‘The whole western coast of New Holland is described as a low, barren, dreary and sandy shore, affording little interesting either in the animal, mineral or vegetable creation’
(Nicolas Baudin, Journal).

In 1798, Napoléon Bonaparte approved the organisation of a fully equipped exploratory expedition to Terres Australes. Nicolas Baudin, an experienced naval officer, was selected as the commander and was briefed by France’s leading scientists and major scientific institutions. He was to study the natural sciences and collect living and preserved specimens of plants and animals.

Preparations for the voyage were extensive and no expense was spared. The ships were packed with equipment including a large library. Space was added for carrying live plants and animals, and accommodating the scientists, by reducing the number of guns carried on the gun deck, and building an extra deck above the upper deck in each ship. The space was still not enough. Aboard the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste were 22 scientists and artists and 259 crew.

The expedition left Le Havre on 19 October 1800. Second in command, on the Naturaliste, was Baron Jacques Felix Emmanuel Hamelin. For almost four years the two ships explored the western and southern coasts of Australia, and the island of Tasmania, purchasing a third vessel, the Casuarina, captained by Louis de Freycinet, in Sydney.

Baudin was a strict captain and clashed with his own officers and the scientists; fifty people left the expedition at the Île de France (Mauritius). Shark Bay and Kangaroo Island were rich resources of specimens for the remaining scientists, including the now extinct dwarf emu. Baudin died in September 1803 from tuberculosis at Île de France.

The huge collections brought back in 1804 were divided between the Paris Museum and the Empress Josephine, Bonaparte’s wife. By the summer of 1804, the gardens of Josephine’s Paris retreat, Malmaison, were stocked with kangaroos, emus, black swans, and a variety of Australian native plants.

Nicolas Baudin

Portrait of Nicolas Baudin.

Reproduced courtesy of the Mitchell Library - State Library of NSW