Louis de Saint-Aloüarn, Lieutenant des vaisseaux du Roy:
Un marin breton à la conquête des Terres Australes
par Philippe Godard & Tugdual de Kerros
Les Portes du Large, Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande, 2002, pp. 362, ISBN 2-914612-08-7, Euros 60.
Review by Dr Edward Duyker
Department of French Studies, University of Sydney.
Louis François Marie Aleno de Saint-Aloüarn (1738-1772) commanded the 16-gun Gros Ventre, as part of Kerguelen’s expedition in search of the Southland. Kerguelen commanded the 24 gun Fortune. Both vessels set sail from the Ile-de-France (now Mauritius) on 16 January 1772. Not long after discovering the island that still bears Kerguelen’s name, the Fortune became separated from the Gros Ventre. Kerguelen decided to return to Ile-de-France on 16 February, expecting Saint-Aloüarn on the Gros Ventre would do the same. Saint-Aloüarn, however, continued to sail eastward until he reached what we now call Flinders Bay, near Cape Leeuwin, on the south of the Western Australian coast on 17 March. The expedition then travelled north without sighting land for another seven hundred nautical miles. On the afternoon of 28 March 1772, Shark Bay was sighted. The following day the Gros Ventre anchored at Turtle Bay and on the morning of 30 March Ensign Mingault was despatched in a longboat to survey the north of Dirk Hartog Island. This same officer took possession of Western Australia in the name of the King of France – a form of political pantomime that was fashionable at the time.
Saint-Aloüarn then sailed back to Ile-de-France via Melville Island and Timor. The expedition arrived in Port Louis on 5 September 1772 in a deplorable state. Most of the men were suffering from scurvy. Saint-Aloüarn, himself, died on 27 October 1772. He was only thirty-five years old. The documentary record for the voyage is very limited like the manor house of the explorer’s family near Quimper, not a great deal remains. Although a number of shipboard journals have survived, they contain little ethnography or natural history. It is on the basis of this sparse canvas that I must judge his book. I am impressed that the authors have discovered a portrait of the explorer, hitherto unknown, and also an important letter written a week before Saint-Aloüarn died. One of the most engaging parts of this book is the account of the 1998 expedition to Dirk Hartog Island led by Philippe Godard which discovered a silver Louis XV coin, dated 1766, in a lead capsule on top of a French wine bottle. Two months later, Myra Stanbury of the Western Australian Museum discovered a second bottle containing yet another coin dated 1767. As a tangible link to the past, the discovery of the coins captured the public imagination. President Jacques Chirac sent a personal message of congratulation to Godard and he has since been made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honeur.* As an historian, however, I consider Saint-Alloüarn’s final letter, far more significant than the coins. To be fair, the coins give veracity to the letter and confirm a landing place, but they do not tell us much more. If one ignores indigenous rights and accepts the very questionable logic of such acts of possession, 130 years before, the Dutch – in the wake of Tasman’s voyage – had already pre-empted Saint-Aloüarn’s claim by naming the entire continent ‘Nova Hollandia‘!
This book is richly illustrated, beautifully produced and very similar in style to Godard’s earlier book on the Batavia. It contains a useful geopolitical and historical orientation for the French navy in the eighteenth century and tells us a great deal about the history of the explorer’s family. Louis’s father, for example, was killed in the Battle of Quiberon Bay (Combat des Cardinaux). Although the book contains substantial narrative sections about the voyage, it is in great part made up of vignettes which are sometimes quite superfluous in character. Do we really need so much heraldic content (regardless of how beautiful such coats-of-arms are) and extraneous detail such as the ‘Brief History of the House of Orange-Nassau’ on pages 286-7? While there will be many readers who will enjoy some of these tangents, others may be disappointed that the book is not more coherently integrated. It is, however, the result of a great deal of meticulous research – both documentary and pictorial – and remains a welcome contribution to the history of the French in Australia and the Indian Ocean.
* Mr Godard was also honoured as a former engineering corps officer, physics teacher, author of twenty titles and a technical expert who has given fifteen years service to the Tribunal and Court of Appeal in New Caledonia.