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Did Pretty Shells Cost Them a Continent?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 13, 2012

Citizen Baudin

In 1800, two French ships re-named the Géographe and the Naturaliste set out from Le Havre, France, under the command of Capt. Nicolas Baudin, with 23 scientists aboard in addition to crew.  They were bound for the unknown coast of Australia.  The British, fearing that the French had colonial ambitions there, soon sent out a rival expedition under the command of Matthew Flinders.

Baudin’s expedition sent home a spectacular assortment of species, including 144 new birds, surveyed parts of the coast of Australia, and eventually made peaceful contact with Flinders in what is now Encounter Bay.  But his company bickered childishly, according to Encountering Terra Australis, a history of the rival voyages.  In the past, such voyages had been under the command of aristocrats, and old attitudes persisted after the French Revolution.  Baudin’s naval officers were indignant about serving under a captain of humble social background.

The scientists meanwhile squabbled about access to resources and about getting proper credit for

Peron

their work. At one point, zoologist François Péron presented himself to Baudin dripping with blood, from a fight with the ship’s surgeon over which of them should get the “glory” of dissecting a shark.  Péron lost and whined that the surgeon had stolen the shark’s heart.  Not content to be merely a zoologist, Péron also played at being a spy, making a crude survey of British defenses at Port Jackson (now Sydney) and urging French authorities to destroy the colony as a way of snuffing out British imperial ambitions in Australia.

Citizen Baudin didn’t suffer from the common tendency of naval officers to regard scientists as a nuisance (though in this case it would have been understandable); he was a naturalist himself.  But instead of capitalizing on their good fortune, one naturalist complained that Baudin “would prefer to discover a new mollusk than a new landmass.” And at Encounter Bay, a disgruntled French officer told the British “if we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching butterflies at Van Diemen’s Land [now Tasmania], you would not have discovered the south coast before us.”

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Find out more in chapter three of The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.

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