Chasing Baudin: French researchers educating France about their neglected navigator

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Chronometer no 31 takes pride of place in The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800-1804 exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum. It was one of two on board French navigator Nicolas Baudin’s ship the Geographe. This precious instrument was displayed with several others in Paris’ National Maritime Museum tracking the history of the time piece. 

Lavishly funded by Bonaparte and equipped with a team of 22 scientists and artists, Baudin left Le Havre with the ships Geographe and Naturaliste in October 1800 bound for the Pacific. He famously encountered Matthew Flinders off present day Victor Harbour in April 1802 where he discovered that the British had beaten him to the greater part of the ‘unknown’ southern coast. While the French expedition returned to France listing with the weight of over 100,000 scientific specimens—vastly enriching the coffers of its Museum of Natural History— today Baudin’s name is virtually unknown in the country of his birth. 

Writer Patrick Llewellyn and anthropologist Alizée Chasse are passionate about redressing this case of historical amnesia. They have recently founded the Centre Nicolas Baudin in France and are working with French, Australian and British museums and academics to raise the profile of France’s neglected navigator. Their project Terra Australis has so far produced a novel based on Baudin’s voyage by established author Llewellyn, and a series of publications and lectures. One of their key objectives is to dramatise the expedition and the impressive achievements of its navigators and scientists by retracing Baudin’s tracks in a modern vessel. The vessel will take in the landfalls of Tenerife, Mauritius, Timor, Cape Town and various sites along the Australian coast—all recorded in a 110 minute documentary. 

Additionally Alizée is searching for the 200 ethnographic objects from the voyage that vanished when Josephine Bonaparte’s estate was dispersed. She is also working with people in Tasmania to re-establish the French gardens (seedlings) left by Baudin when they voyaged around the coast. 

Llewellyn and Chasse are visiting Australia to install an exhibit at the South Australian Maritime Museum - funded by noted French chronometer maker Breguet and examining two voyages that followed in Baudin’s wake. While in South Australia Llewellyn and Chasse will also continue their research on Baudin – researching the French presence in the storylines of the Narungga people, tracing Baudin’s tracks to Kangaroo Island, and looking for clues to Baudin’s female stowaway (and rumoured lover) Mary Beckwith. 

The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800 -1804 exhibition is at the South Australian Maritime Museum until December 2016 and will then tour nationally until December 2018.