The scale of Dumont D’Urville’s achievement receives overdue antipodean acknowledgment in a masterly new biography, writes
Explorer and discoverer, litterateur and botaniser, scholar of Chinese and ancient Hebrew, cruiser of the South Seas and Antarctic pioneer, JulesSebastien-Cesar Dumont D’Urville lived a life so rich in incident and variation it barely fits into the quarter-million words of this definitive biography.
D’Urville was born into revolution. His name is forever tied to beauty. He saw sights no one before him had dreamed of seeing. Disaster claimed him in a flash and destroyed everything he most loved. Even amid the galaxy of brilliant and strong-willed French navigators who opened up the southern hemisphere in the early 19th century and helped unlock the mysteries of the Australian coastline, D’Urville stands out: for his gifts, his looks and lineage, but also for his eccentricities.
He dressed so modestly that the elite of Port Jackson mistook him for a convict. He prided himself on his independence, and remained remote from his colleagues; he doted on his obstreperous pet cockatoo. He was afflicted by a dark lean within his character: “For all his initiative and tenacity, his self-confidence appears to have been frequently impaired by depressive mood-swings.”
Above all else, he was an intellectual, a speculator in the realms of learning, continuously fascinated by the latest breakthroughs in scientific understanding of mankind and the natural world. His vast library was filled with dictionaries and grammars, with floras and ethnographies, with works that reflected his abiding interest in fields as diverse as astronomy and glassblowing, geology and shorthand.
How fitting, then, that he should at last have found a chronicler as polymathic, as driven and uncompromising as Edward Duyker, the undervalued maestro of modern exploration biography, a man so multifarious it would take a book on the scale of one of his own prolifically poured-out maritime histories to compass him.
The strikingly detailed internet entry devoted to Duyker’s life and work gives something of this flavour: he was born to a Dutch father and a mother from the francophone Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, and studied in Australia, gaining a doctorate on the Naxalite insurgency. But academe was not quite his speed. He worked as an RSPCA ambulance driver and as a spot-welder for General Motors-Holden before finding a post at the Joint Intelligence Organisation in Canberra.
All this, though, was mere prelude to his true career: gradually he made himself into an independent scholarly biographer, researching and writing the lives of the 19th century’s scientistexplorers: the Endeavour’s Swedish-born naturalist Daniel Solander, buccaneering Francois Peron, wayward pioneer of Australian botany Jacques Labillardiere.
These detailed narratives paved the way for the present project, the tale of the explorer closest to Duyker’s heart. As he explains in the introduction to Dumont D’Urville: Explorer and Polymath: “For more than half my life I have been in possession of a 1:100 scale model of the Coquille, the vessel in which he first circled the globe; d’Urville would command her again on Dumont D’Urville: Explorer & Polymath Dumont D’Urville: Explorer & Polymath By Edward Duyker Otago University Press, 671pp, $70 (HB) two more great voyages. My model was made in the house my great-great-grandfather built and in which my mother grew up on Mauritius — an island D’Urville visited twice. It is hardly surprising that I pondered life aboard her crowded decks and sought out accounts of her visits, not only to Mauritius but to Australia and New Zealand and to the coast of Antarctica.”
In France, the scale of D’Urville’s achievement has been fitfully recognised: he was a pioneer in a golden generation, always at the edge of knowledge, staring forward, sailing onwards. Streets bear his name, as does the French Antarctic research station. The appearance of the two-volume “Decouverte” edition of his main exploration narrative in the 1980s was a Parisian literary event. His writings, with their descriptions of the deep Pacific and the polar ice wastes, left their mark on Jules Verne. He figures in the works of Hugo, Dumas, Zola, even Proust. But his part in the scientific exploration of Australasia and the southern oceans remains obscure and unacknowledged in this country: it is telling that this biography is published, and published majestically, by a New Zealand academic press.
D’Urville’s was a life begun under an unlucky star. His prosperous origins were of no benefit to him in the chaotic political landscape of postrevolutionary France. He joined the navy at 17: his intensive studies in linguistics were carried out at sea. In the port town of Toulon he fell for and married the beautiful, neurasthenic Adelie Pepin, after whom he named a promontory of Antarctica and an engaging species of penguin. He sailed as a scientific officer on a hydrographic mission to the eastern Mediterranean, and there, by chance, came on new excavations on the Aegean isle of Melos. A statue was being dug up. D’Urville saw it, and saw it for what it was, and wrote the first appreciation of the piece. He then oversaw the complexities of its purchase for France. It was the Venus de Milo — his ticket to distinction, and even a degree of fame. He was promptly decorated with the Legion d’honneur.
“Thanks to the plants and insects I collected in the Levant to distract myself and this Venus which has arrived in Paris causing general satisfaction among peers and deputies, even the generals, colossi of the Navy — here is the obscure ensign, aged 31 and a half, with more than seven years in the rank, here, sought out by artists, appreciated by scientists, received by eminent persons.”
He was also promoted. Soon he was setting sail as second-in-command of the Coquille, on an ambitious circumnavigation voyage under his friend Louis Isidore Duperrey. The world opened up for him. He saw the Falklands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Tahiti, Bora Bora; the Coquille went sailing the seas around New Ireland and the Moluccas; it called in on the fledgling colony of New South Wales.
For a naturalist, this was a dream itinerary: orchids, palms, rare fish, strange birds of rich plumage, giant butterflies. D’Urville devoted himself to collecting. He had the time. His relationship with the captain had fallen apart; the two men dined together each night in virtual silence. Duyker records the observation of the ship’s medical officer: “Changeable and impressionable, the head of the expedition was continually annoyed by the cold, tenacious, trenchant
Detail from the cover of