Baudin in South Australia, 3

At the weekend we saw an exhibition about Baudin’s voyage at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide. After that, and some more reading, I have a conjectured answer to my question about why Baudin named so many features of the coast after mathematicians.

In brief, my conjecture is: he didn’t!

Baudin died in Île de France (Mauritius) in 1803, on the way home from his expedition. He died of tuberculosis: this is not a disease which normally strikes you down quickly, so I guess he must have been ill during the voyage, which makes his achievement all the more striking, as well as perhaps explaining his gloominess in various parts of his journal.

Baudin kept, not only a ship’s log, but also a “fair copy” book which includes illustrations by two artists (whom he had brought along as gunners) of things seen on the voyage. (This amazing book was in the exhibition; unfortunately it was in a glass case and we were not allowed to turn the pages.) However, after his death, publication of the account and charts of the voyage was taken over by François Péron, and after his death in 1810, by Louis Freycinet. Péron was the zoologist on the expedition, and Freycinet captained one of the ships in the latter part of the expedition. Both men disliked Baudin, and wrote him out of the story; his name is only mentioned once in Péron’s account. Pages were torn out of Baudin’s book to illustrate their account.

They also made wholesale changes to the names Baudin gave to his discoveries. I told in my previous post on Baudin of his misadventure in the gulf now named St Vincent. He wrote,

I gave this gulf the name of Golfe de la Mauvaise because of the fatigue it caused the whole crew.

In a brown-nosing gesture of stunning brazenness, Péron called it Golfe de Josephine on his chart, and the other (larger) gulf Golfe de Bonaparte; he named this whole tract of country Terre Napoléon.

The exhibition had numerous examples of charts from Baudin’s voyage where names had been deleted and replaced (in another hand) by different names.

Péron’s was the first complete map of Australia to be published. Flinders, on his way home from his circumnavigation, stopped in Mauritius, where he was placed under house arrest by the governor and held there for six and a half years. (So much for “Les savants n’ont aucun ennemi chez un peuple libre.”) Baudin’s log and fair copy book have only just been published in French, having appeared slightly earlier in English translation.

Péron further irritated the English by preparing a secret report on the military defences of Sydney, to encourage a French attack on the colony. In fact most of his information was readily available, and in the event Napoleon declined to attack New South Wales, preferring to plan to invade England instead. Moreover, Flinders’ detention in Mauritius backfired. During his time there, he learned much about the island’s defences, which he passed (possibly under duress) to the British authorities, who proceeded to attack and capture the island.

So what about the imaginary capes Fermat and Monge, on the Coorong?

As I explained last time, Baudin passed quickly along this stretch of coast, seeing only sandhills and heavy surf. He saw that the waves were breaking far from the shore, and inferred that the sea was shallow; so he kept his distance. My guess is that he inferred the presence of small capes from high ground behind the sandhills, but did not name them. Péron and Freycinet, who explain in several places that features were named after eminent savants, may have seen these projections on Baudin’s chart and decided to name them when they prepared their own.

So has Baudin’s name been completely eliminated from the coastline he charted?

Not completely. In Guichen Bay, the following is recorded in his log for 17 Germinal, Year 10 (7 April 1802):

At half past nine coasting the land a league off, I had the lead heaved. I thought we might be in 15 fathoms at that distance, but we found only 10. Had the depth not decreased to 8 and even 6 fathoms, we would have held our course without there being any sign of so sudden a diminution. But in bearing away to head further out to sea, we were quite amazed to see a rock at water-level which we had not noticed until then and which even the look-out men had not sighted. In order to double it, we were obliged to steer South-West with no noticeable increase in the depth. This rock (over which the sea breaks strongly) is surrounded by reefs and appears to be joined to the mainland by a chain of rocks which leaves no hope of a passage, even though the channel is more than a league across. To the North of the rock lie two smaller ones and a reef running North-North-West. We passed this danger at a distance of 1 1/2 leagues in 15 fathoms, rounding it on its western side. Future navigators would be wise to be on their guard against it on account of its distance from the mainland.

When he met Flinders in Encounter Bay a few days later, he told Flinders about this rock. When Flinders reached it, he named it Baudin’s Rocks. Subsequently it was officially re-named Godfrey’s Island, but locals still call it by the name Flinders gave it. (My host Margaret Emery, who spent much of her childhood at Mt Benson, knew it only as Baudin’s Rocks. She once tried to reach it in a small boat, but was unable to land.)

You can just see Baudin’s rocks in this picture.

Baudin's Rocks


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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