Nicolas Baudin, navigator

Klaus Toft’s The Navigators is the story of a race in Napoleonic times between British captain Matthew Flinders and his French counterpart Nicolas Baudin. Flinders and Baudin were after the fabled sea passage through the middle of what was then New Holland, but now rejoices in the name Flinders gave it: “Australia”.

Danish born Toft produced the work as a documentary for the ABC. His brief was to celebrate Matthew Flinders on the bicentennial of his voyage around Australia. But as the preface explains, to tell Flinders’s story without mentioning Baudin was like telling Napoleon’s story without Josephine. It becomes clear Toft’s sympathies lie more with the phlegmatic French captain than his more celebrated but temperamental English rival.

Baudin’s problem was that he did not survive to tell his own tale. He died of tuberculosis on the way home at Ile de France (Mauritius) in 1803. What survives was written by his subordinate officers. They were mostly royalists who despised the commoner commanding their ship in the Southern Oceans for three years. The book of the voyage downplayed his role. After reading the official account, Napoleon said Baudin did well to die: “on his return I would have had him hanged”.

Toft rehabilitates Baudin’s reputation. When Baudin set sail on his scientific voyage to chart the coastline of 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 if a vast strait separated the two sides of the Australian continent. The journey also had a political point. Napoleon wanted a strategic counterpart to the new 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 four doomed French captains none of whom made it back 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 being killed and eaten by New Zealand Maoris. La Perouse 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, he too died on the way home.

Undeterred by these misfortunes, Baudin set off in good heart. 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 at the mercy of currents for many windless weeks. Most men on board had never been to sea and blamed the captain for their predicament. 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 to the Ile de France. The locals were not happy to see him. Worried local gentry thought he came to enforce the 1794 decree to emancipate French slaves. They refused to feed the men and encouraged desertion so they could control the two fine ships. Baudin borrowed 10,000 piastres to buy supplies from private merchants and set sail eastward across the Indian Ocean.

In autumn 1801, Baudin arrived at the south-western coast of Terres Australes charted by Allouarn. The following day he found a large uncharted bay which he called Geographe Bay for his ship. Baudin led a party ashore to meet the Wardandi people before sailing on north to avoid coastal storms. According to his orders he was to head south towards Van Diemen’s Land and to look for the strait across Australia. But with winter approaching, he headed towards Timor to return 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 and his crew expected him to die. But after 12 weeks he recovered and headed back down the Western Australian coastline. By now Matthew Flinders was on his tail. Baudin had a nine month start but the delays had allowed Flinders 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. Flinders continued eastwards towards the fabled strait.

Forty days after leaving Timor, Baudin was back at his starting point. His crew suffered from tropical fever and dysentery and 11 had died since leaving the Dutch colony. Nevertheless the voyage continued until they reached Tasmania’s D’Entrecasteaux Channel. They saw no British but did meet friendly Nuenonne natives. One crewman challenged a Nuenonne to a wrestling contest which he won. But the defeated local threw a spear at the Frenchman causing a minor injury. Baudin insisted there be no retaliation. His attitude to indigenous people was to “observe without judgement”.

After five weeks on Bruny Island observing local customs, they sailed up the eastern seaboard of Tasmania and into what his English charts called “Bass’s Strait”. Heading back towards southern Australia, he was greeted by a ship which ran up the English flag. Matthew Flinders was equally shocked to see Baudin but recovered his composure to board the French vessel. The two captains met formally on April 8, 1802 as representatives of nations at war. When 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 revealed 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 west. But with half his crew struck down by malnutrition and scurvy, he realised he would have to head for the British colony at New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney in June where he heard 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 food shortages in the colony due to floods on the Hawkesbury, King gave the French ample fresh produce. Baudin met Flinders again and they spent 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 set off on his great circumnavigation of the continent, Baudin resumed his exploration of the south coast. He accumulated 100,000 natural history specimens including 20 living creatures: dingoes, wombats, black swans, cassowaries and emus. 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 be many years before a European would again suggest Indigenous people had land rights.

But the end was near for the Frenchman. He picked up kangaroos on Kangaroo Island and both his boats were filled with wildlife. It was time to sail for home. 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 his enemy Henri Freycinet won the ballot ahead of his choice Francois Ronsard. With worsening TB, Baudin ship arrived in Ile de France. He wrote a letter to the Minister of Marine stating his satisfaction with the mission’s achievements. His charts and scientific discoveries were immense. But on September 16, 1803 he suffered the same fate as Dufresne, Allouarn, La Perouse and D’Entrecasteaux and died far from home. 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.

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One thought on “Nicolas Baudin, navigator

  1. Thanks for the post! Isn’t it fascinating how much of history is passed on by the victors… completely ignoring the gains made by others? The Baudin story is a great example of this, as was the Marion du Fresne expedition 30yrs before.
    Both logbooks reveal an extraordinary account of both the state of the land, its flora and fauna, as well as the Tasmanian Aboriginals prior to any contact with Europeans.
    They are of priceless value to our nation, but sadly neglected as much now as ever.

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