The Art of Science

When the ships Géographe and Naturaliste departed from France at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the Western world could not anticipate what explorer Nicolas Baudin and his team would accomplish. Collecting over 100,000 specimens of Australian flora and fauna, producing at least 1500 sketches, and creating the first complete chart of Australia are just some of the feats that Baudin’s expedition achieved over a mere three-and-a-half-year period from 1800 to 1804.

The Art of Science: Nicolas Baudin's Voyagers 1800-1804, published by Wakefield Press, brings together various artworks and essays of Baudin’s journey, demonstrating the incredible detail and uniqueness that his work would have conveyed to the nations of Europe; the people of which were still largely ignorant of the strange island continent of ‘New Holland.’ Of the many drawings produced over the course of the voyage, some of the most exquisite are included in this book, with stand-outs including portraits of tiger quolls, the jellyfish Rhizostoma octopus, and what many would now consider the fairly unimpressive noisy miner. The purchase of this title can be justified simply by such artwork, but the discussions of the just-as-interesting scientific and political intrigues of the time make this book even more fascinating.

In particular, the political tensions between Baudin’s home country and Great Britain are illustrated throughout the text, highlighting some remarkable points of conflict between the French and the British during Baudin’s journey. France had been at war with Britain for seven years, and it was only four years until Napoleon Bonaparte would become the Emperor of the French. When they first set sail from Le Havre in the October of 1800, Baudin was required to board a Royal Navy Frigate stationed not far from France in order to prove that his ship need not be seized. He then provided a tour of his own ship to the British captain and also presented him with one of his expedition medallions – an image of which is featured in the book. The voyage of Baudin and his team to the South Seas would also end up being the only scientific expedition to take place during the Napoleonic Era. Nevertheless, his geographical discoveries still troubled Sir Joseph Banks and British leaders to the point where some suspected that the French were scouting for a potential settlement area around Port Phillip Bay, Victoria.

Two spotted-tailed quolls ( Dasyurus maculatus ) feeding on a seal carcass, King Island, Tasmania - Charles-Alexandre Lesueur.  Image:    Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery

Two spotted-tailed quolls (Dasyurus maculatus) feeding on a seal carcass, King Island, Tasmania - Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. Image: Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery

Baudin and his artists also provided what Michael McCarthy describes as more ‘sympathetic’ portraits of Australia’s indigenous people than other explorers of the time. Included in the publication are some of the portraits that resulted from Baudin’s expedition and a discussion of how they compare to more caricatured sketches produced by fellow countryman Jacques-Etienne Victor Arago. Baudin himself recorded the following words regarding the treatment of indigenous people at the time:

I have never been able to imagine that there was any justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their government, a land which when first seen was inhabited by men who did not always deserve the titles of ‘savage’ and ‘cannibal’ that have been lavished on them.

That is not to say that Baudin’s expedition did not involve many tense and some violent encounters with indigenous groups, although one instance saw Baudin’s team share a meal with members of the Minang Noongar community of Western Australia. His expedition was also very much involved in the French naming of several coastal locations, suggesting that his team was not exempt from the colonialist attitude towards this new land.

In addition to the information obtained in regards to indigenous culture, the voyage naturally involved the collection of an incredible amount of faunal and floral specimens, some of which were scientifically unknown. The meticulous record-keeping of zoologist François Péron means that the discoveries of Baudin’s expedition live on into the present, allowing modern scientists to better understand the diversity and species distributions of a by-gone Australia.

The Art of Science was published to coincide with the touring exhibition of the same name. Follow this link for more information.  

This review was originally published on Andrew Isles Natural History Books. To purchase your own copy of the book, click here.  

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Philippe Alès: Drawing of a jellyfish by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur.