G’day Sheila could have been b’jour Bruce

The two ships of the Baudin Expedition: Géographe and Naturaliste

It is one of the most tantalising wonders of French history: the possibility that, if events had taken a different turn, Australia could have become a French colony. Michael Delahaye plays a historical game of 'What If..?'

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 ...

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