Our state's close encounter

Should South Australia have been French? With the state celebrating the bicentenary of the encounter between explorers Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin off Encounter Bay, this is again a topic of intrigue.

By Nadine Williams

HAD fate twisted history ever so slightly, South Australia could today he flying the Tricolore flag above Government House and singing the French national anthem La Marseillaise in schools and sports stadiums.

French president Jacques Chirac would be visiting instead of the Queen because we would have become a Republic years ago.

And French naval captain Nicolas Baudin would be a hero of discovery, with towns and statues dedicated to him, rather than a forgotten failure. It was on April 8, 1802, that Baudin came ship-to-ship with British navigator, Matthew Flinders, only to realise Flinders had won the race to discover our "unknown coast".

However, the fact is, Baudin should have been the first to complete the mapping of SA and claim it for France.

After all, it was Baudin who first mooted the idea of a voyage of science and discovery to the uncharted south coast of the land then known as New Holland.

He was also first off the mark, leaving in Le Geographe and Naturaliste nine months before Flinders set off in the Investigator.

Despite a trip plagued with tragedy and treachery, Baudin reached the West Australian coast months before Flinders.

But, in what some people say was his grave mistake, Baudin wasted precious months by turning north towards Timor to avoid spending the hostile winter off an unknown coast. Adding to Baudin's delays, his scientists were spellbound by the natives of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and had to be dragged back to their voyage of discovery.This is reflected on April 8,1802, when French senior officer Henri de Freycinet said to the victorious Flinders: "Captain if we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching buttefflies at Van Diemen's Land, you would not have discovered the south coast before us."

Clearly, the French realised and rued their lost opportunity. But what if they hadn't squandered their chance? What if France had colonised SA as it had done in so many other places? How would our culture have been shaped?

Each theoretical "what if" sets the scenario for the cultural component of Encounter 2002, which begins on Wednesday at the University of SAs Hawke Institute when academic Noelene Bloomfield launches its lecture series with her address on A French Australia? Almost!

The following Wednesday, the hot topic of the moment - That South Australia Should Be French? will be thrashed out in a free public debate by a colourful group of media personalities, academics and identities at Flinders University.

One of those arguing for the cause will be Flinders University French politics and culture expert Dr Rick De Angelis, who throws up an interesting entree: What if Napoleon, when he was defeated in 1814 by the British, had asked to be exiled to Kangaroo Island instead of Elba?

Then there is the other "what if' - if Napoleon had won the war in Europe?.

Dr De Angelis, an American francophile, is well qualified to comment. He lectures in Flinders' School of Political and International Studies and has lived in Adelaide since the 1970s with his French wife, Francoise. One of their daughters, Christina, is an Arnerican/ French/ Australian, while another daughter lives in France.

"The unknown coast was virgin territory and Napoleon could have been emperor of 'New South Vaucluse'," says Dr De Angelis.

Napoleon knew of Kangaroo Island from Baudin's voyage and those kangaroos hopping around he and his wife Josephine's palace were daily reminders of the exotic flora and fauna that existed there.

Napoleon's captors could have reasoned it was far, far away in a harsh environment and he would not escape as he did from Elba.

"Think about it," continues Dr De Angelis. "France had just lost North America, Quebec and Louisiana and if Napoleon had reinvested that four million he received for Louisiana to populate New South Vaucluse with French/Canadians running away from the English, who would we have been then?"

The Napoleonic retinue would have bred a ,'very weird mix" and we would have been "Corsicanised, Italianised and also Mediterranianised," Dr De Angelis says.

Napoleon would have absolutely changed the nature of not only SA, but of the very future of Australia itself, he adds. "What an interesting experiment in 1900, for instance, when all the other states got together and tried to decide whether to let descendants of Napoleon be admitted to the Federation. We would have surely been French and British and bilingual and had our own Vanuatu together for 100 years."

Were we French, ours would have been a much more sophisticated, sensual society, with different sexual attitudes, Dr De Angelis says.

"The British aren't particularly adventurous, but if we had been French, we would be sinlovers. We would be more arm- waving, garliceating, baguette-loving and a divisive lot with a much stronger sense of food.

"Our culture would be more European, more Mediterranean and much more southern French."

One who has lived these different cultures is French-born businessman Eric Foubert.

He reckons if SA were French, the very foundation of society would have shaken and we would have been a Republic eons ago.

"The irony is that within a very slight difference in time, we could have all been French," says Mr Faubert, a committee member of the French-Australian Business Club of South Australia.

"Had we been French, we would have changed, the same way the French aristocracy went such a long time ago; we would have broken our ties with the British mother country many years ago.

"Australia would be bilingual, but here in SA we would have always been a strictly French-speaking state. We would have been more of a people country instead of an institutionalised country and would have had much more our own identity."

Mr Foubert, who came to Australia in 1973 and became an Australian citizen in 1975, is married to Kara, an Australian, and they have a daughter, Claudia.

He says the influence of language and French culture would have made us a "much more Latin people ... a far more colourful and more expressive people and built a much more provincial society.

"Instead, we are still very British and our culture is more appropriate to England, but inappropriate for such a vast country so far away from England."

Chef, author and food exporter Maggie Beer, who will be on the pro side of the Flinders University debate, says French colonisation would have shaped a wonderful Mediterranean cuisine" and food culture based on local fare.

"It would have absolutely changed our culinary history," Ms Beer says. "German influence in the Barossa Valley has been incredibly important, but they brought out their traditions of a cold climate. The French are more Mediterranean and their food is more in keeping with our climate."

Nicolas Baudin had "absolutely embraced wild food" our local, native fare on his voyage, Ms Beer says. "There were many accounts of local food on the voyage and of their celebration of the oysters and sitting with Aborigines."

One debater who appreciates good food and wine, Mountadam Wines executive chairman Adam Wynn, is in a bind about arguing that we shouldn't be French.

After all, the company he and his father developed has recently been acquired by French champagne giant Veuve- Clicquot.

An Adelaide University graduate, Mr Wynn, who speaks fluent French, lived, studied and worked in France, becoming Dux of the Diplomed'Oenologue wine-making course at the University of Bordeaux.

Still, he can quickly list a bevy of reasons why SA should not he French: "The English would hate us for being French, the French would hate us for being provincial and we would drive on the wrong side of the road," Mr Wynn quips.

"We'd have nuclear power stations and our wine exports would be failing instead of increasing." In a lyrical look at the idiosyncracies of French culture, he adds: "Waiters would be rude to you when you tried to order a meal in English ... and we'd have to carry identity papers at all times.

"Everywhere, except Canberra, everything would close from 12pm to 2pm."

And traditional conflict between France and Britain would have transferred to the colonies, Mr Wynn says. "We would have been involved in pointless and bloody conflicts to stop Queensland and Tasmania from seceding."

No debate on the Encounter of 1802 is complete without Anthony Brown. The British-born Adelaidean and author of Ill- Starred Captains, knows the story of Flinders and Baudin better than probably anyone else.

"They talk about the chance of SA being a French colony and many people say it, but in my opinion so long as Britain had control of the seas, which it had throughout the wars, there was no chance of France setting up a distant colony which relied on sea communications," says Mr Brown, who is Encounter 2002's historian.

"France had been a strong maritime power, but had the problem of constant war with its neighbours on the continent and needed a strong army and navy and they could not afford both. But, given France's record of colonisation, it might well have been interested."

Whatever the outcome of the debate, Dr De Angelis reckons SA is already "more like the South of France" than any other state.

"We have caught up with the southern French by ourselves 200 years late, but if Napoleon had come here instead of Elba, we wouldn't have had to wait 180 years," he says.

"But, it's better late than never."

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