Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist’s Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755-1834), by Edward Duyker – review by Paul Bailey

Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist’s Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755-1834), by Edward Duyker, MUP/The Miegunyah Press, 2003, $59.95


Little known among the naturalists and explorers of Terra Australis, Jacques Labillardière embarked on a voyage of breathtaking discovery and tragedy. Paul Bailey reviews his life story.

[21.1.1793] It was about 10.30 on a cool Paris morning when Louis XVI was marched across the cobblestones of the Place de la Revolution towards the guillotine. On his way through the roaring mob, he is reported to have asked: “What news of Monsieur de La Pérouse?

As his royal blood dribbled on to that famous square, the same day, half a world away, another Frenchman was marching up the shore of what we know as Tasmania. His name, Labillardière, is hardly recognised outside scientific circles, but it ought to be as familiar as that of Banks and Solander.

Citizen Labillardière – he was an avowed republican – was a botanist, one of that rash of 18th-century naturalists who went with great explorers to distant lands. These men were creatures of Enlightenment ideas which elevated the notion of inquiry and criticism, the secular belief that man was the architect of his own fortune. They believed that man could stand over nature, be its master and possessor, rather than stand back in awe of its divine design.

Yet Labillardière’s voyage to the southern oceans was not principally a scientific exercise. It was a search and rescue mission. Mounted by the National Assembly, it was charged with solving one of France’s great mysteries: the disappearance of hero-explorer Jean-François de Galaup comte de La Pérouse.

La Pérouse had sailed from Brest in 1785.8.1 through the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Alaska on to China and Japan, then further south, reaching the sandy shores of Botany Bay [24/26.1.1788] just eight days after Captain Arthur Phillip‘s First Fleet. Six weeks later, he left. When he failed to reach Mauritius, the French became concerned.

The rescue mission was led by Antoine-Raymond-Joseph Bruny D’Entrecasteaux commanding the vessel La Recherche and Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec on L’Espérance, together with a handful of naturalist freeloaders, among them Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière. These were names which were to leave a lasting mark on the Australian landscape – the Huon river and pine, the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Bruny Island with its Labillardiere peninsula.

They were risk-takers too: exploration was then an extreme sport.

Yes, they had some idea as they left Revolutionary France that, more than once, they might glance death in the face. But what they encountered was wholly unimaginable – huge, treacherous seas that threatened to smash their ships in half; the jagged dangerous reefs of the Pacific. They would face starvation and deprivation; confront cannibals; they would be imprisoned.

They were not to know that, before the expedition was complete, more than 40% of their number would perish, both ships’ commanders among the dead. They were not to know, as they sailed from France in September 1791, that La Pérouse had already met a gruesome end.

It is Labillardière’s life that forms the subject of Edward Duyker’s latest book, Citizen Labillardière, finely produced by Melbourne University Publishing imprint Miegunyah Press (Duyker has previously written a life of Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, who accompanied Cook on his voyage to Australia.)

Aged 36 when the rescue mission sailed, Labillardière had thrown in a career as a medical doctor to follow the natural sciences. His curiosity had taken him to England where he met the famed Sir Joseph Banks, a naturalist on Cook‘s Endeavour. Banks had assembled a vast herbarium of 110 genera previously unknown to man, and 1300 new species. With the nearby British Museum just 25 years old, private individuals, scientists and naturalists held extraordinary collections, often in their own homes.

As part of D’Entrecasteaux’s expedition, Labillardière was a difficult crew member whose sometimes unpleasant personality and attendant republican instincts put him at odds with his aristocratic commanders. In short, he was a bit of a troublemaker. But of his work as a naturalist, there could be no argument.

The Tasmania Labillardière saw was a vast, largely unspoilt natural storehouse, undisturbed but for the touch of its Aborigines. He wrote of its ancient forests, huge trees, myrtles more than 50m high, the “luxuriant vigour of vegetation”, a place “in which the sound of the axe had never been heard”.

In just 37 days, some 5000 specimens were collected, among them 30 new genera and 100 new species. The plants he would describe include the floral emblems of Tasmania and Victoria, eucalypt species, acacias, banksia and orchids. His was a career of firsts:more than 100 plant names today incorporate his name.

After gathering fresh Tasmanian water, they set a course for New Caledonia, then north to New Ireland and Ambon, following fruitless leads in search of La Pérouse before returning to Australia in the summer of 1792. D’Entrecasteaux was determined to carry out orders to survey the south-west coast of the continent. But a lack of water forced them back to Tasmania and it was left to another explorer to discover the strait between the island and the mainland.

This second visit lasted two months while supplies were taken and the ships repaired. Labillardière continued to discover, to collect and describe the island’s flora and fauna. When they sailed again, it was to an uncertain fate.

They reached Java, then under Dutch control, to learn that Louis XVI had been executed and a republic declared. France was at war with Holland, England, Prussia, Austria and Spain. Their ships were seized; Labillardière’s collection, all 36 crates of it, taken; and they were imprisoned.

Eventually allowed to leave, the homeland to which Labillardière returned in 1796 had seen tremendous change – this was the France après the Reign of Terror, the France remade by Danton and Robespierre. His specimens had been seized by the English and he had to engage the assistance of Banks to retrieve them.

In the meantime, Labillardière wrote his memoirs. Hugely popular, they introduced the great southern land, its mysterious plants and animals, and its indigenes, to the European mind. But the crowning achievement was his two-volume account of the plant species he collected, acknowledged as the first general flora of Australia (although some might argue that William Dampier beat him to it) [GB: amateur scientist and captain of HMS Roebuck, who landed in Shark Bay (WA) in 1699; his are the first published writings providing for a naturalist’s impression of the Australian flora, fauna and inhabitants, but nothing compared to Labillardière’s systematic opus]. What’s not in doubt is that Labillardière and his fellow crew members were privileged in that they were to be enlargers of life. Their discoveries would make the world bigger, expand human knowledge, enlarge men’s minds.

There is a prodigious amount of work in Duyker’s book: 246 pages of text, an additional 137 pages of notes, a huge bibliography, glossaries and indexes. But he wrestles with Labillardière’s character, never able to offer a psychological portrait of the man. You never feel you get to know the man himself; you never hear his voice in your head. In addition, the chronological treatment makes for a dull beginning since not a lot is known about the naturalist’s early days.

And yet his later life was filled with fascinating discovery, drama on the high seas, life-and-death incidents – exploits that would make a Hornblower blush. If only it could have been better told.

Labillardière died in 1834, the same year Charles Darwin was fossicking around the coast of Patagonia. He left his estate to his nephew, who sold the library and natural history collection to pay death duties. The collections went to British collector Philip Barker Webb, who was amassing a huge private herbarium and who, in 1854, bequeathed everything to the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s natural history museum.

And so, on the second floor of a building on the Via G. La Pira in Florence, stored in long narrow drawers, there is a little piece of Australia and a large piece of our history.

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