The adventures of Captain Nicolas Baudin

 In 1802 two French naval ships dropped anchor in the uninhabited harbours of southern Van Diemans Land, the third official French expedition to visit the area within ten years. Was this finally the prelude to a full scale French invasion?

For the bi-centenary of the Baudin expedition, Brendon Bowes examines the reasons for the exploration, its achievements and the legacy of French interest in Tasmania.


The name of Captain Nicolas Baudin is not as well known today as explorers Tasman, Flinders or Cook. Some have even interpreted his grand expedition of 1800-04 as a failure, with the added problem of him being French, on the "enemy" side when the British settled Van Diemens Land. However with a background as a scientist and naval officer, Baudin's choice as leader of a major expedition should have augured well for success.

Born 1754 he saw service with French East India Company before joining the navy, his activities scientific as well as military. Returning triumphant from a two year scientific expedition to the West Indies in 1798, he submitted various proposals for future employment. In 1800 he was successful in convincing Napoleon and the Institute of France to support a scheme to explore unknown parts of southern Australia. The 30 gun corvette Le Geographe and storeship Le Naturaliste were lavishly fitted out, officers appointed and scientists employed. It was the most scientifically minded of expeditions, accompanied by a formidable array of scholars including two astronomers, two marine surveyors, three botanists, five zoologists, two geologists, four artists, and a gardener with four assistants. A number were to leave the expedition before it reached Australia or died during the voyage. Observations were to be made of ocean currents, minerals, botany and zoology.

Social anthropology was an exciting new science and special instructions for dealing with native peoples were suggested. Attempts were to be made to gain a real understanding of their way of life, and it is significant that Baudin's men was the last scientific party to observe Tasmanian aborigines before the trauma of European invasion. No doubt the Frenchmen also had settlement in mind. Evidence of this are the accurate charts made by the expedition and comments about the suitability of various places for settlement.

Baudin sailed from Le Havre in October 1800, calling at Isle de France (Mauritius) before landfall on the Western Australian coast, then proceeded to Timor. The three month stay proved disastrous, with the crew becoming ill. In November 1801 he left directly for Van Diemens Land. On 13th January 1802 they entered D'Entrecasteaux Channel and next day explored Port Cygnet in search of fresh water and firewood. Zoologist Francois Peron marvelled at the picturesque harbour;

"The shores are bordered by mighty trees, growing so thickly that they make the forest hardly penetrable," he wrote. "Countless flocks of parrots and cockatoos, clothed in the richest colours, were flying about their tops. "The waters of the port were of the calmest, and their surface was hardly ruffled by the progress of many legions of black swans".

While still surrendering to the sweet dreamings of this picturesque site, he heard shouts from shore. First meeting with aborigines was a man in his 20s. He showed no fear and was fascinated by the whiteness of the Frenchmen's skin, and their longboat. Meeting a family of nine returning from shell fishing, the visitors sang songs which amazed the natives and filled them with laughter. "Little by little they had grown familiar with us and by the end of our interview with them they were behaving as freely as if we had known them a long time". Peron described the natives as quick witted, mischievous and cunning, with an "affectionate display of benevolence lavished on us", setting the tone for further peaceful encounters between Frenchmen and natives. Most were described as naked except for a kangaroo skin, of "good height", strong and vigorous, healthy teeth and frizzy hair. Scarring to women's bodies was interpreted by the visitors as evidence of ill treatment by husbands.

The French were particularly captivated by a lively girl named Oure-Oure aged about 17. She showed how to apply makeup from finely crushed charcoal to cheeks and body. Peron interpreted her attentions towards Lieut. Henri Freycinet as "flirtatious". She freely gave her little rush bag, a prized possession, to Peron who noted the intricate craftwork.

Meeting twenty women fishing on Bruny Island an older woman named Arra-Maida invited the Frenchmen to sit down while the meal was cooked. Chief surgeon Jerome Bellefin amused them with dancing and singing and received great applause from the startled audience. Arra-Maida mimicked his song, then sang and danced in her own language. "Some of the dances would have been thought extremely indecent in European society", wrote Peron.

Other examples of European interpretations placed on aboriginal customs were that they appeared not to understand kissing, therefore their sexuality lacked sensitivity, and that their behaviour was naturally ferocious. Peron wrote of aboriginal men; "they have a look that is both sinister and ferocious and which a careful observer cannot miss, corresponding only too clearly with their character". Aboriginal bark huts were "wretched" and "reflected the lowest level of civilisation". To the explorers, the Tasmanians were specimens of natural history rather than people. Observations were made difficult by not understanding aboriginal language. A list of 75 words was compiled, but nothing about its grammar or structure.

On their brief visit the French scientists could never gain more than superficial impressions of the natives, and high hopes held by the expedition's sponsors were never fulfilled. The expedition sailed up River Nord (River Derwent ) above present day Bridgewater, then explored Maria and Schouten islands. Places named after expedition members include;

After recuperating in Sydney in the winter of 1802, Baudin continued exploration around King and Flinders islands, the Furneaux Group, and Robbins and Hunter Islands in the north west.

Le Naturaliste returned to France, with further exploration of South and Western Australia by Le Geographe and the Casuarina, a boat purchased in Sydney. These ships arrived at Isle de France on 7th August 1803, where Baudin died on 16th September. Le Geographe reached France in April 1804 but was accorded a poor reception.

The greatest legacy of the Baudin expedition was the effect it had on the settlement of Van Diemens Land. England and France had been at war since 1793, and while the British Admiralty had granted safe passage to Baudin's "scientific" expedition any French activity in the Pacific aroused suspicion. Despite Baudin's assurances that he had no intention of annexing territory, in Sydney he made pointed inquiries regarding British possessions. Philip King, Governor of New South Wales, informed him the whole of the continent including Van Diemens Land were British, a claim hard to substantiate with one settlement.

It was revealed more than a century after the expedition that Peron and Freycinet had acted as intelligence agents, providing French authorities with a top secret dossier of information about the British colony.

After Baudin's departure he named a section of coastline from Wilsons Promontory to Cape Adieu "Terre Napoleon" giving French names to its features. King reported Baudin's visit to London, explaining to Lord Castlereagh (Foreign Minister) the necessity of "preventing the French gaining a foothold" in Van Diemens Land, especially after war resumed in March 1803. King's interpretations of French intentions made a deep impression in England especially a rumour that Baudin was returning to Van Diemens Land to select a place for settlement. At Sydney Cove Lieut. Colonel Patterson chatted over wine and dessert with French officers, who casually mentioned they might establish a base at Storm Bay. However Patterson neglected to report the conversation until the French had left.

In a letter dated 9th May 1803, to Sir Evan Nepean, Secretary of the Admiralty, King wrote; "It was reported to me after the French ships sailed that a principal object of their voyage was to fix on a place at Van Diemens Land for a settlement, and that the French officers who had talked of it had pointed out a particular place, what they called Baie du Nord (North West Bay) in Storm Bay Passage (D'Entrecasteaux Channel). "Under these circumstances I judged it expedient to form a settlement at Risdon Cove in the River Derwent".

HMS Cumberland was sent to keep watch and overtook Baudin at King Island, where the British colours were hoisted to show possession, and Lieut. John Bowen dispatched to settle on the Derwent, landing in September 1803.

What was achieved

The expedition made significant contributions to knowledge about Australia, yet Baudin and his crew did not receive the distinction they deserved. There are a number of reasons for this.

Baudin insisting on high standards of accuracy for charting the Tasmanian coast, covering south and east coasts, and in Bass Strait. Earlier maps were corrected, with the location of Tasman's Frederick Henry Bay cleared up (now Blackman Bay, Dunalley). However his charting was overshadowed by that of Matthew Flinders, who left England to begin his epic work charting the Australian coastline when Baudin left France. They later met at Encounter Bay, South Australia, and Baudin remained on cordial terms with the British. Flinders was later imprisoned by the French on Isle de France until 1810, delaying publication of his maps until 1814. As Baudin's charts were published first in 1807, British ill-feeling led to accusations of plagiarism of Flinders' captured maps. Scientific value of the voyage was enormous, with 100,000 animal and plant specimens brought to France. Expeditioners were amazed at the luxuriant growth of Tasmanian forests exclusively composed of strange trees and plants. But while natural history specimens were exciting to naturalists, they failed to enthuse popular opinion.

A third problem lay in a deterioration in command and human relationships. Baudin insisted on hard work and rigorous attention to duty, and on the voyage out a number of naval officers and scientists left at Isle de France. Some had been appointed through patronage, and while freeloaders were no loss to the expedition, on their return to France they blamed Baudin for their departure and cast him as an ogre.

Finally the ships were unlucky to be delayed at sea by violent storms and Timor's unhealthy climate led to illness considerably reducing the expedition's efficiency. Baudin himself died before its completion, unable to answer his critics, leaving Peron and Freycinet to write official accounts of the voyage that denigrated their master's efforts.