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Exploration & Discovery

Flinders & Baudin: Race for the Southern Lands

You will make up this collection of living animals of all kinds, insects, and especially of birds with beautiful plumage. As regards animals, I don’t need to tell you how to choose between those intended for the menageries and those for a collection of pure pleasure. You will appreciate that it must comprise flowers, shrubs, seeds, shells, precious stones, timber for fine works of marquetry, insects, butterflies, etc.

– Napoleon Bonaparte

Scientific curiosity, commercial interests and politics motivated further exploration of the South. In the Treaty of Paris, 1763, France had ceded most of her colonial possessions in India, Canada and the Caribbean as well as giving the British the dominant hand in North America.Like the English, the French sought new geographical discoveries and commercial opportunities to restore France’s place as a world power and to restore a sense of national pride.

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729–1811) took up the challenge to find the great southern continent, but after reaching Tahiti and the Hebrides he stopped short of the Queensland coast.

Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne sailed from Mauritius to Tasmania in 1772, but did not find mainland Australia. He turned east, instead, to New Zealand where he and a number of his crew were killed and eaten by Maoris.

Louis François Marie Aleno de Saint Aloüarn reached the coast of western Australia at Flinders Bay on the eastern side of Cape Leeuwin in early 1772. After exploring and charting the area, he raised the French flag and claimed a section of the coast for Louis XV. Saint Alloüarn surveyed much of the western Australian coastline up to near present-day Darwin. He claimed Australia's western coastline for France in the name of Louis XV, before heading to Timor.

Race for Terra Australis

Supported by Napoleon, in 1800 an expedition was launched to discover more of the southern land mass – specifically to chart the unknown southern coast of New Holland. On hearing of this, the English launched an expedition of their own.

Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin were the two captains set against each other in a race to chart the unknown south coast of New Holland and claim it for their respective countries. Despite the long history of political and military rivalry between Britain and France, the scientific communities of Europe shared a sense of solidarity and exchange at the end of the eighteenth century in their common desire to advance knowledge. The voyages took place during the time of the Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power. In spite of the atmosphere of political and military distrust, the British issued Baudin’s expedition with a passport guaranteeing safe passage in the event of an encounter with a British vessel. The French, likewise, granted the same free passage to Flinders’ ship, the Investigator.

Baudin’s ships, Géographe and Naturaliste, departed from Le Havre on 19 October 1800 with a large crew of scientists that included zoologist François Péron (1775–1810) and cartographer and naturalist Louis de Freycinet (1779–1842), who would play a large part in how Baudin’s voyage was to be seen by history.

Matthew Flinders departed on 18 July 1801.

Flinders, just 26 years old, had married a couple of months earlier. His attempts to smuggle his new wife on board, with the idea of leaving her in the new colony of Port Jackson while he undertook his explorations, were scuppered by Joseph Banks. On hearing of Flinders’ intentions, Banks threatened the full discipline of the Navy and removal of Flinders’ command. Flinders was forced to leave his new wife behind.

Baudin’s ships were beset with problems of order and discipline, animosity, rivalry, disunity and illness, but reached the Australian continent first in May 1801. They rounded Cape Leeuwin and made their way to Tasmania where they spent ten weeks exploring, having numerous encounters with the Indigenous population.

The drawings of artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit, who had begun the journey as assistant gunners, were among the first to record the appearance and practices of the Indigenous people of Australia. 


Géographe crossed Bass Strait in March to Wilsons Promontory. Some of this area had been roughly charted by George Bass in 1798 and Lt. James Grant in 1800. Baudin conducted a thorough survey of the coastline. From Mt Schanck, he began to chart coastline previously unseen by Europeans.

Flinders, meanwhile, had arrived in Australia and charted the southern coast from Cape Leeuwin along the Great Australian Bight. The two parties met at what became known as Encounter Bay on 8 April 1802.

‘If we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching butterflies in Van Diemen's Land, you would not have discovered the South Coast before us,’ Louis de Freycinet later told Flinders.

Both Flinders and Baudin continued exploration following their encounter, eventually making their way back to Port Jackson in the winter of 1802. Baudin found the crew of Naturaliste there already, having made their way directly from Tasmania. They rested, reprovisioned and restored their ships. The captains had the opportunity to share their charts and observations and mark the extent of discoveries claimed by each party.

Géographe was to return to France with a total of seventy-two living Australian animals, including a rare dwarf emu and thousands of botanical specimens. Naturaliste returned in 1804 with more than 100,000 specimens.

Charles-Alexandre LESUEUR
French 1778-1846
Platypus (Ornithorynque) (1802-04)
watercolour, pencil
24.0 x 38.0 cm
Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre (inv. 80033)
Photo: Alain Havard
  • Charles-Alexandre LESUEUR
    French 1778-1846
    Aborigines dancing near a fire (Aborigènes dansant près d'un feu) (1802-04)
    brush and ink, wash, pencil
    14.6 x 22.3 cm
    Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre (inv. 16008)
    Photo: Alain Havard
  • Charles-Alexandre LESUEUR
    French 1778-1846
    Indigenous weapons (Armes des Naturels) (1802-04)
    watercolour, pen and ink, pencil
    27.2 x 21.7 cm
    Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre (inv. 16035.1)
    Photo: Alain Havard
  • Nicolas-Martin PETIT
    French 1777-1804
    Man of New Holland (Homme de Nouvelle-Hollande) (1802-04)
    charcoal, pencil, pen and ink
    21.0 x 19.0 cm
    Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre (inv. 20037)
    Photo: Alain Havard
  • Charles-Alexandre LESUEUR
    French 1778-1846
    Map of Port Jackson (Sydney) (Plan de Port-Jackson (Sydney)) (1802-04)
    watercolour, pen and ink, pencil
    21.4 x 29.3 cm
    Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre (inv. 16074.2)
    Photo: Alain Havard
  • Nicolas-Martin PETIT
    French 1777-1804
    Woman of New Holland and her child (Femme de Nouvelle-Hollande et son enfant) (1802-04)
    pastel, black chalk, gouache, charcoal, brown and black ink, pencil
    28.3 x 19.6 cm
    Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, Le Havre (inv. 20036.1)
    Photo: Alain Havard
During the morning I was told that several of our quadrupeds and emus were very sick. We could only attribute this to the violent and incessant movement of the heavy sea, which left them not a moment’s peace … Since the emus refused to eat, we fed them by force, opening their beaks and introducing pellets of rice mash in to their stomachs. We gave them, and the sick kangaroo likewise, wine and sugar; and although I was very short of these same things for myself, I shall be very happy to have gone without them for their sake if they can help in restoring them to health.

– Nicolas Baudin, 1803

Baudin even made two of his officers surrender their cabins to the kangaroos to allow them a better chance of survival. While the kangaroos survived, Baudin was to succumb to tuberculosis on the journey back to France, dying in Mauritius in 1803.

Terre Napoléon

On his return journey, Flinders was detained by the French in Mauritius from 1803–1809. He learnt in 1807 to his surprise that the official report of the Baudin expedition, made by François Péron and Louis de Freycinet, had assigned French names to the areas that he had also charted: the coastline from Westernport to the islands off Ceduna was Terre Napoléon, Kangaroo Island was named Isle Decrès, Spencer Gulf, Golfe Bonaparte, and St Vincent Gulf, Golfe Joséphine (to great embarrassment when Napoleon divorced Josephine in 1809). Louis de Freycinet issued the first complete map of Australia in 1811 and included it in his atlas of 1812. By the time of the second edition of Freycinet's atlas in 1824, Napoleon was dead and many of the place names assigned by the French had been replaced with English ones. Australia was accepted as the name of the ‘new’ continent.

Matthew Flinders’ account of his voyage, A Voyage to Terra Australis, was published the day before his death on 18 July 1814.

Think, Investigate, Create

VELS The Humanities – History – Level 4 & 5

‘I have never been able to conceive that Europeans have either justice or equity on their side when in the name of their governments they annex lands newly found by them, but already inhabited by men who do not always deserve the name of “savage”. I have no knowledge of any pretensions the French government may have to Van Diemen's Land but I think its title no better grounded than yours.'

– Nicolas Baudin in response to a letter from Governor King

These views on colonisation and the entitlement of the natives to their land were very progressive and uncommon for their time. The powers in Britain clearly were not in agreement with Baudin’s view. They started a settlement in Van Diemen’s Land less than one year later.

Terra Nullius is a Latin expression which means ‘no man’s land’ or ‘land belonging to no one’, over which no country has sovereignty, and which therefore can be claimed. Australia was seen by European colonisers to be terra nullius.

Discuss the reasons the Europeans thought they could claim and colonise the land. How was their approach to community, land use and ownership different from that of the Aboriginal people?

Englishman Matthew Flinders and Frenchman Nicolas Baudin led voyages that mapped the southern coast of Australia, meeting at Encounter Bay. Detailed information about their voyages can be found at Encounter 1802-2002 including maps made by Louis de Freycinet (the French cartographer and surveyor on the Baudin voyage) and Matthew Flinders.

Compare the maps made by Matthew Flinders and Louis de Freycinet. Find out why they chose the names they did for different places. Which place names remain in use?

Use Google Earth and street view to see how the places named by the early explorers look today.

Educator's Guide