Early French Interest in the Southland

The roots of the voyage of the French corvette L’Uranie in 1817-1820 date back to Paulmier de Gonneville in 1504. He thought, after experiencing a violent storm near the Cape of Good Hope, that he had chanced on the fabled Terra Australis Incognita, a vast southern land mass long postulated as a necessary balance to the continents in the northern hemisphere. Thereafter called ‘Gonneville Land’ by the French, it became a focus for their maritime aspirations in the region and in 1738 Bouvet de Lozier set out in search of it but found only the barren island that now bears his name.

By then the Dutch, notably Dirk Hartog (1616), Carstensz (1623), Thijssen (1627), Abel Tasman (1642 & 1644) and Willem de Vlamingh (1697) had landed and charted much of the north, west and south coasts of what afterwards became known as New Holland. William Dampier also had a hand in the exploration of New Holland and he records landing on the north west coast in 1688/1699. Though following the Dutch in dismissing the land and its inhabitants in a hugely popular and widely disseminated account - and thereby fixing the negative attitudes that were to remain commonly held for another century - he and his colleagues were the first Britons to land there.

A drawn map depicting French knowledge of the Australian coast in 1850

A French chart of New Holland circa 1850.
Image copyright WA Museum

The loss of territory to the British on the north American continent in the late 1750s caused the French to actively look elsewhere for colonies. In 1763, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who had fought against the British in Canada and who was the first Frenchman to sail around the world, established a small colony at Port Louis on what he called the Iles Malouines in honour of the predominantly St Malo element amongst his colonists.

The British countered this in 1764 by sending Commodore John Byron who arrived early in the following year, took possession of them as the Falkland Islands. In 1767, France ceded its rights to Spain, commencing a chain of events that has led to Argentina claiming the islands as Las Islas Malvinas. It was a disagreement that has had repercussions well into the modern day, and is one that also had ramifications for the Uranie voyage and for the survival of its castaways. In commenting on his visit to the area in 1820, the Antarctic explorer James Weddell stated that the colonists were:

'An …industrious and enterprising people, after having made considerable progress in fertilising the ground, were displaced by the Spaniards, who claimed the islands. They, however, partly through political motives…neglected the improvement of the country, and latterly entirely abandoned it' (Weddell, 1827:94).

Continuing what in effect was a superpower race for territory, in 1766 the British navy sent two ships under Wallis and Carteret to the south Pacific in search of the fabled southern continent, and the French despatched Bougainville with the same intention just three months later. While the French and the British found many islands in the Pacific, including Tahiti and Pitcairn, neither found the southern continent. The closest Bougainville came to Terra Australis was when he encountered the Great Barrier Reef adjacent to present-day Cooktown in far north Queensland. On his return home in 1769 Bougainville published an account entitled A Voyage Round The World, that increased French interest in the Pacific.

In the interim James Cook departed on a scientific voyage with secret instructions to explore the south Pacific. In completing his first exploration in the period 1768-1771, Cook called at Tahiti, circumnavigated New Zealand and then travelled along a vast land mass he claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. His proclamation was effected with little reference, as was the fashion throughout the world in those times, for the indigenous peoples and their rights. This left unexplored the eastern part of the south coast, lying between New Holland and Cook’s New South Wales, and there existed a belief that a vast strait passed between New Holland and New South Wales (Scott, 1914:53).

The Annexation of New Holland for France

In 1771, two expeditions left Ile de France for the Indian Ocean in search of Gonneville’s Land. One, led by Marion Dufresne, sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and as far as New Zealand, alerting France to their worth though as the names suggest both had been earlier discovered by the Dutch, in this case by Abel Tasman.

The other, a two-ship expedition was led by Y.J. de Kerguelen and it included as second in command, François de Saint Aloüarn The ships separated and Kerguelen, upon discovering what he thought to be Gonneville’s Land, hurried home to announce the discovery of what he called France Australe. Later, it proved to be a barren island that now bears his name. In the meantime St Aloüarn in Le Gros Ventre continued the search for Gonneville’s Land. Unsuccessful, he then made for the coast of New Holland, and in landing on Dirk Hartog Island at Dampier’s Shark Bay, Saint Aloüarn annexed the coast for France in March 1772 (Godard and de Kerros, 2002; Marchant, 1998, McCarthy, 1998).

The La Pérouse and d’Entrecasteaux Expeditions

The young Napoleon Bonaparte applied for a place on the next French expedition to the region under the command of J.F. Galaup, comte de la Pérouse, but was lucky to be refused. The best equipped of all scientific forays, this two-ship expedition left French shores with a large contingent of scientists and naval personnel in 1785. After extensive explorations in the Pacific, they were ordered from Kamchatka to Botany Bay in New South South Wales in order to observe the British landing there in 1788 (Wood, 1922:507).

After doing so they departed for further work in the South Seas and were never seen again. In this same period William Bligh was in these waters with HMS Bounty, following on from Dampier’s earlier revelations about the efficacies of breadfruit. After the infamous mutiny, Bligh was not to know that the Australian first fleet had landed successfully under the curious eyes of the French, and navigated in an open boat across the top of the continent to Timor and safety. In September 1791 another well-equipped French expedition was sent under the command of J.A.Bruni d’Entrecasteux with Le Recherche and L’Espérance to continue the exploration and to search for La Pérouse. Amongst the complement were scientists, botanists, a gardener and hydrographers. On the south coast of New Holland, they took many natural science specimens, charted great skill and named many features.

While they were to continue to give generally adverse accounts of New Holland, at Tasmania their descriptions of the land and people were to provide some relief to the predominantly negative reports of previous explorers. There d’Entrecasteaux observed that the tribe they encountered:

'…seems to offer the most perfect image of pristine society, in which men have not yet been stirred by passions, or corrupted by the vices caused by civilization…Oh! How much would those civilized people who boast about the extent of their knowledge, learn from this school of nature.'

(Duyker & Duyker, 2001 :xxxviii).

Their visit followed that of George Vancouver, who left Plymouth in April 1791 for the north Pacific via the Indian Ocean and the south Pacific. He landed at, and named King George the Third Sound (Albany), then travelled for a short distance along the southern coast before being forced off it by bad weather. In 1793 the d’Entrecasteaux expedition landed in the East Indies on its way home to news of the execution of King Louis XVI and a state of war between the new Republic and much of Europe. By then both commanders, d’Entrecasteaux, and his second-in-command, Huon de Kermadec, and many others had perished through illness.

To make matters worse, the republicans on board were denounced by their shipmates, imprisoned by the Dutch, and both ships were sold to defray expenses. After being confiscated by the British, the extensive natural science collections, maps and charts eventually found their way back to France where the botanist J.J.H. de Labillardière’s Relation du Voyage à la Recherche de La Pérouse was published in 1799, going through three English editions and two German by 1804.

Containing 265 black and white illustrations together with 13 plates by the renowned botanical artist P.J. Redouté, it was the first illustrated work after Dampier’s account of his voyage to New Holland in 1699 to capture the imagination of the Europeans in respect of the flora and fauna of the Southland. The expedition’s hydrographer Beautemps-Beaupré then published his atlas in 1807 and his cartographic works were roundly praised (Duyker and Duyker, 2001).

The Baudin Expedition

In 1800, with the approval of Napoleon, then First Consul, yet another two-ship expedition left France led by Nicolas Baudin. The two ships employed were Le Géographe under Baudin and Le Naturaliste under J.F.E. Hamelin. They had orders to continue the exploration of the Southland and were also required to examine the question whether the strait thought to lie between the ‘two great and nearly equal islands’ of New Holland and New South Wales did exist (Scott, 1914:530).

Map depciting the explorations of Baudin

A map showing part of the Baudin explorations on the south and east coast of New Holland, from Jacob and Vellios, 1987.
Image copyright WA Museum

Though the charts of the d’Entrecasteaux expedition had yet to be published, Baudin was provided with preliminary engravings. The enterprise was also mightily hampered by having a microcosm of a fractured French society and in having many civilian scientists on board. Though many left the expedition in Mauritius, and returned home intent on poisoning Baudin’s reputation, the explorations, which were conducted between 1801 through to 1803 resulted in many useful discoveries and anthropological observations, in important chart and map making, and in securing a vast number of natural science specimens. Despite these successes, it has taken a full two hundred years for Baudin to be favourably reassessed.

Louis de Freycinet and the de Vlamingh Plate

On board Le Naturaliste was Sub-Lt Louis Freycinet. While the ship was at Shark Bay he was sent by boat to conduct surveys of the area—work that he later continued while in command of Le Casuarina and later in L’Uranie. He also appears to have been on board when the ship’s chief helmsman returned with an ancient inscribed pewter plate commemorating the landing of the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh at Shark Bay in 1697. Having long-since fallen from its post, it had been accidently found lying half buried in the sand at the top of a prominent point overlooking the entrance to the bay.

Portrait of Louis de Freycinet

Louis de Freycinet
Image copyright WA Museum

The discovery was of great historical significance, for on finding a similar plate deposited by Dirk Hartog in 1616, de Vlamingh had the original inscription copied onto a new plate to which he appended an account of his own visit before erecting it at the same spot (Playford, 1998). He then sailed away with the original, beginning a chain of events that was later to include the visit of L’Uranie. Though the Naturaliste men found the de Vlamingh plate lying in the sand, where it had fallen from the post, they recognised its importance and immediately brought

it back for Hamelin to examine.

In objecting to the notion that the plate be removed to France, and in considering that to do otherwise would have been historical ‘vandalism’ (Marchant, 1998:176; Halls, 1974), Hamelin had Vlamingh’s plate and a plate of his own re-erected on new posts, the first at the Dutch explorer’s site and the second at an as yet undetermined location. Freycinet apparently did not approve of this precursor to modern museological thinking, and felt that it should have been removed for safekeeping in France, but was too junior to prevent the return of the relic to its original site. In recognising the importance of the site, Freycinet’s chart of the region refers to the site as Cap de L’Inscription (Cape Inscription).

As unequivocal evidence of the prior landing of Europeans on their shores, the Hartog, de Vlamingh and the Hamelin plates are relics of immense significance to Australians generally, and it

has been said by one historian that:

The title deeds, so to speak, attesting European discovery of Western Australia are three pewter plates left at Cape Inscription, Shark Bay, on three separate occasions'

(Halls, 1974).

Drawings of the major features of Hartog, de Vlamingh and Hamelin plates

L to R; Hartog 1616, de Vlamingh 1697 and Hamelin 1803.
Image copyright WA Museum