- Leon Guerin, Histoire Maritime de France, vol. 6. Paris: Dufour et Mulat, 1851, pp. 278-279
- Governer Philip Gidley King to Sir Joseph Banks, Sydney, 9 May 1803, Historical Records of New South Wales (hereafter HRNSW), vol. 5, p. 134.
Charles-Alexandre Lesueur was an artist with little prospect of switching to any of the sciences when he left the city of Le Havre. Francois Péron was one of eight naturalists and a dozen more engineers, mineralogists, surgeons or pharmacists on the two ships commanded by Nicholas Baudin. The unlikely pair both joined the expedition, which left from France on 19 October 1800.1 By the time they reached the coast of Western Australia, only two naturalists were left, and one of those was fatally ill. Lesueur’s curious mind and keen eye qualified him to be Péron’s assistant, but soon he was working in the manner of a professional naturalist.
It was easier to learn on the job back then: even Péron’s widowed mother had struggled to provide her bright son with a good education, and he would likely have become a priest, if not for the start of the French Revolutionary Wars. In 1792, at the age of 17, he joined the French army and served on the Rhine, but was wounded, then captured and imprisoned in Magdeburg fortress. He had lost the use of one eye, but spent his time reading the accounts of voyagers and explorers until he was repatriated to France and invalided out of the army in 1794.Three years of medical studies and a growing interest in natural history followed. Then a combination of an unhappy love affair and poor health persuaded him to seek a place in Baudin’s expedition to the South Seas, as both a naturalist and an anthropologist. Péron had one advantage over earlier voyagers: he had the published works of William Dampier, James Cook, William Bligh and Arthur Phillio. From about 1800, native visitors need no longer confuse a kangaroo with a greyhound, a wallaby with a rat or raccoon, or a shingleback with a guano, though it would be a while before they could rule out the presence of Dampier’s hippopotamus in Australia.
Péron was fascinated by the idea of the ‘noble savage’, and took with him on the voyage a strength measurer called a de Régnier dynamometer. Péron used this as a way of establishing that the Indigenous people of Tasmania and Australia, like the Timorese, were weaker than the English or the French. He understood cultural complexity, but failed to consider the effects of poor instructions and poor translation—or the unwillingness of people from other cultures to persevere in a manifestly pointless game, foisted on them by a comical foreigner.
Péron was a difficult man who squabbled with Baudin and later tried to ruin his commander’s reputation. His chauvinistic attitudes (at a time when England and France were more often at war than at peace) led Matthew Flinders and Governor Philip Gidley King to suspect that some of the French were planning treachery when they left Sydney and headed back to Bass Strait. Suspicion came easily in those days.Scientific passports issued to the expedition in June 1800 from London, with the support of Sir Joseph Banks, were calculated to bring the situation under control. As a scientist, Banks wanted science to continue freely, but as a member of the English Establishment, he would not condone any attempt to misuse the privileges extended to the French vessels. Equally, his friends and followers would not tolerate any abuse—and Governor King was in that same circle of influence.
In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, the governor made it clear that Baudin himself appeared honest and honourable. Nevertheless, as a precaution, King equipped a ‘colonial vessel’ and sent it off to hoist the British flag. The midshipman in charge ‘planted His Majesty’s colours close to their tents, and kept them flying during the time French ships stayed there’.2 As a foil, this unnamed midshipman was told (officially) that a British settlement group would follow:
This order you will observe was a blind, and as such was to be communicated to Mons'r Baudin, as my only object was to make him acquainted with the reports I had heard and to assure him and his masters that the King’s claim would not be so easily given up. The midshipman in the Cumberland had other private orders not to go to Storm Bay Passage, but to follow the French ships as far as King’s Island, and that he was to make pretext of an easterly wind forcing him into the straits; and as he was enjoined to survey King’s Island and Port Phillip, that service he should perform before he went to Storm Bay Passage.3
King added that Baudin had later written to say he was disappointed by King’s suspicions, but his actions showed that he remained on good terms with the British, and their correspondence remained amicable.
Despite the challenges facing Baudin’s expedition—including illness, death, and political instability exacerbated by the Napoleonic Wars—the two ships managed to return with an impressive collection of natural history specimens, including live kangaroos, emus and wombats.Péron’s artist, Lesueur, painted an image of a wombat family (‘le wombat’) and some frill-faced platypuses (‘ornithorinque’), published in the atlas to Péron’s account of Voyage de Decouvertes aux Terres Australes, which were popular but in no way accurate. He also illustrated some iconically Australian species that were new to science, including the now extinct dwarf emu of Kangaroo Island.
Péron died in 1810, in part from his war wounds, but his collection of 100,000 specimens covering some 2,500 species had reached France, and even though he stopped writing his official history of the expedition, Voyage de Decouvertes aux Terres Australes, in volume 2 at page 230, others were able to pick up where he had left off and finish the work by 1816.
While the specimens were collected in Australia, the scientific work and later storage occurred in Europe. Older Australian type specimens are generally to be found in European countries. Over time that would change, but it would be a perilously slow change.
After the expedition, Lesueur lived at New Harmony in Indiana from 1815, pursuing his trade of naturalist-artist. In 1837, he returned to the French port city of Le Havre, taking his collections with him. Ports are natural targets in modern warfare, and in 1944, the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle de Havre was badly damaged by bombing and fire. It was not the first to have suffered this fate: Florence, the resting place of La Billardiere’s Australian type specimens, was damaged during the Second World War and London’s Natural History Museum was badly damaged during the 1914 Blitz. For the sake of accurate science, and for the sake of records, collections made in Australia are better studied and stored in peaceful Australia, but that notion would not take hold for almost another century. It was still the age of the pillaging visitor-expert who came to fetch, rather than to study.
This is an edited extract from Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists by Peter Macinnis. Images are reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia
© Peter Macinnis