French books in Australian history, by Dr Duyker, Edward

The Word in French

Dr Edward Duyker reflects on French books in Australian history

This is an edited version of an address given by Dr Edward Duyker during the ‘Semaine du Livre Français’, University of Sydney, 27 September 1999.

It will come as a surprise to many to learn that eight French soldiers were among those shipwrecked on Morning Reef, off Geraldton Western Australia, when the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia foundered in 1629. Emigré Huguenots or perhaps just mercenaries, they were the first Frenchmen to come to Australia. Their desperate struggle with the company loyalists against the mutineers who sadistically butchered 125 of the Batavia’s men, women and children, is told in Jan Jansz’s Ongeluckige Voyagie van’t Schip Batavia. This book, published in Amsterdam in 1647, is the earliest printed work to recount events on Australian soil. Although in Dutch, it was also the first of many books to recount the exploits of Frenchmen in Australia. Very likely at least some of the French soldiers on the Batavia were literate and perhaps carried French books with them. I have sometimes wondered whether they huddled behind the rough stone walls of the fort they built with the stalwart Wiebe Haijes on West Wallabi Island (Australia’s oldest European building) and drew succour from the Bible in French and dreamt that they would yet ‘deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines’. Or could it be that they sat reading Les derniers vers of Pierre de Ronsard?

‘Il faut laisser maisons et vergers et jardin
Vaisselles et vaisseaux . . . ‘

In the case of the Batavia, I may be swinging the lamp a little too far, but there is no doubt that books in French have an identifiable place in later Australian history.

Two hundred and thirty years ago, when Lt. James Cook’s Endeavour sailed into Botany Bay, there were French books aboard. We know, for example, that the naturalist Joseph Banks carried accounts of voyages written by Président de Brosses, Thévenot and Frézier and astronomical and navigational works by Lalande and the Abbé Pingré, in addition to the fifteen volumes of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, Brisson’s Ornithologie and Biron’s Curiositez de la nature et de l’art. However, the French books on the Endeavour were not confined to scientific works. The expedition’s artist, Sydney Parkinson, carried copies of Marmontel’s Les contes moraux, La Fontaine’s Fables, and Alain-Réné Lesage’s Le diable boiteux and Gil Blas.

The French themselves were not inactive in the exploration of New Holland in this period, yet few Australians are aware that on 5 March 1772 — less than two years after Cook landed at Botany Bay — two French ships, the Mascarin and the Marquis de Castries, anchored off Cape Frederick Hendrick on the east coast of Tasmania in search of fresh water and timber for repairs. Theirs was the first French expedition to reach any part of Australia. Indeed they were the first Europeans to visit Tasmania since 1642. Despite arriving in Tasmania before the British, the remarkable commander of the expedition, Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (who helped rescue Bonnie Prince Charlie after the disaster of Culloden), is curiously absent from the pages of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the Australian Encyclopedia. This is despite the fact that an account of Marion’s expedition was published as early as 1783. The journal of Marion’s second-in-command, Julien Crozet, published under the title Nouveau voyage à la mer du sud, is an important ethnographic document because it contains the first published account of the Tasmanian Aborigines and a great deal of information about the Maoris of the Bay of Islands.

There were other French expeditions to southern waters in the eighteenth century including those of Saint-Allouarn, La Pérouse and d’Entrecasteaux. In many respects, French vessels were floating libraries. We know, for example, that when La Pérouse set sail from Brest in 1785, one of his officers, Jean-Guillaume Law de Lauriston, the twenty year old son of the Governor of Pondicherry, was farewelled by his father with a substantial stock of books. There were wordsmiths aboard too, the Abbé Jean-André Monge, who served as a naturalist and chaplain, had been editor of the Journal de Physique. The other naturalist, the Franciscan Claude-François-Joseph Receveur (whose grave can still be found in the Sydney suburb of La Perouse), was the author of a number of papers presented to the Académie des sciences. La Pérouse’s own account, dispatched overland to France from Petropavlovsk with the young Russian-speaking Barthélémy de Lesseps, was eventually edited by Milet-Mureau and published in 1797 by the Imprimerie de la République as Voyage de La Pérouse autour du monde. It can be found in the National Library’s collection.

D’Entrecasteaux’s expedition (the rescue mission which followed in search of La Pérouse and made significant discoveries in Tasmania and Western Australia), was also rich in the printed word. We know the naturalists (including Labillardière the author of the first published floras of New Holland and New Caledonia [in 1804-6]) carried the works by Adanson, Linné, Brisson, Juisseau, Gouan, Fabricius and — like Banks on the Endeavour — the complete works of Buffon. The expedition’s Benedictine astronomer, Dom Pierson, had some forty books with him. They included scientific works by Lalande, La Caille, Cassini, Duséjour, Euler and Bezout, together with authors on mathematics, physics, optics and mineralogy. But Dom Pierson also carried the works of La Fontaine, Mirabeau, Voltaire, Rousseau, La Bruyère, d’Alembert and Bossuet. I am currently working with my Mauritian-born mother on the first English translation of d’Entrecasteaux’s journal and can often feel the place of books in the daily life of the expedition. For example, when d’Entrecasteaux’s second-in-command, Huon de Kermadec, died off New Caledonia he left instructions that his rich shipboard library should be shared among his fellow officers.

The prize for French shipboard bibliophilia, however, must go to Nicolas Baudin whose expedition visited Port Jackson during the Peace of Amiens [25.3.1802 to 16.5.1803] and charted significant stretches of the western and southern Australian coast (including Van Diemen’s Land). Baudin was a cultured man with a passion for books and botany. His personal library of 1200 volumes on the Géographe (exclusive of official geographical and scientific tomes supplied by the government) included 392 historical works, 139 biographies and memoirs, 175 dictionaries and encyclopaedias and 177 works by miscellaneous authors including French, Greek and English classics.

Baudin’s expedition, like its precursors, also generated books of its own. Works such as François Péron’s and Louis Freycinet’s Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes (3 vols. and 3 atlases, Paris, 1807—1816) are a precious part of the National Library’s Rex Nan Kivell collection. Later in Australia’s history, many other French men and women visited these shores and recorded their travels. Rose de Freycinet, for example, stowed away on the Uranie, commanded by her husband Louis-Claude Desaules de Freycinet on his scientific expedition of 1817—20, the first major voyage under the Bourbon restoration. Her engaging account was not published in France until 1927; and it was the National Library of Australia which published the first English translation in 1996. This was by the Mauritian-born scholar Serge Rivière — now Professor of French at the University of Limerick.

Perhaps the most intriguing of nineteenth century French writers to visit Australia was Céleste de Chabrillan (née Vénard): the prostitute who became a countess when she married Count Lionel de Moreton de Chabrillan, the new French consul in Melbourne. Her experiences (see my earlier article ‘Precious as Gold’, National Library of Australia News, October 1999) would form the basis for a memoir Un Deuil au bout du monde [A Death at the End of the World] (1877) and the novel Les voleurs d’or [The Gold Robbers] (1857).

Arguably the most important French writer to live and work in Australia was Paul Wenz (1869—1939). Born into a family of wool merchants in Reims and educated in Paris, Wenz settled on a pastoral property between Forbes and Cowra in the 1890s and began writing stories set in Australia and the Pacific. These were later published in the collections A l’autre bout du monde (1905) and Sous la croix du sud (1910). These were followed by the novella Diary of a new chum (1908) his only book in English, and the novels Le pays de leurs pères (1919), Le jardin des coraux (1929) and L’écharde (1931). This remarkable man who was a friend of Miles Franklin and Dorothea Mackellar, but also André Gide (with whom he went to school) and Jack London, lies buried in Forbes, New South Wales, where he died in 1939. His most fitting memorial, thanks to the efforts of Jean-Paul Delamotte’s ‘Editions La Petite Maison’, is the fact that virtually all of his books remain in print in French.

French literature has long had a reputation for questioning established social and political norms. Molière, Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau have a broad international significance. In our democratic aspirations in Australia, we too are their heirs, just as we are the heirs to the ethical sensibilities of Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Similarly, Proust, Rimbaud and Baudelaire have inspired us to use words and reveal the inner self in provocative new ways. While philosopher novelists such as Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir have challenged our view of the individual in broader existential contexts.

Today French language books (including Swiss, Canadian, Belgian, New Caledonian and Mauritian publications), can be found in the National Library in Canberra, in every state and university library and in many municipal libraries in Australia. The Alliance Française, in most capital cities, also maintains commendable French language libraries. Furthermore, Le Courrier Australien remains the oldest non-English language newspaper in this country. Despite the increasing popularity of Asian languages in Australian schools, French is still the first choice for many secondary students and continues to be one of Australia living community languages.

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