Thursday, July 1, 2010

The French Explorers

The first of the large number of French explorers who landed in New Holland during the 17th–19th centuries was probably Abraham Duquesne-Guitton, who in 1687 was blown off course on his way to Siam, or Thailand, and saw land he believed to be Eendrecht Land in what is today Western Australia. In the same year, Duquesne-Guitton’s nephew, Nicolas Gedeon de Voutron, is also believed to have visited New Holland and even landed at the site of the Swan River, contemporary Perth, which he recommended to his government as a suitable location for a new colony (Tull 2000).

Despite the promise of the new continent, French exploration in the South Pacific did not expand until 1766, when Louis-Antoine de Bougainville undertook an around-the-world journey that included the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s east coast. In 1772 de Bougainville was followed to Australia by François de Saint-Alouarn, who not only explored the west coast of New Holland but landed at Dirk Hartog Island and claimed that land for France. He left behind statements of proclamation and several coins in bottles buried on the island. France never followed up on the claim, however, and the bottles were not found until 1998 (Shark Bay World Heritage Area 2007).

The year 1772 also carried the first French ship into Australia’s eastern waters, when Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne landed in Van Diemen’s Land. Dufresne’s sailors also had the first violent encounter with the Aboriginal Tasmanians after early friendly relations turned sour. In the ensuing volley of stones and spears from the Aboriginal people and musket balls from the French, one of Dufresne’s men was speared in the leg and an Aboriginal man lost his life, the first of thousands killed by European guns.

Dufresne was followed in 1788 by Jean-François de La Pérouse, who spent about six weeks in Botany Bay just days after most of the First Fleet had abandoned the site. A few members of Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet had, however, remained at Botany Bay, and the two rival parties spent six amiable weeks together while the French ships reprovisioned for their continuing exploration (Marchant 1967).

In 1792, under Antoine-Raymond-Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, and in 1802 under Nicolas Baudin, the French turned their explorations south to Van Diemen’s Land. The latter mission, which had begun with two ships, Nicolas Baudin in Le Géographe and Captain Hamelin in Le Naturaliste, spent several months in 1801 along the west coast of New Holland, charting territory, gathering plant and animal specimens, and generally fulfilling the intellectual nature of their mission, as symbolized by the names of their ships. Eventually Hamelin was sent back to France and Baudin sailed in the Casuarina with Louis de Freycinet, his previous mission’s cartographer, to continue his work in the region of Van Diemen’s Land. For their part, the English feared the political motives of Baudin’s 1802 mission and quickly sent their own ship to plant the Union Jack, almost literally, under Baudin’s nose on King Island (Marchant and Reynolds 1966).

While these 19th-century expeditions from France were largely scientific in nature, the French dream of a colonial empire did not die with the Revolution in 1789–99, and in 1822 Louis-Isidore Duperrey, who had sailed with Freycinet, set off on his own mission of exploration. He called in at Sydney in 1824 but never arrived at the Swan River site he was to scope out for possible colonization. His mission did push the English, however, to lay claim to the western half of the continent, as they did on Christmas Day, 1826. The Dutch had made a prior claim to that territory, but their long neglect and failure to leave any lasting settlement left it open to the British. Another Frenchman, Hyacinthe de Bougainville, son of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, was also sent on a political mission to New South Wales when he was directed to spy on the Sydney colony during his time there in mid-1825.

The last significant French expedition to New South Wales was in 1838, when Dumont d’Urville rejected Port Essington, near contemporary Darwin, as a possible site for a colony because of the climate, flies, mosquitoes, and ants (Dyer 2005, 17). As a result of these French expeditions to the South Pacific numerous places, especially around Tasmania, today bear French names: the Freycinet Peninsula, Bruny Island, d’Entrecasteaux Channel, Cape Naturaliste, Bonaparte Archipelago, and Archipelago of the Recherche.