Now that I’m at the end of a university semester, I can return to the simple delight of reading books for pleasure. I’ve just finished Klaus Toft’s The Navigators which is the story of the race which took place in Napoleonic times between British captain Matthew Flinders and his French counterpart Nicolas Baudin to find the fabled sea passage through the middle of what was then known as New Holland, but now rejoices in the name Flinders gave it: “Australia”.
The Danish born Toft originally produced the work as a documentary for the ABC. His brief was to celebrate Matthew Flinders on the occasion of the bicentennial of his voyage around Australia. But as Toft explained in the preface to the book that followed, to tell Flinders story without reference to Nicolas Baudin was like telling Napoleon’s story without mentioning Josephine. And as the book progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that the Dane’s sympathies lie even more with the phlegmatic French captain than it does with his more celebrated but temperamental English rival.
Nicolas Baudin’s problem was that he did not survive the voyage around Australia. He died of tuberculosis on the way home at the Ile de France (Mauritius) in 1803. The version of his history that survived was written by his subordinate officers. These were mostly royalists who despised the commoner that commanded their ship in the Southern Oceans for three years. The book of the voyage downplayed his role. After reading the official account of his journey, Napoleon said Baudin did well to die: “on his return I would have had him hanged”.
Toft’s book goes a long way to righting the wrongs about Nicolas Baudin. When he set sail on his scientific voyage to chart the coastline of what the French called Terres Australes in October 1800, he was at the height of his powers and commanded 185 sailors, 22 scientists, and two ships: Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste. Baudin was ordered to find out whether a vast strait existed which separated the two sides of the Australian continent. The journey also had a political point. Napoleon wanted a strategic counterpart to the recently established English colony at Port Jackson. If the strait existed, France could lay claim to the western portion. Meanwhile Madame Bonaparte asked Boudin to bring back live creatures for her private collection.
Baudin was following in the footsteps of four doomed French captains none of whom made it back to France alive from their voyages. St Allouarn claimed the western Terres for France in 1772 but died six months later. Around the same time Dufresne was the first white man to land at Terre de van Diemen (Tasmania) before he was killed and eaten by New Zealand Maoris. La Perouse famously landed in Port Jackson on the same day as the First Fleet before disappearing in the Pacific. And when Admiral Bruny d’Entrecasteaux went to find him and failed, he too died on the way home.
Undeterred by the misfortunes of his earlier comrades, Baudin set off in good heart. But his good mood didn’t last long. He was unable to secure adequate supplies in Tenerife and the diminished rations caused grumbles among the officers and scientists aboard. He lost further time in the Doldrums as the ship drifted for windless weeks at the mercy of the currents. Most of the men on board had never been at sea and blamed the captain for their predicament. Finally in February 1801, the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope where the winds began to blow, if often from the wrong direction.
Baudin sailed on to the Ile de France. The locals were not happy to see him. They thought he had arrived to enforce the 1794 decree to emancipate French slaves. The local gentry relied on slavery to run the local economy. They refused to feed the sailors and actively encouraged desertion so they could control the two fine ships. Baudin borrowed 10,000 piastres so he could buy supplies from private merchants and set sail again eastward across the Indian Ocean.
In the autumn of 1801, Baudin arrived at the south-western coast of Terres Australes which had been charted by Allouarn. The following day he found a large bay uncharted on the maps and called it Geographe Bay in honour of his ship. Baudin led a party ashore where they met the Wardandi people before sailing on north to avoid coastal storms. According to his orders he was to head south towards Van Diemans Land and see if the fabled strait across Australia existed. But with winter approaching, he headed towards Timor with a view to returning in the spring. Baudin charted the Bonaparte Archipelago islands off the Kimberley before limping into the lonely Dutch outpost of Kupang in West Timor.
Baudin became seriously ill with fever in Timor and many of his crew expected him to die. But after 12 weeks he recovered and headed back south down the Western Australian coastline. By now Matthew Flinders was on his tail. Baudin had a nine month start on the Englishman but the various delays had allowed him to catch up. Flinders’ boat The Investigator also had a scientific motive and hit the coast barely ten nautical miles from where Baudin first sighted New Holland. But Flinders continued eastwards towards the fabled strait.
40 days after leaving Timor, Baudin was back at his survey starting point. His boat crew suffered badly from tropical fever and dysentery and 11 had died since leaving the Dutch colony. Nevertheless the voyage continued until he reached Tasmania’s D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Here they saw no British but did meet friendly Nuenonne natives. One of the crew challenged a Nuenonne to a wrestling contest which he won. But the defeated local threw a spear at the Frenchman in revenge causing a minor injury. Baudin insisted there be no retaliation. His view about indigenous people was they should “observe [them] without judgement”.
After five weeks on Bruny Island observing local customs, they set sail up the eastern seaboard of Tasmania and into a body of water his English charts called “Bass’s Strait”. Heading back towards Southern Australia, he was greeted by an amazing sight: a ship which ran up the English flag. In command of the English vessel, Matthew Flinders was equally shocked but recovered his composure to board the French vessel. The two captains met formally on 8 April 1802 as representatives of nations at war. They compared charts. Flinders told Baudin he had discovered Port Phillip Bay and Western Port, while Baudin spoke about their stay in Terre de Van Diemen. Flinders reveal he had charted the Bight and discovered there was no “Williamson’s Strait” (named for the American captain who claimed to have sailed up it). In honour of the occasion Flinders called the area “Encounter Bay”.
While Flinders sailed for Port Jackson, Baudin went westward. But with half his crew struck down by malnutrition and scurvy, he realised he too would have to head for the British colony at New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney in June where he discovered Britain and France had signed a peace treaty at Amiens. Governor Philip King treated him warmly and sent 22 of his crew to hospital. Despite the colony itself being short of food due to floods on the Hawkesbury, King gave the French ample fresh produce. Baudin met Flinders again and spent the Bastille Day holiday together. But the two men did not share a great rapport. Baudin was more comfortable with King with whom he shared the headaches of dealing with insubordination.
While Flinders then set off on his great circumnavigation of the continent, Baudin resumed his exploration of the south coast. He had accumulated 100,000 natural history specimens including 20 living creatures: dingoes, wombats, black swans, cassowaries and emus. When they arrived at King Island they found the British had set up an armed camp. Baudin wrote a remarkable private letter to King saying “I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing…a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages”. It would many years before a European would again suggest that Indigenous people had land rights.
But the end was near for the Frenchman. He picked up kangaroos on Kangaroo Island and now both his boats were filled with wildlife. He decided it was time to sail for home. After a stop at Timor, he began coughing blood. He had another revolutionary idea which was to hold a ballot of crew for a second-in-command. He was shocked to find his enemy Henri Freycinet won the ballot ahead of his own choice Francois Ronsard. With his TB getting worse, Baudin’s ship arrived in Ile de France. There he wrote a letter to the Minister of Marine stating his satisfaction with the mission’s achievements. The value of his charts and scientific discoveries was immense. But on 16 September 1803 he suffered the same fate as Dufresne, Allouarn, La Perouse and D’Entrecasteaux and died far from home. And while Flinders is feted today, Baudin’s name remains almost entirely unknown both in France and Australia. Toft’s book is a welcome rehabilitation of his reputation.