Book Review: Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby
Posted by Lisa Hill on March 7, 2012
I have cross-posted this book review from my ANZ LitLovers blog because I think it belongs in every secondary school library, and every teacher of Australian history at any level should read it!
Maybe it’s because I did all my childhood international travel by ocean liner that I am so fascinated by the early voyages of discovery? Perhaps there is something about being surrounded by the vastness of the world’s oceans when you are indeed very small yourself that creates a lasting sense of awe about sea voyages? I still remember the sense of excitement at the prospect of land after weeks at sea and now that I know just how many ships came to grief along the Shipwreck Coast off southern Australia I feel a sense of gratitude to the builders and designers of all kinds of maritime safety devices from radar to lighthouses to John Harrison’s marine chronometer. I cannot begin to imagine what courage it took to set sail before these things were invented, the more so when the destination was unknown, an uncertain guess-line on a map…
The Dutch came first, naming the west coast New Holland:
and William Dampier was the first Englishman to make landfall (see my review of Adrian Mitchell’s terrific book, Dampier’s Monkey)
and as every school-kid knows the ‘missing’ east coast was filled in and claimed as New South Wales for Britain by the voyage of Captain Cook in 1770. But nobody knew that Tasmania was an island or whether the east and west coasts were joined. These missing links in the map of Australia were filled in by explorers both British and French, the most notable of whom were Matthew Flinders who is credited with the first circumnavigation of Tasmania and the first circumnavigation of Australia, and Nicolas Baudin who is credited with being the first to explore the western coast. It was also Matthew Flinders who resolved the conflicting names of our continent by suggesting ‘Australia’ – a politically neutral choice originally resisted by Joseph Banks but the one that triumphed in the end.
Encountering Terra Australis is a beautiful book: it’s obviously thoroughly researched and academically impressive but it’s printed on expensive paper and has many full colour and B/W reproductions of lovely artworks made on the voyage to entice the general reader. The first chapter ‘The Lure of the South’ traces the antecedents of these two voyages so significant to the history of Australia. It explains the rivalry between France and Britain, and illuminates the behind-the-scenes persuasions that facilitated funding for the expeditions. But it also makes a case for recognition that the meetings of these men – who were motivated by personal ambition and scientific curiosity -
were marked by cordiality and respect. The ugly international politics of their day should by rights have pulled them apart, but the spirit of science that drove them both on long and dangerous voyages united them. If there is much in the stories …that gives expression to the bitter rivalries of their day, there is also in the character of these two remarkable men a nobility of spirit that both defines their age and transcends it. (p13)
In this period Britain and France were imperial adversaries. Napoleon was rampaging around not just in Europe, and the Brits were keen to recover from the loss of the American colonies in 1783. There were clear economic and military advantages – not to mention world prestige and one-upmanship – in extending dominions into the unknown southern stretches of the globe, but the men who led these expeditions were inspired by the Enlightenment. Flinders prided himself on his skill as a map-maker contributing to world knowledge, and Baudin’s interest was that of a scientific voyager and chronicler. Both were more interested in the discoveries they might make than in making geo-political gains for their respective empires. The achievement of Encountering Terra Australis is that the authors analyse the foibles, flaws and merits of these men to ensure that their reputations are based on the historical record and to give them their rightful place in the history of exploration and science.
Nicolas Baudin was the French explorer who in 1801 first mapped the western coast of Australia, and part of the southern coast. His expedition consisted of two ships, the Géographe and the Naturaliste, nine zoologists and botanists, and under his leadership 2500 new species were discovered. In 1802 – astonishingly in the middle of an apparently desolate stretch of coastline now known as Encounter Bay – he met up with the English explorer Matthew Flinders who in the Investigator was also charting the coastline. But there were no hostilities. Quite the contrary: despite the language barrier, they shared information and maps and each of them recorded the encounter in journals which show that they not only respected but liked each other. (And it must have been no small thing to make a copy of a map by hand overnight…)
Flinders went on to become pre-eminent in the history of Australian maritime exploration while Baudin’s legacy has been less valued. This was in part because of the strained personal relationships that he had with his men and I find it interesting to note that the history of successful exploration is so often a matter of temperament (something Patrick White explored in Voss.) While Flinders had his flaws, it was Baudin who had difficulties with the ship’s company in general and his rival, Péron, in particular. Baudin’s premature death left Péron to misrepresent the expedition’s aims and accomplishments, and in order to further his own grandiose ambitions back in France, he denigrated Baudin with the effect of delaying recognition of his legacy until comparatively recent research. So although Flinders had all kinds of difficulties, including having to cool his heels in a Mauritian prison for seven years on the way home because the French thought he was a spy, he has had the better press and is better known.
I learned all kinds of interesting snippets from this book. From the chapter entitled The Clash of Cultures I discovered that there is anthropological evidence that news of the arrival of ‘strange new people in bright and colourful uniforms’ travelled astonishing distances across from the west to central Australia in song and corroboree. I now know the name of the first Aborigine to circumnavigate Australia: Bongaree (or Bungaree). I discovered that Coffin Bay owes its macabre name not to any unfortunate deaths but to the convention of naming places after potential sources of patronage, whereas Catastrophe Bay was so named because the Investigatorlost eight crewmen there, including Flinders’ great friend John Thistle. I learned that ten convicts got a free trip home and a pardon because Flinders was short-handed after the disaster at Catastrophe Bay and he hired them for the return journey to England. And I was reminded once more how the search for potable water put constant limitations on any voyage of discovery: it’s heavy and it takes up space so a ship can’t carry too much of it. Sometimes, just when things are getting interesting, a ship must turn around to where there is a known water supply rather than risk running out of it….
One thing these great navigators had in common was that both of them had their disappointments. Both sailed within coo-ee of the mouth of the Murray River but never saw it; Flinders missed the mouth of the Brisbane and Clarence Rivers too. Baudin missed the entrance to Port Phillip Bay as well while Flinders managed to sail through its perilous heads thinking he was the first to find it – but in fact John Murray had already done so, and named it mere months beforehand.
The authors do not shy away from reflecting on the role of these explorers in what came to be Aboriginal dispossession. There is a whole chapter about how these visitors were at pains to avoid conflict with the indigenous people, and how when misunderstandings arose, both Baudin and Flinders sought to rationalise them as errors of understanding not malice. But – beyond the whole issue of how opening up the continent meant inevitable European settlement – both explorers conformed to the tradition of naming places that already had indigenous names, and both helped themselves to game such as kangaroo without consideration of the needs of nomadic hunter-gatherers, even though they noticed that some of them were skinny.
Both expeditions included artists engaged to make studies of flora, fauna and the landscape (and there is a whole fascinating chapter about that) but they were to some extent captive to their own preconceived ideas about indigenous peoples. On the one hand there are precious portraits, scraps of language and records of cultural practices and artefacts of Tasmanian Aborigines from tribes now lost – but on the other hand some of the portraits are representations that bear more relationship to Greek statuary than to any real person. Careless acts such as the desecration of Aboriginal tombs by the Baudin Expedition on Maria Island are noted, and there was also a disconcerting incident in the Gulf of Carpentaria when friendly relations turned sour and – contravening Flinders’ orders – an Aborigine was shot. Under Flinders’ command there was no punishment for those responsible, as there should have been.
Interesting as the all these facts are, what made this book work for me was the voices of Baudin and Flinders. The translations by Jean Fornasiero are flawless and it is a delight to read the impressions of these brave and dedicated men in their own words. My favourite is this one, from Flinders, about the future of Sydney:
Amongst the obstacles which opposed themselves to the more rapid advancement of the colony, the principal were, the vicious propensities of a large portion of the convicts, a want of more frequent communication with England, and the prohibition to trading with India and the western coasts of South America, in consequence of the East-India-Company’s charter. As these difficulties become obviated and capital increases, the progress of the colonists will be more rapid; and if the resources from government be not withdrawn too early, there is little doubt of New South Wales being one day a flourishing country, and of considerable benefit to the commerce and navigation of the parent state. (p200)
The first edition of Encountering Terra Australis won the Frank Broeze Memorial Maritime History Book Prize in 2004, and Daniel Fazio at the Australian Public Intellectuals Network found this book ‘engrossing, very readable and superbly illustrated’ . It deserves to be widely read, and not just by historians.
PS In the course of looking for an image of the map that Flinders started out with, I came across a terrific ABC site called The Navigators which includes amongst other things, an interactive map of Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia in 1802-3.
Authors: Jean Fornasiero; Peter Monteath, and John West-Sooby.
Title: Encountering Terra Australis: the Australian voyages of Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders
Publishers: Wakefield Press, 2011 (Second edition, first published 2004).
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press
Availability: Fishpond: Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders
or direct from Wakefield Press. (You can buy it as an eBook there too, but then you’d miss out on the gorgeousness of the book!)