Friends of Humanity: The Scientific Origins, Objectives and Outcomes of the Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders


The French and British voyages of discovery to Australia between 1801 and 1803, led by Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders, took place amid the global war between the two powers which lasted from 1793 to 1815. First proposed by the respective captains, they were sponsored by leading scientists on both sides -- self-styled members of the 'commonwealth of learning'. The two captains received safe conducts for their vessels to pursue their explorations and scientific investigations. In the event their achievements were largely ignored, the scientific objectives of both expeditions compromised by the strategic demands of the war. For the commanders, tainted by allegations of espionage, their voyages ended in disaster, Baudin dying in disgrace at Mauritius and Flinders detained on the island for six and a half years.

Britain and France had been at war for 7‡ years when, in June 1800, the French Republic's resident commissioner in London, Citizen Louis-Guillaume Otto, lodged his government's application for a safe-conduct for a French voyage of discovery. It sought passports for two ships under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin 'to continue the useful discoveries which your navigators made in their voyages round the world'. Though Otto's official duty was to arrange the exchange of prisoners of war, his office also provided a useful channel for informal contacts between the two governments on other matters. Through tact and diplomacy he had earned the esteem of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society (Figure 1), and other men of influence.

Prime Minister William Pitt referred the request to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, for a decision; Spencer in turn called on his close friend Sir Joseph for advice. Banks had already received through Ono's office a letter from his opposite number in Paris, Professor Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and his colleagues of the Itistitut National of France:

The Institut National is desirous that several distant voyages useful to the progress of human knowledge should begin without delay. Its wishes have been endorsed by our Government which


has just issued orders for the preparation as soon as possible of expeditions led by skilful navigators as well as enlightened men of science, and will approach the Government of your country for the necessary passports or safe-conducts for our vessels.

The Institut National considers that it is precisely at the moment when war still burdens the world that the friends of humanity should work for it, by advancing the limits of science and of useful arts by means of enterprises similar to those which have immortalised the great navigators of our two nations and the illustrious men of science who have scoured sea and land to study nature, where they could do so with the greatest success.

We hasten to beg you, as one of the most distinguished members of the commonwealth of learning, to use your good offices with your Government with that zeal which, has always inspired you to work in the interests of humanity, to renew those marks of respect for science which our two nations have more than once given, and therefore to secure the prompt despatch of the passports which will be requested. (De Beer 1960, p. 238)

Banks could not ignore Jussieu's appeal to 'the commonwealth of learning' -his life suggests this was his most deeply-held belief. He was himself a corresponding member of the Institut and remained on ffiendly terms with Jussieu, Cuvier, and other leading French men of science despite the wars (1793-1815). Four years previously he had recommended a similar safe-conduct for a French scientific voyage to the West Indies led by the same Captain Baudin. On that occasion he had written to Jussieu.

Whatever the fortune of War may be, Science and those who possess the liberal views of it which you have ever done will be the nearest to the heart of one who is with distinguished consideration and unvaried esteem, Your most humble Servant, J. Banks (O'Brian 1987, p. 256).

His recommendation supporting this latest request from France was never in doubt; the Admiralty issued the passports on 25 June 1800.

The French Republic during the Consulate professed the same enlightened principles. They were stated clearly in Baudin's Instructions from Minister of Marine Forfait:

Since you are sailing under the flag of truce, and since the sole aim of your labour is the perfecting of the sciences, you must observe the most complete neutrality and not give rise to a single doubt as to your exactitude in confining yourself to the object of your mission (Comell 1974, p. 8).

Baudin had no reason to disagree - he was the initiator of this voyage, as he was of the expedition to the West Indies (1796-98). In each case he had submitted a detailed proposal to the Paris Museum and the Institute, and won their support for an approach to the government of the day. In March 1800 he had accompanied a delegation from the Institute to First Consul Bonaparte to obtain his approval for the voyage to the south seas - including the survey of the then unknown south coast of New Holland (Homer 1987, p. 41).

Of course there were those in the Admiralty who doubted whether exploration and scientific discovery were the real motives for Baudinís voyage - more likely they were camouflage for a reconnaissance of possible sites for a French settlement in the region, and for spying on the British settlement at Port Jackson. At this time Britain only claimed the eastern half of the continent, New South Wales, from longitude 135ƒ east, while the western half, still called New Holland, remained formally unclaimed by a European power. In fact a French explorer, St. Allouarn, had laid claim to the west coast for France in 1772 (Marchant 1982, p. 64), but Paris had not pursued the claim.


Figure 1. Sir Joseph Banks.

Source: Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, Vol. 1, 1887. (Courtesy RGSSA Library).

The British government could not tolerate the thought of a French settlement in New Holland, least of all in wartime. Providentially, Lieutenant Matthew Flinders RN provided the Admiralty with the opportunity to counter any possible French duplicity with a genuinely scientific voyage of its own. Flinders had returned home in September 1800, after five years on the Port Jackson station, with a detailed proposal to circumnavigate the continent, complete the survey of its coasts (including the unknown southern coast - an estimated 950 - 1000 miles), and at the same time undertake a range of scientific investigations. Flinders, like Baudin, did not present his proposal to the naval authorities but to the country's most influential scientist - Sir Joseph Banks. He did


not get to meet Banks until mid-November, but from then on events moved with incredible speed. Within 3-4 weeks the voyage had been approved, and a ship - the former collier Xenophon, renamed Investigator - had been selected and slipped at Sheerness for a refit. Flinders was formally named her commander on 19 January 1801, and sailed from Portsmouth on 18 July - nine months after Baudin's ships had left Le Havre.

I have covered the meeting of the two expeditions at Encounter Bay on 8 April 1802 elsewhere (Brown 1998; Brown 2000), and will not go into details here. Before their meeting Baudin had surveyed the west and north-west coasts, charting long stretches for the first time, while numerous botanical and zoological specimens were collected for the Paris Museum. He wintered at the Dutch settlement at Kupang, West Timor, and sailed south for Van Diemen's Land in November. Unknown to him, Flinders was in King George Sound when he passed far out to sea in early January. In Van Diemen's Land he charted Storm Bay, the Tasman Peninsula and the east coast in greater detail than any previous navigator, and his scientists gathered unique records of the way of life of the Tasmanian aborigines - in the process laying the foundations for an Australian anthropology (Plomley 1983).

Meanwhile Flinders had surveyed the south coast from the Sound as far as Encounter Bay - from the Bight eastward it was all land seen for the first time by Europeans. The encounter passed off peacefully, although with other commanders it might conceivably have been otherwise. The Investigator carried two 18-pound carronades, six 12-pound carronades, two 6-pound long guns, and two swivels (Ingleton 1986, p. 103). The Géographe, according to her passport, was more lightly armed, with eight 4-pound carriage guns and eight swivels. The armaments were sufficient to repel a small privateer or pirates, but not for a serious sea fight.

Clearly neither captain wished to provoke an engagement. Lacking influence and wealth, both men had fashioned their careers in the scientific branch of their Service - Baudin as a 'botanical voyager' experienced in seaborne plant transportation, and Flinders as a navigator - and raised flags of truce. Flinders boarded the Géographe, taking the botanist Robert Brown with him as an interpreter. In the event Baudin insisted on using English, which, wrote Brown, he spoke well enough 'to be understood' (meaning well enough to be misunderstood). They exchanged information about their discoveries, and before parting Flinders invited the Frenchman to winter at Port Jackson, where he would be well received.

There was renewed co-operation between the two expeditions at Sydney, before Flinders sailed in July on his circumnavigation of the continent. . Visits were exchanged, and the British and French botanists shared their discoveries. Colonel William Paterson, the colony's Lieutenant Governor and commander of the New South Wales Corps, was also a Fellow of the Royal Society and welcomed the French scientists to his house in George Street; he also provided a military guard for their excursions inland. Baudin himself made one such excursion to collect specimens, guided by Jorgen Jorgenson, second mate on Flinders' tender the Lady Nelson (Jorgenson 1835, pp. 115-180).

Baudin and Flinders both died young - the Frenchman at 49, Flinders at 40. Both were fretted out by disease and failure, their achievements largely unrecognised by their contemporaries. They had sailed in wartime, and each fell victim to the rivalries and passions roused by the war. With national survival at stake, neither government had time or resources to spare for discoveries of purely scientific value - the strategic aspects of the voyages were all-important. Baudin died at lle de France (Mauritius) in 1803. Post-humously accused of misappropriating funds by his enemies on board (led by the naturalist Francois Péron), the alleged deficiencies in his accounts were charged against his estate. Later he became a 'non-person', his name erased from the history of his own voyage written by Péron (Péron 1807).

Flinders fared little better. Detained for more than six years at lle de France by the French governor General Decaen - as a hostage rather than a prisoner (Ly-Tio-Fane Pineo 1988) - he returned home in ill-health in 1810, then retired on half-pay to write his Voyage


virtually at his own expense. He died in 1814, the day after his book was published. Neglected in death as in life by his countrymen, his grave was destroyed in a churchyard redevelopment and the contents 'carted away as rubbish' (his daughter's words) sometime before 1854 (Scott 1914, p.397). It seemed probable that his achievements too would soon be forgotten.

History's judgement, though, is always multi-faceted. It was left to Australians to give the historical kaleidoscope a shake and a different picture formed. Flinders' resurrection began early, in the mid-nineteenth century, with the colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria each voting a pension of £100 a year for his widow and her daughter (Scott 1914, p. 400). Baudin remained all but forgotten until the latter part of the twentieth. Today, two centuries after their voyages, the two captains can be honoured for their wideranging contributions to the development of the sciences in Australia.

By his circumnavigation Flinders confirmed the existence of the sixth continent. He planned to call it Australia, writing to Banks from Mauritius:

the propriety of the name Australia or Terra Australis which 1 have applied to the whole body of what has generally been called New Holland must be submitted to the Admiralty and the learned in geography (Ingleton 1986, p. 311).

Banks did not agree, preferring Terra Australis, and Australia did not come into general use until the 1820's. Flinders' rough chart of Terra Australis was completed on Mauritius in 1804, and was received in England the following year; however, it was filed in the Admiralty awaiting the compiler's return in 1810 from his detention, and his corrected General Chart was not published until 1814.

A lesser navigator than Flinders, Baudin nonetheless kept his ships at sea off strange coasts for more than two years without major mishap or damage - an achievement in itself. He explored the west and north-west coasts which Flinders did not visit, and was the first European captain to circumnavigate Kangaroo Island. Louis de Freycinet's charts of the voyage appeared before Flinders', and thus the French were first to give the world a more or less 'complete' map of the continent, with a few blanks remaining on the north-west coast (Freycinet 1812).

In addition to geographic discovery and hydrographic: surveying, the two expeditions shared similar scientific objectives - Baudin 'to study the [country's] inhabitants, animals, and natural products ... and to [procure specimens of] useful animals and plants for introduction into France' (Cornell 1974, p. 1), and Flinders to examine the continent's botany, zoology, and mineralogy (Flinders 1814, pp. 8-12). Both carried scientists and artists recruited for the purpose. The following brief review indicates the scope of their scientific achievements.

First, the British. Flinders excelled as a navigator and cartographer, and some of his charts remained in use until World War 11. His discovery of the causal relationship between magnetism and compass deviation proved of lasting value in navigation - the compensating bars around a magnetic compass still bear his name. Robert Brown, the naturalist, later became the first Keeper of Botany at the British Museum. In Australia he collected almost 4000 plant species, and his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae (1810) helped to transform botanical classification and launched the new science of plant geography (Mabberley 1985). Ferdinand Bauer, Brown's assistant and a superb botanical artist, came home with a huge portfolio of some 2000 sketches of plants and animals. He is now considered the outstanding natural history artist of the 19th century (Watts et al. 1997).

Second, the French. Although commonly relegated to a footnote in Australian history, Baudin was an experienced collector-voyager, and his strict regimen ensured the survival of many of the living animals and plants on board during the long voyage back to France. As mentioned, the French observations on the Tasmanian aborigines provide a unique corpus of evidence on their way of life prior to white settlement. According to Francois Péron, naturalist, marine biologist, oceanographer and


Figure 2. Chateau Malmaison. The Empress Josephine's Paris Chateau, stocked with Australian plants and animals following the return of the Baudin expedition in 1804. Designed by Péron; drawn by Lesueur.

Source: Atlas (historique), by Leseuer and Petit, 1807 (Courtesy RGSSA Library).

novice anthropologist, the achievements in botany and zoology were no less fundamental - more than 200,000 specimens (seeds, shells, insects, minerals, native artefacts, etc.) were sent home. The Paris Museum reported some 3900 species in zoology and 1500 in botany had been received, half of them new to science (Horner 1987, p. 357).

The work of the artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit is equally significant (Figure 2). The former returned with about 1500 drawings and sketches, covering natural history subjects, coastal profiles, some fascinating views of Sydney Cove, and aboriginal scenes - many of them held today in the Lesueur Collection at the Muséum-díHistoire Naturelle at Le Havre (of which he was the foundation Director). He also provided some delightful cartouches and vignettes for Freycinet's impressive folio maps. Petit's aboriginal portraits and sketches of dwellings and artefacts add another dimension to the scientists' observations of the Tasmanian aborigines (Bormemains et al. 1988; Hunt& Carter 1999).

Today, as the bicentenary of the two voyages approaches, Baudin and Flinders can be honoured for their contributions to the development of the sciences in Australia. Together, their discoveries contributed to significant advances in such varied disciplines as anthropology and ethnography, botany, cartography, geography, hydrography and oceanography, marine biology, naval medicine, navigation and zoology - not to mention the memorable fusion of art and science in the drawings and paintings of Bauer, Lesueur and Petit. These came at great cost, however - in


any scientific commemoration of their achievements, those who gave their lives to the endeavour should not be forgotten:

French: Pierre Francois Bernier, astronomer, Anselin Riedlé. and Antoine Sautier, gardeners, Louis Depuch, mineralogist Réné Maugé and Stanislas Levillain, zoologists

English:Peter Good, gardener

Ironically, all seven died from the effects of dysentery and fever contracted on the island of Timor, where the ships had called for 'R & R' (rest and recuperation) for the crews.

Postscript: Science or Espionage?

This paper would not be complete without some discussion of the vexed question of espionage by the two expeditions. In the event, although both Britain and France issued safeconducts guaranteeing the safety of the other's ships in the name of science, the avowed scientific objectives of both voyages were compromised by the strategic imperatives of the war.

No evidence has come to light implicating Baudin himself in spying on the British settlement at Port Jackson, as later alleged by the Admiralty (Barrow, Quarterly Review 1810) -indeed, his sailing instructions excluded the east coast of New Holland from his itinerary, since it was already well known from the work of English navigators. On the other hand he was specifically directed to 'sail the full length of [D'Entrecasteaux] channel [in Van Diemen's Land] to ascertain whether or not the English have established a settlement there' (Cornell 1974, p. 2).

Although not specified, it is probable that the reconnaissance of possible sites for a future French settlement in the region was an unspoken objective of Baudin's voyage. Both he and his second-in-command, Emmanuel Hamelin, commented favourably on the suitability of D'Entrecasteaux Channel for the purpose, and loose talk by some French officers in Sydney suggesting this was their intention led Governor King to establish the first British settlement on the Derwent the following year. Later in the year, anxious to protect the new sea route through Bass Strait from the French, the British government sent out two ships to found a colony at Port Phillip (Clark 1962, p. 183).

During their stay at Port Jackson, from May to November 1802, there is little doubt that espionage (as commonly understood) was undertaken by some French officers and by the polymath Péron - most probably without Baudin's knowledge. Whether it was authorised in advance by the authorities in Paris is debatable - perhaps it was simply a case of naval officers taking professional note of a once and future enemy's defensive capabilities, etc.

Péron's involvement is less excusable. Before leaving lle de France on the homeward voyage he presented General Decaen with a detailed report on the history, geography, social conditions, economic progress and strategic significance of the British colony, claiming that this had been the hidden reason for the voyage. Much of it was of little military significance, but in the closing paragraph he recommended that the colony should be destroyed as soon as possible: 'Today we could destroy it easily; we shall not be able to do so in 25 years' time!' (Scott 1914, p. 464). It remains an indelible blot on the reputation of a gifted scientist - a poor recompense for the generous support given him by Colonel Paterson and Governor King.

Buried in the body of his report was the comment that 'at the present moment' the English navigator Flinders was traversing the South Pacific, seeking to discover 'some formidable military position' from which British forces might menace the 'rich Spanish possessions' in South America. It was one in a series of unlucky coincidences which predisposed the General to view Flinders with suspicion when he arrived in the capital, Port Louis, on 16 December 1803 (the day after the Géographe had sailed), claiming the right to safe passage for a voyage of discovery specified by his passport. Instead, he was detained on the island for six and a half years, initially as a suspected spy, later as a 'prisoner of state', and finally as a hostage (Brown 2000).


To Decaen, busily engaged in placing the island on a war footing following the renewal of hostilities, the Englishman's fortuitous arrival seemed doubly suspicious - not only was his ship, the 29 ton schooner