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Nicolas Thomas Baudin (1754–1803)

by Leslie R. Marchant and J. H. Reynolds

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Louis-Claude Desaulses de Freycinet

Nicolas Baudin, by Picturesque Atlas Publishing Co., 1888

Nicolas Baudin, by Picturesque Atlas Publishing Co., 1888

National Library of Australia, 40729932

Nicolas Thomas Baudin (1754-1803) and Louis-Claude Desaulses De Freycinet (1779-1842) worked together as cartographic surveyors and naturalists. Baudin was born on 19 February 1754 at St-Pierre-de-Ré, France. After service in the mercantile marine, he joined the navy as a cadet in 1774 and in 1786 was promoted sub-lieutenant. Freycinet was born on 7 August 1779 at Montélimar, Drôme, and joined the navy in 1793.

Baudin was seconded to the Archduke Francis of Austria, and in 1792 took charge of a scientific expedition to the Indian Ocean to collect plants and specimens for the palace of enlightenment at Schönbrunn. In 1796 he made a similar scientific voyage to the West Indies, where he collected material for museums in Paris.

Owing to these achievements Baudin was selected to lead an expedition to complete the French cartographic survey of the coast of Australia and conduct other scientific investigations there. He received his instructions on 24 April 1800 and sailed on 19 October. He had two ships, Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste (Captain Hamelin); with him were a number of scientists, including the naturalist François Péron, and the cartographer-surveyor Freycinet, who sailed in Le Naturaliste.

The ships took six months to reach Mauritius, where because of shipboard quarrels, illness and poor conditions 46 sailors and 10 'experts' abandoned the party. Baudin sailed on 25 April, sighted Cape Leeuwin on 27 May and anchored in Geographe Bay three days later. There they made descriptions of animal and plant life, but then the two vessels lost touch with each other. Contrary to his instructions, Baudin in Le Géographe sailed north and, after a cursory examination of the coast as far as Cape Levêque, he reached Timor on 21 August hoping to refresh his crew. Next month Le Naturaliste joined him there after having explored the coast as far as Shark Bay much more thoroughly.

On 13 November the two ships departed and Baudin planned to carry out his original orders to survey the southern coast in the first instance. They arrived off Van Diemen's Land on 13 January 1802 and surveyed around D'Entrecasteaux Channel for more than a month before sailing north towards Banks Strait. Off the east coast they were separated again. Baudin made a rough survey of the coast westward from Wilson's Promontory, giving French names to what he called Terre Napoléon and in April met Matthew Flinders in Encounter Bay. Thence he decided to go to Sydney for provisions and medical attention for his crew; but he sailed round the south of Van Diemen's Land and did not arrive there until 20 June when only four of his men were really fit for service. Meanwhile Hamelin had investigated Port Dalrymple and Westernport before making for Sydney, which he reached on 24 April. After refitting he had sailed for France, but was driven back by bad weather and on his return to Port Jackson he found Baudin there.

While in Sydney the French were hospitably entertained, despite a quarrel with Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp. Baudin sent Le Naturaliste to Europe with the results of his voyage, then bought from Governor Philip Gidley King the 20-ton schooner Casuarina and put Freycinet in command of her. On 18 November they started again on their survey. After a brief contretemps on King Island, where because of King's suspicions of the French motives the British flag was hoisted under Baudin's nose, the expedition sailed westward once more. They repeated some work already done by Flinders, but Freycinet's charting of the coast northward from Cape Northumberland and around Kangaroo Island was excellent. Left with scanty provisions in his small craft, on 1 February Freycinet had to rendezvous with his commander in King George Sound. They then proceeded along the west coast of Australia to Timor, whence after a brief excursion on the north-west Australian coast Baudin sailed for Mauritius, where he died on 16 September 1803. Freycinet left the Casuarina at Mauritius and reached Lorient on 25 March 1804.

Freycinet was then employed by the navy on hydrographic and chart work, and after the death of Péron he was invited to complete the history of the Baudin expedition. When he published his complete atlas in 1812 he followed Péron, whose first volume had appeared in 1807, first in virtually ignoring Baudin, and second in designating the whole coast west of Wilson's Promontory as 'Terre Napoléon' and assigning French names to its principal features, which he repeated in the second volume of his narrative in 1816. However, Flinders' Voyage and Atlas had been published in 1814, and in a second edition of Freycinet's Atlas in 1824 the Napoleonic nomenclature disappeared, save for that on the south-east coast of South Australia which the Frenchman had been the first to survey. The charge that Freycinet had plagiarized Flinders' charts is certainly unfounded, for he was a thoroughly capable cartographer, but the detention of Flinders at Mauritius had enabled Péron and Freycinet to publish their accounts of Baudin's expedition first.

Baudin's expedition was undoubtedly scientific, not political, in purpose. In addition to gathering much information on the known parts of the Australian coast, the scientists had gathered and partly classified a basic collection of specimens, and their descriptions destroyed William Dampier's myth that Australia's western coast was all barren. Their reports on south-west Australia were sufficiently favourable to bring later French explorers such as Dumont d'Urville in their wake, and to lead the restored Bourbons to consider Western Australia as a site for a French convict colony.

Baudin was a man who made hasty decisions and, although affable, he could not inspire his juniors. The antagonism of Péron and Freycinet derived from personal differences, but was increased by the hostility between sailor and scientist which had also affected Bruni d'Entrecasteaux's voyage of exploration. Baudin was a sick man and therefore not suited to lead an arduous expedition, and his scientific team was unmanageable, but his last voyage never received the credit due to it and his journal remains unpublished.

After the Restoration the French government gave Freycinet, then a captain, command of another expedition to circumnavigate the globe and conduct research into the shape of the earth, meteorology and terrestrial magnetism. He sailed from Toulon on 17 September 1817 in L'Uranie with his wife Rose who secreted herself aboard, and who wrote a separate account of the voyage. After refreshing at the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius he landed at Shark Bay on 12 September 1818 where he set up an observatory, thoroughly surveyed the inlets and the coastal districts and removed the plate left by Willem de Vlamingh, which he had found and re-erected in 1801. He then sailed north to Timor. His accounts and description of the landscape and life and customs of that and other islands in the East Indies captivated the attention of people in Europe much more than his Australian reports, and a widespread interest developed in the expedition. Leaving Timor on 27 November he sailed via the Moluccas, the Carolines, the Marianas, and the Sandwich Islands and reached Port Jackson on 19 November 1819, the scientists on board adding constantly to their store of information on hydrography, botany, cartography and anthropology. After spending Christmas ashore, they sailed on 26 December and, falling in with the westerlies, set a course for Cape Horn.

On 13 February 1820 L'Uranie was wrecked on the Falkland Islands; the scientific records and notes were saved before the vessel foundered, but 2500 of the 4175 plant specimens were lost. Freycinet returned to France in November 1820 and died on 18 August 1842.

There is no evidence in the expedition's records or French governmental archives to suggest that there were political objectives in this circumnavigation but, though its purpose was to engage in scientific discovery, this first major voyage undertaken by the restored Bourbons did show the French flag in distant seas and foreshadowed a series of other expeditions which were not wholly scientific.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Péron and L. Freycinet, Voyage de Decouvertes aux Terres Australes: Execute par Ordre de sa Majeste, l’Empereur et Roi, sur les Corvettes le Geographe, le Naturaliste et la Goelette le Casuarina, Pendant les Annees 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804, vols 1-2 (Paris, 1807-16)
  • A. P. Ledru, Voyage aux Iles de Ténériffe (Paris, 1810)
  • L. Freycinet, Mémoire sur la Géographie et la Navigation de l'Ile de France (Paris, 1811)
  • J. Arago, Narrative of a Voyage Round the World in the Uranie and Physicienne, Corvettes Commanded by Captain Freycinet (Lond, 1823)
  • L. Freycinet, Voyage Autour du Monde, Entrepris par Ordre du Roi ... Exécué sur les Corvettes de S. M. l'Uranie et la Physicienne Pendant les Annees 1817, 1818, 1819 et 1820: Historique, vols 1-2 (Paris, 1825)
  • E. Scott, Terre Napoléon (Lond, 1910)
  • Dictionnaire de Biographie Française, vol 5 (Paris, 1951)
  • M. Bassett, Realms and Islands: The World Voyage of Rose de Freycinet (Lond, 1962)
  • C. Cornell, Questions Relating to Nicolas Baudin's Australian Expedition, 1800-1804 (Adel, 1965)
  • A. W. Jose, ‘Nicolas Baudin’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 20, part 4, 1934, pp 337-96
  • W. B. Alexander, ‘History of Zoology in Western Australia: Part II, 1791-1829’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Western Australia, vol 1, 1914-15, pp 83-149.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Leslie R. Marchant and J. H. Reynolds, 'Baudin, Nicolas Thomas (1754–1803)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Nicolas Baudin, by Picturesque Atlas Publishing Co., 1888

Nicolas Baudin, by Picturesque Atlas Publishing Co., 1888

National Library of Australia, 40729932

Life Summary [details]


19 February, 1754
St Pierre-de-Ré, France


16 September, 1803 (aged 49)

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