Encountering 'Terra Australis': The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders.
The eucalypts shading Napoleon's memorial at Ajaccio are a fragrant reminder of one of history's big 'what ifs' : what if Napoleon had not lost the Battle of Waterloo but had gone on to establish the colony in Australia to which the French cartographer Freycinet and the zoologist Francois Peron had already attached the name Terre Napoleon? The last five years have seen a sudden outpouring of books celebrating the French expedition to the great South Land and the meeting in 1802, in what is now called Encounter Bay, of the French expedition under the command of the ill-starred Nicolas Baudin, who would die of tuberculosis at Mauritius on the way home, and the British ships, commanded by the young, ambitious, and equally ill-starred Matthew Flinders, who would spend seven years on Mauritius before the rabidly anti-British governor allowed him to return to England. Baudin's voyage, indeed, was ill-starred in many ways, even if his crew returned with an incredible 100,000 specimens, 2,500 of which were new to science--more than were found in all previous expeditions combined: politics and personal fate intervened to sour what had in many ways been a spectacular journey. Indeed, whereas Flinders has always retained the aura of a hero, despite his unabashed and often abrasive ambitiousness, Baudin, with a keener sense of humour and a more sympathetic understanding of the indigenous peoples he encountered, rapidly slipped into obscurity.
Both captains kept diaries of their voyages, and both were accompanied by gifted botanists, whose collections and drawings were to transform European knowledge of the world's animal and plant species. This beautifully produced book includes many illustrations made during the expeditions, among them some delicate portraits of Aboriginals by Nicolas- Martin Petit, intricate studies of shells and animals by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (both of these had signed up as assistant gunners, but were promoted when the official artists deserted at Mauritius on the way out) and a selection of the superb drawings of Flinders's artist Ferdinand Bauer, as well as landscapes by William Westall. Three Adelaide- based scholars have brought together selections from the diaries, linked by finely written narrative passages, and have added five chapters exploring the record left by the expeditions, in terms of their scientific discoveries, their artistic reproductions, and the legacy left by this clash of cultures. Nor is everything seen from a Eurocentric viewpoint: the few traces the aboriginal populations left concerning the effect of the expeditions on them are also sensitively analysed. Reading the diary selections not just with hindsight but in the particularly sharp focus enabled by these analytical chapters, it is impossible not to be struck by the courtesy with which Flinders and Baudin treated each other's work, and by the self-satisfaction of a Peron, steeped in enlightenment convictions: take, for instance, his account of scattering 'a multitude of precious seeds' (the forunners, no doubt, of some of those invasive weeds that went on to threaten native species) in the hope that 'some day the native, snatched by them from the misery that consumes him, shed those uncivilised customs and that barbaric nature which are the consequence of his wretched condition!' (pp. 101-02). If more could have been said about the way in which the prejudices of the comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier affected the legacy of the French expedition, it seems beyond question that this highly readable and intelligent book serves to focus and invigorate recent discussions concerning the two expeditions and the encounter not just of Europeans and Australian Aborigines but also of two very different personalities, Flinders and Baudin.
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2005|
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