Australian politics, society & culture


Matthew Flinders & Nicolas Baudin

September 2013Short read

When peace briefly erupted between England and France in March 1802, Matthew Flinders was sailing east along the “Unknown Coast” of southern Australia in the sloop HMS Investigator, making maps. He was 28 years old, lithe in build, commanding in presence, bright-eyed, alert to the welfare of his crew and intensely competitive.

It was five months since the Investigator had sighted another ship and when, in the late afternoon of 8 April, the man aloft spotted a sail, a feeling of excitement swept the ship. A French discovery expedition was believed to be somewhere in southern waters, protected by a safe-conduct pass but until the identity and intentions of the approaching corvette were known, Flinders took no chances. He ran up the Union Jack and cleared for action.

La Geographie was sailing west, charting the Victorian coast and collecting scientific specimens. She’d become separated from her companion, Le Naturaliste, and her crew were piteous with scurvy. Her commander, Nicolas Baudin, showed a white flag and invited Captain “Flandaire” to come aboard.

Baudin was 20 years older than Flinders, a navigator of note who had won fame for his botanical expeditions in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Bagged by his social superiors as a mere butterfly chaser, he was sent by Napoleon to explore the coasts of New Holland – and collect interesting souvenirs for Josephine. He was affable, uninspiring and not a well man.

Flinders did not speak French and Baudin’s English was very bad. Even with the Investigator’s naturalist translating, misunderstandings flew thick and fast. Baudin was somewhat starstruck, enthusiastic to the point of excitement. Flinders was formal and reserved. Once in Baudin’s cabin, he immediately asked to see the Frenchman’s safe-conduct pass and offered his own for inspection. Baudin showed his but didn’t even glance at Flinders’. When the conversation turned to the two men’s voyages, Baudin criticised the English map of Bass Strait, a chart Flinders had drawn up. Flinders concluded that Baudin had got his name wrong and didn’t know who he was. He offered to provide a copy of a rectified chart if Baudin cared to remain in the vicinity overnight.

At six the next morning, Flinders rowed back to La Geographie with the promised map. He also recommended Kangaroo Island as a good spot for a feed. The two parted cordially, one sailing west, the other south, and never met again.

Although he named nothing after himself, Matthew Flinders has become an island, a mountain range, at least four statues, a university, a national park, several streets and a girls’ secondary college. Nicolas Baudin should not be confused with boudin, which is a species of sausage.

About the author Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.