Maritime Exploration of Australia: French Encounters

Recherche and L'Esperance at anchor in Recherche Bay, Tasmania

The earliest claim to the discovery of Australia by an European was not made by the Portuguese, Dutch, English or even Spanish, but by a Frenchman. His story is told in a judicial declaration published for the first time in 1663 by the bookseller Cramoisy, who had received it from a priest named Jean B. Paulmier, then Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. Pierre de Lizieux, and addressed to Pope Alexander VII. The document tells of a French sailor from Normandy named Jean Binot Paulmier, sieur de Gonneville, who claimed that, during a two year voyage of discovery with the intent of finding an ocean route from Europe to the East Indies, he had landed on the shores of the Southland early in 1504.

The beginnings of French voyages to the coasts of Australia date back to Jean Binot Paulmier de Gonneville. He thought, after experiencing a violent storm near the Cape of Good Hope, that he had chanced on the fabled Terra Australis Incognita, a vast southern land mass long postulated as a necessary balance to the continents in the northern hemisphere. Thereafter called 'Gonneville Land' by the French, it became a focus for their maritime aspirations in the region and in 1738 Bouvet de Lozier set out in search of it but found only the barren island that now bears his name.

Paulmier de Gonneville

By then the Dutch, notably Dirk Hartog (1616), Carstensz (1623), Thijssen (1627), Abel Tasman (1642 and 1644) and Willem de Vlamingh (1697) had landed and charted much of the north, west and south coasts of what afterwards became known as New Holland. William Dampier also had a hand in the exploration of New Holland and he records landing on the north west coast in 1688/1699. Following the Dutch in dismissing the land and its inhabitants in a hugely popular and widely disseminated account - and thereby fixing the negative attitudes that were to remain commonly held for another century - he and his colleagues were the first Britons to land there.

The loss of territory to the British on the north American continent in the late 1750s caused the French to actively look elsewhere for colonies. In 1763 Chevalier Louis de Bougainville, who had fought against the British in Canada and who was the first Frenchman to sail around the world, established a small colony at Port Louis on what he called the Iles Malouines in honour of the predominantly St Malo element amongst his colonists. The British countered this in 1764 by sending Commodore John Byron who arrived early in the following year, tookpossession of them as the Falkland Islands.

In 1767 France ceded its rights to Spain, commencing a chain of events that has led to Argentina claiming the islands as Las Islas Malvinas. It was a disagreement that has had repercussions well into the modern day, and is one that also had ramifications for the Uranie voyage and for the survival of its castaways. Continuing what in effect was a 'superpower' race for territory, in 1766 the British navy sent two ships under Wallis and Carteret to the south Pacific in search of the fabled southern continent, and the French despatched Bougainville with the same intention just three months later.

While the French and the British found many islands in the Pacific, including Tahiti and Pitcairn, neither found the southern continent. The closest Bougainville came to Terra Australis was when he encountered the Great Barrier Reef adjacent to present-day Cooktown in far north Queensland. On his return home in 1769 Bougainville published an account entitled A Voyage Round The World, that increased French interest in the Pacific.

In the interim British navigator James Cook departed on a scientific voyage with secret instructions to explore the south Pacific aboard HMS Endeavour. In completing his first exploration in the period 1768-1771, Cook called at Tahiti, circumnavigated New Zealand and then travelled along a vast land mass he claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. His proclamation was effected with little reference, as was the fashion throughout the world in those times, for the indigenous peoples and their rights. This left unexplored the eastern part of the south coast, lying between New Holland and Cook's New South Wales, and there existed a belief that a vast strait passed between New Holland and New South Wales.

The du Fresne and St Alouarn Expeditions
In 1771, two expeditions left Ile de France for the Indian Ocean in search of Gonneville's Land. One, led by Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne, sailed to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and as far as New Zealand, alerting France to their worth though as the names suggest both had been earlier discovered by the Dutch, in this case by Abel Tasman. The other, a two-ship expedition was led by Y.J. de Kerguelen and it included as second in command, Francois Alesne de St Allouarn (right).

The ships separated and Kerguelen, upon discovering what he thought to be Gonneville's Land, hurried home to announce the discovery of what he called France Australe. Later, it proved to be a barren island that now bears his name. In the meantime St Alouarn in Le Gros Ventre continued the search for Gonneville's Land. Unsuccessful, he then made for the coast of New Holland, and in landing on Dirk Hartog Island at Dampier's Shark Bay, Saint Alouarn annexed the coast for France in March 1772.

Francois St Alouarn

Marion du Fresne

Monument to Jean-Francois de Galaup Compte de La Pérouse in the Sydney suburb of La Perouse

The La Perouse Expedition
The young Napoleon Bonaparte applied for a place on the next French expedition to the region under the command of Jean-Francois de Galaup Compte de La Perouse (right), but was lucky to be refused. The best equipped of all scientific forays, this two-ship expedition left French shores with a large contingent of scientists and naval personnel in 1785. After extensive explorations in the Pacific, they were ordered from Kamchatka to Botany Bay in New South South Wales in order to observe the British landing there in 1788. After doing so they departed for further work in the South Seas and were never seen again.

In this same period William Bligh was in these waters with HMS Bounty, following on from Dampier's earlier revelations about the efficacies of breadfruit. After the infamous mutiny, Bligh was not to know that the Australian first fleet had landed successfully under the curious eyes of the French, and navigated in an open boat across the top of the continent to Timor and safety.

Compte de La Perouse

Recherche Archipelago off Esperance, Western Australia

d'Entrecasteaux Expedition
In September 1791 another well-equipped French expedition was sent under the command of Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni D'Entrecasteaux (right) with the ships Le Recherche and L'Esperance to continue the exploration and to search for La Perouse. Amongst the complement were scientists, botanists, a gardener and hydrographers. On the south coast of New Holland, they took many natural science specimens, charted great skill and named many features. While they were to continue to give generally adverse accounts of New Holland, their descriptions of Tasmania and people there were to provide some relief to the predominantly negative reports of previous explorers.

There d'Entrecasteaux observed that the tribe they encountered "seems to offer the most perfect image of pristine society, in which men have not yet been stirred by passions, or corrupted by the vices caused by civilization". Their visit followed that of George Vancouver, who left Plymouth in April 1791 for the north Pacific via the Indian Ocean and the south Pacific. He landed at, and named King George the Third Sound (Albany), then travelled for a short distance along the southern coast before being forced off it by bad weather.

In 1793 the d'Entrecasteaux expedition landed in the East Indies on its way home to news of the execution of King Louis XVI and a state of war between the new Republic and much of Europe. By then both commanders, d'Entrecasteaux, and his second-in-command, Huon de Kermadec, and many others had perished through illness. To make matters worse, the republicans on board were denounced by their shipmates, imprisoned by the Dutch, and both ships were sold to defray expenses.

After being confiscated by the British, the extensive natural science collections, maps and charts eventually found their way back to France where the botanist J.J.H. de Labillardiere's Relation du Voyage a la Recherche de La Perouse was published in 1799, going through three English editions and two German by 1804. Containing 265 black and white illustrations together with 13 plates by the renowned botanical artist P.J. Redoute, it was the first illustrated work after Dampier's account of his voyage to New Holland in 1699 to capture the imagination of the Europeans in respect of the flora and fauna of the Southland. The expedition's hydrographer Beautemps-Beaupre then published his atlas in 1807 and his cartographic works were roundly praised.

Bruni D'Entrecasteaux

Native Huts on Peron Peninsula, Western Australia

The Baudin expedition
In 1800, with the approval of Napoleon, then First Consul, yet another two-ship expedition left France led by Thomas Nicolas Baudin. The two ships employed were Le Geographe under Baudin and Le Naturaliste under J.F.Emmanuel Hamelin. They had orders to continue the exploration of the Southland and were also required to examine the question whether the strait thought to lie between the 'two great and nearly equal islands' of New Holland and New South Wales did exist. Though the charts of the d'Entrecasteaux expedition had yet to be published, Baudin was provided with preliminary engravings. The enterprise was also mightily hampered by having a microcosm of a fractured French society and in having many civilian scientists on board.

Though many left the expedition in Mauritius, and returned home intent on poisoning Baudin's reputation, the explorations, which were conducted between 1801 through to 1803 resulted in many useful discoveries and anthropological observations, in important chart and map making, and in securing a vast number of natural science specimens. Despite these successes, it has taken a full two hundred years for Baudin to be favourably reassessed. On board Le Naturaliste was Sub-Lt Louis Freycinet. While the ship was at Shark Bay he was sent by boat to conduct surveys of the area, work that he later continued while in command of Casuarina and later in L'Uranie. He also appears to have been on board when the ship's chief helmsman returned with an ancient inscribed pewter plate commemorating the landing of the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh at Shark Bay in 1697. Having long-since fallen from its post, it had been accidently found lying half buried in the sand at the top of a prominent point overlooking the entrance to the bay.

The discovery was of great historical significance, for on finding a similar plate deposited by Dirk Hartog in 1616, Vlamingh had the original inscription copied onto a new plate to which he appended an account of his own visit before erecting it at the same spot. He then sailed away with the original, beginning a chain of events that was later to include the visit of L'Uranie. Though the Naturaliste's men found the Vlamingh plate lying in the sand, where it had fallen from the post, they recognised its importance and immediately brought it back for Hamelin to examine. In objecting to the notion that the plate be removed to France, and in considering that to do otherwise would have been historical 'vandalism', Hamelin had Vlamingh's plate and a plate of his own re-erected on new posts, the first at the Dutch explorer's site and the second at an as yet undetermined location.

Freycinet apparently did not approve of this precursor to modern museological thinking, and felt that it should have been removed for safekeeping in France, but was too junior to prevent the return of the relic to its original site. In recognising the importance of the site, Freycinet's chart of the region refers to the site as Cap de L'Inscription (Cape Inscription). As unequivocal evidence of the prior landing of Europeans on their shores, the Hartog, Vlamingh and the Hamelin plates are relics of immense significance to Australians generally, and it has been said by one historian that: The title deeds, so to speak, attesting European discovery of Western Australia are three pewter plates left at Cape Inscription, Shark Bay, on three separate occasion.

During the explorations along the south coast Baudin encountered HMS Investigator commanded by British navigator Matthew Flinders aboard HMS Investigator. He too was exploring that coast, attempting to fill in the gaps left by the Dutch, Dampier and Cook and it was he who in sailing northwards up Spencer's Gulf in what is now South Australia had earlier proved that a passage through to the Gulf of Carpentaria did not exist. After leaving him under friendly terms the French were forced to have an extended stay at Port Jackson in New South Wales due to scurvy and illness amongst the crew, especially those on Baudin's ship. There they were succoured by the British colonists, and while there it became a worry to Governor King that the Baudin expedition, while scientific in ethos, also had a strategic element, part of which seemed to be designs on Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) as a future French colony.

The duality is expressed in two separate utterances, the first of Baudin, the expedition leader and the other by Francois Peron, the man who coined the term 'anthropologist'. Ironically, it was Baudin, a 'Captain of the Blue', who had proceeded through the ranks despite his 'lowly' birth who reflected post-revolutionary French sentiments of 'liberte, fraternite and egalite' in expressing very strong and in his own words 'no doubt impolitic' views to Governor King in Sydney about the situtation thus: "To my way of thinking, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time, when it was inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages, or cannibals, that has been freely given them; ... it would be infinitely more glorious for your nation, as for mine, to mould for society the inhabitants of its own country, over whom it has rights, rather than wishing to occupy itself with the improvement of those who are far removed from it".

On the other hand, and quite ironically, Peron the anthropologist was to actively plot the overthrow of the fledgling colony in his letters to the Decaen, the Governor of Ile de France (Mauritius) thus: "Once the English Colony is conquered it can be easily defended by our troops against any attack with great force, and since the colony has enough subsistence it won't starve of hunger because of enemy warships. Thus it will be strong enough to hold out against British land and sea forces". Further he advised Decaen that the colony 'should be destroyed as soon as possible'.

Nicolas Baudin

Of additional importance to this narrative setting the scene for the Uranie voyage and the role of the de Freycinet's, Peron adds in a 'post script' that: "M. Freycinet, the young officer, has especially concerned himself with examining all the points upon the coast of the environs of Port Jackson which are favourable to the landing of troops. He has collected particular information concerning the entrance to the port; and if ever the Government should think of putting into execution the project of destroying this freshly set trap of a great power, that distinguished officer would be of valuable assistance in such an operation."

De Freycinet was to return later and embark on further exploration of the Australia coast in L'Uranie in 1818-20. His was the last French expedition given the primary tasks of exploring the Australian coast.

Louis de Freycinet

Shortly after returning to France from a three-year circumnavigation as lieutenant in Louis de Freycinet's L'Uranie, Louis I. Duperrey and his colleague Dumont d'Urville presented a proposal for a new circumnavigation to the Minister of Marine, the Marquis de Clermont Tonnerre. The twin aims were scientific - including studies of terrestrial magnetism and meteorology - and geographic, with a view especially to confirming or correcting the position of islands and other landmarks essential to safe navigation.

Durmond d'Urville


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