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