On an October morning in 1800 Captain Nicolas Baudin led his expedition out of the port at Le Havre, aiming for the southern seas.
Their journey would be harrowing and arduous, and Baudin’s wish, expressed in a toast before setting out, that all his crew would return to France to someday be in the same room together again, would certainly not come true: even Baudin himself would die on the way home.
His reputation would be somewhat disgraced the expedition’s return, despite the fact that it was one of the most successful voyages in the history of European science. Knowledge of marsupials and eucalypts would arrive in France to be disseminated throughout the continent.
And here on Maria Island, Nicolas Baudin would ask his anthropologist to prepare a report on the Tyereddeme, the Tasmanians who seasonally lived on the island. This man was François Auguste Péron. He was the son of a tailor who had given up his plan to join the priesthood fighting during the Revolution. Péron applied for the Baudin expedition after the demise of an unhappy romantic liaison. For an succinct idea of his character, see a description of him as “ambitious and bumptious”.
Péron was actually employed as a junior zoologist, but had aspirations to be an anthropologist. And with the other savants and scientists perishing throughout their time in the southern hemisphere, Péron received a series of promotions. With the other naturalists, he collected 100,000 specimens, but he did so in between stints of anthropological observation on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania.
The burgeoning science of anthropology was gathering momentum back in France, and these interactions between Europeans and Tasmanians were significant occasions. Under Baudin’s commission, Péron had eight days to make his observations, at the end of that year’s summer, which he would then turn into a paper for the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme. Péron was among the first scientists to do some research
Back in eighteenth-century France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – driven by cynicism about events in ‘civilisation’ (i.e., urban Europe) – had developed the theory that primitive societies were less corrupted, simpler and more egalitarian. Péron arrived in Australian waters with this view on the Aboriginal populace; this perspective would be metamorphosed throughout the journey, as across Europe, where the ‘noble savage’ would be “demystified” and become a scientific specimen itself.
The Frenchmen joined a dozen or so Tasmanians on the beach. Rapport was established, wrote Péron, by having two Frenchmen showing off their juggling. Péron began trying to construct a lexicon of the language spoken by the Tyereddeme. Given how little we know of this tongue, his comments are frustrating and tantalising. “It is impossible...to distinguish their pronunciation with any degree of precision: it is a sort of rolling sound, for which our European languages do not furnish any expression of comparison or analogy.”
Péron found the Tasmanians intelligent and good-natured. “Intermingled around the remains of their fire, we all seemed equally pleased with one another,” he reported.
The Tasmanians had often wanted to inspect the private parts of the Frenchmen, confused that they had no beards and seemingly no women with them. The youngest and most baby-faced of the sailors, one Citizen Michel, was persuaded to strip for the Tyereddeme. They were convinced. Michel “suddenly exhibited striking proof of his virility”.
In a poignant moment that may seem to us the only imaginable event of this incredible cross-cultural encounter, the ill-timed erection made everyone, black and white, fall to hysterical laughing there on that white-shored beach.
But Péron interpreted this with a hefty dose of ethnocentricism: he chose to believe that the Tyereddeme were impressed by the virility of the Frenchman, not in a condition to experience this as often as the French were. Likewise, based on his brief lexicographical survey, Péron reckoned the Tyereddeme had no words for kissing or caressing.
But everywhere in Tasmania the French had this bias, and one suspects the interest was not strictly scientific.
For example, Péron spent a spontaneous afternoon with a party of twenty female swimmers on Bruny Island. One young lady was particularly referenced in Péron’s journal: “Fifteen or sixteen years of age...pleasant features, with a round well formed bosom, though the nipples were rather too large and long.”
And the sailor Jacques Hamelin thought that two Tasmanian women he had met made “suggestive signs which in Paris would not be ambigious.”
But ambiguity was everywhere in these encounters, with both sides superstitious and bewildered by the other; thousands of years of cultural heritage separated Maria Island from Paris. Aboriginal flirtations surely looked somewhat different to those of the French. There was no field guide to any such interactions for either party. No wonder seemingly peaceful scenarios suddenly blew up into violence. There was no shared language or technology. All that these two cultures had in common was what they could see – but even these things, the ocean and the stars, wallabies and wattle trees, had different meanings.
We only European accounts of these early meetings between Tasmanian and European communities. Events were certainly perceived very differently. I truly hope, though, that the diarists are telling things accurately when they say that when a French sailor’s member stiffened in the sea breeze at Maria Island one February day in 1802, it provided a moment of unanimous intercultural comedy.
We can see clearly now that François Péron’s science was flawed by prejudice and ignorance. Two centuries from now, a future historian will likely look back on our views and scoff at how outdated we were. All we can do is to aim to be among the most curious and humble thinkers of our own age.