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After harassing Napoleon for months, Nicolas Baudin finally obtained his permission to launch a discovery expedition in New Holland. The third and last chapter of the expeditions in Terra Australis then gathered speed.
At this end of the century, Napoleon’s influence was noticeably growing. As for New Holland, it was Nicolas Baudin’s last obsession after the success of his previous scientific expedition in the Antillean Islands. The main objective of this umpteenth journey to the antipodes was to find out whether the bits already mapped of the island all belonged to New Holland.
In 1800, Napoleon was already seeing himself as the king of the world, and New Holland was one of the most captivating place on earth. These two were made for each other.
Baudin and Flinders: rivals in the race to the antipodes
Napoleon ordered Nicolas Baudin to build up a collection of examples of Australian flora and fauna. To then map the south coast of New Holland, and possibly claim it for France.
When the English, never missing an opportunity to challenge the French, got wind of the story, they launched their own project. Matthew Flinders was in command.
The French, leaving in October 1800, reached New Holland in May 1801. Flinders arrived in December. Baudin’s ships, Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste, explored Tasmania and the south and west coasts of Australia for two years.
In 1803, the two commanders sailed back to Europe. They had, despite their frank rivalry, showed gallantry throughout their journey in granting each other safe passage. Fondly naming the place of their encounter in May 1802, the Encounter Bay.
In the north hemisphere, England was again at war against France. Flinders, unaware of the situation, got detained prisoner in Île-de-France for seven years. In 1807, he learned to his surprise that Baudin had given French names to the places he also discovered.
A French expedition for the love of science
Napoleon had organised a gigantic operation, by far outdoing Flinders’. Baudin, though at the beginning of this initiative, got surpassed by the ambitions of the government. This was asking too much. Atmosphere on board quickly deteriorated and the expedition did not go quite as planned.
Baudin certainly lacked political ambitions, but his expedition became one of the greatest scientific journeys of its time. Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste delivered, amongst others, more than hundreds of thousands of different animal, vegetal and mineral species.
Despite issues, one of the expedition’s greatest accomplishments was to successfully transport and keep alive these thousands of plants and animals, during the yearlong return trip through various climates. Baudin, hit by tuberculosis, did not survive the journey, but the kangaroos did.
What remains of French attempts to counter the English?
In 1811, Louis de Freycinet delivered the first complete map of Australia. However, by the time of the second edition in 1824, Napoleon had died. The majority of French names had been replaced by English ones.
Neither Baudin, de Saint-Aloüarn, nor La Pérouse succeeded in laying their hands on New Holland and destroying England’s colonisation plan.
Nowadays some French names are scattered here and there. La Pérouse in Sydney, the Fleurieu peninsula, Freycinet National Park, or a commemorative plaque for de Saint-Aloüarn in Western Australia. The name of Nicolas Baudin does not appear anywhere.
France, caught in a race with its endless rival, and driven by immoderate ambitions, always arrived too late. But appears as the good loser.
Bill Bryson imagined that, if La Pérouse had arrived before the First Fleet and claimed Australia for France, “it would have saved [it] 200 years of english cooking” (1).
How do you imagine a “French” Australia?
(1) Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country, Broadway Books, 2001, p.49
1. Port Jackson, as seen by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, official illustrator, via L’histoire par l’image
2. Portrait of Nicolas Baudin, forgotten hero, via fine art america
3. Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste, via Wikipedia
4. Grey kangaroos of Isle Decrès (Kangaroo Island), by C.-A. Lesueur, via L’histoire par l’image
5. On the road to La Pérouse, Sydney, by Cécile Mazurier