It was one of the most important voyages in history. When the Géographe and Naturaliste returned to France with their cargoes after four years at the bottom of the world, some of the most impressive specimens in natural science arrived in Europe for the first time.
At the helm was Captain Baudin. He was a passionate man, driven by his desire to chart the Terres Australes before his rival, the English prodigy Matthew Flinders. They had only the one confused meeting at Encounter Bay. Flinders’ navigation had been superior. Whereas Baudin had gone back and forth, and tried to in natural sciences with exploration, the Flinders expedition had run smoothly.
And aside from this, Baudin’s own men were against him. The roguish Freycinet brothers wryly tried to undermine the skipper’s authority; the petulant zoologist François Péron rewrote Baudin’s own diaries at the end of the expedition, and wrote the expedition’s account to paint Baudin in such unflattering light that Napoleon himself said: “Baudin did well to die; on his return I would have had him hanged.”
He had died instead of tuberculosis in Mauritius, only a short few months before the voyage concluded in France.
Péron’s own log takes note of the woman Baudin took as his companion for the latter part of the journey. She was a 17-year-old convict, believed to be a whore, named Mary Beckwith. What did she see of the world in those days? Sentenced to Sydney for simple theft, Mary’s life changed forever when she was surreptitiously spirited away by the French and taken for a ride across the seas. At first it was all adventure, around the coasts of Van Diemen's Land and South Australia; but after Baudin tried to dump her in Timor, she became renowned for drunkenness and for sleeping with numbers of the French sailors on the ship.
None of this did wonders for Baudin’s reputation.
Interestingly, it was Baudin’s chief rival who gives us our last piece of information on Mary Beckwith. Shortly after Baudin’s death, Flinders was imprisoned on Mauritius. One day, Baudin’s brother Augustin approached Flinders, apparently asking his advice “concerning the propriety of taking a young woman to India whom his brother had brought hither from Port Jackson”.
We don’t hear of Mary ever again. It seems likely that she did follow Augustin Baudin to the Tamil lands of India. We can only hope things turned out better for her there.
Tasmania has plenty of French nomenclature. Explorers Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Huon de Kermadec and Marion Dufresne are honoured. Biologists (Labillardière), astronomers (Bernier) and mineralogists (Hauy) are remembered in rocky formations, alongside Freycinet and Péron. Baudin has a small (and belatedly-bestowed) mountain named after him.
I would like to suggest that a memorial to Mary Beckwith would be fitting, should an opportunity present itself.
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