In 1798, Paris was glorifying two celebrities jointly: Bonaparte, who returned from Italy and was heading for Egypt; and Nicolas Baudin, a naturalist navigator who was coming back from America and would soon leave for distant Australia, which was still called New Holland. Their fame is such that the Directoire places their trophies together during the Freedom Day parade: works of art brought back from Italy by one, exotic trees brought back from America by the other. And yet, after leading the most prolific discovery expedition in the history of French expeditions, Baudin will be forgotten. His memory will even be methodically eradicated.
Nicolas Thomas Baudin was born on February 17, 1754 in Saint-Martin de Ré into a family of wealthy merchants. He is their fifth child. It is the sea that attracts him. He embarked on Nantes merchant ships belonging to a cousin of his mother, Jean Peltier. But although he was not a nobleman, he turned to the royal navy. In 1775, at the age of twenty-one, he joined the Pondicherry Regiment as a Cadet of colonial troops. He commanded the three hundred new recruits who were to be carried on the Flamand to the Île de France (now Mauritius, then French), and from there to Pondicherry, the main French trading post in India. His superiors are very satisfied with the young cadet. Shortly after his arrival at his destination in 1776, his colonel, Pierre Le Gardeur de Repentigny, recommended Baudin to the governor, Jean Law de Lauriston. The latter wrote to the Minister of the Navy, Sartine, to request the promotion of the young man to the rank of Second Lieutenant or Lieutenant. Sadly, despite all the assurances, nothing comes. Baudin’s first disappointment and first feeling of injustice.
He left India in 1777 and returned to France. To leave very quickly, this time to the west. The great adventure of American independence irresistibly attracted the cream of young French warriors, determined to avenge both on land and at sea the disaster of the Seven Years’ War lost by their fathers. Adventure with a big A. In 1778, Baudin was shipwrecked, wounded and captured by the British. Prisoner of war in Halifax, Canada, he escaped and reached Boston on foot. He embarked again, this time as captain of a small ship, the Amphitrite. That the English sink under his feet. He managed to return to Boston in a rowboat. And board again, Captain of the Revanche. The fighting goes on, and he is again captured off the coast of Saint-Domingue. In 1779, Baudin benefited from an exchange of prisoners. He was appointed to the staff of the Count of Grimouard on the Minerve, which brought him back to Rochefort in France.
His service earned him his commission as a merchant captain in 1780 and in 1781, he received a fine command: the Apollon, a 42-gun frigate belonging to Jean Peltier. His mission was to escort a merchant convoy to the Île de France. The radiant future does not survive in the leaded sky of Brest. During this first stopover, he was barely docked when Count d’Hector, commander of the port, withdrew his command from him and gave it to a certain Mr. de Saint-Hilaire.
This episode will mark Baudin’s mind with a red-hot iron. He cannot accept to being fired as a servant and replaced by a salon sailor with a particle. His future republican commitment, sincere, may have sprouted during the American War of Independence, as for many others; but its roots go deep into the soil of this episode. Baudin will now put merit (including his own) before privilege, whether by birth, status or fortune. To win his respect, it will not be enough to have taken the trouble to be well-born, one will have to prove one’s legitimacy. This partly explains the dreadful relations that would develop between him and most of the officers and scientists on his expedition to Australia.
Disgusted, Baudin resigned from the French royal navy and returned to the merchant navy on cousin Peltier’s ships. Trade with America occupies his time: Saint-Domingue, Baltimore, New Orleans. Since the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which swept France out of America, Louisiana has been divided between Spain and England. In July 1786, Nicolas took command of the Pepita in New Orleans, a ship flying the Spanish flag but belonging to French shipowners in Louisiana. He had to transport a cargo of wood, salted meat, salted cod and flour to the Île de France, future Mauritius. At that time, the shipowners’ fortunes were mainly ensured by the triangular trade and the slave trade. While in Saint-Domingue to repair some leaks on the Pepita, Baudin received the contract to take two hundred black slaves from Mozambique to the Caribbean on the way back.
New leaks in the hull of the Pepita forced Baudin to stop over in Cape Town in February 1787. This is where his destiny changes. In this Age of Enlightenment, while Rousseau quietly collected plants in the alpine pastures, all the great rulers of Europe sent their botanists and gardeners all over the world, explored or not, to collect exotic animals, plants and seeds. Kew Gardens in England, the Royal Botanical Garden which will become the Museum of Natural History during the Revolution in France, or the greenhouses of Schönbrunn Castle in Vienna rival each other fiercely in this prestigious competition. Franz Boos, botanist and chief gardener of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, is in Cape Town. He is due to travel to the Île de France to visit the famous royal garden of Pamplemousse, and to meet its director, the botanist Jean-Nicolas Céré. Baudin invited Boos aboard the Pepita, which reached Port-Louis (the island’s main port) on 27 March 1787.
The encounter with Boos, and the long conversations they probably exchanged during the journey, acted as a revelation for Baudin. He finds a deep curiosity and a very strong interest in the work of scientists. To the point that when Baudin left for Mozambique, leaving Boos in the Île de France to his complete happiness with Céré, he decided not to sail to Saint-Domingue. He returned to Port Louis to sell the slaves. Then he brings Boos and his collection back to Europe. The Austrian leaves his assistant Georg Scholl behind on the island, too ill to undertake the return journey. Baudin took advantage of the time left by the smooth sailing of the ship during the long weeks of the voyage to learn from the imperial gardener about botany, zoology, techniques for collecting, transporting and preserving live specimens. With success and profit. When the Pepita called in Trieste on June 18, 1788, the collections were in excellent condition and the trip was very lucrative. Baudin has discovered his way: naturalist navigator.
The emperor, delighted with the result of the Boos mission, rewarded Baudin by entrusting him with a trade mission in China. For this purpose, the Frenchman bought a ship in Trieste, which he named La Jardinière, and sailed. Unfortunately, while Baudin was carrying out his commercial operations and his naturalist collections ashore in southern China, his second officer lost the ship in the Pacific. Never mind, Baudin was carried as a passenger, with his collections, on another ship to the Île de France, where he bought another boat that he called La Jardinière again. This second of the name will not even leave the port. A cyclone destroyed it at anchor on December 15, 1789.
Nicolas Baudin, as we have understood, is not the kind of person who would let himself be beaten down for so little. It still took him a few months to find a new ship to bring him and his precious collections, over which he continued to take the greatest care, back to Europe. In August 1790, he found a passage on a Spanish ship that was to take him to Cadiz. But it was said that nothing would be simple. Damages forced the ship to stop in Trinidade (Brazil) in December 1790. This time, Baudin would not wait. He ensured that the naturalist collection remained on site in the best possible conditions, sailed for Martinique and from there to Europe.
In September 1791, he reached Vienna. The new emperor, Leopold II, proved to be as generous as his predecessor. He promoted Baudin to the rank of Captain in the Austrian Navy and entrusted him with the mission of picking up Georg Scholl, Boos’ assistant, still stuck in Cape Town, and the collection that went with him. Baudin prepared an itinerary that would lead him first to Australia, then to China, before taking the Austrian on the way back. He rushed to Genoa and bought a ship that he renamed… La Jardinière. He is not superstitious.
Yet he should be. When he weighed anchor in May 1792, France had just entered the war against Austria. Baudin is a patriot. He finds himself in a very unpleasant situation: he wears an enemy uniform on his back and commands a ship under a flag at war with the one to which he owes his loyalty first and foremost. He decides to join Malaga. There, through the French consul, he wrote to Paris to ask for his reintegration into the French navy. For a moment, things went wrong: each country considered him a traitor in the service of the other. However, the situation is calming down. In the name of science, Austria allows Baudin to pursue his mission, and France gives his blessing and the passports that go with it. Nicolas set sail on October 1, 1792. He passed Cape Town in April 1793, but two hurricanes blocked his way to Australia. He takes refuge in Bombay. From there and for two years, he travelled to China, the Far East and the Indian Ocean. He theoretically gathers a vast natural science collection. But it can be suspected that he is also involved in the slave trade. This is formally contrary to the status of a scientific expedition, however, and would automatically cancel his passports if it was to be discovered.
When Baudin finally headed back to Cape Town in 1795, La Jardinière ran aground. Poor Scholl is definitely out of luck. He did not come back to Austria until 1799 after fourteen years in Cape Town. He will be rewarded by becoming a court gardener at Belvedere. However, Vienna is convinced that the grounding of La Jardinière is voluntary, so that Baudin can land and sell a shipment of slaves clandestinely. It seems that the accident was unintentional, but in any case, the ties with Austria have been severed. Baudin comes home alone, through the United States.
As soon as he returned, he proved his patriotism by proposing to the Minister of the Navy a plan to disrupt British trade with India. This would involve sending French warships to patrol around St. Helena, the main water point on the way back between Cape Town and England. This plan was obviously rejected, as the revolutionary navy was not even in a position to leave the ports. But Baudin’s goal, to cover his former Austrian shoulder pads with a benevolent veil, has been achieved. He can then draw his real plan. In June 1796, he wrote to Jussieu, director of the Museum of Natural History, proposing that he set sail on an expedition to recover the Austrian collection he had left in Trinidade and to bring it back to France. He attaches the catalogue of the collection. Irresistible! First, it would considerably enrich the Museum’s reserves. If, in addition, it is possible to seize what is after all a precious possession of the enemy, then… The Jussieu agreement is immediate, closely followed by that of the Minister of the Navy.
On September 30, 1796, the Belle Angélique left Le Havre. Commissioned by Baudin, it includes on board the naturalist René Maugé, the botanist André-Pierre Ledru, the gardener Anselme Riedlé, the zoologist Stanislas Levillain. All four of them will be part of the expedition to Australia a few years later. So far so good. But two weeks later, the ship was hit by a storm of such strength that only Baudin’s qualities as a sailor and commander barely saved the Belle Angélique from being shipwrecked. He manages to bring her to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. But now she’s condemned. In accordance with his old habits, Baudin bought an American brig, which he renamed the Belle Angélique. One would think he would never learn. However, it should be remembered that the passports that protect the ship with the warring nations are issued in the name of the ship, not in the name of the commander. In 1803, Matthew Flinders was held prisoner by the French authorities in Mauritius for seven years for omitting this detail.
And sailed the brick, which reached Trinidade without a hitch in April 1797. To discover that the island is occupied by the English. The military authorities do not detain the French prisoners, in consideration of the neutrality passport issued by London. But they refuse to let them land, let alone take over the naturalist collection that is the object of the mission. Baudin is asked to leave as soon as possible. We will have understood it since the beginning of this story, it takes more than that to bring him down. He’ s refused to take over a ready-made collection? So be it! So he’s going to put together a new one himself, even richer. First, he called in the Dutch Virgin Islands, out of reach of the English, as a precaution. There he changes his ship. Because he considers his little two-mast brig too small for his ambitions. We can see that he has no intention of doing things halfway… as usual. He bought a three-masted 350-ton mast (almost twice as big), which he obviously renamed the Belle Angélique, and headed for Puerto Rico.
From July 1797 to April 1798, Baudin spent the most beautiful months of his life on the Spanish island. Certainly, he spends a lot of time and energy to gather the necessary subsidies to return to France. But above all, he accompanies the naturalists in their unceasing and ever richer collections. He himself carries out explorations in the interior of the island, the preparation of specimens, their installation on board, and the procedures to keep them alive on the way back. When the Belle Angélique reached Fécamp in France at the end of May 1798, the Museum’s scientists went into ecstasy. Their collections are almost doubled at once: 450 stuffed birds, 4,000 butterflies and insects, 7 cases of coral, crabs, sponges, all kinds of marine animals, 200 timber samples, 1 case of mineralogical samples, 4 cases of seeds from 400 different species, a herbarium of 8,000 dried plants from 900 different species, and above all 207 cases or barrels containing 800 living plants from 350 different species. Never seen before!
Then it’s glory! The Freedom Day parade. And a new project of a world tour with Australia in focus. But that’s another story, which you have to discover in my novel Terre Australe.