From La PÃ©rouse to Sydney to the French island of Victoria and the Fleurieu peninsula in South Australia, the first traces of French exploration dot the country’s coastline.
In fact, the French were so familiar with our region that they were the first to print an almost complete map of the Australian coast in 1811, beating the British by three years. But for a few other historical quirks, at least part of the nation might now be French-speaking.
This map, contained in an extensive collection of French books held at the State Library of Victoria, was recently shown to the French Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre ThÃ©bault, on a private visit.
The ambassador, a history buff and rare book collector, was encouraged by the reminder of the deep ties between his country and the land that has become Australia.
Unlike many official visitors, the Ambassador “immediately aroused enthusiasm,” said Des Cowley, the main book history librarian at the library, referring to a “witty and chatty” visit.
The map was the product of the 1801-04 voyage of explorer Nicolas Baudin, whose crew mapped much of the southern coast, helping to determine that the mainland was a single island. It also includes the description of “The Land of Napoleon”, covering much of what is now Victoria and South Australia.
French explorers had touched several parts of the continent’s coast in the years before Britain established its convict colony.
Louis-Antoine, Earl of Bougainville, saw his ship’s passage west blocked by the outer shoals of the Great Barrier Reef in June 1768, two years before Captain James Cook’s Endeavor crossed the same area and only claims the east coast for Great Britain.
In March 1772, two French expeditions were at opposite ends of the continent and, in one case, explicitly claimed territory.
Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne visited Tasmania and stayed briefly with the indigenous peoples, while off the northwest coast, FranÃ§ois de Saint-Alouarn buried two bottles containing proclamation statements on Dirk Hartog Island. Archaeologists found a bottle in 1998 – now at the WA Maritime Museum.
When the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on January 18, 1788, it was followed barely six days later by two ships under the command of Jean FranÃ§ois de Galaup, Count of LapÃ©rouse.
A young Corsican named Napoleon Bonaparte enlisted, but narrowly missed joining Laperouse’s ill-fated exploration voyage – both ships were wrecked in the Solomon Islands and the crew lost.
But Baudin’s mapping of the south coast, including his meeting with his much better-known English counterpart Matthew Flinders at Encounter Bay (now in South Australia) is perhaps the most intriguing.
By this time, the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing in Europe, causing the British to fear that world expeditions threatened its young and relatively weak colony.
Danielle Clode, associate professor of humanities at Flinders University and an authority on French Pacific exploration, says the understanding received by many Australians is that after 1788 “from then on the British had all the continent”.
“But that was not the case at the time – the English claim to Australia was very tenuous,” she says. “The French made them extremely nervous because they kept coming to explore … and so they were always worried that the French would claim part of the country.”
But Clode says that France was not “very motivated to undertake colonial activities” at the time of Baudin’s expedition, having had “a revolution to manage”.
The main purpose of the trip was rather to map the territory, to gather scientific knowledge and to collect specimens of flora and fauna.
Baudin himself was a product of revolutionary uproar, rising in the merchant navy contrary to the noble pedigree of many officers and even scientists serving under him.
As Clode notes in his book Voyages to the South Seas, he was adept at collecting specimens, having collected them in 1786 and 1792 in India and China in the service of Archduke Franz Joseph of Austria.
Baudin’s legacy, however, was deliberately obscured for many decades, not least because those who wrote the travel accounts, especially naturalist FranÃ§ois Peron, did not like Baudin intensely and even failed to name him in their papers. publications.
Baudin died of tuberculosis in Mauritius in 1803, at the age of 49, but several thousand pieces of scientific interest returned to France, some to be part of the collection of Empress Josephine.
These included living plants as well as kangaroos, emus, and black swans that Baudin had ordered to be kept safe from starving sailors and cooks. Some officers have lost their cabins to the menagerie, to give them a better chance of surviving the long journey. âThe wombatsâ, alas, did not succeed.
It is not known whether Baudin should insist more energetically on French territorial claims.
Doubts remain as to the veracity of a comment attributed to Napoleon according to which “Baudin did well to die, on his return I would have hanged him” for not having disputed the claims of Great Britain.
However, Flinders wrote in his account of his circumnavigation of the continent that one of Baudin’s officers, Henri de Freycinet, told him: discovered the south coast before us.
Although Baudin, like the English, is busy naming dozens of places along the coast without asking what the native owners called their homes, he has expressed doubts about taking possession.
In a letter to Governor Philip King in Sydney, with whom he had befriended, the French explorer wrote:
âIn my opinion, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even equity on the part of the Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men. who have not always earned the title of savages or cannibals.
“[I]It would be infinitely more glorious for your nation, as for mine, to train in the company the inhabitants of its own country on which it has rights, rather than wanting to occupy itself with the improvement of those which are very distant from it by starting by to seize the ground which belongs to them and which saw their birth.
Thebault says that the sentiment reflects the more universalist characteristics of the Enlightenment.
For Clode, whose work also appeared in a documentary aired on SBS, the French forays can help change the way we think about our history.
âWe tend to see it as inevitable progress to where we are now,â she says. “The interesting thing is to see what could have been, if things had been slightly different.”