Cross-dressing stowaways, inadvertent world records, and clandestine agents working for Napoleon. The French quarter of colonised Australia was wild.



Let me take you back, one more time, to Sydney in 1819. It was the morning of November 19 when Rose de Freycinet woke up to a sight that delighted her. “Imagine my astonishment to find myself quite close to a town, and a town whose houses were built in European style! It is eighteen months since I saw anything of the sort, and it was a very great pleasure to me.” In front of her was Sydney, a city her husband Louis had visited 16 years before. It had been “a village” then, nothing like the bustling place they were looking at now from the deck of their ship. L’Uranie was anchored at Neutral Bay, the place where all foreign vessels were required to moor. Especially French ones, because although the Napoleonic wars between France and England had ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, neither country really trusted the other. Even scientific expeditions needed to keep their distance—although that didn’t stop the port captain from providing the visitors with the first fresh food they had had for months. “Fruit, newly laid eggs and fresh milk regaled us most agreeably,” Rose wrote gratefully in her journal, and there were even letters from home.

Those letters were important, because Rose had done something completely illegal and even two years later the ripples were still being felt. In 1817, when L’Uranie was about to set sail for a three-year trip around the world, Rose cut her hair, changed into men’s clothes and became a stowaway. It was absolutely forbidden for women to join their husbands on their expeditions, and the fact that a 22-year old girl had flouted naval ordinances had scandalised the French. She had made the Minister for the Navy and the Commander of the port of Toulon look like idiots, and for months the newspapers wrote of little else than this example of misguided “conjugal devotion”.

Even King Louis XVIII had had something to say about it, remarking, slightly amused and with some disdain for women, that he did not expect this type of behaviour to be followed by many others, seeing the dangers and inconveniences of a trip like that.

This was not the first time the French had been here. It wasn’t even the first time they had taken a female stowaway. In 1766, the first proper exploratory trip to what would become Australia started. At the helm was Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a contemporary and admirer of James Cook, who went straight from fighting in the first real global war, the Seven Year War, to the command of Boudeuse and Etoile. And back again, in a way, because the moment his trip was over, de Bougainville was shipped off to the next conflict, some local stoush called the American Revolutionary War. But before he did, his expedition, which lasted from 1766 until 1769, was the first successful French attempt to circumnavigate the world. As far as the Austral lands (as they were called then) were concerned, de Bougainville got really close. He hit what we now know as the Great Barrier Reef in 1768, but couldn’t get through and so didn’t find the continent. There were two interesting things about the expedition by de Bougainville, though. First of all, it had a crew member who would become very important to Australia: Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse. And a valet called Jean Baret, who turned out to be Jeanne Baret, de Bougainville’s 26-year old mistress. Jeanne went on the whole of the trip and so became the first woman to circumnavigate the world. And a great example to Rose de Freycinet.

Three years after de Bougainville came back to France, the country sent out two expeditions. The first one was captained by Marc Joseph Marion-Dufresne, who had been given the job to return Ahutoru, a resident of Tahiti de Bougainville had brought to France. Dufresne had always wanted to go, and this was a good excuse. Luckily, he was also engaged to explore the South Pacific and find Terra Australis. In the end, he did neither. Ahutoru died of smallpox just outside of Mauritius, which made Dufresne turn to Australia earlier than he had intended. He must have sailed a bit too much to the south, because although he didn’t find the mainland, he did bump into Tasmania, where he spent a few days. That made him the first European to spend time on the island, and also the first to come across Aboriginal people on a country apparently an empty Terra Nullius. After Tasmania, Dufresne set sail to New Zealand, where he repaired his ships and started bonding with the Maori. He and his crew were fortunate, because Ahutoru had taught them some of the local vernacular, and the chief, Te Kauri, welcomed them into the Bay of Islands as important guests. Unfortunately, over the next few weeks, relationships deteriorated and in the end, Dufresne and a large part of his crew were killed and eaten and many Maori slaughtered too.


Rose had done something completely illegal and even two years later the ripples were still being felt. In 1817, when L’Uranie was about to set sail for a three-year trip around the world, Rose cut her hair, changed into men’s clothes and became a stowaway. It was absolutely forbidden for women to join their husbands on their expeditions, and the fact that a 22-year old girl had flouted naval ordinances had scandalised the French.


A few years later, just before Arthur Phillip set sail with the First Fleet, Laperouse left France, with the aim to complete the discoveries of Cook, correct and complete maps of the area, establish trade contracts, open new maritime routes and enrich French science. Of course, there was political and economic competition between the British and the French, but scientists were less inspired by rivalry. So, Joseph Banks gave Laperouse two compasses that had belonged to Cook and all manner of advice for the trip. One young man who applied to become a member of its crew was a 16-year old called Napoleon Bonaparte, who unfortunately lost out. Imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t! The expedition called in at Chile, Hawaii, Alaska, California, East Asia, Japan, Russia, the South Pacific and Australia, arriving at Port Jackson on January 24, 1788, five days after the First Fleet. By this time, it was already a British colony, but the British let them set up an observatory and vegetable garden. Laperouse left in March, with his stowaway Peter Paris, never to be seen again. The first rescue mission was by Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, who was sent out to find Laperouse in 1791. He explored the coast, especially Tasmania, but found very little, least of all Laperouse.

The d’Entrecasteux expedition was the last French trip of the eighteenth century. Things were complicated again. The young boy who hadn’t managed to get onboard Laperouse’s ship was ravaging Europe with the Napoleonic Wars and the British were very suspicious of French outings that came anywhere close to their colony. So when Napoleon gave his consent to an expedition in 1800, the British thought its captain, Nicolas Baudin, was out to take over the country. For Australia, the Baudin expedition is really the most important one. It is also the one we know most about, because almost everybody on board kept a journal. Baudin, with first officers Emmanuel Hamelin and Rose’s future husband Louis de Freycinet, started at Shark Bay, where they spent more than two months—exploring, mapping and naming what they encountered, after themselves and their friends and patrons, of course. De Freycinet also discovered the plate left by Willem de Vlamingh, which Hamelin had re-nailed to a new post, adding a lead plate recording the Baudin visit. The expedition consisted of two ships, the Géographe and the Naturaliste, which became separated after they visited Tasmania in 1802.

Hamelin, captaining Naturaliste, decided to go to Port Jackson, because most of his crew was suffering from scurvy and he needed fresh water and supplies. Baudin, in the meantime, went west, meeting Matthew Flinders at Encounter Bay while Hamelin was surveying the coast of Victoria on his way to Sydney. The two ships met again there, spending six months recuperating under the good care of Governor Philip Gidley King. Before Baudin went back to France, he bought a new ship, Casuarina, which was better able to do inshore survey work. He sent Hamelin and Naturaliste back home, with the 100,000 specimens the expedition had collected. Amongst those were 2,500 newly discovered species, some of them, especially the fish, preserved in wine, because Baudin was afraid that “people will have difficulty in believing that the seas can contain living animals with a form as strange and extraordinary as those which we have met”. With de Freycinet now captaining Casuarina and himself at the helm of Géographe, Baudin then set sail to Mauritius, where he died not long after arrival. Matthew Flinders had already foreseen this outcome, when he wrote after the meeting at Encounter Bay that “it was grievous to see the miserable condition to which both officers and men were reduced by scurvy, there being not more out of one hundred and seventy than twelve men capable of doing their duty”.

There was a lot of conjuncture at the time (and even now) that the Baudin expedition was really an undercover mission, to see if it would be possible for Napoleon to invade and take over NSW.

Nicolas Baudin has a shaky reputation in history, and part of that was because he was not very good at social graces. He was born what was then called a commoner and had joined the French East India Company because he was ambitious and this seemed the right way to move up in the world. He fought in the American War of Independence and then set up a ferry service with his brother, transporting cargo and settlers to and from New Orleans. From there, he hired himself out to the Austrians, exploring the world for them, and then to Napoleon, who was eager to broaden France’s influence (and territory) in the world. There were a few issues Baudin had to deal with during his expedition. The first one was that, only a few years after the French Revolution, tempers were often fraying on board. Normal sailors were mostly in favour of political events back home, while officers were either not so sure or dead against. In a small space like a ship, this regularly led to problems. The second concern was that there were also differences of opinion between Baudin and some of his officers on the way the world was organised. Baudin believed, like Cook and Banks before him, that people were the same anywhere, just in different stages of development. The younger scientists, the early ethnographers, didn’t see sameness, but difference: race, especially. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but on a scientific expedition, worldview and ideology, and the way they shape what you see, are incredibly important. Another shipboard problem was that Baudin had some people working for him who really, really didn’t like him. Louis de Freycinet was one of them. He thought his boss was a miserable sod without any organisational qualities, while Baudin once wrote in his journal that he gave de Freycinet “a scolding I hope he will never forget for the good of the service as for himself”. Another Baudin-hater was the resident naturalist and painter, François Péron, who fought with his commander on a regular basis and wrote in his own journal that he thought Baudin was crazy.

It has to be said that there are also more serious reasons for Baudin’s bad press. There was a lot of conjuncture at the time (and even now) that the Baudin expedition was really an undercover mission, to see if it would be possible for Napoleon to invade and take over NSW. Especially de Freycinet and Peron are now considered “spies for a future landing of troops”. Author Nicolas Rothwell once called Peron “James Bond in the Cow Pastures”, a kind of fevered amateur detective, who was busy writing a “blueprint for invasion and take-over”. This is why Peron, Rothwell said, meticulously described everything and anybody in the colony. From his lovely room in James Larra’s pub, he painted Sydney as a “fresh, well-ordered haven”. A busy port, with a bustling shipyard, a network of new roads that actually led somewhere, grain stores, beautiful houses with exquisite furniture, brickworks, windmills, barracks, a printing office: “a completely new and perfect society”, misrepresented “to reinforce support for his invasion scheme”. This is why, Rothwell said, Peron was so eager to highlight successes, especially in terms of the rehabilitation of the convicts. He thought they possessed a “kind of superiority of the free men” and that they were “extremely honest and prudent”. Perfect material for a future French country, really.

In 1819, Rose’s expedition stayed for about a month, looking around, and liking what they saw. But on Christmas morning they had to go, and Rose, for one, “was extremely sad to be leaving”. There was one last Catholic service on board, attended by a lot of Catholics (often Irish) who lived in the colony without a priest to minister to them. There were presents too: local animals, like kangaroos and emus, who died en masse when the ship entered colder climes, and some of John Macarthur’s prize merinos, who “disappeared” along the way. Surprisingly, there were also almost a dozen stowaways on board, runaway convicts, mostly Irish, who had been desperate to leave. Louis was not amused and “was at first undecided what I should do with them. I was not at all anxious to keep such unwelcome guests with me, all the more because, not being sailors, most of them would be no use to us; but on the other hand we were already far from the port, and the wind was too unfavourable to let me think of returning there. This last consideration decided me to keep them.” It was an eventful end to an eventful stay—one the colony would remember for quite for some. Macquarie, who had described Rose to his boss as “a very genteel amiable woman” was given his marching orders by Bathurst not long after. L’Uranie was shipwrecked on its way home, but both Rose and Louis de Freycinet survived. Rose died in 1832, nursing Louis, who had been struck with cholera. Her husband “languished”, as one of his friends said, until 1842, and then succumbed to a heart attack. Jacques Arago was equally heartbroken when “this brave lady, taken from her friends and from all her admirers at such an early age” died. “In return for so much inconvenience, for facing so many dangers, for such deprivation, what recompense did she receive?” he rhetorically asked. “What glory was hers?” I think Rose, and most of her critics and admirers, would have disagreed.



For this story I have used the following sources:

A Woman of Courage: The Journal of Rose de Freycinet on her Voyage Around the World 1817-1820—Marc Serge Rivière (Canberra, National Library of Australia, 2003)

Realms and Islands: The World Voyage of Rose de Freycinet in the Corvette Uranie 1817-1820: From her Journal and Letters and the Reports of Louis de Saulces de Freycinet, Capitaine de Corvette—Marnie Bassett (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1962)

French Navigators and the Discovery of Australia—Anne-Marie Nisbet (Sydney, UNSW Press, 1985)

Australian Dictionary of Biography—Baudin, Nicolas Thomas (1754–1803)

Terre Napoleon. Australia through French Eyes, 1800-1804—Paul Carter and Susan Hunt (Sydney, Historic Houses Trust and Bloomings Books, 1999)

The Great Race—David Hill (North Sydney, William Heinemann, 2012)

The Australian—Francois Peron’s French Lessons in the Colonisation of Australia



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