Wednesday, April 23, 2008

French in early Tasmania

Today according to Australian Eastern Standard Time when this item was posted
1792 Australia: While on an expedition to find Captain Jean François De La Pérouse, who had vanished after departing Botany Bay on March 10, 1788, French admiral, Joseph-Antoine Raymond de Bruni d'Entrecasteaux (1739 - '93) and crew set foot on Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania).

The mission was also fitted out with scientific instruments, and accompanied by a selection of some of France's finest scientists, and was in fact the largest and best-equipped scientific expedition dispatched from France in the 18th Century. Aboard were botanists, hydrographers, astronomers, artists – even a gardener, who left his mark on the island, one still visible today.

Two landfalls were made on the Tasmanian coast at Recherche Bay – in April 1792, for 26 days, and again in January, 1793, for 24 days. Records show that the French and Australians enjoyed each other's company in very respectful ways, which was not altogether usual in the annals of European colonization. The French entertained the locals with music, including the performance of excerpts from a popular opera of the day.

At Recherche Bay, the expedition gardener, Felix Delahaye, built the first European vegetable garden in Tasmania, and left it in the hope that it would not only be a possible food source for future French expeditions, but that it would also introduce European horticulture to the indigenous people. However, on the expedition's return the following January, it was found that the garden of chicory, cabbages, sorrel, radishes, cress and potatoes had become overgrown ...

He was a she
In the ship's company was a steward, Louis Girardin, aged about 38, who was in fact a woman disguised as a man – the first European woman in Tasmania. Her name was Marie-Louise Victoire Girardin, and it is believed that both D'Entrecasteaux and his second in command were well aware of her deception, but turned a blind eye to it, as she had her own separate cabin.

It has been said that Girardin might have been the daughter of the head gardener at The Royal Court of Versailles, forced to leave France after the birth of an illegitimate child. 'Louis' tended to keep her own company, and on one occasion had a duel with another sailor, possibly over some imputation of her ruse, but we have no records of the cause. Marie Louise later became the lover of a sub-lieutenant on the Recherche and both died of dysentery a day apart in late 1794.

Postscript: Did D'Entrecasteaux ever find La Pérouse? No, he didn't. The fate of the French captain is not exactly known, but a reconstruction of events may be found in Wikipedia. As King Louis XVI mounted the scaffold of the guillotine on January 21, 1793, he asked, "Is there any news of La Pérouse?" Or, so it is said.

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