Two spotted-tail quolls (Dasyurus maculatus) feeding on a seal carcass, King Island Tasmania. Artist: Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. Watercolour, pen and black ink, and pencil on vellum.
Luke Slattery, Treasures from French explorer Nicolas Baudin’s expedition to Australia, The Weekend Australian, 14 May 2016
In the earliest years, when the penal colony at Sydney Cove was a mere fledgling, poorly fed and clothed, with a far from certain future, it was the great curiosity of Napoleonic France. And on October 27, 1800, two scientific expedition ships, the Geographe and Naturaliste, set sail from Le Havre, where the river Seine meets the English Channel, bound for the great yet little known “south land”. The voyagers, under the command of captain Nicolas Baudin, would name part of the antipodean landmass, in deference to Bonaparte — and in a splendid Gallic affront to the British enemy — Terre Napoleon.
Four years later the scientific expedition returned to Le Havre without Baudin, who perished in Mauritius on the homeward journey. It had been a harrowing voyage. Half the crew was lost to sickness, accident or desertion. But the adventure had fulfilled its brief — “to advance the progress of human knowledge” — magnificently. Next month, selected treasures from the Baudin expedition return home for a display that opens at the South Australian Maritime Museum before touring to four states, each show featuring a different suite of paintings and drawings: more than 400 in all.
The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800-1804 is a freeze-frame of Australia before it was Australia: of the western, southern and southeastern seaboard 12 years after British settlement and 215 years ago (Baudin made landfall south of Perth in May 1801) this month. It was a time when the natural world held sway in these parts over the vast machinery of empire, and this most venerable of continents was still, in many ways, young. Drawings made by Baudin’s artists of Tasmanian Aborigines — in particular a black Madonna and Child — are at once beautiful and moving, for they record, with rare compassion and a gaze shaped by Rousseauian ideals of primitive nobility, a race that within a few decades would be pushed to the brink of extinction.
Among those who set out from Le Havre in 1800 were 22 scientists and naturalists who would furnish the expedition with detailed charts and sketches. They would pen accounts and descriptions, and illustrate with obsessive attention to detail the multicoloured fish, jellyfish, birds, shells and landscapes of the Australian coast. And there seemed no end to the business of collecting: almost 200,000 zoological, botanical and geological specimens were picked, plucked or hacked from their places of origin. On board were four maritime chronometers, two sextants and an astronomical clock, as well as a dynamometer for measuring the muscular strength of the Aborigines (the scientists were disappointed with the results).