From Chance to Destiny: Nicolas Baudin’s Lessons from the Meeting with Matthew Flinders in Encounter Bay (8-9 April 1802)
Professor John West-Sooby, Head, Department of French Studies, School of Humanities, The University of Adelaide
Tuesday 10 November 2015
2:00pm Room 210, Gordon Greenwood Building (32)
The 1802 encounter between Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders in the waters off Australia’s southern coast has become part of the national folklore ; it not only epitomizes the transcendence of colonial rivalries and the triumph of international co-operation but it also promotes, in retrospect, the vision of Australia as a site where cultural and nation-based differences could be set aside in the name of higher ideals. During that brief moment in history, as the two navigators jointly unravelled the last mysteries of the Australian coastline, they demonstrated that what united them—the quest for knowledge in the spirit of the Enlightenment—was stronger than the national interests that had the power to divide them. And yet, as appealing as it may be, this increasingly idealized image of the encounter runs the risk of masking some of its subtleties and complexities. A closer examination of the archival records reveals that the undercurrents to the encounter were not quite as cordial as appearances would suggest. Indeed, in contrast with the view that generally pertains today, the encounter was a source of great consternation, in particular for the French expeditioners, who fully understood the import of the meeting with Flinders and the serious repercussions it would have. This becomes evident if we examine closely a series of writings made by Baudin’s officers and scientists on the Géographe and the Naturaliste. While Baudin’s own comments are relatively well known, the journal entries of his companions provide fresh insights into the way in which this event was perceived by those who were obliged to live with its consequences. They also serve to highlight the role that this chance encounter would play in shaping the ultimate destiny of the French expedition.