How Australia didn’t become French – Part 1

This article is in English. Click here to read it in French.

France, besides Holland and England, played an important – if obscure – part in the exploration of Australia and the Pacific. Nowadays, the only evidence that remains of the tricolour explorateurs are a few expensive suburbs with French names and a museum.

What happened? The first chapter of the Terra Australis expedition starts in 1771 with commander Kerguelen and his second, Louis Aleno de Saint-Aloüarn.

Aristotle, then Ptolemus, already wrote about the myth of Terra Australis Incognita, a land supposed to balance the mass of the northern hemisphere. The very idea of its existence generated doubt and speculation. While in the 18th century the Aborigines were going about with their business, Europe was trying to get a hold on this Great Southern Land.

The decline of the French empire

In the 18th century the French Empire collapsed. France was losing the Seven Years’ War, as well as its grasp on its Canadian, Indian and Caribbean colonies. France was also relinquishing its North American territories to the English.

In Cape York, James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia for the English crown in April 1770, and the British Empire became the world’s first superpower. For France, this was too much to bear. We were not going to let ourselves be run over by ‘rosbifs’.

Meanwhile, the ideas of the Lumières, which had existed in embryonic form since Antiquity, were still being debated. Education, through experience and reason, sought to emancipate the individual from religious control and authority. The concept of travel was at the heart of this desire for knowledge of a ‘human mind’, history and enlightenment.

This mixture of mistreated ego, fierce competition and curiosity constituted the foundation of the race to the Great South – an expedition led by skilled navigators whose veins coursed with risk and adventure.

Kerguelen’s failed expedition

Cécile Mazurier 11-06-13 2

In 1771, Louis XV launched the first offensive to expand on Cook’s discoveries, establish bonds of trade and friendship with locals, and restore France’s naval prestige. Commander Kerguelen and his second, de Saint-Aloüarn, left for a mission to Terra Australis. The expedition, similar to a CIA operation, was kept secret; no one on board knew the real destination.

We’re not, however, interested in Kerguelen here, because he messed up. Navigating from Isle de France in two different vessels, which became separated in the fog, Kerguelen then mistook a small, inhospitable archipelago for Terra Australis, raised the flag and turned back.

Three years later, James Cook, in all his wit, named this archipelago – better known as the Islands of Desolation – after the Breton commander. The irony is too good.

A bizarre denouement


Meanwhile, de Saint-Aloüarn, confused and lost, kept navigating towards the East and landed in Shark Bay in March 1772. On 30 March, in Turtle Bay, the western half of New-Holland was claimed for Louis XV.

The commander buried two wine bottles (of course) in the sand, each set with a silver louis and containing the statements of proclamation.

De Saint-Aloüarn, feverish and exhausted by the expedition, was then on his way back home, but died seven months after on the Isle of France. Before his death, he took the time to write a letter to Kerguelen, who never replied.

De Saint-Aloüarn perished and his name was forgotten. It was only in 1998 that a team or archeologists, led by Philippe Godard, found the first relic of the expedition: a silver coin on a lead cap.

France did possess half of Australia – only they never did anything with it. Surprising, isn’t it?

Image credits:
1. The decadent proportions of Terra Australis Incognita in 1616 seen by Dutch Pertus Bertius, via
2. James Cook and Joseph Banks, two British gentlemen in white frocks raising the British flag in Botany Bay, via The Australian
3. The discovery of Kerguelen islands, the pride of France, celebrated by a stamp in 1972, via
4. In 2007, France celebrates de Saint-Aloüarn with again … via  Philatélie de Staaf

About the Contributor

Cécile Mazurier

Three things about France I miss and how writing is (among other things) a way to sublimate the loss: 1. red wine 2. cornichons 3. sarcasm. I live in Sydney and I like demystifying clichés. You can contact me on LinkedIn or follow my non-adventures in my blog.

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  1. Hannah Charbit Jun 26, 2013 at 12:40 AM - Reply

    Great article!

  2. Judy MacMahon Jun 26, 2013 at 10:52 AM - Reply

    A MUST READ for all Australians and for French people with Australian affiliations! Well done Cécile.

    • Cécile Mazurier Jun 29, 2013 at 12:05 PM - Reply

      Thank you very much Judy. This research on French expeditions has been full of surprises. Australia is filled with French history, although not many people are aware of it.

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