Historic race to put Australia on the map
The Great Race: The Race Between the English and the French to Complete the Map of Australia
By David Hill William Heinemann, 386pp, $34.95
MEN don’t read books. So goes the popular culture cliche, but it is not quite true: men do, at the very least, read history. During this summer, numerous carefully wrapped historical doorstoppers will appear under the Christmas tree addressed to Dad or Uncle Jack. But it won’t be just any old history book. It generally will be a tale of human endurance, new discoveries, individual achievement and the technical innovations of yesteryear, with political intrigue and conflict added to the mix.
Such elements are found in abundance in the grand theme of European exploration, and the popularity of books about explorers in the age of the sailing ship is a symptom of our fascination with the danger and romance of that age. David Hill’s The Great Race taps into this sentiment, flows easily and is often entertaining. Because of problems with structure and intent, however, it is a good read, not a great one.
The stated focus of the book is the ‘‘ race between the English and the French to complete the map of Australia’’, a reference to the expeditions of Englishman Matthew Flinders and Frenchman Nicolas Baudin. In the early 1800s, Flinders and Baudin were sent by their respective governments to explore the uncharted coastal areas of Australia. They were also requested to discover whether the west and east coasts were separated by sea or constituted a single land mass.
However, Hill’s first six chapters repeat the story of European discovery of Australia from 1606 to the end of the 18th century, incorporating the Spanish, Dutch, French and English expeditions and accidental journeys. There is even a chapter on the early British settlement of Australia. Given the theme of English-French rivalry, much of this material could have been cut or condensed. At times, too much space is devoted to incidents and details the author simply finds interesting. The selection of content is thus not always relevant to the stated purpose of the book, making it appear, at times, like a disjointed chronicle.
The author (or publisher) has chosen a problematic theme with which to anchor the text, not least because the enthusiastic naturalist Baudin does not appear to have been as career driven and ambitious for success as was Flinders. As Hill reports, one of Baudin’s officers confided to Flinders: ‘‘ Captain, if we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching butterflies in Van Diemen’s Land, you would not have discovered the south coast before us.’’
The French ultimately published the first complete coastal map of Australia in 1811, with Flinders publishing his version three years later. This conclusion to the Great Race might have mattered militarily and historically if Napoleon had prevailed at the battle of Waterloo, but as it happens, it is Flinders’s achievements that are the most celebrated.
To his credit, Hill works hard to ensure that unfamiliar historical terms and ideas are made clear for the reader. Further, while the general theme seems under-developed and fragmentary, the journeys of Flinders and Baudin are summarised well with just the right amount of quotes from primary sources.
The story of Flinders is fascinating and Hill’s narration of his expeditions is compelling, not least because Flinders is a flawed hero the reader cannot help but care about. Flinders tried to smuggle his wife on board his ship at the beginning of his epic voyage in 1801, but the secret was uncovered by the navy establishment: the couple were not to see each other again for more than nine years. This was largely because of his long imprisonment in French-ruled Mauritius, an ordeal partly caused, one suspects, by the Englishman’s lack of tact. The author’s sensitive portraits of Flinders and other historical figures are one of the book’s strengths.
If you are familiar with the story of European discovery of Australia, this new work will not provide many startling revelations. But despite its structural and stylistic weaknesses, The Great Race is a useful introduction to the early exploration of the Australian coast, and its fine bibliography will encourage further reading.