Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders (2004), reviewed by Dr Duyker, Ed

Fornasiero, J., Monteath, P. and West-Sooby, J. Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, South Australia, 2004, pp. 411, maps, illustrations, select bibliography, index, ISBN 1 86254 625 8, $49.95.

Reviewed by Dr Edward Duyker

This book, by three South Australian colleagues, examines two major voyages of exploration of the Australian coast at the begining of the nineteenth century—that of the British explorer Matthew Flinders and his French counterpart Nicolas-Thomas Baudin. The first half of Encountering Terra Australis is largely made up of lengthy extracts from the journals of the two explorers with additional commentary.  The Baudin extracts are fresh translations.  Some may question the need for these given that Christine Cornell’s elegant pioneering English translation of Baudin’s journal is neither stale nor inaccurate.[i] However, it is a scholar’s right to ‘take possession’ of his or her own sources.  On the other hand, there are certainly valid grounds for distrusting the 1809 Phillips translation of volume one of François Péron’s Voyage de découvertes aux Terres australes.[ii]

 

Although Flinders’ cartographic achievements were undoubtedly greater, Baudin made important contributions on the south-eastern coast of Van Diemen’s Land and on parts of the southern and western Australian mainland coast. Both expeditions made priceless natural history collections, and significant ethnographic observations. They met twice, the first time at Encounter Bay on the South Australian coast in April 1802 and the second time at Port Jackson later in the same year.   Baudin died a painful death on the island of Mauritius in September 1803.  He was on the homeward leg of his voyage. While others might have gained posthumous glory, Baudin gained ignominy.  His great misfortune was to die before he had an opportunity to do battle with his detractors.  The zoologist François Péron, who chronicled the achievements of the expedition, despised its leader.  As is so often the case, distortions and lies found their way into later biographies and studies. Flinders, in turn, would also suffer in Mauritius: detained there for some six and a half year after the collapse of the Peace of Amiens. It is easy to sympathize with him: in French hands, separated from his family and delayed in publishing the results of his discoveries.  Nevertheless, he had an easier time than Péron had as a prisoner of the Prussians in the citadel of Magdeburg[iii] or French prisoners on stinking hulks in the Thames estuary.[iv]

 

There is no doubt that the authors belong to the camp which has ‘rehabillitated’ Baudin, although this rehabilitation was begun by others long ago. The discursive chapters in the second half of Encountering Terra Australis are engaging and stimulating.  Nevertheless, the authors offer no footnotes and despite a degree of internal referencing and a select bibliography, I was surprised at the sparse acknowledgement of the path-breaking and meticulous scholarship of the late Frank Horner.  All who toil in this field are indebted to Horner’s magisterial and award-winning work, The French Reconnaissance (1987).[v] I was also surprised to see no mention in the bibliography of the important articles published by Jean-Paul Faivre between 1938 and 1965.[vi] Flinders, too, has been the subject of numerous studies.  While every scholar consolidates to some degree the work of his or her precursors, a select bibliography can only have a limited role in informing a reader of the originality or otherwise of historical statements and judgments.  Essentially, therefore, this is a work of popular history which recounts and to some degree compares the Flinders and Baudin expeditions and their respective cartographic and scientific achievements.

 

Fornasiero, Monteath and West-Sooby certainly do justice to Baudin, but I would argue that they have not done justice to Péron — despite his obvious sins.  This is in great part a result of an unqualified acceptance of the work of the American anthropologist George W. Stocking Jr.  Among Péron’s many significant observations was the recognition of strong physical and cultural differences between the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land and New Holland (on the basis of which he designated two separate races). These differences, and the absence of the dingo in Van Diemen’s Land, led Péron to conclude, in an article he published on his return to France, that the separation of the two regions must date from ‘an époque very much more ancient than one could suspect at first’.[vii]  Unfortunately, this statement was mistranslated or mistakenly represented in an article published by Stocking in 1964 as ‘before the epoch of the population of these countries’.  Stocking also seized on Péron’s questions about existing theories on ‘the communications of peoples, on their transmigrations and on the influence of climates on man’, to suggest that he believed in polygenism or separate human creations![viii]

 

Unlike the polygenists, Péron placed great stress on the influence of environmental forces.  And like Montesquieu — and before him John Arbuthnot[ix] — he expended a great deal of effort proposing cultural differences as a result of climate.  Nowhere did he divide humanity into separate species or propose separate ‘Adams’, although he did see plant and animal species largely confined to ‘distinct’ areas.  Unfortunately, forty years later, Stocking’s ill-founded speculations about Péron’s beliefs have emboldened Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby to damn the naturalist as a racist. Initially we are told that Péron ‘seemed to support the notion of racial difference’, but this cautious restraint soon gives way to unequivocal accusations of racism; see pp. 356, 370, 380.  Yet nowhere did Péron propose an immutable intellectual inferiority simply on the basis of race, even if he considered the people of New Holland to be technologically superior to those of Van Diemen’s Land.

 

There is, of course, much more to Encountering Terra Australis than a critique of that convenient whipping boy François Péron. Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby do offer an accessible account of two important voyages in the history of Australian exploration.  Unfortunately there are some problems with their interpretation of the scientific results of the Baudin voyage and the scientific dogmas of the time.  On page 351, for example, we are told that ‘Depuch the mineralogist had worked hard and well, as his various reports revealed — in Geographe Bay, for example, he was able to confirm Saussure’s theory on the existence of stratified granite’.  Alas, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740—1799), for all his important work on Alpine granite, was a Neptunist.  In other words he believed that water was the fundamental agent of geological change and like Abraham Gottlob Werner (1750–1817) maintained that the entire globe was originally covered by a turbid universal ocean, from which so-called ‘primitive’ rocks (among which he included granite and other crystalline rocks) were precipitated.[x] These ideas were opposed by the Vulcanists, who advocated the primacy of heat and volcanic action, and later the Plutonists, associated with the brilliant Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726—1797), who drew attention to intrusive igneous formations.  This said, are Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby really suggesting that Depuch proved Saussure correct?  Cape Naturaliste where Depuch first landed, is largely made up of granitic gneiss and other ancient metamorphic rocks more than 600 million years old.  In the Alps Saussure may have made pioneering observations on folding, but he certainly failed to understand metamorphic processes involving granite (let alone its very origins) and so too did Depuch.

 

Three-part collaboration and a comparative study of two different voyages with a heavy emphasis on journal extracts is not easy.  Fornasiero, Monteath and West-Sooby have brought a variety of linguistic and other skills to their cooperative task. This book is handsomely produced with many beautiful illustrations and a good index.

 

Notes

 



[i] Cornell, C. (trans.), The Journal of post Captain Nicolas Baudin, Commander-in-Chief of the Corvettes Geographe and Naturaliste, Assigned by order of the Government to a voyage of Discovery, translated from the French by Christine Cornell, Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1974.

[ii] Cleland, J. B. ‘Remarkable mistranslations in the English version (1809) of Peron’s Voyage of Discovery’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 29, part 4, 1943, pp. 215—16.

[iii] Flinders spent much of his period as a prisoner-of-war on parole on the estate of Madame d’Arifat at Plaines Wilhelms.  Péron was taken prisoner at Hochspeyer near Kaiserslautern on 23 May 1794 and closely confined in the citadel of Magdeburg.  Péron’s confinement, however, was relatively short.  Considered unfit for further military service because of the loss of sight in his right eye, he was included in a prisoner-of-war exchange and repatriated to Thionville, in Lorraine, at the end of 1794.

[iv] See Abell, F. Prisoners of War in Britain 1756 to 1815: A Record of Their Lives, Their Romance and their Sufferings, Oxford University Press, London, 1914.

[v] The debt owed to Frank Horner was acknowledged in the prefatory note of the Proceedings of the international conference on the Baudin expedition held in Sydney in 2002; see Australian Journal of French Studies, vol xli, no. 2, 2004.  Horner’s profoundly important book is currently being translated into French by Martine Marin.

[vi] Faivre, J.-P. ‘Une expédition botanique sous le Directoire: le capitaine Baudin aux “Isles d’Amerique”’, La Revue maritime, March 1938, pp. 334—56; Faivre, J.-P. ‘La France découvre l’Australie: l’expédition du Géographe et du Naturaliste (1801—1803), Australian Journal of French Studies, vol. ii, 1965,  pp. 45—58; Faivre, J.-P. ‘Les idéologues de l’an VIII et le voyage de Nicolas Baudin en Australie’, Australian Journal of French Studies, vol. iii, no. 1, 1966, pp. 3—15.

[vii] Péron, F. ‘Mémoire sur quelques faits zoologiques applicables à la théorie du globe, lu à la Classe des Sciences physiques et mathématiques de l’Institut national (Séance du 30 vendémiaire an XIII)’, Journal de physique, de chimie, d’histoire naturelle et des arts, vol. 59, 1804, pp. 463—80, planches i and ii; see, in particular, p. 478.  Péron’s exact words are: ‘De la différence absolue des deux races de la Nouvelle-Hollande et de la terre de Diémen, ainsi que de l’absence du chien sur cette dernière, j’ai cru pouvoir tirer la conséquence, que la séparation de ces deux régions doit remonter à une époque beaucoup plus ancienne qu’on ne pourroit le soupçonner d’abord’.

[viii] Stocking, G. W. ‘French Anthropology in 1800’, Isis, vol. 55, part. 2, no. 180, 1964, pp. 134—50.

[ix] Arbuthnot was the author of An Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies, 1731, which was translated into French by Boyer de Pebrandié (Essai des effets de l’air sur le corps-humain, Jacques Barois fils, Paris, 1742) and profoundly influenced Montesquieu (and Péron if not directly, then indirectly); see Dedieu, J. Montesquieu et la tradition politique anglaise en France: Les Sources anglaises de l’Esprit des lois, J. Galbada, Paris, 1909.

[x] For a survey of Abraham Gottlob Werner and his ideas, see Adams, F. D. The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences, Dover Publications, New York, 1954, pp. 209—27; for Saussure see pp. 387—93.

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