1754 - 1803







Nicolas Baudin
Nicolas Baudin



Baudin was the man France held responsible for its failure to colonise Australia. Rumour has it that Napoleon Bonaparte said of him: 'Baudin did well to die, on his return I would have hanged him.' How unfair that would have been, for Baudin's expedition was the first great French success after so many dismal failures.

Such were the effects of the 'poison pens' raised against him and poor Baudin was completely unable to defend himself as he had died in Mauritius on the return voyage.

Baudin was at the end of a long list of French explorers who set off for the south land and never returned. La Perouse, d Entrecasteaux, Dufresne and St Allouarn had all gone before him and had all died before making it home to France.

Born a commoner, Baudin first served in the French Royal Navy but after losing a promotion to another officer with 'better breeding', Baudin resigned and joined the merchant marine. It was during this time that he developed an interest in scientific exploration and he was contracted by the Austrian navy which found his work so pleasing that he gained the rank of Captain - something usually reserved for native Austrians.

Baudin was 46 when, in 1800, he captained Le Geographe and sailed from Le Harve with the ship Naturaliste, on a voyage of exploration and science. With him were 22 assorted scientists (Baudin had only requested 8) and his journey had barely begun before he was stopped in his tracks by an English warship.


Luckily for the expedition, a passport of free passage had been issued by the British Admiralty because England and France were once again at war and without the passport he would have been turned back or even imprisoned. As it was, the British were now alerted to the date the French expedition had set off and they began to organise their own exploratory party headed by Mathew Flinders.

France had toyed with the idea of establishing a convict settlement in Australia but they had taken too long to make the decision and the English had been in New South Wales for 12 years before Baudin set sail. Baudin's instructions included the following: '...the sole aim of your labours being the perfecting of the sciences, you must observe the most complete neutrality and not give rise to a single doubt as to your exactitude in confining yourself to the object of your mission...' On the surface then, it appears as though the French had given up any ideas of colonising the west coast of Australia but Francois Peron had been given secret instructions to look for likely areas to settle and to report on the existing British settlements.

On arrival at Teneriffe, Baudin was unable to organise enough supplies to suit the refined requirements of the passengers and this was to ruffle feathers and cause no end of bad feeling on board.

Many of the scientists aboard were the surviving sons of French aristocrats (those that survived the revolution that is) and they held the 'low born' Captain with great disdain. The lack of supplies and ship-board conditions they were unused to, caused continual friction and in the end, Baudin assembled the scientists and ship's officers to 'lay down the law' about behaviour on board ship. He threatened to leave any offenders at the next port but his warning seemed to have little effect.

On arrival at Mauritius (known as Ile de France at the time) Baudin's expedition was not met with the welcome he expected. He was denied access to Government stores and without the help of the Danish Consul Pelgrom, he may not have been able to re-supply at all. It appeared as though the French authorities on Mauritius did everything they could to prevent the expedition from leaving. Despite his best efforts Baudin was 15 men short when he finally did manage to get away, (1)not that he missed some of the scientists who had deserted.

Baudin had arrived off the West Australian coast 7 months after leaving France and before Flinders had even left England. On reaching Cape Leeuwin, Baudin sailed north and discovered and named Geographe Bay. It was while the ships were anchored here that a 19 year old seaman named Timothee Vasse was lost in the surf in a raging storm and it was in his memory that the Vasse River was named.

During the storm the ships became separated and after searching for some time Baudin gave up and headed north for the Swan River. Before leaving France, Baudin had been given specific instructions to head first to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) but as he was running three months behind schedule he had decided to head north away from the southern winter gales. Baudin was at this time completely unaware that Mathew Flinders was following in his wake.

Not finding the Naturaliste at the pre-determined rendezvous, Baudin sailed further north to Shark Bay. While at anchor a party went ashore to explore and Peron (who had already been lost several times previously) managed to lose himself again and held up the party returning to the ship.

With still no sign of the second ship, the Geographe was running short of provisions and was forced to make for Timor to re-supply. While waiting here for the Naturaliste to arrive, many of the crew (including Baudin) were struck down with dysentery and some fatalities occurred. Finally on the 21st of September the Naturaliste put in an appearance. Trouble was to follow as Baudin was forced to imprison an insubordinate officer and talk of mutiny spread.

After 12 weeks in Timor the expedition was once again back on track with Baudin now keen to fulfil his orders to sail to Tasmania. Instead of heading east (as we might expect) Baudin re-traced his route along the west coast before heading east toward Tasmania. Unknown to him the English expedition, led by Mathew Flinders, was anchored only a matter of 140 miles away when they passed King George Sound on Christmas Eve 1801. By this time the French expedition had suffered 87 deaths while the English expedition was in full health.

On the way west he met Flinders at Encounter Bay (Flinders being now on his way east). The two explorers swapped charts but Baudin was later to belittle the work done by both George Vancouver and Flinders.

Baudin made his way to Port Jackson (after being invited to winter there by Mathew Flinders) and he and his crew were made very welcome over the next 5 months. Before leaving Baudin was able to purchase a third ship (Casuarina) which he would need as the Naturaliste sailed home to France taking a large collection of animals and plants with her.

Louis de Freycinet, although not the most senior available ranking officer, was given command of the Casuarina and he was less than complimentary about the ship, he wrote in his journal on the 23rd of September 1801: 'The Casuarina is a 30 ton schooner, very badly constructed and worse fitted out. It is too short for its masts. It takes in five inches of water a day. We have to continually pump, it is a very poor seaboat.'

Baudin had been so well treated by Governor King during his stay that he even sent a letter to the Governor of Mauritius asking him to extend the same courtesy to Mathew Flinders if he should happen to stop there.

For some reason Baudin saw fit to take with him a female convict (Mary Beckworth) and the fact that she spent her voyage sleeping in the Captain's cabin led to no end of speculation. She was apparently rather lax with her morals and spent time with more than just Baudin. Her presence on board was a constant source of trouble.

Along with Mary Beckworth, 9 other convicts had managed to get on to the French ships but these were stowaways and they were put off at King Island. Even so, 3 of these managed to get back on board before the ships left port.

As the ships were getting ready to leave, the Cumberland arrived from Port Jackson with a letter from Governor King to Baudin. (2) The contents were somewhat surprising considering the fact that the two men had become friends but King informed Baudin that no French settlement would be tolerated on British territory.

Baudin decided he had to reply to Governor King in both an official capacity and as Governor King's friend in a separate letter. (3)

As he sailed west, Baudin's health began to deteriorate as he had contracted tuberculosis. The expedition stopped at King George Sound and when their land explorations were complete the Geographe and Casuarina sailed north west where they became separated only to meet again off Rottnest Island.

Baudin had several on-going feuds with the scientists aboard and the focus of his irritation seemed to be Peron who was continually getting lost during on-shore excursions.

4 weeks after Flinders had called in at Timor and had picked up a supply of contaminated water, Baudin again called in. He learned that the Investigator was in poor shape and surmised correctly, that Flinders would not be able to chart the north west coast. Here at last was his chance to make some discoveries of his own.

Battling the monsoon winds, Baudin sailed west but Timor was once again taking its toll on the crew and scientists. Baudin found that all his closest allies and friends were dying around him. With his own health deteriorating and the live animal specimens also in danger, the decision was made (July 7th 1803) to head home to France.

Baudin got only as far as Mauritius before his health failed and he succumbed to TB on the 16th of September 1803. His mission had largely been a success. A total of over 200,000 specimens had been collected and much of the unknown coast of Australia had been charted. How is it then that Baudin's name was to become one of the most despised in France and he was all but forgotten by history?

On the 16th of December 1803 the Geographe sailed for France. As she left the north end of the island a small ship arrived off the south end. Mathew Flinders had arrived.

With Baudin dead and unable to defend himself, the knives came out and even those who had deserted the expedition on the outward journey came out against their commander. Peron was the loudest and most vindictive of all Baudin's detractors as he tried to manoeuvre his way into writing the account of the expedition. Eventually he succeeded and between them, Peron and Freycinet started to make wholesale changes to the accounts and maps of the expedition.

By the time they had finished, their names appeared 10 times each on the maps and Baudin was left one small insignificant island in the huge Freycinet Estuary. Baudin's magnificent collection of specimens was broken up, sold, given away, mixed up and generally ignored. Baudin's name had been irrevocably damaged and he was forgotten by history.

Peron went on to write the first volume of the journey's record but he too succumbed to tuberculosis (poetic justice perhaps?) and Freycinet completed volumes 2 and 3.

De Freycinet was to go on to explore more of the Australian coast as he managed to remain in favour with the authorities once Napoleon Bonaparte had been removed.

Despite the lack of acclaim in his own country, Baudin's expedition left no less than 240 surviving French names on the west coast of Australia and his own name was eventually to grace 8 different features. In France he is still virtually unknown and even his grave has been lost.

(1) - One source says 46 sailors and 10 scientists abandoned the expedition at Mauritius.

(2) - Governor King's Letter to Baudin:

To the Commander of the Expedition..
You will no doubt be surprised to see a ship so close on your heels. You are acquainted with my intention to establish a settlement in the South; however it has been hastened by information communicated to me immediately after your departure. This information is to the effect that the French wish to set up an establishment in Storm Bay Passage an in the area known as Frederick Hendrik Bay. Its also said that these are your orders from the French Republic. This is what Colonel Patterson told me after your departure, having himself been informed by a person from your ship.

You will easily imagine that had I had such information before you left, I would have asked you for an explanation of it, but I knew nothing about it. At present I do not even believe it and consider it to be idle gossip. However I have thought it right to inform you of it, should the Cumberland happen to meet you. The commander of this ship carries my orders and he is charged with communicating them to you.

My family and I wish you all that you could desire and shall long remember the pleasure that we had in your society. We ask to be remembered to all your officers and to Captain Hamelin.

Governor King.

(3) - Baudin's replies to Governor King:

The official reply:

Sir, The arrival of the Cumberland would have surprised me by reason of the contents of the letter you did me the honour of writing me, if Mr. Robbins, who commanded her, had not by his conduct made evident the real reason for despatching him so hurriedly; but perhaps he has come too late, as for several days before he hoisted his flag over our tents we had left in prominant parts of the island (which I still name after you) proofs of the period at which we visited it.

The story you have heard, and of which I suspect Mr. Kemp, Captain in the New South Wales Corps, to be the author, is without foundation; nor do I believe that the officers and naturalistes who are on board can have given cause for it by their conversation. But, in any case, you can rest well assured that if the French Government had ordered me to remain some days either in the north or south of Van Diemens land, discovered by Abel Tasman, I would have stopped there, without keeping my intention secret from you...

Jai l honneur d etre etc.,

N. Baudin.

The private reply:

I now write to you as Mr. King, my friend, for whom I shall always have a particular regard... To my way of thinking, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages or cannibals... it would be infinitely more glorious for your nation, as for mine, to mould for society the inhabitants of its own country over whom it has rights, rather than wishing to occupy itself with the improvement of those who are very far removed from it by beginning with seizing the soil which belongs to them and which saw their birth. These remarks are no doubt impolitic, but at least they are reasonable from the facts... not only have you to reproach yourself with an injustice in having seized their land, but also in having transported on to a soil where the crimes and diseases of Europeans were unknown...




1754 - Born February 19th.

1774 - Joined the French navy as a cadet

1785 - Captain of the Caroline taking settlers to New Orleans.

1786 - Promoted sub-lieutenant.

1792 - Seconded to the Archduke Francis of Austria and led a scientific expedition to the Indian Ocean.

1796 - Led a scientific voyage to the West Indies

1800 - Leaves France on an expedition to Australia (October 19th).

1802 - Met Matthew Flinders at Encounter Bay in April..

1803 - A decision is made to head back to France (July 7th).

1803 - Died on September 16th.


Links to more information:


Baudin, Nicolas Thomas (1754-1803)

Nicolas Baudin

Baudin's Voyage




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