Historical Background

Britain and France had been at war for 7 years when, in June 1800, the French Republic’s resident commissioner in London, Citizen Louis-Guillaume Otto, lodged his government’s application for a safe-conduct for a French voyage of discovery. It sought passports for two ships under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin ‘to continue the useful discoveries which your navigators made in their voyages round the world’. Though Otto’s official duty was to arrange the exchange of prisoners of war, his office also provided a useful channel for informal contacts between the two governments on other matters. Through tact and diplomacy he had earned the esteem of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, and other men of influence.

Prime Minister William Pitt referred the request to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, for a decision; Spencer in turn called on his close friend Sir Joseph for advice. Banks had already received through Otto’s office a letter from his opposite number in Paris, Professor Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and his colleagues of the 'Institute National' of France:

‘The 'Institute National' is desirous that several distant voyages useful to the progress of human knowledge should begin without delay. Its wishes have been endorsed by our Government which has just issued orders for the preparation as soon as possible of expeditions led by skilful navigators as well as enlightened men of science, and will approach the Government of your country for the necessary passports or safe-conducts for our vessels.

The 'Institute National' considers that it is precisely at the moment when war still burdens the world that the friends of humanity should work for it, by advancing the limits of science and of useful arts by means of enterprises similar to those which have immortalised the great navigators of our two nations and the illustrious men of science who have scoured sea and land to study nature, where they could do so with the greatest success.

We hasten to beg you, as one of the most distinguished members of the commonwealth of learning, to use your good offices with your Government with that zeal which has always inspired you to work in the interests of humanity, to renew those marks of respect for science which our two nations have more than once given, and therefore to secure the prompt despatch of the passports which will be requested…’ (de Beer, 1960).

The British government could not tolerate the thought of a French settlement in New Holland, least of all in wartime. Providentially, Lieutenant Matthew Flinders RN provided the Admiralty with the opportunity to counter any possible French duplicity with a genuinely scientific voyage of its own. Flinders had returned home in September 1800, after five years on the Port Jackson station, with a detailed proposal to circumnavigate the continent, complete the survey of its coasts (including the unknown southern coast - an estimated 950 - 1000 miles), and at the same time undertake a range of scientific investigations. Flinders, like Baudin, did not present his proposal to the naval authorities but to the country’s most influential scientist - Sir Joseph Banks. He did not get to meet Banks until mid-November, but from then on events moved with incredible speed. Within 3-4 weeks the voyage had been approved, and a ship - the former collier Xenophon, renamed Investigator -had been selected and slipped at Sheerness for a refit. Flinders was formally named her commander on 19 January 1801, and sailed from Portsmouth on 18 July - nine months after Baudin’s ships had left Le Havre.

I (Mr Brown) have covered the meeting of the two expeditions at Encounter Bay on 8 April 1802 elsewhere (Brown 1998; Brown 2000), and will not go into details here. Before their meeting Baudin had surveyed the west and north-west coasts, charting long stretches for the first time, while numerous botanical and zoological specimens were collected for the Paris Museum. He wintered at the Dutch settlement at Koepang, West Timor, and sailed south for Van Diemen’s Land in November. Unknown to him, Flinders was in King George Sound when he passed far out to sea in early January. In Van Diemen’s Land he charted Storm Bay, the Tasman Peninsula and the east coast in greater detail than any previous navigator, and his scientists gathered unique records of the way of life of the Tasmanian aborigines - in the process laying the foundations for an Australian anthropology (Plomley 1983).

Meanwhile Flinders had surveyed the south coast from the Sound as far as Encounter Bay - from the Bight eastward it was all land seen for the first time by Europeans.

The encounter (between Flinders and Baudin) passed off peacefully, although with other commanders it might conceivably have been otherwise. The Investigator carried two 18-pound carronades, six 12-pound carronades, two 6-pound long guns, and two swivels (lngleton 1986). The Géographe, according to her passport, was more lightly armed, with eight 4-pound carriage guns and eight swivels. The armaments were sufficient to repel a small privateer or pirates, but not for a serious sea fight.

History’s judgement, is always multi-faceted. It was left to Australians to give the historical kaleidoscope a shake and a different picture formed. Flinders’ resurrection began early, in the mid-nineteenth century, with the colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria each voting a pension of £100 a year for his widow and her daughter (Scott 1914); Baudin remained all but forgotten until the latter part of the twentieth. Today, two centuries after their voyages, the two captains can be honoured for their wide-ranging contributions to the development of the sciences in Australia.

By his circumnavigation Flinders confirmed the existence of the sixth continent. He planned to call it Australia, writing to Banks from Mauritius:

‘The propriety of the name Australia or Terra Australis which I have applied to the whole body of what has generally been called New Holland must be submitted to the Admiralty and then learned in geography’ (Ingleton 1986).

Banks did not agree, preferring Terra Australis, and Australia did not come into general use until the 1820’s. Flinders’ rough chart of Terra Australis was completed on Mauritius in 1804, and was received in England the following year; however, it was filed in the Admiralty awaiting the compiler’s return in 1810 from his detention, and his corrected General Chart was not published until 1814.

A lesser navigator than Flinders, Baudin nonetheless kept his ships at sea off strange coasts for more than two years without major mishap or damage - an achievement in itself. He explored the west and north-west coasts which Flinders did not visit, and was the first European captain to circumnavigate Kangaroo Island. Louis de Freycinet’s charts of the voyage appeared before Flinders’, and thus the French were first to give the world a more or less ‘complete’ map of the continent, with a few blanks remaining on the northwest coast (Freycinet 1812).

In addition to geographic discovery and hydrographic surveying, the two expeditions shared similar scientific objectives - Battdin ‘to study the (country’s) inhabitants, animals, and natural products ... and to (procure specimens of) its useful animals and plants’ for introduction into France’ (Cornell 1974); and Flinders to examine the continent’s botany, zoology, and today, as the bicentenary of the two voyages approaches, we can honour Baudin and Flinders for their contributions to the development of the sciences in Australia. Together, their discoveries contributed to significant advances in such varied disciplines as anthropology and ethnography, botany, cartography, geography, hydrography and oceanography, marine biology, naval medicine, and zoology - not to mention the memorable fusion of art and science in the drawings and paintings of Bauer, Lesueur and Petit. These came at great cost, however - in any scientific commemoration of their achievements, those who gave their lives to the endeavour should not be forgotten:

Pierre Francois Bernier
Astronomer (French)

Ansehn Riedlé and Antoine Sautier
Gardeners (French)

Louis Depuch
Mineralogist (French)

René Mauge and Stanislas Levillain
Zoologists (French)

Peter Good
Gardener (English)

Ironically, all seven died from the effects of dysentery and fever contracted on the island of Timor, where the ships had called for R&R (Rest and Recuperation) for the crews.

Science or Espionage?

This paper would not be complete without some discussion of the vexed question of espionage by the two expeditions. In the event, although both Britain and France issued safe-conducts guaranteeing the safety of the other’s ships in the name of science, the avowed scientific objectives of both voyages were compromised by the strategic imperatives of the war.

No evidence has come to light implicating Baudin himself in spying on the British settlement at Port Jackson, as later alleged by the Admiralty (Quart. Review 1810) - indeed, his sailing instructions excluded the east coast of New Holland from his itinerary, since it was already well known from the work of English navigators. On the other hand he was specifically directed to ‘sail the full length of (D’Entrecasteaux) channel (in Van Diemen’s Land) to ascertain whether or not the English have established a settlement there’ (Cornell 1974).

To Decaen, busily engaged in placing the island on a war footing following the renewal of hostilities, the Englishman’s fortuitous arrival seemed doubly suspicious - not only was his ship, the 29 ton schooner Cumberland, a highly unlikely vessel for the commander of a voyage on discovery, but his passport was for the 334 ton sloop Investigator. Moreover, the Cumberland had spied on the Géographe during her voyage through Bass Strait just 12 months before. Placing Finders under temporary arrest as a suspected spy, the General ordered the seizure and inspection of his logbooks and papers. On examination these appeared to provide the proof he needed.

In contravention of his passport Flinders was carrying despatches from Governor King to the home government, requesting inter alia additional troops and armaments for the British colony - for defence against any possible attack from lle-de-France and to ‘annoy the trade’ of the Spanish settlements in South America. Flinders denied all knowledge of the contents, but for Decaen they bore out Péron’s claims that his voyage had a military and strategic purpose. No less damaging was the statement in Flinders' logbook that at Ile-de-France he intended to ‘acquire a knowledge of the winds and weather (and) the actual state of the French colony, and of what utility it and its dependencies might be to Port Jackson’ - no more than the French had done at Sydney during the Peace of Amiens, but military intelligence in wartime.

Mrs Ly-Tio-Fane Pineo (1988) has argued, convincingly in my view, that Decaen used Flinders’ release as a bargaining chip to secure his own return to France after an inevitable British invasion of the island; she writes ‘what is most probable is that the Captain-General, an excellent strategist, must have demanded, in exchange for the immediate liberation of the navigator, assurances for his own freedom, should he ... be reduced to capitulate to an invading force’. Certainly her thesis goes far to explain the events which followed his release on parole in June 1810.

Flinders sailed for Cape Town, where he expected to take immediate passage to England. Instead he was ordered to report to Vice-Admiral Bertie, the Commander-in-Chief, who was planning the invasion of Ile-de-France and required information on the island’s topography, military strength, defences, civilian morale, and other intelligence. Flinders demurred, pointing out that this was contrary to his parole, but gave in when Bertie insisted,

‘Conceiving with me(!) that I was under no obligation to refuse any information that might be required of me relative to that colony’.

Text © by:
Mr Anthony J Brown