Twelve years after the ar­rival of the First Fleet, France sent two ships to Aus­tralian shores in a grand — but tragic — voy­age of sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery. A fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion re­veals what they found, writes Luke Slat­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

In the ear­li­est years, when the pe­nal colony at Syd­ney Cove was a mere fledg­ling, poorly fed and clothed, with a far from cer­tain fu­ture, it was the great cu­rios­ity of Napoleonic France. And on Oc­to­ber 27, 1800, two sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion ships, the Geographe and Nat­u­ral­iste, set sail from Le Havre, where the river Seine meets the English Chan­nel, bound for the great yet lit­tle known “south land”. The voy­agers, un­der the com­mand of cap­tain Ni­co­las Baudin, would name part of the an­tipodean land­mass, in def­er­ence to Bon­a­parte — and in a splen­did Gal­lic af­front to the Bri­tish en­emy — Terre Napoleon.

Four years later the sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion re­turned to Le Havre with­out Baudin, who per­ished in Mau­ri­tius on the homeward jour­ney. It had been a har­row­ing voy­age. Half the crew was lost to sick­ness, ac­ci­dent or de­ser­tion. But the ad­ven­ture had ful­filled its brief — “to ad­vance the progress of hu­man knowl­edge” — mag­nif­i­cently. Next month, se­lected trea­sures from the Baudin ex­pe­di­tion re­turn home for a dis­play that opens at the South Aus­tralian Mar­itime Mu­seum be­fore tour­ing to four states, each show fea­tur­ing a dif­fer­ent suite of paint­ings and draw­ings: more than 400 in all.

The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voy­agers 1800-1804 is a freeze-frame of Aus­tralia be­fore it was Aus­tralia: of the western, south­ern and south­east­ern se­aboard 12 years after Bri­tish set­tle­ment and 215 years ago (Baudin made land­fall south of Perth in May 1801) this month. It was a time when the nat­u­ral world held sway in these parts over the vast ma­chin­ery of em­pire, and this most ven­er­a­ble of con­ti­nents was still, in many ways, young. Draw­ings made by Baudin’s artists of Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­ines — in par­tic­u­lar a black Madonna and Child — are at once beau­ti­ful and mov­ing, for they record, with rare com­pas­sion and a gaze shaped by Rousseauian ideals of prim­i­tive no­bil­ity, a race that within a few decades would be pushed to the brink of ex­tinc­tion. Among those who set out from Le Havre in 1800 were 22 sci­en­tists and nat­u­ral­ists who would fur­nish the ex­pe­di­tion with de­tailed charts and sketches. They would pen ac­counts and de­scrip­tions, and il­lus­trate with ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­the mul­ti­coloured fish, tail jel­ly­fish, birds, shells and land­scapes of the Aus­tralian coast. And there seemed no end to the busi­ness of col­lect­ing: al­most 200,000 zoo­log­i­cal, botan­i­cal and ge­o­log­i­cal spec­i­mens were picked, plucked or hacked from their places of ori­gin. On board were four mar­itime chronome­ters, two sex­tants and an astro­nom­i­cal clock, as well as a dy­namome­ter for mea­sur­ing the mus­cu­lar strength of the Abo­rig­ines (the sci­en­tists were dis­ap­pointed with the re­sults).

It seems charm­ingly char­ac­ter­is­tic of France that where Bri­tain dis­patched its crim­i­nal un­der­class to the An­tipodes, it should send a float­ing ate­lier, li­brary, lab­o­ra­tory and mu­seum, manned by dis­tin­guished sci­en­tists or sa­vants.

Also shipped from one hemi­sphere to the other by Baudin was a ver­i­ta­ble an­tipodean me­nagerie — live kan­ga­roos, emus and black swans — des­tined for em­press Josephine’s gar­den at her Chateau de Mal­mai­son out­side Paris. The de­scen­dants of those that sur­vived the jour­ney (pic­ture kan­ga­roos on the high seas in cages!) can still be seen in the Jardin des Plantes, the botan­i­cal gar­den for Paris.

The Art of Science is col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween six lo­cal cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the South Aus­tralian Mar­itime Mu­seum, the Aus­tralian Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum and the Na­tional Mu­seum of Aus­tralia, and, on the French side, the Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory at Le Havre and sev­eral other French in­sti­tu­tions.

“Look­ing back­wards, so much his­tory seems pre­or­dained and in­evitable,” ob­serves Kevin Jones, direc­tor of the South Aus­tralian Mar­itime Mu­seum. “But this ex­hi­bi­tion shows us a fresh view of our past. It shows us the won­der of French artists see­ing Aus­tralia for the first time and paint­ing some of the first por­traits of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and some of the ear­li­est Euro­pean views of Aus­tralian fauna, flora and marine life.

“And it shows us the fu­ture was un­cer­tain. Ni­co­las Baudin set out to com­plete the chart of the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent in 1800. At that time the south­ern and north­ern coasts were un­charted and it was not at all cer­tain whether Aus­tralia was one land or two. Did a body of wa­ter sep­a­rate NSW in the east from New Holland in the west? The only English set­tle­ments were at Port Jack­son and Nor­folk Is­land. How far did Eng­land’s claim to NSW ex­tend?”

The mu­seum’s se­nior cu­ra­tor, Lindl Law­ton, re­searched and as­sem­bled the col­lec­tion. Her per­sonal high­light is the fair copy of Baudin’s journal, dic­tated by the ill-starred com­man­der be­fore the ill­ness that swept him away. It has never been dis­played be­fore.

As Law­ton ex­plains, the ex­hi­bi­tion was ini­ti­ated by the Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory at Le Havre, Baudin’s start­ing point and the chief repos­i­tory of his legacy. “The mu­seum direc­tor, Cedric Cremiere, wanted to show­case his col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal draw­ings by Baudin’s artists Charles-Alexan­dre Le­sueur and Ni­co­las-Martin Petit, most of which are not just sci­en­tific snap­shots of the day but sim­ply breath­tak­ing works of art.”

Le Havre is a port town heav­ily bombed dur­ing World War II and lit­tle vis­ited to­day. Its Baudin col­lec­tion, though of im­mense in­ter­est to Aus­tralians, is only grad­u­ally gain­ing recog­ni­tion in France. The Baudin ad­ven­ture, from the mo­ment it re­turned with­out its cap­tain and half its crew, was con­sid­ered a mis­ad­ven­ture. It had dis­in­te­grated un­der Baudin’s com­mand, as

French ex­plorer Ni­co­las Baudin, above; draw­ing of a banded hare­wal­laby by artist Ni­co­las-Martin Petit, left

Burr fish by artist Charles-Alexan­dre Le­sueur, from a copy of Baudin’s journal

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