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D’Entrecasteaux & Labillardière

Following preliminary forays by Louis de Bougainville, Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, and Louis de Saint Aloüarn, French botanical exploration of coastal New Holland occurred mainly during three scientific voyages of exploration by Jean-François de la Pérouse (1785–1788), Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1791–1794), and Nicolas Baudin (1800–1804) with their legacy of botanical collections and the French names given to coastal townships and landscape features.?Freycinet.

Bruni D’Entrecasteaux

When La Pérouse failed to return to France a second expedition was sent out in 1791 commanded by Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, again with two frigates, fiited out to carry 100 crew rather tthan the usual 60. His flagship was La Recherche accompanied by LEspérance commanded by Jean-Michel de Kermadec. As Deputy to Fleurieau D’Entrecasteaux was familiar with the routine of preparation and equipment needed for the La Pérouse expedition: he had also recently discovered a new route to China through the Maluccas. Fleurieu’s new instructions were similar to those he gave La Pérouse and included coastal survey of New Holland.Apart from discovering the fate of La Pérouse he was also expected to chart the unknown parts of the southern coast of New Holland.

Baron von Mueller
Portrait of Antoine Bruny D’Entrecasteaux (1739-1793)
Engraving of unknown date. From Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791-1793
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Jacques-Julien Labillardière & gardener Félix Delahaye

There was a team of 11 distinguished savants selected for the two vessels including a mineralogist, two hydrographers, two artists, two astronomers, four naturalists and a gardener-botanist. The naturalists were the botanist Jacques-Julien Labillardière, [1] Claude-Antoine Riche, Louis-August Deschamps, and Louis Ventenat. Hydrographer Charles-Francois Beautemps-Beaupré would produce some of the finest charts of the day that would last many years; astronomer Claude Bertrand was one of the first Frenchmen to fly a hot air balloon. There was also a gardener-botanist, Félix Delahaye. Botanist Labillardière had worked for two years in London spending some of this time studying the Banks and Solander botanical collections made on the Cook Endeavour and stored in Banks’s herbarium at his lodgings in Soho Square.

Delahaye was a student of Thouin’s from the Botany School at the Jardin du Roi (subsequently the Jardin des Plantes) who worked under André Thouin (head gardener at the Jardin du Roi and treasurer of the Société d’Histoire Naturelle, after whom Thouin Bay in Tasmania is named [put above]). He was officially instructed to plant European plants and also ensure that any indigenous peoples were aware of how to propagate and cultivate them: this was a gesture to the native peoples but also an insurance policy on food for future visiting ships. In return he was to gather any useful native plants to be later cultivated and propagated at Île de France (Mauritius) before transfer to the Caribbean colonies. Thouin also gave him personal instructions to study Latin, attempt to translate the works of Linnaeus, and to read and write in French.[2]

It was not until 1827 that Jules Dumont d’Urville found clear evidence that La Perouse was shipwrecked and the crew killed by natives at Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Group of islands in the Solomons).

Baron von Mueller

Jacques de Labillardière
Lithograph by Julien Leopold Boilly in 1821.
The original lithograph is in the Wellcome Library, London
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Outward journey

Leaving Brest in September 1791 the two ships put in first to Tenerife but by the time the ships had reached the Cape of Good Hope crew morale was at a low ebb; frustration had set in with the organization of the voyage, and tensions between royalists and republicans had already surfaced, leading to defections which included several of the scientists although botanist Labillardiere remained along with Riche and the artist Jean Piron. Before leaving the Cape on 16 Feb. 1792 D’Entrecasteaux certainly met Bligh who was en route on his second breadfruit expedition in the Providence and Assistance. but we do not know if he also met the 18-year-old Matthew Flinders who was in Bligh’s crew.[16]

Ships food was very basic consisting of salted beef or bacon, cheese, rice, dried peas and beans, and hardtack biscuit with wine and brandy.To allay scurvy there was malt, lemon, sauerkraut, sorrel conserve and a powder made from root vegetables.[15]

New Holland

From 1792–1793 the two ships circumnavigated New Holland, charting the south coast from Cape Leeuwin to the head of the Bight, and the south-east shores of Van Diemen’s Land which was visited twice, both before and after the circumnavigation. First port of call was Esperance with good collections by Labillardière, Riche, and Delahaye, then to Van Diemen’s Land and the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, eventually arriving at Recherche Bay (named after one of the vessels) in Van Diemen’s Land on 23 April 1792 where the ships with their 221 passengers and crew remained for about three weeks making repairs and replenishing supplies of wood and water, the naturalists mapping the area, making observations, collecting specimens and befriending the local Aboriginal people, the Lyluequonny. This was an ideal sheltered haven with good supplies of water and a rich flora, a Van Diemen’s Land Botany Bay that fulfilled d’Entrecasteaux’s hopes for the expedition:

‘It will be difficult to describe my feelings at the sight of this solitary harbour situated at the extremities of the globe, so perfectly enclosed that one feels separated from the rest of the universe. Everything is influenced by the wilderness of the rugged landscape. With each step, one encounters the beauties of unspoilt nature, with signs of decrepitude, trees reaching a very great height, and of corresponding diameter, are devoid of branches along the trunk, but crowned with an everlasting green foliage. Some of these trees seem as ancient as the world, and are so tightly interlaced that they are impenetrable.’

Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Recherche Bay, January 1793 [1]

Here Delahaye set up a vegetable garden (see horticulture). Labillardière was especially taken by the eucalypts especially the Blue Gum (a fascination later taken up by Ferdinand Mueller which earned him the sobriquet Blue Gum Mueller) and its straight trunk, wondering if it could be used for masts and if there was any commercial value of its highly aromatic bark, leaves and fruit. He had one cut down and with all the necessary parts he later, in 1800, named, described and illustrated the species Eucalyptus globulus which was to become Tasmania’s floral emblem. It was also found that Blue Gum planks were suitable for raising the gunwales of oared boats and he recommended its importation to France.[17] With a small party he spent several days exploring a little inland with finds of special note including Exocarpos cupressiforme, species of Epacris (including Epacris impressa, later to become Victoria’s floral emblem), the spectacular Blandfordia, and Diplarrhena moraea. These collections included type specimens (specimens from which the original description was made) of Blue Gum and Native Heath and also among the earliest and most detailed accounts of the Aboriginals. With such an abyssmal diet aboard ship, Labillardière’s recommended Apium prostratum, Sea Celery, be gathered in quantity and taken back to the ship as fresh ‘greens’, and later a plantain, possibly Plantago muelleri, was also eaten with ‘relish’.[3]</sup

After the first visit the ship had sailed north past New Caledonia where Delahaye exchanged seed with the Dutch Governor of Ambon.[4] From the Dutch East Indies the expedition headed for south-west New Holland landing at (now) Esperance Bay in December 1792 and then, with water running low, returned to the security of Recherche Bay (a haven later used for coal-mining, whaling and timber-milling for ship-building and even oysters for Hobart, and even London in the late 19th century) in Van Diemen’s Land on 20 January 1793 and, in their haste, missed the opportunity to discover the passage between Van Diemen’s land and the mainland.

Further collecting was done including an inland foray towards Mt La Pérouse and a few days in Adventure Bay, the ship eventually leaving for Tonga on 27 February 1793. The time of this and the earlier visit totaled about 7 weeks. The voyage then proceeded to Tongatapu (breadfruit) and New Caledonia.

In Storm Bay (Adventure Bay) Labillardiere noted that Bligh, who had been there more than a year before, had planted fruit and vegetables.

‘Bligh had with him two botanists, who at a small distance from the shore sowed cresses, some acorns, celery etc. We saw three young fig trees, two pomegranataes, and a quince planted by them, which had thriven very well [and an] inscription, which we found on a large neighbouring trunk …: ‘Near this tree, Captain William Bligh plnted seven fruit trees, 1792, Messrs S&W, botanists.’

Unfortunately the voyage was to end dismally when, after the death from tuberculosis in May of his second in command, Jean-Michel Kermadec, in New Caledonia, D’Entrecasteaux himself died of scurvy and dysentery in July on the way to Surabaya, the capital of eastern Java, which left Alexandre-Hermivy d’Auribeau in charge of the two vessels and Rossel second in command.

On arrival in the Dutch East Indies, with many of the crew suffering from scurvy, it was learned that France was now at war with not only Holland and Britain, but also Austria, Spain and Russia, the monarchy had been overthrown and a republic declared. Louis XVI had been guillotined on the day the expedition arrived at Recherche Bay for the second time, allegedly enquiring after the expedition as he was lead to the scaffold.

Ships’ crews were divided along Royalist and Republican lines, the officers mostly Royalists and the savants and crew Republicans and the news from home had brought the bickering to a head. Royalist d’Auribeau handed over the ships to the Dutch in Surabaya partly to keep them out of Republican hands but also in return for a passage to Europe and is payment for accrued debt. d’Auribeau himself died a month later. Here in Java the official record of the voyage ceased, the ships were handed over to Dutch authorities, and the mission was disbanded the Republicans, led by Labillardière, being taken prisoner by the Dutch authorities

Rossel, a Royalist, was later allowed to return to France with Labillardière’s collections from New Holland but the ship transporting them was captured by the English. So, when the French ships returned to France in 1794 it was without the botanical collections.

It was left to Rossel to produce an ‘official’ account of the voyage this being published in 1808 much later than that of Labillardière’s 1800 journal. Following a plea from Labillardière Banks graciously ensured the specimens, consisting of 36 trunks unloaded in England in November 1795, were returned to France unopened in 1796 with Banks writing ‘although the politics of the two nations are at war, science is at peace’, this being one of several examples of scientific cooperation at a time of political tension between the two countries.[5]

The expedition had landed in Esperance Bay via the Canary Iss, Cape of Good Hope, Tasmania, New Guinea and the East Indies, plans to chart the west coast being abandoned.


D’Entrecasteaux had gone eastward along the southern coast producing maps that were a great improvement on the Dutch charts made by Francois Thijssen about 200 years before, especially the Esperance and SE Van Diemen’s Land areas. He was also the first to circumnavigate Australia more than ten years before this was done by Matthew Flinders in 1803.

Botanically the D’Entrecasteaux voyage is remembered through the work of Labillardière,[6] [7] although the social, economic, and horticultural significance of Delahaye’s work should not be overlooked.

Labillardière was one of the foremost botanists of the day who accumulated one of the largest herbaria of the era of maritime exploration After his early education in France, Labillardière had lived in England for a year and a half studying exotic plants, meeting Joseph Banks, and maintaining a correspondence with the young James Smith at the Royal Society. He then he toured the Mediterranean, later publishing his botanical observations. After the D’Entrecasteaux expedition replicate specimens were sent to Banks, Jussieu, Brown and Smith. He recorded the visits to Tasmania and the south-west in his highly successful book Relation du Voyage à la Recherche de la Pèrouse… (1800) (?in two volumes) which quickly ran into two French editions, three English editions, one German and one Russian edition.[8] [9] It contained 13 plates of Australian plants by Redouté including those of Anigozanthos (Kangaroo Paw), Banksia and Correa.

Labillardière collected about 4,000 specimens in all, some used to illustrate his two-volume Novae Hollandiae plantarum specimen published between 1804 and 1807 and containing 265 new species together with 265 copper plate engravings of Australian species worked up from paintings by Nicholas Piron, Pierre-Joseph Redouté and one of Redouté’s pupils Pierre-Antoine Poiteau.[10] As the anticipated account of the voyage of the Endeavour was never completed this work has been described as ‘ … the first general flora of Australia.’[11] After Solander’s death in 1782 Labillardière travelled to London to study the Endeavour collections as well as Linnaeus’s herbarium which had been purchased by James Smith (who had just founded the Linnaean society) on Banks’s recommendation (see page).

Louis Ventenat records in his journal that during the 5-week stay in Recherche Bay the naturalists, especially Labillardière and Deschamps, had collected about 5,000 specimens consisting of about 100 species in 30 genera.[12] Among these were plants in the genera Eucalyptus, Correa, Exocarpos, Blandfordia, Eucryphia and among the Tasmanian botanical gems was the Earthstar fungus Aseroa rubra. A Tasmanian Herbarium analysis of collections made by the 1792-3 expedition suggests that 226 different plant species were collected from Southeastern Tasmania by Labillardière: 192 vascular plants (147 types), 3 bryophytes, 22 lichens, 8 seaweeds, and 1 fungus.[13]

Most of the drawings by the botanical artist Jean Piron were lost, only 15 engraved plates being included in Labillardiere’s publications. The collections from the trip filled 36 trunks and eventually arrived in England in November 1795 before being returned to France following Banks’s extended correspondence with the Professor of Botany at the Jardin des Plantes, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu.[14]

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