THE DISCOVERY OF THE UNKNOWN COAST, 1802.
England and France were at war when two men separately approached their respective governments with proposals for discovering the unknown southern coast of Australia. This was the last piece of the puzzle that would prove whether or not the great south land was one continent or two or more large islands.
Nicolas Baudin (1754-1803) commanded the French expedition that sailed from Le Havre on 19 October 1800, with two ships Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste. The expedition was heavily staffed with scientists, including François Péron. The expedition's surveyor was Louis Freycinet. The passage to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean was slow and placed the expedition badly behind schedule. The Western Australian coast was examined first, to take advantage of the prevailing winds, in particular Geographe Bay, south of Perth, and Shark Bay. The expedition then proceeded to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), gathering large collection of specimens and making many important observations of the local Aborigines. It was not until late March 1802 that Baudin left Tasmania's shores and sailed north west to the Unknown Coast.
Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) left England in July 1801, aboard HMS Investigator. Unlike the French expedition, Flinders sailed directly to the south coast of Australia and sighted Cape Leeuwin (Western Australia) on 6 December 1801. He sailed east, mapping the coast and finally on 28 January reached the furthest limit of previous discoveries at Fowlers Bay, and began charting a new coastline. After close examination of the peninsulas and the two gulfs, which he would later name Spencer and St Vincent, he discovered the north coast of Kangaroo Island, and on 8 April 1802 spied the sails of Baudin's ship. Flinders and his botanist Robert Brown went aboard and the two captains shared some of the details of their discoveries. In honour of this meeting, Flinders named the place Encounter Bay.
The two expeditions continued on their separate ways, Flinders maintaining his eastward course to Sydney and Baudin tarrying a little longer in South Australian waters before rounding Tasmania to the south, en route to Sydney.
The French expedition rested and resupplied there for several months, and purchased the locally built schooner Casuarina. Louis Freycinet would command her and do the close inshore work that was impossible in the larger ships. From Sydney the French returned to Terre Napoleon (South Australia) to continue their exploration of the southern coastline. At King Island Le Naturaliste left the expedition and returned to France with the specimens and collections gathered to that time, and Le Géographe and Casuarina continued in company. On Baudin's orders Freycinet charted Spencer and St Vincent Gulf, naming them after Napoleon and the Empress Josephine. The two ships then explored the north-west coast of Australia, before returning to Mauritius via Timor. Nicolas Baudin, who had been ill for much of the voyage, died there on 16 September 1803. The expedition's account was written by the scientific officer, François Péron and after his early death, was completed by Louis Freycinet. The first volume of text was published in 1807 and the general chart in the same year. French names were given to the entire southern coastline, despite Flinders's prior discovery of much of it.
In the meantime Flinders had sailed from Sydney on 22 July 1802 to complete the northern portion of his survey of the Australian coast. After charting the Gulf of Carpentaria, he was forced to abandon further survey work as his ship was leaking badly. He returned to Sydney on the 9 June 1803, sailing via the west coast of Australia and completing the first circumnavigation of the continent.
Flinders sailed for England aboard HMS Porpoise anxious to secure another ship to complete his surveys. When the Porpoise was wrecked, in a remarkable feat of navigation Flinders sailed her cutter to Sydney, some 700 miles, and arranged the rescue of the crew marooned on Wreck Reef. This accomplished, Flinders again set out for England in the Cumberland. This too proved unseaworthy and he was compelled to put into Mauritius.
Flinders was detained on Mauritius for six and a half years: England and France were at war again after a brief peace, and Flinders's passport, obtained before he sailed from England, had specifically named the Investigator, not the Cumberland. The Governor, General De Caen, was suspicious of his motives.
Matthew Flinders finally reached England in October 1810 and began work immediately preparing the charts and text for his Voyage to Terra Australis. It was published on 18 July 1814. Flinders died the next day.
In the second edition of Freycinet's atlas, published in 1824, the French government reinstated Flinders's place names for the coast of South Australia from Fowlers Bay to Encounter Bay including the north coast of Kangaroo Island, which he had been first to discover. The French names remained on the south-eastern coastline, and on the south coast of Kangaroo Island - their discoveries.