Early French Explorers of Australia

Nicolas Baudin
Nicolas Baudin
In the 18th. century, there are exotic French names such as Nicolas Baudin, Jean-Francois de Galaup Compte de La Perouse, Antoine Raymond Joseph de Brimi D'Entrecasteaux, and Louis Bougainville, names that one would expect to find gracing elegant Parisian salons, rather than exploring the distant shores of Australia, and the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

But no, these early French explorers and their small ships were out pushing back the frontiers of exploration, seeking out new territory to chart and claim for France, to expand her colonial empire.

The Island of Mauritius
Mauritius stands alone, isolated in the Indian Ocean, about 2,400 kilometers south east of the African coast, it covers about 1,865 square kilometers, or 720 square miles, and in generally surrounded by coral reefs except for its southern section.

It is interesting that this island became a common thread woven into the lives of several of the early French explorers, plus Matthew Flinders, all of whom were involved in the early exploration of Australia.

Flinders, on his way back to England in Cumberland, because of her perilous stats, was forced to seek help at this island. Alas, England and France at that time were at war, he was taken prisoner by the then Governor Deecan, and detained for the next 6 and a half years.

Nicolas Baudin, on his way home to France after his Australian cruise, became ill and called at Mauritius in 1803, only to die on the island.

Le Perouse in 1783 married Louise-Eleonore Broudon, a young creole he had met on the Ile de France, which is the present day Mauritius.

D'Entrecasteaux served a term as Governor of the French Colony of Mauritius.

Nicolas Baudin.
We have already met Nicolas Baudin in his ship Geographic, when he came across Flinders, on the southern coast of Australia, which Flinders named Encounter Bay.

Baudin had been born at Port La Rochelle, a seaport town on an island off the west coast of France, the fifth child in his family.

At age 15, Baudin went to sea as a cabin boy, and when 20, after being a Naval Cadet for 12 months he looked to the French East India Company for a career. In a troop transport en route to India he became a quartermaster, but lasted only two years before disillusionment found him back in France.

With France entering the American War of Independence, he joined up as an Officer, to serve in the Caribbean for a year, then taking command of the sloop Apollon on convoy duty in the English Channel.

But once more he was frustrated, when a Nobleman outranking him, grabbed his position as commanding officer, and Baudin quickly resigned to work abroad in the merchant service. He rose to command voyages, emigrants to New Orleans, back loading timber for Nantes, at last his fortunes started to improve. He took Franz Boos, the Austrian Emperor's head gardener on board, and now made a series of botanical expeditions for the Austrians, over 5 years he undertook three voyages to the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Boos taught him about botany, and how to care for animals and plants, during one trip ostriches, zebras, plants and seedlings were all carried and nurtured.

France and Austria at war.
On the day in April 1792 that France went to war against Austria, Baudin had sailed, at his first port of call he tried to rejoin the French Navy, he was not accepted, and the Imperial Ambassador at Madrid learnt about it all, Spanish authorities took over Baudin's ship, and threw him into prison. In the interim, many of his crew left the ship, even after he was released from prison many of his officers were upset by Baudin's actions and resigned.

Baudin continued on to the Cape, took Scholl and his collection of Flora and fauna onboard and set sail for New Holland.

Baudin and his ship, Jardiniere III were driven northwards by hurricane winds and he was forced to enter Bombay to undertake repairs. But Baudin was unaware that France was also at war with Britain, and he had more crew leave him and the ship, he took on some Indian seamen to fill the gap. Now he gave up any plans to sail to the Far East, and made for the area of the Red Sea and on to East Africa. He obviously had no qualms about the Slave Trade, taking on board slaves from African ports.

As he sailed south to enter Table Bay at the Cape of Good Hope, he again ran into storms, but this time they drove his vessel aground.

This became a failed voyage, and Scholl who had been trying to leave the Cape area for some 8 years, now blamed Baudin, he thought the Captain had deliberately put his ship aground so he could dispose of the black slaves.

The movements of Baudin after the stranding of his ship are not well documented, he apparently saved a collection of plants and trees from the shipwreck, because he took them to his botanist friend Labarrere at Trinidad. Baudin turned up in the United States, gained a passport from the French Ambassador and via an American ship returned to France.

He now played his experience as A Botanical Voyager card, visiting the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris to lobby Professor Antoine-Laurent Jussieu, within six months the professor and his staff had convinced the Government to charter a small ship to sail to Trinidad to recover the botanical collection left there by Baudin.

The Museum chose four scientists to join with Baudin for this trip.

This ship, Belle-Angelique set off from Le Havre, and Sir Joseph Banks recommended that this expedition be given safe conduct by the British, very important, recalling that the two countries were at war.

After three weeks at sea, the ship ran into a howling gale blowing in from the west, it took all of Baudin's skills as a seaman to save his ship, as he put into Tenerife.

Belle-Angelique would sail no more, and her Captain now got hold of a smaller vessel and made for Trinidad, but on arrival, the British would not allow him to land.

Off he went to one of the Virgin Islands, St Thomas, now a Danish colony, the four scientists went fossilling in the volcanic rich area, and Baudin acquired a larger ship, renaming her Belle-Anglique after her namesake. After a 10 week sojourn, the ship moved onto San Juan, and over 9 months Baudin and his party gathered up plants, birds, insects, samples of different species of wood, all in all, a mighty collection from the West Indies.

On his way home to France, Baudin was stopped by an English warship, and interrogated on board, in case of his dentention, he prudently told the British Commodore " It would have reflected more glory on you to show favour to an expedition undertaken for the progress of science."

He was released, to safely deliver the collection to Paris, which became part of a parade through that city, the crowds amazed at wagons bearing banana and coconut palms, paw paw trees, and many other exotic plants unknown in Europe. As designed, Baudin had made his name, was reinstated into the French Navy, and promoted to Post Captain.

In 1800 he was still trying to mount an expedition to tour the world, he wanted to go to the Americas, the Islands of the Pacific, New Holland and the southern parts of Africa, and Baudin appealed directly to General Bonaparte, the leader of the young Republic.

Important men such as Jusseiu, Fleurieu and Bouganville all backed this plan, the latter had been the first European explorer to actually sight the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast, but his crew were weakened by both scurvy and sickness, and Bouganville had been unable to explore this marvel.

Baudin's Ships Naturaliste and Geographe in Australian waters
Baudin's Ships Naturaliste and Geographe in Australian waters
Bonaparte agreed to a less ambitious expedition, two ships under Baudin would explore the coast of New Holland and the southern part of New Guinea. The two ships were the 30 gun corvette Geographe, drawing about 15 feet of water, and having the reputation of being a "Fine sailer" but perhaps not as sturdy a ship as needed for a journey across the world's oceans. Her companion ship, Naturaliste, in contrast, a large and strongly built store ship, with a draught similar to Geographe, but with much lesser sailing qualities, which would prove to become quite a problem, as the two ships were to become separated twice during the forthcoming voyage, to cast some doubts on Baudin's reputation as a competent Navigator.

Crewing these two ships.
Baudin wanted eight officers and 92 crew, plus eight scientists aboard each ship, but on sailing, Geographe had 118, whilst Naturaliste had 120, plus 11 extra seamen had managed to sneak onboard, so overcrowding was soon a problem for the total of 251 aboard these two ships.

Important families had lobbied for their sons, nephews, or proteges to join the expedition, and Bouganville had managed to get his 18 year old son a berth, who proved to be quite useless, leaving the journey along with other officers and young gentlemen.

Although Baudin only wanted 8 scientists for each ship, he was saddled with twenty three astronomers, landscape and portrait artists, geographers, minerologists, botanists, zoologists, gardeners, naval surgeons and a pharmacist.

By the time the ships reached Isle de France, the gilt had worn off the expedition for ten of this group, pleading ill health, they left, and Baudin was happy to see them go.

He took along in their place two talented illustrators, Charles-Alexander Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit.

Isle de France is left behind.
What must have been in Baudin's thoughts as he cleared Isle de France, and set a course eastwards towards The Great Unknown?

It was May 1801, before his two ships made a landfall at Cape Leeuwin on the south west corner of Australia, he now spent three months charting the coast of Western Australia and gathering scientific data, but he needed to visit Timor to replenish his ships.

He now sailed to the southern parts of the continent, giving many places French names, he called this land Terre Napoleon after his Emperor and approver of his expedition.

The east coast of Tasmania was explored, and in April of 1802, he made his now famous meeting with Matthew Flinders at Encounter Bay on the South Australian coast,  he was sailing eastwards, whilst Baudin was making westwards, what a chance in millions that these two intrepid, but totally different Navigators, should meet up here in the wild waters south of Australia. Surely one of the most unlikely and historic meetings of all time!!

Many of Baudin's company were very ill with scurvy, and he sailed his ships to Botany Bay, seeking the hospitality of Governor King and the English colony, the French were well received, offered medical attention, and provisions, both sorely needed. Their stay here in Sydney lasting for five months, in November 1802, off Baudin sailed again, around the southern coastline, up the west coast, once more to Timor.

Now he set off for Isle de France or Mauritus as we call it today, arriving to be quite sick with tuberculosis, Baudin died here in September 1803, only a few weeks before the arrival of his great rival Navigator, Matthew Flinders, who was imprisoned by the French authorities.

This Baudin led expedition had been important in unfolding mysteries about Australia, its Aboriginal people, its fauna and flora, he should be remembered for his contribution to scientific knowledge, and his unrelenting quest for seeking new horizons.

Jean-Francois de Galoup Compte de La Perouse
Jean-Francois de Galoup Compte de La Perouse
Jean-Francois de Galoup Compte de La Perouse.
La Perouse was born on the 23rd. of August in 1741, and joined the Navy at 15, he was fighting against the British during the Seven Years War off North America.

In 1782, he captured two English forts on the shores of Hudson's Bay, and the next year found him married to a young Creole girl he had met at Mauritus.

In 1785 he was appointed to lead a French expedition to the Pacific, many of the European nations, England, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish, all anxious to gain new territories, or the treasures from the East such as the spices, control and sale of which the Dutch had probably already gained a monopoly.

La Perouse was given two ships, each of only 500 tons, Astrolabe and Boussole, and he sailed from Brest in August of 1785, bound for Cape Horn.

In late 1786, he landed in Alaska, having called at Easter Island and Hawaii, he had visited the Spanish settlements in Monterey, and was critical of the way the Franciscan missions were treating the local Indians.

La Perouse now crossed the Pacific to Macao, and here sold all the furs he had picked up in Alaska, next he headed for Manila, to then cross over to Korea.

The Kuriles were visited and the Kamchatka Peninsula was explored, letters from Paris were received, ordering La Perouse to visit the British settlement at Botany Bay, where he arrived on the 26th. of June 1788.

This French explorer hoped to restock with food here in Australia, but the colony had none to spare, they themselves were anxiously awaiting food relief by means of a supply ship from Britain. Fresh water and wood was all the help he could gain at Port Jackson, he sent off home to Paris his journals and letters via a British ship, and set sail for New Caledonia, Santa Cruz, and the Solomons, " Never to be seen again."

Antoine Raymond Joseph de Brimi D'Entrecasteaux
Antoine Raymond Joseph de Brimi D'Entrecasteaux

Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni D'Entrecasteaux.
Born in 1739, at Aix in Provence, D'Entrecasteaux was educated at a Jesuit school, and wished to enter that order, but his father disagreed, and entered him for the French Navy in 1754.

As a Midshipman in La Minerve, he saw action resulting in the Balearic Islands going to Spain, and he was promoted to Ensign in 1757.

By 1785 he had risen sufficiently in the navy to command a Squadron in the East Indies, and opened a route to Canton via Sunda Straits and the Moluccas, now he became the Governor of the Island of Mauritius sitting in the Indian Ocean.

In September of 1791, D'Entrecasteaux was ordered to mount an expedition to go and search for La Perouse, his two ships and their crews, we have already noted went missing in 1788. Promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, D'Entrecasteaux was given a 500 ton frigate, La Recherche, with d'Hesmity-d'Auribeau as his second in command, plus a second vessel, L'Esperance commanded by Huon de Kermadec, and a distinguished hydrographer C.F. Beautemps-Beaupre was added to the group.

The two ships cleared Brest on the 8th. of September 1791, with orders to proceed to Australia, making a landfall at Cape Leeuwin on its south west corner, then to follow the southern coastline to make for Van Dieman's Land ( Tasmania ) thence to sail to the Friendly Islands ( Tonga ) via the north of New Zealand.

It was considered that La Perouse had intended to explore New Caledonia and the Louisiades, pass through the Torres Strait to explore the Gulf of Carpentaria and the north coast of Australia.

When the expedition reached Table Bay at Cape Town on the 17th. of January 1792 he was informed that Captain John Hunter had recently seen off the Admiralty Islands some native people in their canoes wearing French uniforms and belts.

Although Hunter later denied this report, D'Entrecasteaux was determined to make for the Admiralty Islands area, but firstly he would replenish his water supplies, and rest his crews at Van Diemans Land, and on the 20th. of April 1792 he had land in sight, three days later the two ships anchored in a harbour he named Recherche Bay after his own ship.

The Admiral was very impressed with this Bay, I quote him from his ship's log:

"It would be vain of me to attempt to describe my feelings when I beheld this lovely harbour lying at the world's end, separated as it were from the rest of the universe, t'was nature in her wildest mood."

The five week sojourn in this southern Eden gave the botanists a chance to harvest 5,000 plants, with at least 100 new species which included the first blue gum eucalyptus. The expedition gardener, Felix Delahaye laid out the first European vegetable garden in Tasmania, he later went on to become head gardener for Empress Josephine at Malmaison.

In the ship's company was a steward known as Louis Girargin, who was a 38 year old female pretending to be a male, she was Marie Louise Victoire Girgarin, it is understood that both D'Entrecasteaux and his second in command were well aware of her disception, but closed a blind eye to it. It was thought she was actually the daughter of the head gardener at The Royal Court of Versailles, but giving birth to an illegitimate child had forced her to leave France. Marie Louise had a special cabin and was allowed to keep much to herself, keen to protect her masculine disguise, she had challenged a male crew member to a swordfight, and thereby suffered a gash to an arm.

It is thought she was the first European woman to fight a duel on Australian soil, and was the first white woman in Tasmania, 12 years ahead of any settlement in Hobart Town.

Mauritius Map

Marie Louise became the lover of a Sub Lieutenant in Rescherche, but in 1794 both died from dysentery within a day of each other.

For some 5 weeks the Frenchmen explored the area, charting as they went, and producing 39 charts, and those of Van Dieman's land remained the basis of English charts for a long time into the future.

The ships now sailed into the Pacific Ocean, arriving on the 28th. of May 1792 off the Isle of Pines, south of New Caledonia, now they altered course to the north, passed the Solomon Islands, through St Georges Channel between New Britain and New Ireland, on the 28th. of July, sighting the south east coast of the Admiralty Islands which perch close to the equator, and where the massive American base at Manus was located in WW2. It became at that time the crossroads of the world, and the invasions of the Philippines were staged from this location.

It was here that I first joined my heavy cruiser HMAS Shropshire in November of 1944, having flogged from Western Australia across my continent, then up the east coast to Brisbane, then to cadge a lift in an American DC3, through New Guinea in a number of hops, finally to make it to Manus. Tropical rain precluded me seeing my ship, and the Americans at the airstrip had never heard of her, so I sat for two days until the rain eventually gave up, and there was Shopshire, anchored some few hundred yards away, but I have digressed a long long way from 1792.

There was no sign of La Perouse or any of his crew members, d'Entrecasteaux now made for Amboina where he was able to restore his vessels. He sailed down the coast of Western Australia  off to Cape Leeuwin, seeking La Perouse off the southern Australian coastline, but still no sign of him at all.

On the 6th. of December, still in 1792, the SW extremity of Australia was sighted and land nearby named d'Entrecasteaux Point. Sailing eastwards, the Frenchman missed King George III Sound, that magnificent body of water found by Captain Vancouver, and where the modern day city of Albany stands.

Continuing to the east the weather became rough in the notorious Great Australian Bight, the land remained arid, and the need for fresh water became serious, forcing the French explorer to sail directly for Van Dieman's Land where he knew he could obtain that precious comodity. This move robbed d'Entrecasteaux from discovering many geographical features on the southern coast of Australia, which fell to the lot of Flinders and Bass a number of years later, perhaps to have made a French Terre Napoleon fact.

It was back to Recherche Bay on the 22nd. of January in the new year of 1793, another 5 weeks was spent in this idyllic location, natural history and geography being explored. Beautemps-Beaupre with other officers surveyed north to Storm Bay, the mouth of a river named Riviere du Nord, only to be renamed the Derwent River a few months later by Captain John Hayes who arrived in Duke of Clarence and Duchess.

By the 28th. of February it was time to move on, and Van Dieman's Land was left behind, as the expedition now sailed for the Friendly Islands, seeing New Zealand and the Kermadecs on the way. Here the locals remembered both Cook and Bligh, but had not seen anything of La Perouse, all this area was searched to Santa Cruz, the southern coasts of the Solomons, the northern parts of the Loiusades, through Dampier's Passage , coasting north of New Britain, the southern coast of the Admiralty Islands, and leaving New Guinea to the south, across to the Moluccas. Nothing of La Perouse, and even today his disappearance with his crews remains an unsolved mystery.

But within the two ships it was becoming desperate, the Officers were mainly Royalists, and the crew the reverse, were all Revolutionaries, Kermadec died of phthisis, and now on the 21st. of July 1793, d'Entrecasteaux himself died of scurvy.

The commands needed to be rearranged, and d'Auribeau took charge, naming de Rossel in Kermadec's place. In Surabaya it was learned that France was now a Republic, and the new commander handed over his two ships to the Dutch authorities, so that the new French Government could not get their hands on them. Now d"Auribeau died a month later, and de Rossel sailed from Java in January of 1795, arriving at Table Bay at the Cape in that April, his ship suddenly took off with all the expeditions important documents on board,  leaving him stranded at the Cape, but the British soon captured the ship.

Rossel now took passage in a brig-of-war, it too fell into British hands, but when the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802, all of d'Entrecasteaux's papers were returned to D'Rossel who was able to publish a narrative of the whole expedition.

d'Entrecasteaux and his staff travelled many thousands of miles in search of the elusive La Perouse, exploring and charting as they went, he added much to European Exploration and knowledge of the New World south of the equator, but never lived to savour any kudos from his hard work, trials and tribulations.

Louis Antoine de BougainvilleLouis - Antoine de Bougainville. 1729 - 1811.

Born on the 11th. of November 1729, this French Soldier, then a Sailor, had at first looked as if Mathematics would be his life work, had set up the French Colony in the Falkland Islands, fought in Canada against the British, led an expedition around the world, and was elected to scientific academies.

He survived both a duel and the French Revolution, became a friend of Napoleon, and was a noted grower of fine roses. All in all, an interesting character who after his death, had islands, plants and mountains named after him.

His father was notary, but he had no intention of following him in this profession. After completing his secondary education, Bougainville in 1752 wrote a book on integral calculus, which also updated the differential calculus, and extended deHospital's work in these areas. The Academie des Sciences noticed this work in January 1753, it was published the following year, and led to Bougainville's election to the Royal Society of London in 1756, when he published a second book, but this seems to herald the end of his flirtation with becoming a mathematician.

In 1754 he had joined the Army, and he now went off to Canada in 1756 as Aide - de - Camp to General Louis - Joseph Montcalm, where he gave distinguished service against the British in the French and Indian War there.

In 1763, we find Bougainville back home in France, and he now left the Army to join the Navy, to sail in 1764 into the Atlantic, down the coast of South America to establish a French Colony in the Falkland Islands.

He must have impressed his Government back in France, at this stage no Frenchman had ever sailed around the world, but in 1766, Bougainville was commissioned to do just that.

Dampier had found New Britain and New Ireland , the Dutch had pushed out into the Pacific in 1722, found Easter Island, the Gilbert Islands had been found by the Englishman John Byron in 1765, and the French did not want to be left out of this rush to seek out a continent, that was believed to be out there somewhere south of the equator.

Although Bougainville maintained an open mind on this subject, he had declared on the one hand:

... that it is difficult to conceive such a number of low islands and almost drowned islands without a continent near them

... But on the other hand he found it hard to believe that a southern continent existed for surely it would have been discovered by the earlier explorers:-

... If any considerable land existed hereabouts we could not fail meeting with it.

Now in December of 1766, with naturalists and other scientists, Bougainville sailed out of Nantes in the frigate La Boudese, taking much the same route as he had done in 1764, calling in to Rio de Janiro where he met up with his supply ship Etoile.

Commerson, a botanist, in Etoile, had found a climbing decidious shrub which in honour of his leader he had named Bougainvillia.

Both vessels now sailed for the Falklands, leaving there in July 1767 to sail through the Straits of Magellan into the South Pacific, on to find the Archipelago of Tuamoto, which these days is French Polynesia. They sailed on to Tahiti, only to learn it was discovered some eight years earlier by the Englishman Samuel Wallis.

Bougainville now sailed westwards reaching just east of the Great Barrier Reef to a point now named Bougainville Reef, he now turned north, coming close to, but not actually sighting the Australian mainland. Some 200 kilometers south east of Papua/New Guinea, he reached the Louisiade Archipelago, named after Louis XV of France.

They sailed onwards to the north, along the west coast of Choisuel Island, in the Western Solomons, south east of the now named Bougainville Island, through the now called Bougainville Strait to coast his named island of which he noted:-

... a new coast which is of astonishing height.

The ships sailed on to New Britain, and stopped at Buru in the Moluccas in September of 1768, his ships needed a refit, and many of the crew were suffering from scurvy, a disease that claimed the lives of some early explorers and many of their crew members.

It was at Buru, Bougainville found:-

... a species of wild cat that carries her young in a pocket below her belly.

A further sojourn was made at Batavia in Java, and now a course was set for home, arriving at Saint - Marlo in Brittany in March of 1769.

Bougainville thus became the first Frenchman to sail round the world, he rightly received great acclaim after his return, he was promoted in both the Navy and the Army. In 1772 he was appointed Secretary to his King Louis XV, he married in 1780, and fathered four children.

As a Commodore, he served in operations with the French Fleet off North America over 1779 to 1782, supporting the American Revolution.

Back in France, despite being a Royalist, Bougainville survived the Paris massacres, to settle on his estates in Normandy.

Napoleon honoured him by making him a Senator, a Count, and a member of the Legion of

Bougainville died in Paris on the 31st. of August 1811, having lived in interesting times, and achieving much in many different facets of his life. He deserves recognition for it all.


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