The Australia of the French Explorers
by Frederic Mouchet
Six major French expeditions to the Australian coast took place over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. Through contemporary photographs, expedition drawings and historical commentary, this beautiful luxe publication plunges us into the impressive and bewildering universe of an Australia the French seafaring explorers came upon more than 200 years ago.
These early French expeditions were privately funded and motivated by commerce, as had been those of the Portuguese, Dutch and English. The 18th century aroused a different kind of interest – a growing fascination for the sciences such as anthropology, astronomy, botany, geography, geology and zoology.
After the return in 1769 to France of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who had just completed his circumnavigation of the world, France was hungry for much more. His depiction of an island of love with maidens at the disposal of the French sailors spread like wildfire.
Sadly, three years later more than twenty French sailors, probably hoping for just that, were murdered by the Maoris. Captain Cook was killed by natives on the island of Hawaii in February 1779. So much for islands of love. On 26 January 1788 two French ships reached Botany Bay, eight days after the First Fleet. Five years later, on 9 December 1792, D’Entrecasteaux took shelter from the wild weather on one of the 105 small islands which make up today’s Recherche Archipelago near Esperance, Western Australia.
The best known and most successful of all French expeditions was that undertaken by Nicolas Baudin from 1800 to 1804. His voyage to New Holland resulted in an exceptionally rich harvest of specimens and hitherto unmatched scientific findings. Not all were impressed with what they saw. Pierre Bernard Milius wrote in June 1801 that the Swan River, named by Willem de Vlamingh in 1697, was ‘unnavigable and its water salty’.
But there was more; ‘It is presumably no more than a sound meandering into the interior of the island. Moreover, it has not been established whether this arm of the sea receives water from other inland rivers. We should point out that a chain of very high mountains is visible in the distance’. Each site explored by the French, and featured in this book, has at least one current photograph and watercolour or drawing made by the ships’ artists. It also includes illustrations of the animals they had never seen before.
The author and photographer have been successful in what they set out to do; aiming to invoke the fascination the sailors, scientists and artists must have experienced more than 200 years ago when they were confronted by the uniqueness and novelty of this unknown continent at the very ends of the earth.
The French started their Australian voyages some 150 years after the discovery by the Dutch, who never claimed it as a colony. Louis Aleno de Saint Alouarn did in 1772 on Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia. Unfortunately for him nobody took any notice. By not following up his claim France lost its best chance to establish a foothold in Australia.
Tasmania was visited by the French 130 years after Abel Janszoon Tasman had reported its sighting. They stopped, went ashore and experienced unprecedented encounters with the local Aborigines. They made many contacts on the east coast as well and once again wrote up their journals, made drawings and watercolours and published them for all to see and read.
James Cook sighted the east coast of New South Wales in 1770 and eighteen years later Jean Francois de La Perouse visited the newly established convict settlement.
In 1802 Philip Gidley King welcomed Baudin’s expedition which stayed for several months. This time Milius was very impressed. According to him Port Jackson ‘can be considered to be one of the finest harbours in the world, providing all the navies of Europe with a safe haven against bad weather.
Kangaroo Island, discovered by Matthew Flinders in 1802 was visited by the French shortly after and again in 1803. They named it Ile Decries, circumnavigated it, ate plenty of the fresh meat and fish, went drawing and painting and wrote about their scientific investigations and botanical discoveries. They even took some of the kangaroos on board to take back to France.
Kangaroo Island was important for the Frenchmen. It was a significant stage in the business of classifying the land and marine species. They carried out the meticulous tasks of observation, analysis and description, inspired by their eminent precursors of the age of Enlightenment. They may have come off second best as far as being the first to discover a new place but it was Louis Claude de Freycinet who sailed up Spencer Gulf in 1803 and proved that New Holland and New South Wales were one landmass.
Despite Baudin’s great successes and achievements his voyages never received its recognition, either in France or Australia until very recently. Part of this reason would have been that he died in 1803 and never reached France. South Australia has named a number of localities or streets after him such as Baudin Place in Port Lincoln and Baudin Beach on Kangaroo Island. There are Baudin Streets in Fairview Park, Flinders Park, Port Germein, Victor Harbor, Woodcroft and Encounter Bay. Every State has a Baudin Street but Karama in Darwin has a Baudin and Freycinet Street.
The Freycinet brothers, Louis Henri and Louis Claude sailed with Baudin. During the voyage Henri was appointed second in command by Baudin who had to rely on him as his own health began to deteriorate. His brother Claude became commander of the Casuarina, bought in Sydney in 1802. Claude was also the cartographer of the first map of Australia. In 1817 he started his own expedition around the world, taking his young wife Rose with him. They returned in 1820. Rose became the first French woman to write an account of her voyage around the world.
There are several hundreds of French place names along the Australian coast with some 260 in West Australia alone, the most of any State. Both Mouchet and Bloomfield have done an excellent job in highlighting the French historical connections with Australia. Frederic Mouchet is a French professional photographer and has travelled the world for more than twenty years. He was the instigator of The Australia of the French explorers. Noelene Bloomfield is an Australian who has taught French language and civilisation. She has been awarded the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government on 13 February 2015, recognising her outstanding contribution to literature and culture.
Review by Nic Klaassen
The Australia of the French Explorers
by F Mouchet and N Bloomfield, HB 191 pp,
with hundreds of colour photographs, is available at $65.00, from
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