two dwarf emus, one from Kangaroo Island and another from King Island. There were also samples of spotted hand fish, painted lady snails, blue bottles and by-the-wind sailors. As the contributors to this book have made use of many different sources, including the officersí journals the results of this expedition have been brought to live as never before.

Sadly Baudin had to return to Timor in April 1803 as his health was deteriorating but his men continued the survey of the north coast of New Holland, including the Gulf of Carpentaria. However at the beginning of July he decided to return home. While at Mauritius he succumbed to his illness and died on 16 September 1803.

More than 200 years later Baudinís journals and the other French records have become a rare time snapshot before the impact of British invasion which resulted in many changes, both in the Aboriginal life style and the fauna and flora of Australia. Although much of the expeditionís collections have disappeared during these 200 years, there are enough illustrations and written records left to provide an opportunity for interaction and exchange as well as to scrutinise and interpret.

This book has been published to coincide with the touring exhibition The Art Of Science: Baudin's Voyagers 1800-1804, which showcases more than 350 works from the Lesueur Collection held by the Museum of Natural History in Le Havre, Normandy, France. The exhibition can be viewed at the Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide for the next few months before it moves to the other Capital Cities.

Review by Nic Klaassen

The Art of Science PB 175 pp, with numerous colour and B/W photographs,
index, time line, bibliography and foot notes is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455

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