Saturday, September 16, 2023

Baudin’s voyage to Australia

The French explorer Nicolas Baudin died on this day 220 years ago. Born in humble circumstances, he rose to captain one of France’s most important scientific and geographical expeditions to Australia - rivalling a similar expedition by the British captain Matthew Flinders. Both Baudin and Flinders -  who met once at Encounter Bay - are much studied by academics in Australia, and thus there is plenty of information about them on university and state library websites. In particular, the Libraries Board of South Australia published - in the 1970s and for the first time - a personal journal kept by Baudin. This latter contradicts some of the official French version of the voyage, dating from the early 19th century, which is highly critical of Baudin.

Baudin was born in 1754 at Île de Ré, a small island off the west coast of France. He joined the merchant navy aged 15, then the French East India Company, and then the French navy, as an ‘officier bleu’ (a commoner not of noble birth). He served a year in the Carribbean, before resigning and returning to merchant service, transporting emmigrants to New Orleans, and timber back to France. After a chance meeting with Franz Boos, the Austrian Emperor’s head gardener and botanist, Baudin took charge, in 1792, of a scientific expedition for Imperial Austria to the Indian Ocean. In 1796, he made a similar scientific voyage to the West Indies, where he collected material for museums in Paris.

In 1800, Baudin was selected to lead, what became known as, the Baudin expedition to map the coast of Australia (then still called New Holland) with two ships, Géographe and Naturaliste, and a company of scientists. He reached Australia in May the following year, and was the first to explore and map the western coast and part of the southern coast. In 1802, he stopped in Sydney, sent home the Naturaliste with all the scientific specimens he had acquired, and bought a new ship - Casuarina. He made for Tasmania, then Timor, before heading back to Europe; but, having stopped at Mauritius, Baudin died there of tuberculosis on 16 September 1803. See Wikipedia, the ABC’s Navigators website, or the Australian Dictionary of National Biography for more information.

The official account of the Baudin expedition - written partly by François Péron and completed by Louis de Freycinet - appeared in two volumes (1807 and 1816) of the series Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes exécuté par ordre de Sa Majesté l’Empereur et Roi, sur les corvettes le Géographe, le Naturaliste, et la goélette le Casuarina, pendant les années 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804. Péron was particularly hostile towards his former commander, Baudin, and this shows through his account of the expedition.

However, a personal journal kept by Baudin during the voyage, from October 1800 to August 1803, gives a very different impression to that of Péron’s account. This was first translated from the French by Christine Cornell and published in 1974 by Libraries Board of South Australia as The Journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin, Commander-in-Chief of the Corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste, assigned by order of the government to a voyage of discovery. A lot more about the project to translate the journal can be found in The Baudin Legacy newsletter. A revisionist analysis of Baudin and his expedition to Australia can be found in The Baudin Expedition in Review: Old Quarrels and New Approaches (Australian Journal of French Studies, 2004).

Further information about Baudin’s journal is also available in Ill-Starred Captains: Flinders and Baudin by Anthony J. Brown, partly available to read on Googlebooks, which focuses on Baudin and the captain of a rival British expedition, Matthew Flinders. The two - famously - met at Encounter Bay on 8 April 1802. A website celebrating this encounter and both expeditions was set up by the State Library of South Australia in 2002; and this includes many extracts from Baudin’s journal. Here are three.

9 April 1802
‘There was little wind for the rest of the day. Sometimes we were even becalmed and at the mercy of the current, which carried us towards the coast, then only a league off. After sighting our points of the previous day, we sailed along the high land that we had seen a little before sunset. The coast in this part, if not extremely pleasant. was at least preferable to the region of sand-hills that we had just left.

At midday the latitude observed was 35° 36' but this was very uncertain. At three o’clock we sighted the island and islets spoken of by Mr. Flinders. I proceeded so as to run in for the channel separating them from the mainland, but since the slight wind blowing did not allow me to do this before dark, I went about at five o'clock to stand out to sea.

Coasting the mainland during the day, we sighted three islets or rocks lying such a short way out, that to see them. it was necessary to be as close in as we were. If becalmed, one could anchor there in 24 or 21 fathoms, for the bottom is sandy and good - a rather rare thing between here and the Promontory. At sunset we could still see Mr. Flinders’ ship running on the South-westerly leg.

Until midnight the winds were South to South- South-East and rather fresh, but then they moderated, and shortly after, we went on the landward leg.’

19 April 1802
‘I was expecting the weather to turn fine again and to be able, during the day, to explore the part of the coast that we had seen the previous day. But instead of that, the sky (which had been fairly fine throughout the night) grew damp and misty, with a very threatening appearance for the rest of the day.

At seven o’clock land was sighted from the mast-heads. It stretched from East-North-East to North North-West, proving only too plainly that we were in a gulf, as I had always thought we were, judging from the general shallowness of the water and the progressive decrease in its depth as we headed either West or East towards one coast or the other.

Since the weather promised too badly for us to think of reconnoitring the western part of this gulf, I sought to bear South as much as possible in order to be in a more advantageous position. During the morning the winds varied from North-West to West-South-West and were frequently accompanied by squalls and strong gusts. [. . .]

At one in the afternoon, with the wind still increasing and accompanied by sharp gusts, we wore ship and headed West of North-West to stand off the coast for greater safety during the night, for it looked as if it would be rather exhausting for us. At two o’clock the wind was still rising and the sea was growing steadily rougher, so we had to furl the mizzen-topsail and, shortly after, the fore-topsail. Although we were carrying no more than the foresail, main-topsail, close-reefed, and mizzen-staysail, the ship had on quite as much as she could manage in the squalls. We continued to tack West of North-West until eight in the evening. At that stage, being in 23 fathoms, we took our point of departure for the night’s tacking. The weather throughout it was very bad and the gusts were even stronger than during the day. We were several times obliged to lower our main-topsail, despite its small amount of canvas left. We went about every four hours and managed to maintain ourselves between 20 and 24 fathoms, tacking in a depth that never exceeded 30 and that diminished to East and West once one had reached there.

The night was very tiring for the crew and me in that we spent it constantly on deck. Except for those who changed watch, all the officers passed it just as peacefully in their beds as if the ship had been absolutely secure. As it was not the first time that they had done this, even in more critical situations than we were then in, I was not in the least surprised by it and left them in complete peace. This was what I had decided to do whenever such an occasion should arise. The stay of our fore-topmast staysail and its halyard went twice during the night, but the sail was only slightly damaged. The rain-bearing squalls were very cold and sometimes the water was like half-melted snow. We concluded from this that the winter cannot be very agreeable in this climate. The scientists, however, are of a contrary opinion because they saw parakeets in D’Entrecasteaux Channel.’

7 February 1803
‘As soon as our sails were furled, two boats were immediately dispatched to go sounding all around the ship and in various directions. On their return, I was informed that the depth of this bay was not sufficient for even a small vessel. At about a mile from the ship there were no more than 5 fathoms of water; half a mile further on, 4, and almost straightaway, 3 and 2. Nearer to the shore there was nothing but shallows and a continuous succession of sand-banks partly visible at low tide.

The boat which had had orders to head North-West gave us a moment of joy and satisfaction when it told us that it had discovered a fine port into which four rivers flowed, and that in the one it had entered, there were 4 fathoms of water and 3 inside. As a matter of fact the water in it was salty, but it would probably finish by becoming fresh as one went further up it. This was particularly pleasant, as it compensated for our regret at having found nothing on this coast so far that could repay us for our efforts and be of use to navigators.

The little boat had been sent off likewise to the island opposite which we were at anchor, and Citizen Guichenot, our gardener, had gone in it to reconnoitre the territory and discover what it produced. The boat did not return until during the night, having been stranded at low tide more than 2 miles off shore.

According to the gardener’s report, this island consists merely of sand, in which various low, shrubby trees grow. He only brought back some plants that were gone to seed, having been unable to find any in flower. Amongst them, there is one that has absolutely the bearing of an olive-tree. Its fruit resembles the olive in miniature, although the seed inside is very different. A big fire was lit on this island to serve as a beacon for the Casuarina, should she happen to enter this region.

As there was a very strong breeze all day and we had only 30 fathoms of cable down, we paid out 20 more, and in spite of the heavy South-South-easterly gusts, held firm on our anchor - proof that the bottom was not foul and that the holding was good.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 16 September 2013.

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