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The Great Race, by David Hill

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 21, 2012

I’m not sure whether it’s because maritime exploration has resurfaced in the Australian Primary History Curriculum, or if it’s because there’s a resurgence of interest in Australian history in general, but there are now three recent books that I know of that trace British-French rivalry in the exploration of Australia. The latest one (launched 9.11.12) is Almost a French Australia: French-British Rivalry in the Southern Oceans by Noelene Bloomfield (UWAP, 2012); there is the one I reviewed a little while ago, Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath, John West-Sooby (Wakefield 2005); and – released just a little while ago – there is also The Great Race by David Hill.

Although I haven’t set eyes on Almost a French Australia my guess is that most school libraries will buy all three as reference material, but the one that most students will read will be David Hill’s. It’s written in a very readable style and although it’s not as profusely illustrated as Encountering Terra Australis and is certainly not such a beautiful book, it’s not as expensive and it’s not as long, so many schools will be able to buy more than one copy of it.

However, they should not IMO try to make do with David Hill’s book only. It does have illustrations and maps, but they are all placed in the middle of the book rather than beside the relevant text. When trying to follow the actual journeys taken by the various explorers. the placement of appropriate maps in the Fornasiero, Monteath, West-Sooby book, next to the voyages described makes it much easier to visualise what’s going on, especially where the place names have changed over time. This is not a small quibble for teachers: professionally, we know that there are different kinds of intelligences and different learning styles. For students who are visual learners, apt images contribute to efficient learning and retention of knowledge. Vast slabs of text make learning harder for these kinds of learners, even if the book’s readability is not a problem.

However, for general readers who are interested in the fascinating story of Australia’s maritime exploration, The Great Race is ideal. The early chapters trace two hundred years of exploration by Dutch and Portuguese mariners and the landings on the Western Australian coast by the British buccaneer William Dampier. It then continues with the very familiar ground of Captain Cook’s landing on the east coast in 1770 when he claimed the continent for England. From there the book goes on to the main game: it covers the contest between Nicolas Baudin from France and the Englishman Matthew Flinders to chart the map of Australia: neither knew of the other until their historic meeting at Encounter Bay. True to the ideals of the Enlightenment, they transcended the hostility between France and England to share not only information and maps but also their mutual delight in the discoveries they had made.

Hill charts their journeys, their travails and their triumphs, quoting extensively from the journals and correspondence of these men to bring them to life. Of necessity there is less of Baudin’s because of his premature death and the fact that his expedition was therefore written up by his spiteful rival Péron, but Hill’s portrait is a generous one. Baudin had his flaws, but there is one quotation which shows clearly that his expedition was an intellectual quest, not one motivated by a desire for new territorial possessions. I haven’t got Encountering Terra Australia to check it, (because I’ve lent it to a colleague) but I don’t recall reading in that account of Baudin’s interesting view of his quest …

At the conclusion of his epic voyage of exploration, not long after his departure from Sydney and en route along the southern coast of Australia, Baudin was surprised to find himself pursued by Captain Charles Robbins aboard the Cumberland. Governor King had sent the British ship after Baudin because there were rumours that the French were about to set up a colony in Storm Bay Passage on Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania). Baudin immediately scotched these rumours with his reply, which is worth quoting in full:

I now write to you as Mr King, my friend, for whom I shall always have a particular regard… To my way of thinking, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages or cannibals that has freely been given them; whereas they were still only children of nature and just as civilised as your Scotch Highlanders or our Breton Peasants, etc., who, if they do not eat their fellow-men, are just as objectionable. From this it appears to me that it would be infinitely more glorious for your nation, as for mine, to mould for society the inhabitants of its own country over whom it has rights, rather than wishing to occupy itself with the improvement of those who are very far removed from it by beginning with seizing the soil which belongs to them and which saw their birth.

If you will reflect on the conduct of the natives since the beginning of your establishment upon their territory, you will see that their aversion for you, and for your customs, has been occasioned by the idea that they have formed of those who wished to live among them. In spite of your precautions and the punishments undergone by those of your people who have ill-treated them, they have been able to discern your projects for the future, but being too weak to resist you, the fear of your arms has made them emigrate, so that the hope of seeing them mix with you is lost, and will soon remain the peaceful possessors of their heritage, as the few who now surround you will no longer exist. (p. 262-3)

It will be really interesting to read Almost a French Australia to see how Baudin’s view was at variance with official French plans of the time!

As Hill points out in his admiring analysis, it shows that [notwithstanding Baudin’s opinions about ‘objectionable’ cultures]

Baudin’s letter is unusual for its insight into the injustice of European annexation of territory, and enlightened for its time. It is also remarkable for its accurate prediction that white occupation would devastate Aboriginal civilisation. (p. 263).

Alas, not all Frenchmen were as reasonable, as Flinders himself was to find on his return journey to his long-suffering wife Ann in England. Although he had a ‘passport’ issued by Baudin, he was detained on Mauritius by the governor for seven years due to the renewal of war between France and England. This delay meant that Péron’s highly critical account of Baudin’s leadership of the French expedition was published first and Flinders’ map of Australia was preceded by a French one (which used French names for some places including Golfe Napoleon for Spencer Gulf!) which caused major indignation in England.

On modern maps, however, while there are still some places in Australia that retain their French names (e.g. Freycinet Peninsula) it is the name that Flinders chose as the name of our country that is used, and the place names that he bestowed are those that mostly remain. (While Aboriginal names have been reinstated in some places in Australia, notably Uluru, I do not know if any of the places Flinders named have been). Today Flinders is acknowledged as the first to circumnavigate Australia, it is Baudin’s reputation which is gradually being rehabilitated, and Péron is remembered for his petty jealousy rather than anything else.

Flinders died when he was only forty, just a few years after being reunited with his wife.

The book has extensive notes and is fully indexed.

Author: David Hill
Title: The Great Race: The Race Between the English and the French to Complete the Map of Australia
Publisher: Random House 2012
ISBN: 9781742751092
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House

BTW David Hill is no relation of mine.

Fishpond: The Great Race: The Race Between the English and the French to Complete the Map of Australia

This review is cross-posted at Lisa Hill’s ANZLitLovers LitBlog.

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