The French in early Australia

In 1793 a French expedition to the South Pacific landed in the far south of Van Diemen’s Land, at Recherche Bay. They began a garden, and their contacts with the Tasmanian Aborigines were—on this occasion—amiable. Traces of that fleeting presence—neither the first, last nor longest by the French in Tasmania, nor on the mainland of Australia—abide, but they are in jeopardy. According to one of those protesting, my friend, local resident and historian Bruce Poulson, the lands of the North East Peninsula of Recherche Bay are under threat from logging. A decision on whether this will proceed, or whether the contested territory will be heritage-listed because of its historical significance is due soon. In the meantime a shed full of research materials at the back of Poulson’s home at nearby Hastings was burned down earlier this year.

Fortunately he was able to complete and publish an excellent short study, Recherche Bay: A History, which ranges from the arrival of the French in the district to the present-day controversy over land use. He notes that here the first Catholic masses were celebrated in Australia, here the first white woman came ashore in Tasmania. Disguised as a male, Louise Girardin even fought a duel on a beach at the bay.

Poulson moves engagingly through the history of European settlement, discussing the logging, mining and fishing in the region and the decline of these industries and of the communities which they supported.

The French presence in southern and eastern Tasmania is commemorated in place names along the coast, but the French explored from the southern island as far north as modern-day Darwin, as well as east to New Zealand. The first expedition of 1772 was led by Marion Dufresne, the last in 1839 by Durmont D’Urville. Not 1939, as Colin Dyer’s The French Explorers and the Aboriginal Australians has it. Dyer—as his title suggests—focuses not so much on the geopolitical motives for French exploration, the first half century of which took place during intermittent war with Britain, but with the anthropological discoveries and speculations concerning the natives, les sauvages, of those voyages.

No permanent French settlement was made, although one was contemplated in the strategically placed islands of Bass Strait. Perhaps fate decreed that the French were never to be more than visitors. Dufresne and a number of his crew were killed and eaten by Maoris; Laperouse and his ships vanished without trace somewhere north-east of the Australian continent. (An afternote in Poulson’s book suggests that the wreck of one of those ships might have been discovered off the Solomon Islands). ‘Like so many of his unhappy predecessors’, Baudin died before reaching home, as did D’Entrecasteaux and his second-in-command. D’Urville did regain French soil, only to be killed in a train crash on a day trip to Versailles.

The French were dispatched with high-minded instructions. For instance, D’Entrecasteaux was told to ‘seek to know the ways of life and customs of the natives’ and ‘to live in good understanding with them’. This was not usually possible, but if the Aborigines and Maoris were often the aggressors in the confusing contact of cultures this may have been, Dyer argues, because ‘the major element of surprise and astonishment was reserved for the indigenous inhabitants’. Nevertheless, the violence that some of the French experienced on making landfall persuaded them to contempt, not so much for the natives as for the philosophers back home—those promoters of ‘the noble savage’ such as Rousseau, who ‘consider man in his wild state to be a model of innocence and goodness’.

In Australia, the scientifically curious French tried to make anthropological sense, and records, of the people whom they encountered. They remarked their nakedness, their diet, their rituals, mutilations and want of housing. They measured their bodies and compiled lexicons of their languages. Prejudice crept in, Arago describing the Aborigines around Sydney as ‘ugly, hideous and decrepit at birth’. Yet they were pitied as well. The French explorer Baudin, whose crew enjoyed the hospitality of Governor King at Sydney Cove, wrote in sorrow of the Aborigines there that ‘the small number of those surrounding you will not long exist’. This well-meaning lament would have many echoes as the 19th century progressed, but no such simple outcome as Baudin feared.

Dyer’s book will be welcomed for its wealth of detail, not least because he has translated (for the first time) some of the French impressions of Australia and its Aboriginal inhabitants. Yet one wishes that he had been as venturesome as those whose stories he tells: in a fuller analysis of the collision of philosophical preconceptions and empirical observations, in a comparison of the visions of French and British voyagers into the South Pacific. This is a work that opens numerous pathways. One hopes that one of them is the saving of the land around Recherche Bay.  

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns. To order Recherche Bay: A History, phone (03) 6298 3230.

The French Explorers and the Aboriginal Australians 1772–1839, Colin Dyer. University of Queensland Press, 2005. iISBN 0 702 23512 1, RRP $32.95

Recherche Bay: A History, Bruce Poulson. Management Committee of the Southport Community Centre, 2005. RRP$25



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