The French Expedition Medals
The colonisation of Australia by the British ensured that its written history would be essentially Anglocentric, but history records that there were many other players who contributed significantly to the ‘discovery’ of this vast new continent.
The accounts of James Cook’s landing on the eastern seaboard of Australia in 1770 spurred on other sea-faring nations to send out expeditions to map the vast unknown southern seas more often with a hidden agenda of looking out for other lands to be claimed as colonies.
In 1785 King Louis XVI was central in the planning of the ill-fated La Perouse voyage and, mimicking the English King George III whose portrait appeared on the ‘Resolution and Adventure’ Medal struck in 1772 for Cook’s Second Voyage of Discovery, his portrait featured predominantly on the medal struck to commemorate the French expedition. La Perouse arrived in Botany Bay on the 26th January 1788 only days after the ‘First Fleet’ arrived to establish a beachhead and lay claim to the continent under the guise of a British Penal Colony.
The French explorer’s vessels were soon lost as was Louis’ head during the French Revolution but before the chop he asked his executioners if the vessels of the La Perouse expedition had been found. Apparently, it was on his mind until the very end, but the question of what mysterious fate befell La Perouse and his crew would go unanswered until 1828 when the French explorer d’Urville located the shipwrecked vessels at Vanikoro north of the New Hebrides.
One prospective crew member who was lucky to escape a watery grave was Napoleon Bonaparte who as a 16-year-old second lieutenant was knocked back when he put his hand up to join the La Perouse expedition. The fickle hand of fate had intervened in his destiny and just 15 years later he had risen meteorically to be the dictator of France as First Consul of the French First Republic.
The Roman Emperors had legitimised the breadth of their reigns by stamping their portraits on their coins and, so it was in keeping that the soon to be Emperor Napoleon’s Caesar-like portrait appeared on a medal struck in 1800 to commemorate the voyage of Captain Nicholas Baudin to the South Pacific. Napoleon had personally authorised the voyage and hand-picked Baudin who was tasked with mapping the West Coast of Australia and the largely uncharted Southern Coast, which is where in 1802 he ran into Matthew Flinders at Encounter Bay who was doing the same for the British.
Despite the tetchy relationship between the French and British, Baudin was welcomed at Sydney Cove when he called in to replenish supplies. This gave Baudin and his crew a chance to have a good look around and recent research has revealed that Francis Peron the zoologist on Baudin’s voyage wrote a secret report on a strategy to capture Sydney for the French.
It is highly likely the ambitious Napoleon had greater long-term plans than just conquering Europe but, if he had seriously contemplated invading far-flung Australia it was soon pushed to the back-burner as he focused his attention on taking on all-comers in Europe.
The French expedition medals coming up in Smalls Auctions Sale 67 capture both the adventure associated with these Voyages of Discovery and the political intrigue that promoted them.