The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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.

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