The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 13

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 13. The French expedition

Chapter XIII.

THE FRENCH EXPEDITION.

It will be necessary to devote some attention to the French expedition of discovery, commanded by Nicolas Baudin, which sailed from Havre on October 19th, 1800, nearly two months before the British Admiralty authorised the despatch of the Investigator, and nine months all but two days before Flinders was permitted to leave England.

The mere fact that this expedition was despatched while Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul of the French Republic, has led many writers to jump to the conclusion that it was designed to cut out a portion of Australia for occupation by the French; that, under the thin disguise of being charged with a scientific mission, Baudin was in reality an emissary of Machiavellian statecraft, making a cunning move in the great game of world-politics. The author has, in an earlier book[1] endeavoured to show that such was not the case. Bonaparte did not originate the discovery voyage. He simply authorised it, as head of the State, when the proposition was laid before him by the Institute of France, a scientific body, concerned with the augmentation of knowledge, and anxious that an effort should be made to complete a task which the abortive expeditions of Lapérouse and Dentrecasteaux had failed to accomplish.

Moreover, if Bonaparte had wished to acquire territory in Australia, he was not so foolish a person as to fit out an expedition estimated to cost over half a million francs,[2] and which actually cost a far larger sum, when he could have obtained what he wanted simply by asking. The treaty of Amiens was negotiated and signed while Baudin's ships were at sea. The British Government at that time was very anxious for peace, and was prepared to make concessions—did, in fact, surrender a vast extent of territory won by a woful expenditure of blood and treasure. It cannot be said that Australia was greatly valued by Great Britain at the time. She occupied only a small portion of an enormous continent, and would certainly not have seriously opposed a project that the French should occupy some other portion of it, if Bonaparte had put forward a claim as a condition of peace. But he did nothing of the kind.

If we are to form sound views of history, basing conclusions on the evidence, we must set aside suspicions generated at a time of fierce racial antipathy, when it was almost part of an Englishman's creed to hate a Frenchman. Neither the published history of Baudin's voyage, nor the papers relating to it which are now available for study—except two documents to which special attention will be devoted hereafter, and which did not emanate from persons in authority—afford warrant for believing that there was any other object in view than that professed when application for a passport was made to the Admiralty. The confidential instructions of the Minister[3] of Marine to Baudin[4] leave no doubt that the purpose was quite bona fide. "Your labours," wrote Forfait, "having for their sole object the perfecting of scientific knowledge, you should observe the most complete neutrality, allowing no doubt to be cast upon your exactitude in confining yourself to the object of your mission, as set forth in the passports which have been furnished. In your relations with foreigners, the glorious success of our arms, the power and wisdom of your government, the grand and generous views of the First Consul for the pacification of Europe, the order that he has restored in the interior of France, furnish you with the means of giving to foreign peoples just ideas upon the real state of the Republic and upon the prosperity which is assured to it." The men of science who had promoted the voyage were anxious that not even a similitude of irregularity should be permitted. Thus we find the Comte de Fleurieu, who drew up the itinerary, writing to the Minister urging him to include in the instructions a paragraph prohibiting the ships from taking on board, under any pretext, merchandise which could give to a scientific expedition the appearance of a commercial venture, "because if an English cruiser or man-of-war should visit them, and find on board other goods than articles of exchange for dealing with aboriginal peoples, this might serve as a pretext for arresting them, and Baudin's passport might be disregarded on the ground that it had been abused by being employed as a means of conducting without risk a traffic which the state of war would make very lucrative."

The question of the origin and objects of the expedition is, however, an entirely different one from that of the use which Napoleon would have made of the information collected, had the opportunity been available of striking a blow at Great Britain through her southern colony. It is also different from the question (as to which something will be said later) of the advantage taken by two members of Baudin's staff of the scope allowed them at Port Jackson, to "spy out the land" with a view of furnishing information valuable in a military sense to their Government.

The instructions to Baudin were very similar to those which had been given to Lapérouse and Dentrecasteaux in previous years, being drafted by the same hand, and some paragraphs in an "instruction particuliere," show that the French were thoroughly up-to-date with their information, and knew in what parts of the coast fresh work required to be done.[5]

Nicolas Baudin was not a French naval officer. He had been in the merchant service, and, more recently, had had charge of an expedition despatched to Africa by the Austrian Government to collect specimens for the museum at Vienna. War between France and Austria broke out before he returned; and Baudin, feeling less loyal to his Austrian employers than to his own country, handed over the whole collection to the Museum in Paris. This action, which in the circumstances was probably regarded as patriotic, brought him under the notice of Jussieu, the famous French botanist; and when the South Sea expedition was authorised, that scientist recommended Baudin as one who had taken an interest in natural history researches, and who had given "a new proof of his talent and of his love for science by the choice of the specimens composing his last collection, deposited in the museum." The Minister of Marine minuted Jussieu's recommendation in the margin: "No choice could be happier than that of Captain Baudin,"[6] and so he was appointed. He was by no means the kind of officer whom Napoleon would have selected had his designs been such as have commonly been alleged.

Two ships of the navy were commissioned for the service. Under the names La Serpente and Le Vésuve they had been built with a view to an invasion of England, contemplated in 1793.[7]) They were re-named Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste on being allotted to a much safer employment. Both were described as solidly built, good sailers, and easy to control; and the officer who surveyed them to determine whether they would be suitable reported that without impairing their sea-going qualities it would be easy to construct upon their decks high poops to hold quantities of growing plants, which it was intended to collect and bring home. On these ships Baudin and his selected staff embarked at Havre, and, a British passport being obtained under the circumstances already related, sailed south in October.

If Baudin had been the keen and capable commander that those who secured his appointment believed him to be, he should have discovered and charted the whole of the unknown southern coast of Australia, before Flinders was many days' sail from England. The fact that this important work was actually done by the English navigator was in no measure due to the sagacity of the Admiralty—whose officials procrastinated in an inexplicable fashion even after the Investigator had been commissioned and equipped—but to his own promptness, competence and zeal, and the peculiar dilatoriness of his rivals. Baudin's vessels reached Ile-de-France (Mauritius) in March, 1801, and lay there for the leisurely space of forty days. Two-thirds of a year had elapsed before they came upon the Australian coast. But Baudin did not even then set to work where there was discovery to be achieved. Winter was approaching, and sailing in these southern seas would be uncomfortable in the months of storm and cold; so he dawdled up the west coast of Australia, in warm, pleasant waters, and made for Timor, where he arrived in August. He remained in the Dutch port of Kupang till the middle of November—three whole months wasted, nearly eleven months consumed since he had sailed from France. In the meantime, the alert and vigorous captain of the Investigator was speeding south as fast as the winds would take him, too eager to lose a day, flying straight to his work like an arrow to its mark, and doing it with the thoroughness and accuracy that were part of his nature.

The French on board Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste were as unhappy as their commander was slow. Scurvy broke out, and spread among the crew with virulence. Baudin appeared to have little or no conception of the importance of the sanitary measures which Cook was one of the earliest navigators to enjoin, and by which those who emulated his methods were able to keep in check the ravages of this scourge of seafaring men. He neglected common precautions, and paid no heed to the counsel of the ship's surgeons. As a consequence, the sufferings of his men were such that it is pitiful to read about them in the official history of the voyage.

From Timor Baudin sailed for southern Tasmania, arriving there in January, 1802, and remaining in the neighbourhood till March. There was no European settlement upon the island at that time, and Baudin described it as a country "which ought not to be neglected, and which a nation that does not love us does not look upon with indifference."[8] A severe storm separated Le Géographe from her escort on March 7 and 8, in the neighbourhood of the eastern entrance of Bass Strait. Le Naturaliste spent some time in Westernport, making a survey of it, and discovering the second island, which Bass had missed on his whaleboat cruise. Her commander, Captain Hamelin, then took her round to Port Jackson, to solicit aid from the Governor of the English colony there. Meanwhile Baudin sailed through the Strait from east to west. He called at Waterhouse Island, off the north-east coast of Van Diemen's Land, misled by its name into thinking that he would find fresh water there. The island was named after Captain Henry Waterhouse of the Reliance, but Baudin, unaware of this, considered that it belied its name. "It does not seem," he wrote, "to offer any appearance of water being discoverable there, and I am persuaded that it can have been named Water House only because the English visited it at a time when heavy rains had fallen."[9] Baudin passed Port Phillip, rounded Cape Otway, and coasted along till he came to Encounter Bay, where occurred an incident with which we shall be concerned after we have traced the voyage of Flinders eastward to the same point.

  1. Terre Napoléon (London, 1910). Since that book was published, I have had the advantage of reading a large quantity of manuscript material, all unpublished, preserved in the Archives Nationales and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. It strengthens the main conclusions promulgated in Terre Napoléon, but of course amplifies the evidence very considerably. The present chapter is written with the Baudin and other manuscripts, as well as the printed material, in mind.
  2. Report of the Commission of the Institute, mss. Bib. Nat., nouv. acq., France 9439 p. 139.
  3. MSS., Archives Nationales BB4 999, Marine. I have given an account of this important manuscript, with copious extracts, in the English Historical Review, April, 1913.
  4. Fleurieu to Forfait, mss. Bib. Nat., nouv, acq., France, 9439, p. 137.
  5. "Projet d'itinéraire pour le Commandant Baudin; mémoire pour servir d'instruction particulière." MSS., Archives Nationales, Marine BB4 999.
  6. MSS., Bib. Nat., nouv. acq., France 9439 p. 121
  7. MSS., Bib. Nat., nouv. acq., France 9439 report of de Bruix to the Minister.
  8. Baudin to the Minister of Marine, mss., Archives Nationales BB4 995 Marine.
  9. Baudin's Diary, mss. Bibliothèque Nationale: "Je suis persuadé qu'on ne l'a nommé Wather House que par ce que les Anglais qui l'ont visité y auront eu beaucoup de pluie."