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Oceania - The Voyages of Joseph-Antoine Raymond de Bruny d'Entrecasteaux

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The mission of French admiral, Joseph-Antoine Raymond de Bruny d'Entrecasteaux, was primarily to lead a search for fellow Frenchman Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse, who had vanished after departing Botany Bay on 10th March, 1788. It was sadly a mission doomed to failure.

Chosen by Louis XVI, the crew included botanists, hydrographers, astronomers, artists, a gardener and Louis Girardin, a mysterious steward. The secondary purpose of d'Entrecasteaux's mission was to fill in a number of cartographical gaps in the maps of New Holland (Australia). Two store ships had been refurbished with cabins and storage holes for the long journey. The Recherche, complete with above deck windmill for grinding wheat, was under the command of d'Entrecasteaux, and the Esperance,  which was placed under the command of Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec.

Just weeks into the voyage, as the expedition rounded the Cape of Good Hope, d'Entrecasteaux received word that natives had been sighted off the Admiralty Islands near New Guinea wearing French naval uniforms presumably taken from the stricken La Perouse.

d'Entrecasteaux from Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791-1793.

Although sceptical, d'Entrecasteaux agreed to investigate and shortly after the expedition struck the notorious Roaring Forties. For almost a month, the brutal waves battered their timber hulls until, with his ships badly damaged and his crew dangerously short of fresh water, d'Entrecasteaux headed due east towards the sanctuary of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).

Recherche Bay, Tasmania.

When d'Entrecasteaux arrived on 23rd of April, 1792, Van Diemen's Land was officially just a squiggle of coast, its circumnavigation still six years away. To the north, New Holland's southeast corner remained uncharted and the mystery of whether an ocean separated Van Diemen's Land from the mainland was still unsolved. Sadly, such other decisions that determined fate for if d'Entrecasteaux's ships had continued along Australia's south coast as planned, the French would have discovered the uncharted coastline of South Australia and Victoria ten years earlier than Matthew Flinders.

This was the first of two extraordinary visits that d'Entrecasteaux made to what is now known as Recherche Bay. It was here that the weary crew discovered not only pristine water and some of the world's strongest timber, they also entered an Eden previously unknown to Europeans. It was d'Entrecasteaux who enthused about the tall trees, fish in abundance, while flocks of parrots, swans, ducks, pelicans, eagles, partridges and crows provided wild games to roast over their fires.

The enforced five-week gave the scientists a chance to explore the new world. Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardiere, one of two botanists on board, carefully plucked specimens to be documented by the ship's artists, Nicholas Piron. Among the 5,000 plants, which included at least 100 new species, was the first blue gum eucalyptus. The expedition gardener Felix Delahaye - later to become Empress Josephine's head gardener at Malmaison - laid out the first European vegetable garden in Tasmania. Unfortunately, it was too late in autumn for the plants to prosper.

The astronomers were similarly disappointed. A unique opportunity to observe the satellite of Jupiter cross the southern sky was scuppered by delays in setting up complex viewing equipment. By contrast, however, the hydrographers were spectacularly successful, recording landmark observations of the earth's magnetic fields that would transform navigation.

Within this band of intellectuals was the ship's steward, Louis Girargin. Louis Girargin was, in fact, a 38 year old woman, Marie Louise Victoire Girargin. It is known that both d'Entrecasteaux and Kermadec not only knew of this deception but appeared to encourage it. Little is known about Louise but it is believed that she was the daughter of the head gardener at the Royal Court of Versailles who was forced out of France after shaming her father by having an illegitimate child. According to the diary notes of the crew, she was allocated a special cabin and was allowed pretty much to keep to herself. She was keen to maintain her masculine disguise and defended her masculinity by challenging a fellow crewman to a sword fight during which she suffered a gash to the arm. It appears that Louise Girargin was the first European woman to duel on Australian soil and certainly she was the first white woman to touch Tasmania twelve years before European settlement at Hobart Town. She later became the lover of a sub-lieutenant on the Recherche and sadly the pair died of dysentery a day apart in late 1794.

Despite spending more than a month at anchor during their first visit to Recherche Bay, the expedition did not encounter aboriginal Tasmanians - the Palawa people - although their presence was clear. The crew did find a small hut, water bags made of dry seaweed and intricate baskets woven with strips of bark. D'Entrecasteaux was intrigued by the lack of weapons assuming that they lived in peace.

The search for La Perouse continued along the east coast of Australia, through the islands of Indonesia and down the west coast of Australia,  d'Entrecasteaux was again thwarted by a lack of water in his attempt to navigate the southern coastline. Knowing they were certain to find fresh water at Recherche Bay, he anchored there for a second time on the 20th January, 1793, for another five weeks layover.

It was during this time that d'Entrecasteaux made contact with the Palawa people who came forward with confidence emboldened by the familiarity of vessels that have returned to their land. D'Entrecasteaux felt that if he stayed at port a little longer, he would have had a real opportunity of obtaining a very interesting insight on the lifestyle of human beings so close to nature, whose candour and kindness contrasted so much with the vices of civilization.

However the ocean beckoned and the expedition hauled anchor early on the 27th February, 1793. Within six months,  d'Entrecasteaux was dead from scurvy. The remaining crew arrived in Indonesia in October to learn that their country was at war and that Louis XVI had been beheaded the day after their return to Recherche Bay. Without the stabilizing influence of d'Entrecasteaux, the expedition divided among royalist and republican lines, falling into disarray. By the end of the year, the ships were seized by the colonial Dutch and sold. Although the expedition failed to locate La Perouse, who was, in fact, already dead, its scientific and cartographic work paved the way for explorers such as Baudin and Flinders to further investigate the mysteries of the far south.

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