A meeting of rivals on our "unknown coast"

When HMS Amazon and the French Navy's Commander Bialson meet off Victor Harbor tomorrow It will be a friendly affair. But was the 1802 Flinders Baudin encounter as friendly as the history books make out? ALAN POPE takes a closer look at that original meeting.

EARLY in April, 1802, both the British and French had ships on our "unknown coast".

Heading east was the Investigator, under command of Matthew Flinders. Approaching from the opposite direction was Nicolas Baudin, in Le Geographe, one of the two ships making up the French expedition. Baudin's bad luck and poor management had squandered his eight-month start on his English rival, but the Frenchman was not particularly worried.

Not so Flinders, however. He knew that if he delayed too long on Kangaroo Island the French expedition might well beat him along this southern coast. The French ships had not been sighted but they could have easily slipped by unseen. But they had not, and on April 8 the lookouts on the Investigator reported a strange object several miles ahead.

... at four, a white rock was reported from aloft to be seen ahead. On approaching nearer, it proved to be a ship standing towards us ... (Flinders, Voyage).

An hour or so later, their French counterparts noticed the approaching ship and heaved a collective sigh of relief. They had been separated from their own consort, Le Naturaliste, and assumed that the distant sail was hers. But it was not long before the French realised their mistake.

... what was our astonishment when we observed a white flag run up to the head of the mast ... shortly afterwards, this signal was hauled down and the English flag substituted. (Baudin, Journal).

Baudin's surprise was genuine, as Flinders had the advantage over the French commander. Baudin could not have known for sure that the English had mounted an expedition to compete with him, nor who was given its command.

Not knowing whether England and France were still at war, Flinders took the precaution of running up a white flag of truce while ordering his crew to stand by for trouble.

we veered around as Le Geographe was passing, so as to keep broadside to her ... shortened sail, and hove to, being ready for action. (Flinders, Voyage).

The officer of the watch, Samuel Flinders, used a hailer to call to the French ship an they slowly passed. Flinders, revealing the arrogance so rarely mentioned by historians, indicated his intention to board the French ship, uninvited. Matthew and the naturalist Robert Brown, the best French speaker on board, went across to be received on the deck of Le Geographe.

Dusk was falling, and so this initial meeting was brief. The icy atmosphere, mostly caused by the English formality, was hardly broken. Baudin, much to Flinders's annoyance, had no idea who this; young English commander was. Not that he would have wanted to get to know him either, judging from Flinders's behaviour. Adopting a superior air, he remained haughty and aloof, and before the introductions could even be properly completed, demanded ...

... to see their passport which was shown to me and I offered mine for inspection, but Captain Baudin put it back without looking at it. (Investigator, Fair Log).

Baudin clearly trusted his visitors and appeared to take no precautions. His attitude was one of indifference to this minor diversion, as well as bemusement at the priggish behaviour of this condescending younger English commander.

However, he was happy to agree when Flinders suggested that they stay close by during the night and meet again in the morning. Together the two ships tacked out to sea, with the Investigator crew keeping a suspicious eye on the other ship's manoeuvres. As the Investigator log records:

At 7.10 the commander returned; hoisted up the cutter and made sail upon a wind in company of the Geographe, backing the mizzen topsail occasionally to keep company. At 12 burnt a blue light on which the Geographe wore as we did after her.

But ftm the very start of this encounter there were communication problems between the two crews. Flinders arrogantly made the assumption that Baudin would know who he was, as well as realise the intentions of his voyage, and perhaps this misapprehension explains the lack of proper introductions when he boarded the French ship.

In fact, it was not until almost at the end of their breakfast meeting the next day that the significance of the name of his English guest dawned on the older French captain. After referring critically to some British charts, Baudin was surprised to find his guest's name to be..

... the same as that of the author of the chart of Bass' Strait which he had been criticising ... (Flinders, Voyage).

Brown's translations left a lot to be desired. Baudin somehow got the impression that Flinders had stayed in Nepean Bay for "six weeks to prepare a plan" for the exploration of the gulfs with a companion ship. Presumably Flinders had mentioned his plan for the Investigator to join with the Lady Nelson in Sydney, and the meaning somehow got lost in the translation.

Not only did Baudin get this particular talse Impression, but he was also confused about the fate of this supposed English companion ship, which he gathered "had become separated from his corvette".

In addition there was some confusion in the French minds about the tragedy at Cape Catastrophe. Peron, the naturalist with the French expedition, later wrote:

Delayed by head winds he had been unable to penetrate, as he had planned, behind the Isles of St Peter and St Francis; that on his departure from England he had a second ship with him and had been separated from her in a heavy storm; that a few days before and during the same equinoxial gale which beset us with such danger in Bass' Straits, he had lost his cutter with eight men and his First officer. (Peron, voyage).

All three comments are, of course, incorrect. Some accurate information was exchanged, however, after their initial reluctance was overcome. Baudin ...

... did not hesitate to inform him of all that we had examined on the coast up to then; at the same time pointing out some defects that I thought existed in the chart he gave us of the straits ... he agreed the work required verifying further ... (Baudin, Report).

His pride wounded by this criticism of his earlier work, the English commander then presented Baudin ...

... with a copy of the three charts lately published of Bass' Strait.

Baudin was unable to directly reciprocate at that time, since ...

His charts, he said, were yet unfinished, but that when he came to Port Jackson, he should be able to make some return. (Investigator, Fair Log).

Instead, Baudin offered vital ...

... information of a rock lying about two leagues off the coast, which has shoal water around it. (Investigator, Fair Log).

Flinders finally loosened up, and gave the Frenchman details of the two gulfs, as well as of Port Lincoln, in particular the site of fresh water there.

By 8.30 a.m. of the 9th the encounter was over and Flinders returned on board to prepare to proceed along the coast that Baudin had explored during previous days. The names he charted were those which Baudin "... or his countrymen have thought properly to apply ... "

No doubt Baudin would have given Flinders the same courtesy, but he died before returning to France and the work of supervising the charting fell to the less scrupulous Peron and the ambitious Freycinet.

With Flinders interned on Mauritius, they could let their imaginations run riot, as they desperately tried to make their bungled expedition seem a success. But in the end, of course, it was the British who settled here and the Frenchmen's attempt to claim the discovery of the whole "unknown coast" was thwarted. Flinders, Baudin and Grant now rightly share that honor.

Alan Pope is the author of "Magnificent Harbor", a history of Port Lincoln before settlement.

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