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.

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