The Matthew Flinders - Nicolas Baudin Legacy

The coastline of South Australia was explored independently by French and British voyages [from 1801 to 1803]. Captain Nicolas Baudin and Captain Matthew Flinders led the expeditions respectively, naming many geographical features of the State. Flinders, in particular was an outstanding navigator, cartographer and hydrographer and Baudin was an outstanding seaman and collector.

Both expeditions returned with thousands of specimens and/or drawings of plants, animals and aborigines and the achievements of these two expeditions in the fields of anthropology, oceanography, botany and zoology were no less significant than their achievements in providing accurate charts of the Australian coastline. Despite rivalry and warring between England and France, Flinders and Baudin met peacefully in Encounter Bay in April 1802, exchanging as best they could information on their respective discoveries. Both men were also compassionate towards the indigenous people of the continent and went out of their way to avoid confrontations with them. Geographic and scientific discovery as we know it today commenced in South Australia with these two voyages (…).

The significance of the voyages of Flinders and Baudin in Australian history is largely forgotten. Until these voyages, the Australian coastline had not been fully charted, and the Australian mainland was not known as a single large island. In fact, few Australians would know that Matthew Flinders named this country Australia with his publication "A Voyage to Terra Australis" and was the first European to refer to the country's Aborigines as Australians. Furthermore, settlement of South Australia by the South Australia Company could not even be conceived until after these voyages.

Many of the geographic place names around the southern coast of Australia, and particularly South Australia, were named by either Flinders or Baudin. Since Flinders charted most of the southern coastline prior to Baudin his names have taken precedence. Flinders, for example, named Spencer Gulf, Gulf St Vincent, Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln, Boston Bay and Encounter Bay, where Flinders and Baudin met in April 1802. Baudin's expedition provided the names for the Fleurieu Peninsula and a host of names for places around Kangaroo Island: Cape du Couëdic, Ravine des Casoars, D'Estrées Bay [Baie d'Estrée], Cape Gantheaume, etc.

These two expeditions, however, were far more significant than this. Both were voyages of scientific as well as geographic discovery. Both expeditions included scientists and artists. Baudin's expedition, for example, boasting no fewer than 22, the most prominent being Péron whose observations on Aborigines, ably supported by the paintings of Lesueur, were so profound that they are now regarded as marking the beginning of the study of anthropology.

Robert Brown's botanical work on Flinders's voyage was no less profound, collecting specimens of almost 4,000 plant species and his 1810 publication "Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae" helped to transform botanical classification. Ferdinand Bauer was Brown's assistant and his sketches of almost 2,000 plants and animals were of such quality that he is now considered the outstanding natural history artist of the 19th century. In all, the expeditions returned with thousands of specimens and drawings of plants, animals and Aborigines and the achievements of these two expeditions in the fields of anthropology, oceanography, botany and zoology were no less significant than their achievements in providing charts of the Australian coastline. They were the first scientific expeditions to this country and this should be formally acknowledged and remembered.

The achievements of Flinders and Baudin and their associated crews were remarkable. They sailed half-way round the world across treacherous seas in boats that were barely seaworthy to areas of the world that were literally unknown, without the safety net that modern navigational aids and communication systems now provide. Despite many mishaps and disasters, both voyages made enormous contributions and strived for excellence.

Flinders's skills as a navigator and cartographer were exceptional - so good were his maps that they were still being used into the 1940s! Baudin was no lesser seaman. If ever there were two icons to act as inspiration for young environmental scientists in Australia, then Flinders and Baudin must surely be those icons. Despite the warring between their countries, they met amicably and exchanged information, as scientists should always do. What is more, both Flinders and Baudin were compassionate towards the indigenous people of the continent and went out of their way to avoid confrontation. Baudin's own views on native rights were extraordinary for the time. In a letter written to his friend Governor King of New South Wales, Baudin wrote on his departure from the colony:

"To my way of thinking, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments a land seen for the first time, when it was inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages, or cannibals, that has been freely given them;... it would be infinitely more glorious for your nation, as for mine, to mould for society the inhabitants of its own country, over whom it has rights, rather than wishing to occupy itself with the improvements of those who are far removed from it, by beginning with seizing the soil which belongs to them and which saw their birth" (taken from a paper by Anthony J. Brown 1998 'Flinders, Baudin and the Unknown Coast').

Text © by:
Dr David C. Paton
Adelaide University