Flinders, Baudin, and the unknown coast, by Brown, Anthony J.


by Mr Anthony J Brown

[notes added within the text in square brackets and highlighting are by Dr Gabriel Bittar]

In 2002 South Australians will celebrate the bicentenary of Matthew Flinders’ meeting with Nicolas Baudin in the waters of Encounter Bay on the 8th April 1802. More importantly, Encounter 2002 will also provide the focal point for commemorating two voyages of discovery which between them produced the first maps of Australia as we know it today. Their discoveries opened the way to the future settlement of Hobart, Perth and Melbourne, as well as Adelaide. The voyages also made a major contribution to the growth of Australian science in the 19th century.

Prior to 1800 the south coast of the continent (named by Flinders, the first time the name Australia was used for a geographical feature), from the Head of the Great Australian Bight to Westernport Bay, was unknown – many believed a huge strait ran south from the Gulf of Carpentaria, dividing New Holland into two large islands. Indeed, a London paper reported an American captain had sailed through it without sighting land on either side. Bass Strait had only been discovered by George Bass in December 1797 – a discovery confirmed by Flinders and Bass a year later in their circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land in the sloop Norfolk.

Flinders returned to England in 1800, a junior lieutenant with just two years seniority. He submitted a proposal to Sir Joseph Banks, the influential President of the Royal Society, “for completing the investigation of the coasts of Terra Australis“. With Banks’ support the plan was approved, and on the strength of his earlier explorations in New South Wales, and his charts of the new discoveries, Flinders was given command of the expedition. He sailed from Portsmouth in HM Sloop Investigator in [18th] July 1801.

Some three weeks elapsed between Banks’ first meeting with Flinders to discuss his plan, and the Admiralty’s selection of Investigator for the voyage. Such speed would be extraordinary today – in 1800 it was phenomenal. The most likely explanation would seem to be the deep-seated suspicions within the Admiralty and the government as to the motives behind the French voyage of discovery which had sailed from Le Havre in October [19th] 1800 under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin. Remember that the two countries had been at war since 1792 [31.12.1792: Alien Bill against the French], and would remain so until [20.11.]1815, with only two short breaks [Treaty of Amiens, 25.3.1802-16.5.1803, and 1st Treaty of Paris, 30.5.1814-20.3.1815]. It was in effect the first World War, but no one thought to call it that at the time. Many in the Admiralty believed that Baudin’s real task was to spy on the colony of New South Wales – “to find out what was left for the French to do on this great continent, in the event of a peace, [and] to rear the standard of Bonaparte… on the first convenient spot”.

Flinders’ orders were to make “a complete examination and survey of the coasts of New Holland” – although his mission might also be taken as a thinly disguised warning to the French not to encroach on HM territories in the south. In the event, however, both commanders kept to the terms of the passports issued by the opposing governments, and confined themselves to their agreed geographical and scientific objectives.

From May 1801, when Baudin made his landfall at Cape Leeuwin [in fact, slightly to the north, near cape Hamelin], the SW tip of Western Australia, to November 1803, when Flinders left Timor on his ill-fated homeward voyage, the two expeditions filled in virtually all the significant blanks on the existing maps of New Holland. Baudin surveyed many of the sketchily-known areas of the west and north-west coasts, including Geographe Bay, the Swan River, Shark Bay, the Bonaparte Archipelago and Joseph Bonaparte Gulf; in Van Diemen’s Land his men charted D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Bruny and Maria Islands, and the Forestier Peninsula.

Flinders followed Cook’s path up the east coast, then closely examined Tones Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria. In eleven months, between July 1802 and June 1803, he completed the first close circumnavigation of the continent [not altogether “close”: from the Northumberland Isles – off Queensland – to Cape York, and from Croker Island – northernmost tip of Australia – to Cape Leeuwin, he sailed hundreds of kilometres off the coast]. Fittingly, though, the longest and most intriguing gap of all, the Unknown Coast stretching from Cape Adieu to Cape Northumberland, had been closed with the meeting of the British and French captains in Encounter Bay. Neither of them knew at the time that the coast to the eastward, as far as Westernport, had been discovered by Lieutenant Grant in the Lady Nelson in December 1800, or that John Murray in the same vessel had entered and explored Port Philip Bay in January 1802. Flinders in fact sailed into the Bay only ten weeks after Murray left.

South Australians have a particular reason to commemorate the bicentenary of the Encounter. Colonisation could not be contemplated, let alone begin, until the Unknown Coast had been charted, its shores explored, its resources examined and evaluated, and sites identified for possible settlement. Information from Flinders’ explorations was crucial when plans for a new colony were drawn up in London in the 1830’s.

Flinders reached the head of the Bight on 27th January 1802, and the next day passed the limit of Dutch exploration at Cape Nuyts. From here onward the Unknown Coast began. The far west coast of S.A. and the coastline of what is now Eyre Peninsula bear witness to his voyage eastward: Fowler’s Bay, named after his First Lieutenant; Denial Bay, so called because of “the deceptive hope we had formed of penetrating by it into the interior”; Smoky Bay from the fires seen on shore, and Streaky Bay because its water was discoloured in streaks. Few names were given at the time of discovery, but were bestowed when he was preparing his charts for publication. For example, Fowler’s Bay was identified as Bay no. 3, and Boston Bay as no. 10.

On 20th February Investigator rounded a headland and unexpectedly met a tide running from the north-east. The discovery caused great excitement, as it seemed to indicate a large river, perhaps an inland sea, or even the hoped-for strait leading to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Flinders anchored in the shelter of an offshore island and sent the ship’s master, John Thistle, with a midshipman and six seamen, to the mainland to look for water. On the return voyage their boat capsized in breakers and disappeared; their bodies were never found. The tragic accident is commemorated by Cape Catastrophe and Memory Cove; Thistle Island and seven smaller islands nearby bear the names of the lost men. A sheet of copper with an inscription recording their deaths was erected in the Cove; the remnants of the original sheet are displayed in the Maritime Museum at Port Adelaide.

On the 25th February 1802 the ship entered a splendid natural harbour “capable of sheltering a fleet of ships”. On his charts it appears as Port Lincoln. In fact a new Lincolnshire, his home county, blossomed on the map, including Boston Bay, home of his friend Bass; Cape Donington after his native village; Stamford Hill, Spalding Cove, and Grantham Island after the county’s market towns. He made no contact with the natives of the region, but heard [on 4.3.1802] some of these ‘Australians‘ calling in the bush – the first recorded use of the term.

Flinders sailed from Boston Bay on 6th March and resumed his course NE. His dreams of finding a continental strait were soon dashed; the shores on each side closed in, ending at last in mudflats. It was the head of Spencer Gulf. (Again the place-names date from his return to England: Earl Spencer was First Lord of the Admiralty when the voyage was planned; Earl St. Vincent the First Lord when he sailed; and the Right. Hon. Charles Philip Yorke held the position when he returned in 1810. Patronage was an inescapable fact of life in Regency England!).

Robert Brown, the naturalist, and six companions set off to climb a mountain range to the east. Reaching the summit just before sunset, they were rewarded with the most extensive and boundless views they had yet had in New Holland. Night caught them on the descent, and they made camp in a gully, cold, hungry, and with almost no water. Flinders later named the peak Mount Brown. The name Flinders Range (later Ranges) was bestowed by Governor Gawler in 1839.

The next important discovery was Kangaroo Island, first seen as high land to the south “stretching East and West as far as we could see”. After sailing along the north coast Flinders anchored near Kangaroo Head on 22nd March 1802. Next day the landing party found large numbers of dark-brown kangaroos feeding on the grass; clearly the animals had never met humans before: “they suffered themselves to be shot in the eyes with small shot, and in some cases to be knocked on the head with sticks”. More than 30 were killed, and their meat, served as steaks, stew, and soup, provided a “delightful regale” for the crew after four months’ privation. “In gratitude for so seasonable a supply”, Flinders gave the island the name it bears today. [actually he called it Kanguroo Island, which was the correct spelling in these days]

A quick running survey was made of Gulf St. Vincent from 27th March to 1st April. The present site of Adelaide was passed about 3.30 p.m. on the 28th. Flinders landed with Robert Brown at the head of the gulf, intending to walk to Hummock Mount, but turned back before reaching it. After completing the survey he returned again to Kangaroo Island and remained for several days. During this second stay he explored Nepean Bay, climbed Prospect Hill, and at the head of the inlet found large flocks of pelicans nesting in “a hidden lagoon of an uninhabited island, situate upon an unknown coast near the antipodes of Europe” (Pelican Lagoon).

Two days after leaving Kangaroo Island Flinders met Baudin in Encounter Bay. For him the meeting was not unexpected, but Baudin had no means of knowing a rival expedition was at sea. His two ships – Géographe and Naturaliste – arrived off Cape Leeuwin at the end of May 1801, but, short of supplies and with winter approaching, he then sailed north for the Dutch colony of Timor. The French remained for three months (a costly stay, leading to more than a dozen deaths from dysentery and fever) and it was mid-November before they sailed south again. They rounded Cape Leeuwin just after New Year’s Day 1802, unaware that Investigator was anchored in King George Sound 260 kilometres to the east, and held their course for Van Diemen’s Land.

Baudin‘s orders instructed him to examine D’Entrecasteaux Channel, and he remained there for 34 days, exploring. Most importantly, throughout that time he and his scientists made numerous contacts with the Tasmanian aborigines living along the Channel shores. His expedition was the first sent from Europe with specified objectives in the nascent fields of social anthropology and ethnography; their observations, together with the portraits and illustrations of the talented artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit, provide a unique record of the customs and way of life of the native Tasmanians before white settlement led to their destruction.

Both Baudin and Flinders were humane men, and went out of their way to avoid violent confrontations in their contacts with indigenous peoples; the emphasis at all times was on establishing and maintaining friendly relations. Flinderscompassion and consideration for “the poor Indians” comes through time and again. He carried an aboriginal ‘interpreter’, Bungaree, on his circumnavigation of the continent in 1802-1803, and he was deeply distressed when, in his absence, a native was killed during an attack on one of his boat parties in the Gulf of Carpentaria [late January 1803].

Baudin was more fortunate. Thanks in large part to strict orders from himself and his second-in-command, Captain Emmanuel Hamelin, that his men must not fire except in the case of immediate danger, no aboriginal blood was shed during the entire voyage. His own views on native rights, extraordinary for the time, come across in a private letter he wrote to his friend Governor King of New South Wales 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 improvement of those who are far removed from it, by beginning with seizing the soil which belongs to them and which saw their birth.” [HRNSW, vol. V].

From D’Entrecasteaux Channel the French followed the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land, spending nine days at Maria Island where further contacts were made with the native Tasmanians. The two ships became separated in a gale, and did not meet again for three months, at Port Jackson.

After making a vain search for the Naturaliste, Baudin crossed Bass Strait to Wilson’s Promontory and began surveying the coast to the west. Prudently, he kept a safe distance from the shore, and so missed the entrance to Port Philip Bay. On the 5th April 1802 the Géographe passed Cape Northumberland and so entered unexplored territory. From here to Encounter Bay French place-names appear on the coast – Rivoli Bay, Guichen Bay, Capes Dombey and Jaffa, Lacepede Bay. One name that has not survived is Terre Napoléon for the whole territory stretching from Westernport Bay to western Eyre Peninsula.

At about 4 p.m. on 8th April 1802 the look-out called down from the mast-head that a sail was ahead. All on board thought it must be the Naturaliste, but as the ship approached she was seen to fly the English flag. Baudin hoisted a French ensign in return, and afterwards raised an English flag forward. The two captains met for an hour that evening and again over breakfast next morning. Flinders knew no French, Robert Brown who accompanied him could speak it though not fluently. Baudin however insisted that they use English, which he spoke “so as to be understood” (which in practice often means ‘so as to be misunderstood’). It is hardly surprising their recollections of what was said differ considerably.

The meeting was friendly, the two captains exchanging information on their explorations. After parting company Flinders sailed south-east along the S.A. and Victorian coasts, spending a week in Port Philip Bay before heading for Port Jackson, which he reached on 9th May.

Baudin pressed on to the west, retracing a coast already charted by Flinders. He was running short of food and drinking water, and his crew was weakened by scurvy. On 8th May, off Cape Adieu (the extent of D’Entrecasteaux’s discoveries nine years before), he at last turned back. After a nightmare passage round Tasmania, in which there were more deaths, he dropped anchor at Port Jackson on 20th June. Investigator had preceded him. Hamelin in the Naturaliste had also been in the port, but had since left in hopes of finding the Géographe in Bass Strait; he returned a week after Baudin’s arrival.

The French wintered at the British settlement, enjoying a warm welcome from Governor King and the colonists. After a five months’ stay they sailed in mid November, calling first at King Island. Here Baudin sent the Naturaliste back to France, her hold crammed with the scientific collections made to date. In her place he had purchased a colonial-built schooner, the Casuarina, for survey work in-shore, and given the command to Lieut. Louis de Freycinet.

Together the Géographe and Casuarina arrived off the eastern tip of Kangaroo Island on 2nd January 1803, and made the first recorded circumnavigation. Hence the predominance of French place-names on the south and west coasts, which Flinders had not seen – D’Estrées and Destaing Bays, Cape Linois, Vivonne Bay, Casuarina Island, Cape Borda and many more.

Baudin remained at anchorage in Flinders’ Nepean Bay for the remainder of January. Kangaroos and emus provided plentiful fresh food, while live specimens, captured with the aid of a hunting dog (named Spot) obtained from Bass Strait sealers, were taken aboard for the long voyage home. The survivors ended their days in the gardens of the Empress Joséphine’s château at Malmaison, near Paris.

The naturalist Francois Péron and his companions studied the island’s flora and fauna, while the crew busied themselves with repairs, building a ship’s boat to replace one lost at King Island, and, as always, collecting firewood and searching for fresh water. One man found time to carve a record of their visit on a large rock beside the beach (Frenchman’s Rock). Mary Beckwith, a young convict girl Baudin had taken on board at Port Jackson, became the first European woman to visit the island.

Freycinet meanwhile had been despatched in the Casuarina to make a running survey of the two Gulfs, Port Lincoln, and lower Eyre Peninsula, but he made no landings. Baudin left Kangaroo Island on the 1st February 1803, made his landfall on the west coast at Streaky Bay, and moved on to Denial Bay, where he remained for three days and sent exploring parties ashore. Capes Vivonne and Thevenard, Murat Bay and Tourville Bay are a reminder of his visit. He met up with Freycinet in King George Sound.

The numerous French place-names (ca. 35) on the state’s south-east coast, around Kangaroo Island, and on the west coast are usually said to have been bestowed by Baudin. This is not the case. The captain made the irretrievable mistake of dying on the homeward voyage, at Mauritius. The maps and charts of the voyage were drawn by Louis de Freycinet after his return to Paris, and the place-names are his responsibility. The prominence these maps give to the Imperial family, generals and Marshals of the Empire, victorious battles, and ministers and statesmen suggests that his selections may have been influenced by his superiors; they would have done nothing to harm his future career in the Navy. The maps also immortalise the officers and scientists of the expedition; only one name is missing – Baudin’s!

None of the South Australian place-names is more merited than Fleurieu Peninsula, honouring Charles Claret de Fleurieu, navigator, hydrographer and statesman. As Louis XVI’s Minister of Marine, Fleurieu had written the sailing instructions for La Pérouse, including a direction to explore the Unknown South Coast. After La Pérouse disappeared, he wrote similar instructions for Admiral Bruny D’Entrecasteaux, also without result. Imprisoned during the Terror, he narrowly escaped the guillotine; later he served as a Councillor of State and adviser to Napoleon. Called on to write Baudin’ s instructions, he again specified the South Coast; again his directions were not followed, and the discovery was made by an Englishman and not a Frenchman. Nonetheless, when he learned of Flinders detention on Mauritius by General Decaen, Fleurieu openly declared that “the indignities imposed on Captain Flinders were without example in the maritime history of civilised nations”.

The British and French voyages each made important contributions to the maritime exploration of the continent, and produced detailed charts of its coastline. Flinders 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 the learned in geography“. Banks preferred Terra Australis, and ‘Australia’ did not come into general use until the 1820’s. Flinders’ General Chart of Terra Australis appeared in 1814, three years after Freycinet’s Chart of New Holland; 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 north-west coast.

In addition to geographic discovery and hydro graphic surveys, the two expeditions shared similar wide-ranging scientific objectivesBaudin “to study the [country’s] inhabitants, animals, and natural products … and to [procure specimens of] the useful animals and plants” for introduction into France; Flinders to examine the continent’s botany, zoology, and mineralogy. Both carried scientific staff and artists recruited for the purpose. Both can lay claim to significant scientific achievements.

First, the British. Flinders excelled as an hydrographer and cartographer; some of his charts remained in use until World War II. His discovery of the causal relationship between magnetism and compass deviation was of lasting value in navigation. Robert Brown, the naturalist, later became Keeper of Botany at the British Museum. In Australia he collected almost 4000 plant species, and his “Prodromus Florae Novae HoIlandiae” (publ. 1810) helped to transform botanical classification and launched the new science of plant geography. Ferdinand Bauer, Brown’s assistant and a superb botanical artist, came home with a huge portfolio of some 2000 sketches of plants and animals. Now considered the outstanding natural history artist of the 19th century, an exhibition of his animal sketches is on display at the State Library.

Second, the French. Although commonly relegated to a footnote in our history Baudin was an experienced collector-voyager, and his strict regimen ensured the survival of many living animals and plants on the long voyage back to France. A lesser navigator than Flinders, he nonetheless kept his ships at sea off strange coasts for more than two years without significant damage – quite an achievement in itself. The French observations on the Tasmanian aborigines in time were seen as the precursors of Australian anthropology. According to Francois Péron, naturalist and novice anthropologist, the achievements in botany and zoology were no less fundamental – more than 200,000 specimens (seeds, shells, insects, minerals, native artefacts, etc.) were sent home. The Paris Museum reported almost 3,900 species in zoology, and 1500 in botany, had been received, half of them new to science (which seems an extravagant claim [but is not]). Péron’s own observations on marine temperatures were of considerable importance in the emerging science of oceanography.

The work of the artists Lesueur and Petit has already been mentioned. The former returned with about 1500 drawings and sketches, covering natural history subjects, coastal profiles, views of Sydney Cove, and aboriginal scenes – many of these are held today in the Lesueur Collection at the Museum of Natural History at Le Havre. He also provided some beautiful cartouches and vignettes for Louis de Freycinet’s impressive folio maps.

These achievements went largely unrecognised in London and Paris at the time. The war resumed with still greater ferocity in 1803 [15th of May], and science took second place to the struggle for survival. Calling at Mauritius in December 1803 for repairs to his leaky schooner Cumberland (replacing Investigator which was no longer seaworthy), Flinders was detained by the French Governor, General Decaen, first as a suspected spy and later as a prisoner of state, a pawn in the General’s strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean. He was not released until 1810, shortly before British forces invaded the island – an invasion aided by his sketches of its defences. He died in 1814, aged 40, the day following publication of “A Voyage to Terra Australis“, his own account of his expedition and its discoveries. The Admiralty refused to grant his widow a special pension.

Baudin died in September 1803, aged 49, on Mauritius. He had been ill for some months with TB, and towards the end of the voyage could barely keep the deck. Recent research reveals him as independent-minded, intelligent, and resourceful, a skilled seaman though a stubborn and uncompromising captain. In the 19th century, by contrast, he was generally held to be tyrannical, malicious, uncaring for his crew, and incompetent at sea – the result of a sustained campaign of vilification by François Péron. Given the task of writing the history of the voyage, Péron seized the chance to settle past scores; he mentioned his captain by name once only, when recording his death: “M. Baudin ceased to exist“. Elsewhere he appears simply as ‘our chief’, ‘our commander’, and is variously described as a fool, unbalanced, a poor seaman, a worthless man, etc. A later French explorer, Dumont d’Urville, spoke from experience when he wrote:

“if he had lived, things might have turned out differently; on his return Baudin might have got the advancement and credit due to him, and those who made such a clamour against him would have been silenced, and might even have hurried to ingratiate themselves with him …”

Nearly two centuries later we can observe, though not condone, the personal jealousies and national rivalries of the time, which saw both captains deprived of their due recognition. Flinders at least has been compensated by posterity – not so Baudin. Encounter 2002 gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the very real geographical and scientific achievements of the two expeditions, and to salute their place in our state’s history. We can celebrate the spirit of co-operation which motivated the two captains, and honour their courage and dedication and the endurance of their crews in appalling shipboard conditions. It is almost impossible to imagine what life was like on those leaky, stinking, overcrowded ships, in total isolation from the rest of mankind. Once they left port, Flinders’ and Baudin’s men “vanished trackless into blue immensity”, their whole world the 100 or so feet from stem to stern. In commemorating the Encounter we celebrate them.

Sources Consulted

M. Flinders. A Voyage to Terra Australis undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country, and prosecuted in the years 1801, 1802, and 1803 London, 1814. [Facsimile edn. publ. by Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide,1974]

N. Baudin. The Journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin … Transl. from the French by Christine Cornell. Adelaide, Libraries Board of South Australia, 1974.

J. Bonnemains et al. eds Baudin in Australian Waters: the Artwork of the French Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands 1800-1804. Melbourne, OUP, 1988.

H. M. Cooper. The Unknown Coast: being the explorations of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN~ along the shores of South Australia, 1802. Adelaide, 1953.

F. B. Homer. The French Reconnaissance: Baudin in Australia, 1801-1803. Melbourne U.P., 1987.

G. C. Ingleton. Matthew Flinders: Navigator and Chartmaker. Genesis Publns., 1986.

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