Field of Science

Kangaroos and geologists: The first geological exploration of Australia

It was one of the most ambitious scientific expeditions of all times, the "Geographe" and "Naturaliste" were intended to explore the geology, botany, zoology and anthropology of the distant and largely unknown continent of Hollandia Nova, sometimes referred also as the mythical Terres Australes - today known as Australia.
Despite the discoveries of various previously unknown species, profound insights of the geological past and even a glimpse of evolution, the expedition under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin today is almost forgotten.

In the year 1606 the Dutchman Willem Janszoon, captain sailing for the powerfull Dutch East India Company landed as first European on the Australian continent; however he and following sailors in the next 30 years assumed that they had discovered an ulterior part of the island of New Guinea. In 1642 the Dutchman Abel Tasman begun the search for the mythical southern continent, the "Terra Australis", and circumnavigated the Australian continent until arriving to the Van-Diemen´s-Land, island that later (1853) would bear his name and is known today as Tasmania.
From 1750 to 1800 French and English expeditions begun to explore the Indian - and the Pacific Ocean, in 1770 captain James Cook mapped the easte
rn coast of Australia and take possession of the land for the British Empire.
The French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte hoped to conquer some colonies in over sea, and so in 1800 approved a plan for an expedit
ion to the distant continent of Australia.

In the morning of the 19. October 1800 two ships - the "G
eographe" and the "Naturaliste" - left the harbour of Le Havre behind, for an expedition that would lead them to the opposite face of the globe.
On board were, under the commandment of Captain Nicolas Baudin (1754-1803), 22 naturalists, 5 zoologists, 3 botanists, geographers, astronomers, artists, gardeners and 2 mineralogists - Louis Depuch (1774-1
803) and Charles Bailly (1777-1844), 218 members of the marine and 11 stowaways. In the last moment also the young zoologist, and trained palaeontologist, Francois Auguste Peron (1775-1810), student of the great Cuvier in Paris, joined the expedition.
The geological observations made by Depuch, who will die in the last part of the voyage, are known from various reports to Baudin, Bailly will publish some notes after
his return to France and Peron includes in the official report of the expedition observations of the geologists and other naturalists. Two other young men, official unskilled worker, were invited by Baudin to illustrate the logbook - Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit, both will became later the most skilled artists for animals and plants of the time.

During the long voyage Peron and Lesueur became friends and especially interested in the jellyfishes of the Atlantic Ocean - the drawings m
ade by Lesueur of the discovered specimens will much later even inspire the artwork of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel.

Lesueur´s depiction of jellyfishes for the "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes", published in Paris 1808-1811 (figures from here), Image of introduction Macropus fuliginosus (Western grey kangaroo) also by Lesueur.

In March 1801 the ships reached the Ile de France, the moder
n island of Mauritius, and lost 10 naturalists - they decided to abandon the expedition and remain on the island. The expedition nevertheless continued and in April the two ships left behind Mauritius, on 27. May 1801 the bare land of Cape Leeuwin, Australia, was in sight.

Fig.3. The route of the expedition by Baudin, in the background Louis de Freycinet´s (1779-1842) "Carte générale de la Nouvelle Hollande", published in 1811 as part of the results of the 1800-1804 expedition (map from here and here, modified).

The first naturalists went on land in the Wonnerup Inlet, and begun avidly collect specimens of animals and samples of rocks.
A storm forced the men t
o remain on land, only after several days they finally were able to reach their ships, but during the attempt one man died. The storm separated the two ships, which proceeded with the expedition independently to the island of Timor, a Dutch colony, where the majority of the crew fell ill by Malaria and other tropical diseases.
Nevertheless still the expedition continued, and in November 1801 t
hey reached Tasmania, where they remained for three months.
Peron and Lesueur studied, collected and draw the new and unknown fauna and flora, and also the indigen
ous people which they encountered in the second part of the voyage. Again the two ships lost each another.
The "Geographe" on 8. April 1802 encountered the British vessel "Investigator" under the command of Matthew Flinders. The expediti
on of the "Investigator" will map large part of the southern coast of Australia during the years 1801-1803, and prove that Australia is one large continent, not two islands separated by a strait, as some geographers (and Napoleon) assumed previously. This were bad news, the lack of a strait meant that the British Empire could claim an entire continent for it's own.

The "Geographe" continued their scientific exploration, until reaching on 20. June 1802 Port
Jackson, the modern Sydney, soon followed by the "Naturaliste". The expedition had collected until then more than 40.000 specimens - so it was decided that the "Naturaliste" would turn back to France with a part of the collection; the "Geographe" would proceed to study the southern coast of Australia.
On Kang
aroo Island Baudin caugth, appropriately, a dozen of living kangaroos and some emus, and stored them in the carbines of the crew. The animals soon became sea sick and the majority of them died before the end of the expedition; the surviving specimens were intended as a gift to the garden of the French queen Josephine.

With Baudins expedition the first academic naturalists an
d geologists explored Australia - a continent which geology was completely unknown to Europeans.
The expedition's geologist, Louis Depuch and Charles Bailly, followed a four-fold scheme of rock classification, developed in Europe, and taught by the famous French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu. They recognised primary rocks, such as granite; secondary rocks, such as stratified sandstone and limestone; alluvium; and local volcanic rocks, such as basalts. The French geologists' recording of these four categories of rocks in Australia confirmed their world-wide distribution, an important step to establish general valid categories in geology. Together with the zoologist François Péron, who also carried out geological investigations, the French geologists were the first to establish the presence of a chain of highlands along the eastern coast of the Australian continent.

Peron noted also on the western coast o
f Australia horizontal bedded sand- and limestone (today referred as Tamala-Limestone and considered an aeolian sediment of the Pleistocene), and concluded, based on similarities in the content of lime and sand, that these sediments were deposited on the beach, and later cemented by calcareous substances (an early insight on diagenesis of sedimentary rocks). However he misidentified larger calcareous concretions as single pebbles, and denominated layers with such nodules as "breccias".
Peron assumed from the position of the single layers above the ocean a change of the sea level during geological time - the sediment was explainable by deposition of sand and consequent retreat of the sea. An important observation at a time when worldwide sea level changes were necessary to sustain the Neptunism-geology, where all rocks form by crystallisation from water and so in the past must have been covered by the sea. Peron wrote:

"One of the greatest achievements of modern geology research and also one of its most indisputable, is the certain knowledge that, in the past, the level of the sea was higher than at the present time. At almost all places in the old and the new world is the proo
f of this phenomenon as numerous as it is evident. Only in les Terres australes was this still to be ascertained as, by virtue of its immense areal estent, it could have proved to be an important exception to the universality of the former domination of the ocean over the land."

Fig.4. Lesueur´s and Petit´s depiction of Van-Diemen´s-Land for the "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes". The granitic rocks found on the island of Tasmania convinced Peron and the other geologists that the most ancient - the primary - rock was Granite, forming the basement of the continents - in accordance to the geological view of Neptunism.

During the expedition the naturalists and the crew faced many danger, however in part injuries or dead were a result of negligence by members of the expedition.

In Shark Bay Peron and other naturalists went on land to collect seashells, ignoring the orders of Captain Baudin, and soon were lost in the desert. Only two days later they were accidentally found and saved. Baudin confined the rebellious zoologist on the ship.
Peron never forgot, as he saw it, this affront, and later, in the official report of the expedition did not name once the captain of the expedition, and if he mention him he inculpated him to be to careless.
However during the entire expedition only 32 men died, 13% of the crew, a surprisingly low percentage considering the period.
Capitan Baudin tried to proceed until th
e gulf of Carpentaria, following his orders, but soon diseases spread on the ship and the fresh water supply became low, Baudin decided to turn back. Soon after Capitan Baudin died of fever on the island of Timor victim as many others of the dangers and deprivations on these expeditions.

In 1804 the "Geographe" sailed into the harbour of Le Havre, however there were no official welcome or celebration, as three years earlier - the ongoing war between French and England now was more important.
The expedition was the most successful until these times, 220.000 samples of animals, plants and rocks collected, and 73 living animals, 3 kangaroos, 2 emus and 3 wombats - the first of their kind to be seen in Europe - brought back.

Fig.5. The original hand coloured copper engraving of this Short -legged Emu (now extinct) on Kangaroo Island was engraved by F. Lambert after paintings and drawings by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur for the "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes".

However the achievements of Baudins expedition will be forgotten until the 20the century - why?
One cause was the dead of some of the most important naturalists during the expedition, one of the geologists and the chief-botanist, also Baudin was dead - there was simply nobody of high reputation left to care about the results of the voyage.
A second cause was the lack of support from the authorities. The expedition of the "Investigator " had reassured the predominance of the British Empire in Austr
alia, Baudins expedition therefore was considered by politicians a failure, Napoleon and the government showed little interest in financing further work, like the publication of the results or payment for the surviving naturalist, weak and ill from three years of dangers and deprivations.
Peron can publish the official report and an atlas containg some plates of the travel only in 1807, after hard work and a long struggle for the money, entitled "Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes", and dies just three years later in 1810, before the completion of the second volume, published posthumous by the geographer Freycinet.

There was still a possibility for the Baudin´s collection to earn some fame, but again something went wrong.
The collection of molluscs and sea shells brought back from the expedition influenced the work of an important French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck.
Peron had discovered on the coasts of Tasmania a bivalve with a peculiar triangular shape - Trigonia antarctica - and recognized the similarities of this living species with fossil species known until then only from the Tertiary sediments of the basin of Paris and assumed extinct.

Fig.6. Specimen of Trigonia sp. from lower Cretaceous sediments of Bavaria (Germany). Below: One of the many fossil species of Trigonia found commonly in some of the older Secondary formations, as illustrated by Bruguiere for the Encyclopedie Methodique (1797) (after RUDWICK 2005).

In 1804 Lamarck published the discovery; this example seemed to support his idea that species are not fixed entities but change over time.
Unfortunately Lamarck mixed detailed natural observations with wild speculations, he saw correctly that there are differences of organisms through time, however he could not explain why there should be a change beside to a final cause or mysterious force and his explanations were later regarded by Darwin as "useless".
If Lamarck had recognized that there is no distant final cause to reach for an organism - a good example were the many "primitive" mammals of Australia - but only the survival now, he maybe would have discovered the most important theory in biology 50 years earlier then Darwin.
C'est la vie...


GLAUBRECHT, M. & MERMET, G. (2007): Josephines Emu oder Die Geschichte einer vergessenen Expedition. GEO Nr.6/2007: 98-122

MAYER, W. (2008): Early geological investigations of the Pleistocene Tamala Limestone, Western Australia. from GRAPES, R.H.; OLDROYD, D. & GRIGELIS, A. (eds) History of Geomorphology and Quaternary Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 301: 279-293
MAYER, W. (2009): The Geological Work of the Baudin Expedition in Australia (1801-1803): The Mineralogists, the Discoveries and the Legacy. Earth Sciences History Vol.28 (2): 293-324
RUDWICK, M.J.S. (2005): Bursting the limits of time - The reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution.The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London: 708

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