Imagine if the French had settled Victoria. Our language and customs would be very different. We might eat more camembert than Vegemite, for instance. We might say ‘Bon Jour’ instead of ‘G’Day’. We might live in a state called ‘Napoleon’ rather than one called ‘Victoria’. How different our culture would be if Victoria were a French colony!
And it might well have been the case. On Napoleon’s orders, the French explorer Nicolas Baudin was charting the southernmost reaches of Australia in 1802 at the same time as the Englishman Matthew Flinders. On the 8th of April 1802 Baudin and Flinders actually met each other in what is now called Encounter Bay. Agreeably, despite the fact that France and England were at war, they were congenial towards each other and swapped supplies.
Baudin’s voyage does not live in the popular Australian imagination in the same way that Matthew Flinders’ does. And yet Baudin’s was an extraordinary voyage. It mapped the coastline of southern Australia from Wilson’s Promontory to the Great Australian Bight, along the way assigning over 400 French names to landmarks. This included naming the landmass that the English later christened ‘Victoria’ as ‘Terre Napoléon’ or ‘Napoleon land’. How remarkable to think that Victoria was first named after Napoleon. You can see a map from the Baudin voyage with such titling in this room.
Baudin’s expedition was one of the best equipped in history – it was much bigger than Matthew Flinders’, for instance, and included more than twenty scholars who were experts in disciplines as diverse as botany, zoology and mineralogy.
Although by law all specimens collected on such voyages were the property of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, Napoleon – or rather Josephine – had other ideas.
When Baudin was preparing for the voyage, Napoleon sent a ‘secret order’ informing Baudin that he was to collect specimens especially for Malmaison. The natural history professors must have been greatly peeved by this favoritism, even though the Baudin expedition brought back more than 100,000 specimens for them alone. Yet within the scientific community there was also genuine respect for Josephine’s abilities.
Captain Baudin had quite a job transporting his precious cargo of living Australian animals back to Josephine. The animals were frequently seasick and, understandably, disturbed during the six-month ocean voyage back to France. In an effort to make them more comfortable and to protect them from the ship’s marauding cats and dogs, Baudin threw some officers out of their cabins to accommodate animals there. This did not endear him to his seafaring colleagues – some felt that being unseated by a kangaroo was a little undignified.
Some of the animals collected were also very rare – as certain species in Australia were already suffering the impact of white settlement. A black emu from King Island, for instance, which died at Malmaison in 1822, was the last surviving of its kind after seal hunters quickly wiped out the original species.
It is astonishing to think that kangaroos once bounded over the lawns of Malmaison and black swans tootled around the pond in front of the Temple of Love. But these Australian animals did indeed frolic in the grounds of Malmaison for a decade following their arrival in France in 1804.