IN SEARCH OF AN ANSWER
Afew weeks ago there was a sudden flurry of contention among people who love to have opinions, especially the right ones, about whether Captain Cook should be celebrated as the discoverer of Australia. Unfortunately, discussions of this kind always seem to take on an intemperate tone in Australia. But clearly the very concept of discovery is a complex one, and partly a matter of point of view.
Australia, with its indigenous inhabitants, was of course here before Europeans arrived, so that Aboriginal Australians may well feel that their land was already known and did not need to be discovered. But if the usual narrative of discovery seems to imply a fundamentally European perspective, there is also a sense in which it belongs to a universal history that has helped create the map of the world as we know it today.
For the story of European exploration, from the late 15th to 18th centuries, is part of the objective and scientific understanding of nature that was Europe’s achievement, and which has more than anything else changed and shaped the world we live in today. The rise of science from the Renaissance, leading to the scientific revolution of the 17th century and the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the more recent digital revolution of the late 20th century, is the most important theme of human history in the past half millennium.
Today there are no alternatives to the world science has produced: not for urban or tribal peoples, capitalist or socialist, believer or unbeliever. Even those with a countercultural program, who believe there must be more to life than obtuse materialism and insatiable consumerism, have to learn to function within this world unless they want to condemn themselves to a miserable existence on its fringes.
The exploration and mapping of the planet was an integral part of this history. The Greeks already knew the world was a sphere and Eratosthenes, in the third century BC, had calculated its size with remarkable accuracy. In the second century AD, Ptolemy had developed the concepts of latitude and longitude for plotting location on the globe. But it was the great explorers of the Renaissance and subsequent centuries who filled in that cognitive matrix with increasingly accurate geographical knowledge.
In that sense, the process of discovery transcends the perspective of the discoverers and sets the newly encountered lands and peoples within an objective framework they were not aware of. Discovery, then, does not mean finding a land no one else knew existed, but locating places within a common and universal system of knowledge.
The case of Australia is particularly interesting because, unlike America, which was encountered by accident and whose existence came as a complete surprise, the Australian continent had been postulated by geographers since antiquity. A Terra Australis, a southern land, had been imagined for a couple of thousand years before Europeans set foot here.
That event occurred in the very early 17th century, long before James Cook, in the lifetime of Shakespeare and Caravaggio. Dutch mariners seeking more favourable winds at higher latitudes in crossing the Indian Ocean made landfall on Australia’s western coast, and over the next few decades they produced detailed maps of the land they had visited.
Another very unusual aspect of Australia’s European history is how reluctantly and late the land was settled. Elsewhere, even unpromising rocky islands were often occupied and garrisoned; in Australia, it was almost two centuries before settlement began, and that was only in the wake of Cook’s voyages of exploration.
Cook did not of course find an unknown continent, but he did establish, in the course of a thorough search of the South Pacific, that there was no other Terra Australis to be found there and, most importantly for us, he charted the vast extent of the continent’s east coast for the first time. In mapping this new territory he gave the world knowledge no one previously had, perhaps as good a definition of discovery as any.
But there was still more to be done, and it was Matthew Flinders who first circumnavigated the continent in 1802 and 1803 aboard the Investigator. In the course of his voyage, he met a French expedition under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin — during a brief interval of peace between France and Britain — at a place on the southern coast that Flinders subsequently named Encounter Bay.
Baudin was also conducting a survey of the Australian coast, on a voyage commissioned by Napoleon as first consul, for Bonaparte did not make himself emperor until 1804. He sailed with two ships, the Geographe and the Naturaliste — scientific names evoking the Enlightenment spirit of the expedition — and a large contingent of scientists, natural history artists, and surveyors to carry out the charting.
The expedition brought back more than 100,000 specimens, including living animals that were transferred to the park of Malmaison, Napoleon’s residence, and data on more than 2500 new species. There were also more than 1500 drawings, and a selection of these, along with books and maps, make up this absorbing exhibition of material lent by the Museum of Natural History of Le Havre in France.
Although Flinders was the first to circumnavigate Australia and indeed promoted this appellation in preference to New Holland, Baudin’s expedition produced the first complete map of the continent, finished in 1808 and published in 1811 in the official account of the voyage. One of the volumes of that account is open at the map, and another display case contains the original engraved copper plate from which the map was printed.
Baudin’s map does not yet use the name Australia, but labels the various regions separately: thus the east coast is Nouvelle Galles du sud, while the eastern half of the south coast is labelled Terre Napoleon, implying potential political claims that might have arisen if Napoleon had not been defeated first in 1814, then decisively in 1815.
There are a number of smaller map drawings, surveys of islands and bays, included in the exhibition, some with telling changes of name: thus Kangaroo Island, though discovered and named by Flinders, was renamed by Baudin — contrary to convention — in honour of the famous mathematician Jean-Charles de Borda.
However, after Baudin’s death in 1803, one of the associates who wrote up the voyage for publication crossed out Borda’s name and inserted that of Denis Decres, the minister for the navy, presumably as an act of flattery. Borda’s name was transferred to a headland of the island, and now survives as Cape Borda, while Decres has vanished and the island has reverted to the name Flinders gave it.
Particularly interesting is a series of fine portraits of Aborigines by one of the expedition’s two artists, Nicolas-Martin Petit. The finest is of a young man identified as Bedgi (or in English transliteration perhaps Beji), not only because it is very beautifully painted, but because of the much greater sense of an inner life — or perhaps an inner life that the artist understood — than we sense in the others.