Exploring Terra Australis

Peter Monteath recalls what happened when two explorers, whose nations were battling for supremacy, met on the other side of the world.

View of Port Jackson from Flinders' Voyage to Terra AustralisTwo centuries ago Napoleon Bonaparte held much of Europe in thrall. He was not yet Emperor – that came in 1804 – but even as a military commander and then as First Consul, Napoleon had elevated France to a formidable military power and prime rival of the British, with whom he was engaged in a deadly and enduring battle for continental, if not global, dominance. In the midst of this bitter rivalry, Napoleon approved the sending of a voyage of discovery to the other side of the world to explore the still partly uncharted waters of Terra Australis. The British, who already had a colony at Port Jackson (near modern-day Sydney), and who knew of French interests in the region, decided to do the same.

If the two expeditions sailed from a Europe torn by deadly international rivalries, their work on the other side of the world was marked by a shared spirit of scientific enquiry and a championing of Enlightenment values that stood above the politics of the day. The great test of those values came in April 1802, when the two expeditions stumbled across each other a world away from their home ports in a bay off the coast of what is now South Australia.

The origins of the French expedition lay largely with its commander, Nicolas Baudin (1756-1803). A commoner by birth from a family of merchants, Baudin had made his reputation as a merchant captain sailing under Spanish and Austrian flags. Much of his work was in the service of science – in the period from 1787 to 1794 he made no fewer than four voyages on botanical expeditions under an Austrian flag. There followed a major scientific voyage to the West Indies in 1796-98, on which Baudin, by now sailing under a French flag, proved his ability to transport living plants and animals long distances. He returned to France to a rapturous welcome and bearing a botanical treasure-trove, described at the time as ‘the richest and most beautiful collection of living plants ever brought to Europe,  an infinitely precious cargo’.

Respect for his talents having reached their zenith, Baudin was eager to attempt a voyage in the Southern Hemisphere. To achieve his goal, he knew exactly whom to lobby. His request to command a voyage of discovery to Terra Australis was made with the support of representatives of the Institut National – the French equivalent of the Royal Society – and it was addressed directly to the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. He, for his part, was in no doubt that the voyage deserved his approval.

Baudin had two 350-ton vessels at his disposal, which he had given the names Géographe and Naturaliste to underline the expedition’s scientific priorities. When the ships left Le Havre on October 19th, 1800, there were altogether 251 men on board, including a complement of so-called savants. These were the scientists who were to devote their labours to the study of natural history, geology, astronomy and even the nascent discipline of anthropology. Alas, the discomforts and discipline of life at sea did not agree with all of them. When the expedition reached Mauritius – at that time Îsle de France – there was something of an exodus from both vessels. Not all of those disaffected with their commander’s leadership had taken their leave, however, and relations on board the Géographe were to remain strained when the voyage continued to Terra Australis.

The British expedition was the achievement of two exceptional individuals above all others. One of them was a young officer in the Royal Navy by the name of Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), a Lincolnshireman from an unlikely background – both his father and his grandfather were surgeons. But the wilful Matthew, influenced according to his own account by the reading of Robinson Crusoe, chose a career in the Royal Navy from the age of fifteen. He learnt many of his navigation skills by sailing to the Pacific and the West Indies under none other than William Bligh, but like so many British seamen of his time, Flinders was soon exposed to military action against the French. As a midshipman aboard the Bellerophon he took part in the crushing 1794 victory over the French, which British history books have recorded as ‘The Glorious First of June’.

When the opportunity presented itself again, Flinders returned to his true passion – the exploration of the South Seas. He sailed to the newly founded British penal colony of Port Jackson in 1795, and from there undertook a number of audacious voyages of exploration to the north and the south. Together with his great friend and fellow Lincolnshireman George Bass, he was able to prove the insularity of Van Diemen’s land – now Tasmania – by circum-navigating it in 1798. But he was aware that much more was to be done, if only he could be entrusted with the command of a fully equipped exploratory vessel.

When Flinders returned to England, he showed that, like Baudin, he knew exactly to whom to turn to realise his goal – Sir Joseph Banks. It was a wise move on several counts. Banks knew Australia well, as he had accompanied James Cook as a botanist on Cook’s first great voyage of discovery, on which Cook in 1770 explored the full length of the eastern coast of what he had named New South Wales. Thereafter Banks maintained his keen interest in things scientific, especially through his role as President of the Royal Society, but he also became a man of influence in the non-scientific world. When he approached the Admiralty with an idea for a voyage of discovery, and with the name of a young officer who might command it, the Admiralty eagerly approved his suggestions. Banks received carte blanche to equip and staff the expedition.

Flinders had given his French rivals a start of some nine months. He had taken command of the Investigator, a vessel of some 334 tons with a complement of eighty-eight, in January 1801, but numerous problems delayed sailing until July 18th. Among those on board were the equivalents of Baudin’s savants – Flinders’ own preferred term was ‘scientific gentlemen’. These included the naturalist Robert Brown (1773-1858), who was to establish a reputation as one of the leading botanists of the nineteenth century. He was to work hand-in-glove with the eminent, Austrian-born botanical draftsman Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826). As live samples of both flora and fauna were to be brought back to England, a gardener named Peter Good was entrusted with the care of the collection. The complement of supernumeraries was rounded out by the landscape artist William Westall, the miner John Allen, and the astronomer William Crossley, though ill health persuaded the last to abandon the voyage at the Cape of Good Hope. His duties fell to Flinders and his younger brother Samuel.

The French expedition sighted the southern coast of Western Australia on May 27th, 1801, before Flinders had even departed England’s shores. Rather than following the southern coast to the east, as his instructions required, Baudin decided that the season was too advanced for such a course. Instead he chose to follow the coast to the north, making landings in Geographe Bay, just north of modern-day Perth, and then north to Shark Bay, before proceeding to Timor for refitting and reprovisioning.

A relatively rapid and uneventful passage meant that the Investigator’s crew sighted land on the south-western coast of Australia on December 7th, 1801. This was known, charted territory, so that Flinders could proceed to King George Sound on the southern coast of what is now Western Australia, and allow his ‘scientific gentlemen’ to land and begin their work while the ship was refitted. From King George Sound Flinders then sailed east, following a coast which was not well known to Europeans. When he reached the Nuyts archipelago, named for the seventeenth-century Dutch navigator who had travelled that far but then turned south, and near the present- day town of Ceduna, Flinders was entering terra incognita.

The so-called ‘unknown coast’, by far the largest section of Australian coastline unseen by Europeans, stretched from the Nuyts archipelago in the west through to a point near the western end of today’s Victorian coast. Just what might lie between was a matter of pure speculation. One theory was that a huge gulf or strait would be found, pushing north to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and thus separating New Holland, the western coast explored by the Dutch as early as the seventeenth century, from New South Wales, explored by James Cook in 1770. Alternatively, New Holland and New South Wales might indeed be part of the same land mass, forming a single continent.

As he sailed to the east, on a couple of occasions Flinders thought he might have found a great strait to the north. Alas, neither the Gulf of St Vincent nor Spencer Gulf (both to the west of present-day Adelaide) led him far to the north. He had some time to reflect on the significance of those aborted ventures north on Kangaroo Island at the entrance to the Gulf of St Vincent. Then, heading east again, a sail was spied on the horizon. It was that of the Géographe.

Baudin had sailed south from Timor, avoiding the continental coast, and then east to Tasmania, where he allowed his savants generous time to investigate the flora and fauna and to observe the indigenous population. Off the northern coast of Tasmania he became separated from his consort, but followed his plan to sail west through Bass Strait anyway. He must have been surprised to discover that the sail sighted to the west was not that of the Naturaliste but of a British vessel. Unlike Flinders, he could have known nothing of a rival expedition.

What neither captain knew at the time was that since their departure from a war-torn Europe a fragile peace had been secured. (The Peace of Amiens of March 1802 halted hostilities in Europe for fourteen months.) Not surprisingly, then, Flinders’ reaction to the sighting of the French vessel was to roll out the guns and prepare for the possibility of battle. As it happened, his concerns were unfounded; Baudin graciously invited his English counterpart aboard the Géographe, once on that afternoon of April 8th, and then again the following morning. Despite some language difficulties – Flinders spoke no French, and Baudin English only ‘so as to be understood’ – the discussions were conducted in a spirit of respect and led to an exchange of mutually beneficial information. Flinders could tell Baudin that he had just sailed from Kangaroo Island, where wood and fresh meat – in the form of kangaroos, of course – could be found aplenty. And Baudin could warn Flinders of treacherous rocks lying just to the east.

The location of the meeting, subsequently named Encounter Bay,  marks the dividing point between the section of the ‘unknown coast’ first charted by the English expedition and that first surveyed by the French. The latter is much shorter, a fact which seems to have offered some comfort to Flinders, who also noted with evident self-satisfaction that the French section was arid and uninteresting. The French, too, were aware that they had forfeited much of their advantage in leaving Europe nine months earlier than Flinders. In Port Jackson some months later one of the French officers, Louis de Freycinet, quipped to Flinders that if only they 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.’

Flinders, for his part, could be rightly proud of his meticulous charting of the Gulf of St Vincent, Spencer Gulf and the northern coast of Kangaroo Island. He effectively forestalled any potential French claim to that part of the continent, and moreover cemented the British claim by providing the newly explored coast with a host of distinctly English names. On the western coast of Spencer Gulf he named numerous features for his native Lincolnshire – thus there is a Port Lincoln shielded by Boston Bay; nearby are Sleaford Mere, Bicker Island, Surfleet Point, Stamford Hill, Spalding Cove, Grantham Island, Kirton Point, Point Bolingbroke, Revesby Isle and various other names drawn from Flinders’ homeland.

Like the process of mapping, naming was very much part of staking an imperial claim, and in this regard the French were little different. If anything, Flinders was more generous, since in his maps he fully acknowledged the prior French exploration of the coast east of Encounter Bay and named the rocks of which he had been warned ‘Baudin’s Rocks’. But those who drew the original French maps of the formerly unknown coast – and they did not include the by then deceased Baudin – wilfully overlooked the English claims. The unknown coast became ‘Terre Napoléon’, Kangaroo Island was ‘Îsle Decres’, Spencer Gulf was ‘Golfe Bonaparte’, and the Gulf of St Vincent, ‘Golfe Josephine’. It was a discourtesy that rankled deeply with Flinders; not until after the publication of his own account and charts was the injustice corrected.

From Encounter Bay the Investigator sailed to Port Philip Bay – the site of modern-day Melbourne – and from there to Port Jackson for much needed refitting and reprovisioning before continuing the circumnavigation to the north. Baudin made his way west to Kangaroo Island and into the gulfs of the formerly unknown coast, but then the health of his crew drastically deteriorated. By the time the Géographe made its way to Port Jackson it had the appearance of a ghost ship, with barely enough healthy crew to sail it into harbour. There it was finally reunited with its consort, the Naturaliste, which had made its way there from Tasmania. Its officers and sailors were enjoying the hospitality of the then governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, who extended his assistance to the newly arrived vessel and its sickly crew. The Investigator, too, was in harbour, enabling a second and more protracted encounter between the two expeditions.

In July Flinders and Baudin parted company for good, though their lives were to follow similarly fateful trajectories. Baudin sent the Naturaliste back to France, loaded with a great wealth of specimens of Australian fauna and flora. As his new consort he purchased from Governor King a small, colonial-built vessel, the Casuarina, to help him with the continued close charting of the coast. Together, the Géographe and the Casuarina headed back to the south and then west, to King Island, Kangaroo Island, the previously unknown coast and then Western Australia. It was Baudin’s intention then to chart the north coast of the continent from west to east. Alas, his own health, already troubled, now proved an insuperable hindrance. The expedition revisited Timor, but soon after Baudin was spitting blood and bringing up sputum so thick ‘that one would have said that it was pieces of lung coming away from my body’. A remarkable stoicism drove him to continue the survey of the north-west coast, but eventually he had to bow to the inevitable. With deep regret he ordered a return to Mauritius, where he died on September 16th, 1803.

Flinders, in contrast, had headed north from Port Jackson, surveying the coast as he went, and correcting the inaccuracies in the charts of his great idol James Cook. But the Investigator’s leakiness grew worse in the tropics, and an inspection of the careened vessel in the Gulf of Carpentaria revealed the worst. Much of its wood was rotten; exposure to a decent storm could send it to the bottom. Flinders returned to Port Jackson via Timor and the west and south coasts of Australia, thus completing his circumnavigation, but still far short of his ambition of creating reliable charts of the entire coast. As soon as he could he set sail for England as a passenger aboard the Porpoise, with the aim of procuring a new vessel to continue his surveys. But the Porpoise was wrecked in the Coral Sea off the Barrier Reef; and only an outstanding act of seamanship by Flinders, sailing an open boat back to Port Jackson, ensured a rescue mission was dispatched to retrieve the survivors of the wreck.

Frustrated at this further delay in his plans, Flinders made a rash decision. He chose to sail a tiny vessel, the Cumberland, back to England. But the tiny, 29-ton schooner proved just as leaky as the Investigator, forcing Flinders to make course for the French-held island of Mauritius. He arrived there on December 17th, 1803, three months after the death of Baudin, and just one day after the Géographe continued on her way to France.

Mauritius proved as fateful for Flinders as it had for Baudin. One might have thought that, even in time of war, the French would have returned the hospitality shown their countrymen in Port Jackson. The French Governor of Mauritius, General Decaen, however, did not think in the same generous terms as his New South Wales counterpart Philip Gidley King. On arrival in Mauritius Flinders, still in possession of a passport for safe passage from the French government, dutifully produced the document, but to no avail – it was made out for the Investigator, not the Cumberland, and what kind of explorer would be undertaking a major voyage in such an inadequate vessel? Decaen’s suspicious mind wondered whether a clumsily staged act of military espionage was afoot. Moreover, Flinders was discovered to be carrying despatches from Governor King to the home government, and these were found to have some military content.

Even so, the affair might not have taken such a tragic turn if Flinders had been more receptive to the Governor’s concerns. A combination of indignation and frustration persuaded him not to follow the custom of removing his hat in the Governor’s presence. When he then declined a dinner invitation, presumably intended as a gesture of appeasement, he helped to seal his own fate. Flinders was incarcerated, at first as a spy, then as a ‘prisoner of state’, and eventually as a hostage. Strenuous efforts conducted by Joseph Banks and many others over years to release him were in vain. Not until seven years later in 1810, and with Mauritius about to fall into British hands, was he free to return to England, any chance of completing his exploration of Australia completely dashed.

His health impaired, Flinders devoted his remaining energies to the writing of his monumental Voyage to Terra Australis. It was published on  July 18th, 1814, but by then illness had sent him into a coma, and he died the following day.

Though the expeditions were cut short before the ambitions of their commanders were fully achieved, the legacies of both expeditions are rich and – for all the rivalry of the day – remarkably complementary. Where Flinders revealed the shape of the unknown coast from the west, Baudin traced it from the east. Baudin employed his own considerable skills as a lay anthropologist to help record the appearance and customs of the indigenous people of Tasmania – records of particular value given the genocide that was to follow before the end of the century. For his part, Flinders gave detailed accounts of the indigenous people he encountered in the west and the north of the continent.

The French transported to Europe a formidable collection of some 200,000 botanical and zoological specimens: seeds, shells, insects and the like. Their greatest achievement was in zoology – the Paris Museum was able to report the arrival of some 3,900 zoological species, about half of them new to science. In addition, the expedition’s artists, Nicolas-Martin Pétit and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, brought back an exquisite range of Australian images, the highlights of which are arguably those of marine life.

The Investigator’s Robert Brown supervised the return of some 3,600 specimens to London, among them kangaroos, a platypus and a live wombat which reportedly ‘burrowed in the ground whenever it had the opportunity, and covered itself in the earth with surprising quickness’. Eventually, in 1810, Brown was able to publish the scientific results of his Australian excursions in his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van-Diemen, once described by the British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker as ‘the greatest botanical work that has ever appeared’. Not only did it identify about a thousand species of plants and 464 genera, it helped to overturn the established Linnean system of botanical taxonomy. In the Linnean system, used almost exclusively in Britain until Brown’s day, classification of plants was based on the numbers and the arrangement of sexual organs. As a result of his Australian experiences, however, Brown came out firmly in favour of the ‘natural system’ of botanical classification advanced by the French scholar Bernard de Jussieu (1699-1777), which rejected the rigidities of the Linnean system by taking into account as many attributes of the plant as possible, not just the flower and its sexual system. It was a paradigm shift which encountered criticism but which helped to revitalise botanical science.

Brown’s colleague Ferdinand Bauer was to acquire the reputation of the greatest natural history draftsman of all time, in good part because of his work in Australia. He excelled in the intricately detailed sketching and later painting of plant life. His companion, William Westall, painted some fine coastal profiles and extended his brief to include the first recordings of Aboriginal cave paintings from northern Australia.

While the scientific and artistic legacies of the expeditions are far-reaching, it is striking how differently history has treated the two captains. Though not accorded the recognition he deserved in his own time, Flinders was destined to become – at least in the country he had shaped and named – an explorer hero of almost mythical proportions. Statues of him were erected in the major cities, and the name ‘Flinders’ appears on many features of the Australian map, coastal and inland.

Poor Baudin, on the other hand, has been treated shabbily in comparison. The name ‘Baudin’ occurs at just two locations on the Australian map – Baudin’s Rocks, as named by Flinders (though even they have been officially renamed Godfrey Islands), and Baudin Island, a tiny feature within Shark Bay in Western Australia. Disastrously for Baudin’s reputation, the task of writing the official account of the voyage fell to none other than those who held him in the greatest contempt – the scientist François Péron and, when Péron died, the officer Louis de Freycinet. Their troubled relationship with the commander, which marred the expedition almost from the beginning to its end, was of such intensity that it could not be laid to rest with Baudin himself. The officers performed the  remarkable feat of completing their work without mentioning their captain by name, except to record his painful demise. Baudin’s reputation has never recovered.

Two hundred years later, and a world removed from the international and the interpersonal rivalries of the day, it is appropriate to recall how remarkable the achievements of Flinders and Baudin were. Their encounter off the ‘unknown coast’ testified not only to their particular qualities, but also to the place in history of a ‘commonwealth of learning’ which transcended the world of politics and war. There is no need to question Flinders’ place upon pedestals around the country, but perhaps some room could be found on them for his great French rival and kindred spirit.

Peter Monteath is Head of the History Department at Flinders University, named after Matthew Flinders.

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