Exploration in a time of war

On the last year of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte [1769 - 1821], First Consul of France, decided to send to Western and Southern Australia the largest scientific expedition that Europeans had ever made. In October 1800, well-endowed with scientists and under the overall command of the seasoned merchant captain Nicolas(-Thomas) Baudin [StMartin, île de Ré 17.2.1754 - île de France (Mauritius Island) 16.9.1803], the corvettes Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste (the latter captained by Jacques-(Félix?) Emmanuel Hamelin [1768-1839]), sailed from Le Havre to the far-away shores of Australia.

The corvette le Naturaliste, was to return to Le Havre on 7.6.1803, under the command of Hamelin, and the corvette le Géographe was to return France in Lorient, Brittany (Bretagne), on 23.3.1804, under the command of Pierre-Bernard Milius.

When nominated as captain of the scientific expedition, Baudin was renown for having a great deal of experience in botany and zoology, and for knowing how to keep plants and animals alive at sea, having already made for the Austrian Empire four natural history voyages to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

Revolutionary France and Great Britain had been at war for nearly eight years (officially since 1.2.1793) at the time of departure of the two French corvettes. Not unexpectedly, the British followed suit albeit with a smaller expedition, and in July 1801 H.M.Sloop-collier Investigator sailed from Portsmouth under the command of Royal Navy officer Matthew Flinders [16.3.1774 Donington, Lincolnshire -19.7.1814 London], an experienced sailor with first-hand knowledge of Australia (the botanical genus Flindersia has been named in his honour).

On 21.3.1802, Flinders was in all likelihood the first European to sight Kanguroo Island, which he named so on his first landing (22.3.1802).

The nearly rotting Investigator was to return back to England in Liverpool on 13.10.1805, but without Flinders, put under house arrest on île de France - war had once again resumed between England and France, after a short lull (treaty of Amiens) from 25.3.1802 to 16.5.1803.

It is worth noting that during their peaceful encounter on 8.4.1802 (in Encounter Bay, to the east of Kangaroo Island), Flinders and Baudin did not know that there was peace at that time between their respective countries. They nevertheless decided to help each other and to exchange scientific and geographic information.

Two scientific expeditions

The main scientific patron of the French expedition was the plant taxonomist Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu [Lyon 12.4.1748 - Paris 17.9.1836], whose family classification of plants is still mostly retained. The navigator and explorer Charles-Pierre Claret de Fleurieu [Lyon 1738 - 1810], who had much expertise of Australia, helped to define the plans for the voyage. The anatomist, zoologist et palaeontologist George Cuvier [Montbéliard, Doubs, 23.8.1769 - Paris 13.5.1832], and to a lesser degree the anthropologist and philosopher Joseph-Marie Degérando, also helped to define the scientific program.

The scientific patron of the English expedition was Joseph Banks [London 22.2.1743 - London 19.6.1820], the botanist who had sailed with James Cook [1728-1779] on H.M.Sloop-collier Endeavour in 1768-71. As a matter of fact, he was the scientific driving force behind the commissioning of the Investigator's expedition. The Australian genus Banksia (Proteaceae) has been named in his honour.

Both Banks and Jussieu (and Cuvier) were well-known heavy weights in natural history, without them there would have been no scientific expeditions.

One of the main scientists on the French expedition was the anthropologist and zoologist François Péron [Cerilly, Allier, 1775 - 1810], who developed during the voyage a keen interest for what was by these times mostly considered as "inferior" and worthless animals (invertebrates, molluscs...).

The chief scientist on the British expedition was a Scottish army surgeon with a keen interest in botany, Robert Brown [Montrose, Scotland, 21.12.1773 - London 10.6.1858].

Robert Brown returned back to England (13.10.1805) on the Investigator with thousands of samples of organisms, mainly plants. On his return, he became Banks' curator and librarian. He patiently classified the enormous amount of material he had brought back with him, doing much to further the adoption of A.-L. de Jussieu's natural system of plant classification and thus making a great impact on botany. Brown recognised the fundamental division between coniferous plants (Gymnosperms) and flowering plants (Angiosperms), and in 1831-3 he established the existence of a cellular nucleus in vegetal cells as well as in animal cells. All in all, Robert Brown fully deserved the title that the German explorer and natural historian Alexander von Humboldt [1769 - 1859] bestowed on him, "botanicorum facile princeps".

Last but not least, Brown also contributed to a fundamental observation in science. From the 5th to the 3rd century BCE, the atomist and epicurian philosophers of Ancient Greece (Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus) had deduced, through logical thinking and simple observation (such as the movement of dust particles which can be seen in a ray of light), that nature was constituted of elementary particles obeying to deterministic laws but also endowed with an unceasing random movement. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment century, this idea was toyed again with, and in 1811 the Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro [1776 - 1856] had proposed a molecular model of nature, but it was not accepted by many scientists.

Enter Brown, who, appointed in 1827 first Keeper of the new Botanical department of the British Museum, observed in the same year the random movement of pollen and other small particles in fluid suspension, and rightly concluded that this movement did not originate from the fluid as such but from the particles themselves. Later on, this interpretation was developed and the continuous random motion of microscopic particles immersed in a fluid was demonstrated as resulting from their bombardment by molecules of the fluid. And from this, it was demonstrated that these molecules themselves, or simple atoms, forming a gas or liquid, were themselves continuously on a random move.

The importance of Brown's observations was recognised and the random movement of particles in space became known as Brownian movement. Its statistical and thermodynamic study by a stream of enlightened scientists, the German Rudolf Clausius [1822 - 1888], the Scottish James C. Maxwell [1831 - 1879], the Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann [1844 - 1906] and the French Jean Perrin [1870 - 1942], firmly confirmed as indisputable the atomist view of the world that the Antiquity philosophers, from Leucippus to Lucretius (1st century BCE), had so remarquably compounded. At a fundamental level, Brown's studies firmly confirmed that random processes do happen in nature, thus conceptually paving the way not only to statistical thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, but also to the Darwinian view of life as a partially random evolutionary process.

Natural arts blossomed on both expeditions

Both Péron and Brown were to get along very well with their natural arts companions, respectively Charles-Alexandre Lesueur [Le Havre 1.1778 - Le Havre 12.1846] and Ferdinand(-Lucas) Bauer [20.1.1760 Feldsberg, Österreich (now Valtice in the Czech Republic) - 17.3.1826 Hietzing, Wien]. Ferdinand Bauer had been the illustrator of the Flora Græca, published in 1806 after his Greek expedition of 1786-7 with the botanist John Sibthorp [1758-1796]. On his return to England on the Investigator with Robert Brown (13.10.1805), Bauer brought back his extraordinary collection of more than 2000 sketches plants and animals. The Australian plant Bauera rubioides has been named in honour of this artist with "an exquisite eye".

Text © by:
Dr Gabriel Bittar