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
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