The scale of Du­mont D’Urville’s achieve­ment re­ceives over­due an­tipodean ac­knowl­edg­ment in a mas­terly new bi­og­ra­phy, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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