Terra Australis or Terre Napoléon?, by Brown, Anthony J


by Mr Anthony J Brown

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

8 April 1802. HM Sloop Investigator exploring the Unknown South Coast of New Holland:

‘The French expedition on discovery to New Holland, under Captain Baudin, had frequently furnished us with a topic of conversation, but when we first ascertained that it was a ship seen ahead, it was much doubted whether it was one of the French ships, or whether it was an English merchant ship examining along the coast for seals or whales.’
[Extract from Fair Log of Investigator. Additional remarks, 9/4/1802]

In April [8th] 2002 South Australians will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the meeting between Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin in the waters of Encounter Bay. It is a significant event in the State’s history – not only did their voyages lead to the first complete maps of Australia, but their explorations on the continent’s south coast foreshadowed the settlement of the colony little more than 30 years later.

Prior to 1800, the whole of the south coast, from the eastern limit of the Bight to Western Port, was unknown. Many believed that New Holland was in fact two great islands, separated by a vast strait running from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the southern ocean. In a fascinating example of synchronicity, the two captains independently presented their respective governments with proposals for a national voyage of discovery to establish the continent’s true shape and to investigate its natural resources. Although France and Britain had been at war since [1.2.]1793 (and would remain so for another 15 years [until 20.11.1815], with two short breaks in [25.3.]1802-[16.5.]1803 [Treaty of Amiens] and [30.5.]1814-[20.3.]1815 [1st Treaty of Paris]), the enemy governments approved the proposals, each granting safe-conducts to its rival’s expedition.

Baudin sailed with two ships – the Géographe and Naturaliste – in October [19th] 1800, arriving off Cape Leeuwin [the SW tip of Western Australia] at the end of May 1801 [in fact: their first sighting of Australia was near Cape Hamelin on the 27th, and, after passing Cape Naturaliste, their first landing was at Géographe Bay on the 30th]. Heading north, the French surveyed many of the little-known areas of the west and north-west coasts, including Géographe Bay, Swan River, Shark Bay and the Bonaparte Archipelago, then called at the Dutch colony of Kupang, West Timor, for rest and repairs. Resuming their voyage in November, they rounded Cape Leeuwin in early January 1802; unaware that Flinders was then anchored in King George Sound some 260km. to the east, they set their course for Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania].

Here, around D’Entrecasteaux Channel and on Maria Island, Baudin and his scientists had numerous contacts with the Tasmanian aborigines, in the process laying the foundations for Australian anthropology. Baudin’s was the first expedition to leave Europe with specific instructions for the observation of native peoples in their natural state. Both he and Flinders went out of their way to avoid violence in their dealings with the aborigines, and the English-man was deeply distressed when, in his absence, a native was killed in an attack on one of his boat parties off the continent’s north coast. Baudin was more fortunate, and no aboriginal blood was shed in the course of his voyage.

In London the Admiralty had observed Baudin’s departure with concern, suspecting that the motives for his voyage were strategic rather than scientific – that his actual task was to spy on the British colony of New South Wales, and reconnoitre sites for a future French settlement elsewhere in New Holland; at the time Britain only laid claim to the eastern half of the continent. Providentially, Lieutenant Matthew Flinders, just returned from Port Jackson, chose this moment to submit his plan ‘for completing the investigation of the coasts of Terra Australis’ to Sir Joseph Banks, influential President of the Royal Society. Banks and his friend Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, seized the opportunity to mount a rival British expedition, and within three weeks HM Sloop Xenophon (renamed Investigator) had been selected for the voyage. Flinders was named her commander in January 1801; he sailed on 18 July, nine months after Baudin.

After brief stop-overs at Madeira and Cape Town Flinders made landfall at Cape Leeuwin on 6 December [1801], and began his survey of the south coast. On 27 January 1802 he reached the Head of the Bight, and a day later passed the eastern limit of Dutch discovery. The far west coast of South Australia and the coastline of the present Eyre Peninsula bear witness to his discoveries: 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 numerous fires seen on shore; and Streaky Bay because its waters were discoloured in streaks.

On 20 February Investigator rounded a headland and met a tide running strongly from the north-east, suggesting they were at the mouth of a large river or inland sea, perhaps even the hoped-for strait leading to the Gulf of Carpentaria; that evening, ‘the prospect of making an interesting discovery seemed to have infused new life and vigour into every man in the ship’. Next day Flinders anchored in the lee of an offshore island and sent the ship’s master, John Thistle, and a boat’s crew to the mainland in search of fresh water. On the return voyage their boat was capsized in breakers and disappeared; their bodies were never found. Cape Catastrophe, Memory Cove, Thistle Island, and seven smaller islands nearby bearing the names of the lost men are a lasting memorial to the disaster.

On the 25th the ship entered a splendid harbour ‘capable of sheltering a fleet of ships’. Later Flinders named it Port Lincoln, after his home county; a new Lincolnshire blossomed on the map, some 25 names in all being given to geographical features in the region. He made no contact with the natives of the area, but heard several of these ‘Australians‘ calling in the bush – the first recorded use of the term.

Leaving Boston Bay on 6 March, Flinders resumed his course north-east. His dreams of finding a continental strait were soon dashed – the shores on each side closed in, ending at last in mudflats at the head of Spencer Gulf. The naturalist, Robert Brown, led a small party of men to climb the highest peak of a range of mountains to the east – subsequently named Mount Brown by Flinders to commemorate the event.

Kangaroo Island was the next major discovery. After leaving Spencer Gulf Flinders sailed along the north coast, anchoring near Kangaroo Head on 22 March [1802]. A shore party found large numbers of kangaroos feeding on the grass, so tame that ‘they suffered themselves to be shot in the eyes with small shot, and … knocked on the head with sticks’. He named the island in gratitude for so seasonable a supply of food. From 27 March to 1 April he made a running survey of St. Vincent Gulf, passing the present site of Adelaide about 3.30pm. on the 28th. Returning to Kangaroo Island he remained there until 6 April. Two days later [8.3.1802] he met Baudin at Encounter Bay.

The French ships meanwhile had become separated in a gale off the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land, meeting three months later at Port Jackson. After searching vainly for his consort, Baudin crossed Bass Strait to Wilson’s Promontory and began surveying the coast to the west. In early April the Géographe passed Cape Northumberland, and from here to Encounter Bay the S.A. coast is dotted with French names: Rivoli Bay, Guichen Bay, Capes Dombey and Jaffa, Lacepede Bay. One name that (perhaps unfortunately for tourism) has not survived is Terre Napoléon, for the entire territory stretching from Western Port in Victoria to Murat Bay on the west coast of SA.

About 4 p.m. on 8 April [1802] a sail was seen ahead. All on board thought at first it must be the Naturaliste, but as the ship approached the British flag could be seen at the masthead. Baudin hoisted a French ensign in return, and a flag of truce. The two captains met on board the Géographe that evening, and again over breakfast next morning. Despite language difficulties the meeting was friendly, both men volunteering information on their discoveries. Before parting company, Flinders invited the Frenchman to winter at Port Jackson, where he could be sure of a warm welcome. He then set sail for the British settlement, which he reached on 9 May.

Baudin pressed on to the west, retracing the coast charted by Flinders. Short of food and fresh water, his crew weakened by scurvy, he reached Cape Adieu beyond Fowler’s Bay before turning back. After a nightmare voyage around Van Diemen’s Land he arrived at Port Jackson on 20 June, to find the Naturaliste had preceded him. Investigator was also in port, and there was renewed co-operation between the two expeditions at Sydney before Flinders sailed in July on his circumnavigation of the continent.

The French remained for five months, enjoying the hospitality of Governor King and the colonists. Before setting out on their homeward voyage in mid-November, Baudin purchased the schooner Casuarina, 30 tons, to replace the Naturaliste; his consort was to sail directly for France [under the command of Hamelin], carrying the rich scientific collections made on the west coast and Van Diemen’s Land, and around Sydney.

Together the Géographe and Casuarina, [the latter] commanded by Lieutenant Louis de Freycinet, arrived off the east coast of Kangaroo Island on 2 January 1803, and made the first circumnavigation of the island – hence the predominance of French names on the south and west coasts, which Flinders had not seen: D’Estrées Bay, Capes Linois and Gantheaume, Vivonne Bay, Ravine des Casoars, Cape Borda, and many more. Baudin remained at anchor in Baie Bougainville [Nepean Bay], for the rest of January, while Freycinet made a running survey of Golfes Bonaparte and Joséphine [Spencer and St. Vincent Gulfs], but made no landings. Missing a rendezvous with Freycinet, Baudin dropped anchor in Denial Bay and sent landing parties ashore – Murat and Tourville Bays and Capes Thevenard and Vivonne are reminders of his visit.

Baudin and Flinders both died young – the Frenchman at 49, Flinders at 40 – fretted out by disease and failure, their achievements largely unrecognised by their countrymen. They had sailed in wartime, and each fell victim to the rivalries and passions roused by the global conflict between the two powers. Baudin died at Mauritius [île de France] in 1803 [Sept. 16th], posthumously accused by his enemies on board of misappropriating funds; later he became a ‘non-person’, his name erased from the history of his voyage written by the naturalist Francois Péron.

Flinders fared little better. Detained for more than six years on Mauritius by the French governor General Decaen – first as a prisoner, later as a hostage – he returned home in ill-health in 1810, then retired on half-pay to write his Voyage virtually at his own expense. He died in [19th] July 1814, the day after his book was published. Within 40 years, his daughter wrote bitterly, his grave was destroyed in a churchyard redevelopment ‘and the contents carted away as rubbish’. It seemed probable that his achievements too would soon be forgotten.

It was left to Australians to restore the reputations of the two ill-starred captains. Flinders’ resurrection began early, in the 1850’s, with the colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria each voting a pension of £100 a year for his widow and daughter. Baudin remained all but forgotten until the latter part of the twentieth century. Today, two centuries after their voyages, both men can be honoured for their wide-ranging contributions to the development of the sciences in Australia – and for their exploration of the Unknown Coast which led three decades later to the European settlement of South Australia.

Anthony Brown’s new book Ill-Starred Captains : Flinders and Baudin (Crawford House, Adelaide) was published in October 2000. The narrative is based on contemporary sources – the journals, reports, letters and published works of the participants – and interweaves the stories of the two expeditions as they explore the Australian coast.

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