― 40 ―

IV. The Voyage of Exploration.

KING LOUIS XVI of France was as unfortunate a monarch as was ever born to a throne. Had it been his happier lot to be the son of a farmer, a shopkeeper, or a merchant, he would have passed for an excellent man of business and a good, solid, sober, intelligent citizen. But he inherited with his crown a system of government too antiquated for the times, too repressive for the popular temper to endure, and was not statesman enough to remodel it to suit the requirements of his people. It was not his fault that he was not a great man; and a great man — a man of large grasp, wide vision, keen sympathies, and penetrating imagination — was needed in France if the social forces at work, the result of new ideas fermenting in the minds of men and impelling them, were to be directed towards wise and wholesome reform. Failing such direction, those forces burst through the restraints of law, custom, authority, loyalty and respect, and produced the most startling upheaval in modern history, the Great French Revolution. Louis lost both his crown and his head, the whole system of government was overturned, and the way was left open for the masterful mind and strong arm needed to restore discipline and order to the nation: Napoleon Bonaparte.

  ― 41 ―
Louis was very fond of literature. During the sad last months of his imprisonment, before the guillotine took his life, he read over 230 volumes. He especially liked books of travel and geography, and one of his favourite works was the Voyages of Cook. He had the volumes near him in the last phase of his existence. There is a pleasant drawing representing the King in his prison, with the little Dauphin seated on his knee, pointing out the countries and oceans on a large geographical globe; and he took a pride in having had prepared “for the education of Monsieur le Dauphin,” a History of the Exploration of the South Seas. It was published in Paris, in three small volumes, in 1791.

The study of Cook made a deep impression on the King's mind. Why, he asked himself, should not France share in the glory of discovering new lands, and penetrating untraversed seas? There was a large amount of exploratory work still to be done. English navigators were always busy sailing to unknown parts, but the entire world was by no means revealed yet. There were, particularly, big blank spaces at the bottom of the globe. That country called by the Dutch New Holland, the eastern part of which Cook had found — there was evidently much to be done there. What were the southern coasts like? Was it one big island-continent, or was it divided into two by a strait running south from the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria? Then there was that piece of country discovered by the Dutchman Tasman, and named Van Diemen's

  ― 42 ―
Land. Was it an island, or did it join on to New Holland? There were also many islands of the Pacific still to be explored and correctly charted, the map of Eastern Asia was imperfect, and the whole of the coastline of North-Western America was not accurately known.

The more Louis turned the matter over in his mind, the more he studied his globes, maps and books of voyages, the more convinced he was that France, as a maritime nation and a naval Power, ought to play an important part in this grand work of unveiling to mankind the full extent, form, nature and resources of our planet.

He sent for a man whose name the Australian reader should particularly note, because he had much to do with three important discovery voyages affecting our history. Charles Claret, Comte de Fleurieu, was the principal geographer in France. He was at this time director of ports and arsenals. He had throughout his life been a keen student of navigation, was a practical sailor, invented a marine chronometer which was a great improvement on clocks hitherto existing, devised a method of applying the metric system to the construction of marine charts, and wrote several works on his favourite subject. A large book of his on discoveries in Papua and the Solomon Islands is still of much importance.

As a French writer — an expert in this field of knowledge — has written of Fleurieu, “he it was who prepared nearly all the plans for naval operations

  ― 43 ―
during the war of 1778, and the instructions for the voyages of discovery — those of LapérouseLaperouse and Dentrecasteaux — for which Louis XVI had given general directions; and to whose wise and well-informed advice is due in large part the utility derived from them.” It was chiefly because of Fleurieu's knowledge of geography that the King chose him to be the tutor of the Dauphin; and in 1790 he became Minister of Marine.

Louis XVI and Fleurieu talked the subject over together; and the latter, at the King's command, drew up a long memorandum indicating the parts of the globe where an expedition of discovery might most profitably apply itself.

The King decided (1785) that a voyage should be undertaken; two ships of the navy, la Boussole and l'Astrolabe, were selected for the purpose; and, on the recommendation of the Marquis de Castries — remember Madame la Marquise! — LapérouseLaperouse was chosen for the command.

All three of the men who ordered, planned and executed the voyage, the King, the scholar, and the officer, were devoted students of the work and writings of Cook; and copies of his Voyages, in French and English, were placed in the library of navigation carried on board the ships for the edification of the officers and crews. Over and over again in the instructions prepared — several times on a page in some places — appear references to what Cook had done, and to what Cook had left to be done; showing that both King Louis and Fleurieu

  ― 44 ―
knew his voyages and charts, not merely as casual readers, but intimately. As for LapérouseLaperouse himself, his admiration of Cook has already been mentioned; here it may be added that when, before he sailed, Sir Joseph Banks presented him with two magnetic needles that had been used by Cook, he wrote that he “received them with feelings bordering almost upon religious veneration for the memory of that great and incomparable navigator.” So that, we see, the extent of our great sailor's influence is not to be measured even by his discoveries and the effect of his writings upon his own countrymen. He radiated a magnetic force which penetrated far; down to our own day it has by no means lost its stimulating energy.

In the picture gallery at the Palace of Versailles, there is an oil painting by Mansiau, a copy of which may be seen in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. It is called “Louis XVI giving instructions to Monsieur de LapérouseLaperouse for his voyage around the world.” An Australian statesman who saw it during a visit to Paris a few years ago, confessed publicly on his return to his own country that he gazed long upon it, and recognised it as being “of the deepest interest to Australians.” So indeed it is. A photograph of the picture is given here.

The instructions were of course prepared by Fleurieu: anyone familiar with his writings can see plenty of internal evidence of that. But Louis was not a little vain of his own geographical knowledge, and he gave a special audience to LapérouseLaperouse, explaining

  ― 45 ―
the instructions verbally before handing them to him in writing.

They are admirably clear instructions, indicating a full knowledge of the work of preceding navigators and of the parts of the earth where discovery needed to be pursued. Their defect was that they expected too much to be done on one voyage. Let us glance over them, devoting particular attention to the portions affecting Australasia.

The ships were directed to sail across the Atlantic and round Cape Horn, visiting certain specified places on the way. In the Pacific they were to visit Easter Island, Tahiti, the Society Islands, the Friendly and Navigator groups, and New Caledonia. “He will pass Endeavour Strait and in this passage will try to ascertain whether the land of Louisiade (the Louisiade Archipelago), be contiguous to that of New Guinea, and will reconnoitre all this part of the coast from Cape Deliverance to the Island of St. Barthelomew, east-northeast of Cape Walsh, of which at present we have a very imperfect knowledge. It is much to be wished that he may be able to examine the Gulf of Carpentaria.”

He was then to explore the western shores of New Holland. “He will run down the western coast and take a closer view of the southern, the greater part of which has never been visited, finishing his survey at Van Diemen's Land, at Adventure Bay or Prince Frederick Henry's, whence he will make sail for Cook's Strait, and anchor in Queen

  ― 46 ―
Charlotte's Sound, in that Strait, between the two islands which constitute New Zealand.”

That direction is especially important, because if LapérouseLaperouse had not perished, but had lived to carry out his programme, it is evident that he would have forestalled the later discoveries of Bass and Flinders in southern Australia. What a vast difference to the later course of history that might have made!

After leaving New Zealand he was to cross the Pacific to the north-west coast of America. The programme included explorations in the China Sea, at the Philippines, the Moluccas and Timor, and contemplated a return to France in July or August, 1789, after a voyage of about three years.

But although his course was mapped out in such detail, discretion was left to LapérouseLaperouse to vary it if he thought fit. “All the calculations of which a sketch is given here must be governed by the circumstances of the voyage, the condition of the crews, ships and provisions, the events that may occur in the expedition and accidents which it is impossible to foresee. His Majesty, therefore, relying on the experience and judgment of the sieur de LapérouseLaperouse, authorises him to make any deviation that he may deem necessary, in unforeseen cases, pursuing, however, as far as possible, the plan traced out, and conforming to the directions given in the other parts of the present instructions.”

A separate set of instructions had regard to observations to be made by LapérouseLaperouse upon the political conditions, possibilities of commerce, and

  ― 47 ―
suitability for settlement, of the lands visited by him. In the Pacific, he was to inquire “whether the cattle, fowls, and other animals which Captain Cook left on some of the islands have bred.” He was to examine attentively “the north and west coasts of New Holland, and particularly that part of the coast which, being situated in the torrid zone, may enjoy some of the productions peculiar to countries in similar latitudes.” In New Zealand he was to ascertain “whether the English have formed or entertain the project of forming any settlement on these islands; and if he should hear that they have actually formed a settlement, he will endeavour to repair thither in order to learn the condition, strength and object of the settlement.”

It is singular that the instructions contain no reference to Botany Bay. It was the visit paid by LapérouseLaperouse to this port that brought him into touch with Australian history. Yet his call there was made purely in the exercise of his discretion. He was not directed to pay any attention to eastern Australia. When he sailed the French Government knew nothing of the contemplated settlement of New South Wales by the British; and he only heard of it in the course of his voyage. Indeed, it is amazing how little was known of Australia at the time. “We have nothing authentic or sufficiently minute respecting this part of the largest island on the globe,” said the instructions concerning the northern and western coasts; but there was not a word about the eastern shores.

  ― 48 ―
The reader who reflects upon the facts set forth in this chapter will realise that the French Revolution, surprising as the statement may seem, affected Australian history in a remarkable way. If Louis XVI had not been dethroned and beheaded, but had remained King of France, there cannot be any doubt that he would have persisted in the investigation of the South Seas. He was deeply interested in the subject, very well informed about it, and ambitious that his country should be a great maritime and colonising Power. But the Revolution slew Louis, plunged France in long and disastrous wars, and brought Napoleon to the front. The whole course of history was diverted. It was as if a great river had been turned into a fresh channel.

If the navigator of the French King had discovered southern Australia, and settlement had followed, it is not to be supposed that Great Britain would have opposed the plans of France; for Australia then was not the Australia that we know, and England had very little use even for the bit she secured. Unthinking people might suppose that the French Revolution meant very little to us. Indeed, unthinking people are very apt to suppose that we can go our own way without regarding what takes place elsewhere. They do not realise that the world is one, and that the policies of nations interact upon each other. In point of fact, the Revolution meant a great deal to Australia. This country is, indeed, an island far from Europe, but the threads of her history are entwined with those of European

  ― 49 ―
history in a very curious and often intricate fashion. The French Revolution and the era of Napoleon, if we understand their consequences, really concern us quite as much as, say, the gold discoveries and the accomplishment of Federation.