In Search of Madame Kerivel
Baudin’s Last Resting Place
by Dr Edward Duyker
[Dr Edward Duyker is the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Mauritius in New South Wales. This is a revised version of an article first published in the National Library of Australia News in September 1999.]
His lungs eaten away by what was almost certainly tuberculosis, the great French explorer Nicolas-Thomas Baudin died a painful death in Mauritius in September 1803. He was on the homeward leg of his remarkable voyage into Australian waters – which saw significant stretches of the continent’s coast charted for the first time. The ships under his command were brimming with collections of botanical, zoological, geological and ethnographic riches. While others might have gained posthumous glory, Baudin gained ignominy. His great misfortune was to die before his expedition returned to France and thus before he had an opportunity to do battle with his detractors. Georges Bory de St Vincent and the zoologist François Péron, who chronicled the achievements of the expedition soon after its return, despised its leader and vented outright calumny against him. As is so often the case, these distortions and lies found their way into later biographies and studies. Although he has received powerful vindication through the work of the Australian historian Frank Horner (The French Reconnaissance: Baudin in Australia 1801-1803, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1987), mystery still surrounds his private life and even his last resting place.
I have long had an interest in Baudin’s time in Mauritius and when the Australian novelist Victor Barker (see National Library of Australia News, August 1999) sought my assistance in fleshing-out details of the explorer’s visits to and death on my mother’s native island, I was more than happy to help. Indeed his approach spurred me to write an entry for the Dictionnaire de Biographie Mauricienne (of which the National Library has fragmented holdings) on the mysterious Madame Kerivel, in whose home the explorer died. In the detective quest which followed, the National Library’s collections on Mauritius would yield surprising clues.
My first step, in pursuit of Madame Kerivel, was to consult the notes of a Mauritian notary named Gaston Sarré (1866—1944) which deal with some 3000 Mauritian families. In his will, Sarré left the original manuscript, ‘Recueil de renseignements généalogique sur les families de l’île Maurice’, to the Bibliothèque National in Paris, but his his executor René Lincoln was induced to allow five or six typescript copies to be made in Mauritius in the final year of World War II. During a visit to Mauritius in 1984, I acquired one of these precious copies, bound in a set of seven volumes. Some years later I loaned them to another Mauritian friend, who, without my knowledge, unbound and photocopied every page before suddenly dropping dead of a heart attack! His widow rang me and asked me what I wanted done with the photocopies. Not wishing to add recriminations to her grief, I feined no surprise and decided then and there to donate them to the National Library. They are now held in alphabetical folders among my own papers in the Manuscript Collection and are a valuable resource for Australian family historians of Mauritian descent.
In Sarré’s notes I found that Madame Kerivel was born Alexandrine Marie Charlotte Genève de St Jean, in the parish of St Germain, Paris. She was the daughter of Jean Gaspard Genève (de St Jean), merchant, and his wife Jeanne Charlotte Gabrielle Coste. Although it seems likely she was born sometime in the 1760s, the Paris Archives have informed me that the records for this parish, prior to 1792, no longer exist. However, I learned more of her family in an entry by the Mauritian historian Raymond d’Unienville on her brother, Antoine Augustin Genève (1764—1845), in the Dictionnaire de Biographie Mauricienne. It appears Alexandrine arrived in Mauritius with another brother Jacques Marie Genève in 1785. Antoine arrived four years later and helped establish the business house of Genève frères (which is credited with introducing frogs to the island in 1792). Gaston Sarré’s notes also indicate that in Port Louis, on 29 October 1787, Alexandrine married Pierre François Kerivel, a notary, born in Quimper (Brittany), the son of Claude Kerivel. In another work by Dr d’Unienville, Histoire politique de l’Isle de France (1795-1803), published by the Mauritius Archives in 1989 and held in the National Library in Canberra, I would discover that, in the wake of the Revolution, Alexandrine’s husband was appointed a commissaire of the Directory. As a result, he made numerous enemies in the colony and, as the political tide changed, was declared one of those ‘dangerous to security and public tranquility’ and was deported with some fifty others on 1 October 1799 on a ship named the Brûle-Gueule. Kérivel perished when this vessel was shipwrecked. Among the Jacobin survivors was the musician Antoine Guth who had a wife and children in Mauritius and returned clandestinely to the island as a stowaway on Baudin’s Géographe in March 1801. Although confined on the Géographe, while plans were made to send him to the Seychelles, Guth was visited by his family. It was perhaps through them that Baudin met the widow Kerivel. Alternatively, he may have met her through one of her merchant brothers during an earlier voyage to the island. Indeed Alexandrine’s gracious brother Antoine was described in his obituary as a ‘friend of all the voyagers who stopped at his beautiful estate’.
Did Baudin and the recently widowed Alexandrine become lovers? We may never know. But Alexandrine appears to have been a woman drawn to reflective individualists with republican persuasions and the fact remains that the largely self-made Baudin ended his days with her. Despite the calumnies of his detractors, Baudin was a cultured man with a passion for botany. His personal library on the Géographe (exclusive of official geographical and scientific tomes supplied by the government) amounted to some 1200 volumes.
There is no doubt that Baudin’s sojourn in Mauritius was fateful in other respects. Christine Cornell, who translated Baudin’s journal, declared that ‘It may be said that directly or indirectly most of the significant events on the voyage were rooted in the difficulties encountered at and before the Ile de France [Mauritius]. The entire course of the voyage was altered by them.’ There were many defections from Baudin’s expedition in Mauritius. Because the island was isolated from sources of supply in the middle of the Indian Ocean and its men were waging a corsair war against British shipping to sustain themselves, Baudin had to compete for meagre victuals and limited manpower. His delay in Mauritius meant that he eventually reached the coast of Australia in winter – when heavy seas made effective hydrographic and scientific work difficult. Baudin decided to postpone further surveying of the Tasmanian and south coast, and sail north. If he had not done so, he would have pre-empted Matthew Flinders.
Baudin died in Madame Kerivel’s house ‘near the powder magazine’ on 29 fructidor year 11 of the French republican calendar (16 September 1803). In his final days he had shown visitors pieces of his lungs coughed-up and preserved in a jar of alcohol — observing with black humour that lungs were not necessary for life for he had none, yet still existed! Another Mauritian historian, the late Auguste Toussaint, whom I met in 1986, asserted that the Kérivel property was situated near the present Saint James Cathedral in Port Louis. It was through Toussaint that I was led to the work of the painter Jacques Gérard Milbert (1766—1840) in the National Library in Canberra. Milbert left Baudin’s expedition in Mauritius and published two sketches of the house and environs of Madame ‘Querivel’ (sic) as plates 33 & 34 of the magnificent atlas of his Voyage pittoresque à l’Ile de France, au Cap de Bonne Espérance et à l’Ile de Téneriffe (Paris, 1812). He wrote: ‘It is in this house that our commander, M. Baudin, ended his career shortly after his return from the South Lands’.
Auguste Toussaint believed Baudin was interred in the Kerivel family vault. Perhaps the Genève family vault is a better bet. Alexandrine Kerivel died in Port Louis on 15 February 1823. (The year before her daughter Lucile married Colonel Edward Draper (1776-1841) founder of the Mauritius Turf Club.) Although the location of her final resting place is also uncertain, like Auguste Toussaint, I think it likely Baudin lies with her in Port Louis’ Cimitière de l’Ouest just a few hundred metres from the explorer’s certain love: the sea.