Nicolas Baudin was one of the great French explorers of the Age of Enlightenment.
His final expedition, from 1800 to 1804, was to the largely unknown southern landmass that the French called Nouvelle-Hollande, known today as Australia.
Funding for the expedition was personally agreed by First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte and, typical of the expeditions of the time, it was dedicated to the study and collection of zoological and botanical specimens.
Many of these – wallabies, emus and black swans – would end up in Empress Joséphine’s garden at the Château de Malmaison outside Paris.
The first Europeans to explore the Australian coast were probably the Portuguese in the 16th Century, followed by the Dutch in the 17th, but it was the British who, in the wake of Captain Cook’s expeditions, established the first permanent settlement in 1788 – the penal colony of Sydney.
Baudin’s expedition is remarkable because, while its leader’s intentions were commendably scientific, one crew member’s plan was nothing less than a land grab to dislodge England’s tenuous foothold. Had he succeeded, Australians would now be greeting each other not with a matey “G’day” but – like one in five Canadians – a more restrained “Bonjour”.
His name was François Péron. A former soldier, he was an inveterate self-promoter and social climber. Although only 25 when taken on as one of the expedition’s naturalists, he quickly rose to a position of influence to become a thorn in his commander’s side.
Following Baudin’s death on the return journey, he ended up not just writing the official account of the expedition but writing Baudin out of it.
Péron’s role in the expedition raises intriguing questions: Was he just an amateur strategist or had he been embedded by a higher authority, without Baudin’s knowledge, to conduct a covert spying mission? If so, what part was played by the man who authorised the expedition, Napoléon Bonaparte?
Central to these questions is a document that has only recently been subjected to academic scrutiny – Péron’s so-called memoir. It appears to be a draft report, hastily handwritten on his return, complete with deletions and scrawled marginalia.
It is addressed to Count Fourcroy, director of the Museum of Natural History in Paris and, more to the point, a councillor of state at the heart of government – though there is no evidence it reached him.
For two centuries, the document lay in the Baudin Expedition archive in Le Havre, largely ignored.
It was not published in full, in its original French, until 1998. Then six years ago it was translated into English by two academics at the University of Adelaide, professors Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby (French Designs on Colonial New South Wales, published by The Friends of the State Library of South Australia).
Viewing the document from an Australian perspective, they put it into a wider, geopolitical context and highlighted Péron’s impudent proposal: that France should annex the embryonic British colony of New South Wales.
International diplomacy in Baudin’s day was conducted in a quaint, gentlemanly way.
Even countries regularly at war, like England and France, would grant passports to members of each other’s expeditions so they could use their ports for repair and revictualling.
This arrangement enabled Baudin, whose two ships had just charted Australia’s south coast, to drop anchor on the eastern seaboard at Port Jackson, the gateway to Sydney.
They stayed there, as guests of the British governor, for five months and were given remarkably free rein, considering that, only weeks before their arrival, their two countries had been officially at war.
Péron was quick to exploit the opportunity to check out the colony and its 6,000-strong population. His memoir reveals a conflicted mix of Anglophilia and Anglophobia – impressed by what the English had achieved in just 14 years but outraged by what he repeatedly calls their “invasion” and their presumption in claiming an entire continent by a unilateral act of possession.
It reads: “Milord, there is not a moment to lose: we must strike a blow at this international bogeyman at all costs, otherwise world trade will be in England’s hands. One of the cruellest blows we can deliver her is to overthrow her nascent empire in the Southern Lands…
“In 25 years, this remarkable colony will be able to defy the combined efforts of France and Spain.”
Out of these contradictory emotions arose his audacious plan: that Paris should send a fleet of frigates with a landing party of some 1,800 men, together with eight months’ supplies, to blockade Port Jackson and, counting on a spontaneous uprising by the Irish convicts within, take Sydney.
Success assumed, Péron considered the options: “Three courses of action are available: destroy the colony, grant it independence, maintain possession of it.”
He favoured the last, again with a back-handed compliment to the enemy: “…by securing this region, and particularly by adopting the English plan for administering it, we could gain almost all of the benefits from it that she herself anticipated.”
But how much of this reached Napoléon? There is no evidence he ever saw Péron’s memoir.
That said, on the expedition’s return, Péron is known to have been in contact with both Joséphine and Napoléon about the animals destined for the Empress’s garden. Then, when he came to compile the official account, Péron ensured that the accompanying atlas gave the area charted by the expedition a name: Terre Napoléon.
Further playing to the Emperor’s vanity, he added such geographical features as Golfe Bonaparte in cosy connubiality alongside the smaller Golfe Joséphine.
Napoléon would certainly have received a copy and surely at least flicked through it.
But by 1804 the Emperor’s thoughts were likely elsewhere.
Uppermost would have been his planned invasion of England – to be aborted a year later by the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar.
Even so, Professor West-Sooby thinks something like Péron’s plan may have lingered in the imperial mind as late as 1810.
Baudin’s visit to Sydney certainly rattled the English.
Following it, they moved quickly to colonise Van Diemen’s Land – today’s Tasmania – and extended their grip along the southern coast, eventually assuming control of the entire continent.
Today, the Queen remains Australia’s head of state.
But though the French may have lost the Great Southern Land, time would bring a small consolation.
In 1911, a descendant of the French geographer-politician Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu visited Australia to ask whether some of the names Baudin had given to places might be officially reinstated.
As a result, one of the most beautiful parts of South Australia is today called the Fleurieu Peninsula.
Coincidentally, it produces some fine Cabernet Sauvignon.
What was France’s real interest in Australia?
Professor John West-Sooby of the University of Adelaide explains what evidence there is to show France’s intentions towards Australia:
What was the true nature of the French and British expeditions led by men like Baudin and Cook?
JWS: Scientific discovery was the first motivation – at least, as publicly declared. That said, given all the geopolitical rivalries, no expedition was entirely “innocent”.
Everybody understood that people going to the Pacific or to the Indian Ocean would also keep an eye out on the position of rivals and the defences of their territory, their colonies and their ports.
Do you believe Napoléon was ever made aware of Péron’s plan?
JWS: There is a document in Napoléon’s correspondence dating from 1810, which is when the French lost Mauritius to the British, and Napoléon was thinking of sending a squadron to take back the island – and there’s a kind of parenthetical comment: “Once they’ve done that, they can head south and attack the colony at Port Jackson.”
So there’s certainly a possibility that the idea, if not Péron’s memoir itself, had circulated in some way up and through the corridors of power. We just have no definitive way of confirming it.
Péron’s plan is very persuasive in its detail. Could it have worked?
JWS: I think it is plausible… I don’t know how many ships it would have taken – enough for a decent landing party and another one to patrol and protect the entrance to the port – but it sounds plaus-ible: “We land, secure the military barracks before daybreak while they’re still asleep, free the Irish convicts who will ask nothing more than to help us overthrow their English masters…” So yes, there’s plenty that’s plausible about it.
Ultimately, there’s the issue of resources. How do you send an expedition of that capacity round the other side of the world when you don’t hold the Cape of Good Hope? In terms of realpolitik, it was a bit fanciful that France might mount that kind of expedition at that time.