Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville (1790-1842) is the James Cook of France, his ship L’Astrolabe its Endeavour. Like Cook he sailed three times to the Pacific. He too died in a picturesque way. There are however some important differences. For example, Cook is the reserved Yorkshireman who let his achievements speak for themselves. Dumont by contrast never shuts up. Like the great painters and musicians of the period he is a romantic, suffering in an Admiral’s uniform.
His first voyage south was as second in command to Louis-Isidore Duperrey on the Coquille (1822-25), then in command of the Astrolabe (1826-29) and once again with the Astrolabe, now accompanied by the Zelee (1837-40). These voyages helped establish the French presence in the Pacific that continues today and are the zenith of French claiming, charting and collecting.
As well as searching for Laperouse and the South Magnetic Pole, Dumont’s expeditions were about collecting. The French had been hunting and gathering in the Pacific since Bougainville, and by the 1830s there is something of an old-fashioned quality about an expedition that shoots, preserves and then transports its specimens back home. The great storehouse of France’s scientific booty was the present-day, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle at the Jardin des Plantes. Here the returned flora and fauna was prepared for display in the museum or representation in the lavish publications that commemorated the expeditions. On the eve of the discovery of photography that would alter forever how we would view the natural world, this last job was the responsibility of a studio of scientific illustrators.
In an age that celebrated artistic ‘genius’, they were a decidedly unflamboyant group – biographically discreet, and rigorous in the depiction of fur or feathers. It was exacting work that had to fulfil long-standing aesthetic protocols, yet within these limitations, they were able to return the specimens gloriously to life.
Dumont d’Urville also assembled an impressive collection of Oceanic arts and crafts. On the expedition’s return to Toulon these were displayed to the public, one of the largest ‘exhibitions’ ever held of this material. The collection has had a restless subsequent history reflecting the changing manner it has been defined. Part of maritime history, ‘primitive’ art, ethnographic evidence. Soon it is on the move again, as evidence of ‘world civilisations’ at the Musee de Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower, to open in 2004.
When Napoleon died at St Helena in 1821 a plaster cast of his face was taken. From this in turn numerous copies were made; one is at The Briars Historical Park, Victoria. Death masks may seem ghoulish, but it was a common practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to record a famous personality at the moment their soul had left, and as late as 1875 Australian sculptor Achille Simonetti took a mould of the murdered naval officer Commodore James Goodenough.
With the huge interest in phrenology and the growing development of anthropology as a discipline, the scientific community adopted the taking of life-masks. A key figure in this development was Pierre Marie Alexandre Dumoutier (1797-1871) who joined Dumont’s third expedition to record the features of the different peoples that would be met with. Racial measuring is no longer carried out and Dumoutier’s studies proved essentially nothing. What we are left with however are astonishingly powerful portrait busts that, of the Tasmanians particularly, are among the most striking creations of the colonial era.
Being a frequent traveller to the Pacific, Dumont was a witness to its transition to a realm of missionaries, traders and flashy speculators. One of these was Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry (1793-1864). The son of emigres, he was the godson of the Comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s brother. In 1820 at Cambridge University he met some Maori chieftains, and two years later acquired from them 40,000 acres of New Zealand’s north island in exchange for thirty six axes. Flintlocks and powder may have been involved as well.
In pursuing this claim Baron de Thierry, into whom he had mysteriously transmuted, became the bane of Ministers and bureaucrats. As well as investigating sites for penal settlements, and harbours from which campaigns against the English could be launched, Dumont d’Urville was ordered to investigate de Thierry’s claims. Taking advice from missionaries at the Bay of Islands, and though the Baron’s godfather was now King Charles X, his conclusion was blunt: ‘the pretensions of this person are absolutely without foundation.’
‘I Captain Nemo have reached the South Pole, and I take possession of this part of the globe, equal to one-sixth of the known continents.’
‘In whose name, Captain?’
‘ In my own, sir!’
Saying which, Captain Nemo unfurled a black banner, bearing an N in gold quartered on its bunting. Then turning towards the orb of day, whose last rays lapped the horizon of the sea, he exclaimed:
‘Adieu sun and let a night of six months spread its shadows over my new domains!’1
Nemo’s flag reminds us of that other enigmatic figure, Napoleon, and while Dumont had ambiguous feelings towards the Emperor, in seeking to be the first Frenchman in Antarctica, he saw an opportunity for some Napoleonic glory.
France’s principal visual claim to Antarctica is an imposing painting by Louis Le Breton (1818-1866) depicting the ice-bound Astrolabe and Zelee. Here while the foreground is a mass of jovial activity, of making the best of circumstances, the theme of the painting is the fear of entrapment by a grinding, pitiless nature.
Le Breton had few prototypes for such a peculiar conception but close to home was Francois-Auguste Biard (1798-1882). Described by author Charles Baudelaire in 1846 as ‘the man of frigid follies’, he had acquired a large collection of Arctic artefacts, and exhibited at the Salon of 1841 the imposing Magdalena Bay … effet d’aurore boreale (Musee du Louvre) and maybe Vue de l’ocean glaciale (Chateau Musee, Dieppe).
Having claimed Antarctica, the French didn’t quite know what to do with it. They collected some rocks and protesting penguins, but the act was largely symbolic. It was an environment so uncompromisingly harsh, it was claiming for the fun of it – because they could.
After Antarctica, Dumont d’Urville once again encountered Baron Thierry. Equipped with ‘swords, epaulettes, gold lace, scarlet and blue cloth, firearms, plumes and a variety of other articles’, the Baron had made his way to New Zealand in 1837, where he intended to convert ‘an infant into a giant of enormous stature.’ The Baron now shrewdly represented himself as the ally of the Maori, opposing Protestant missionaries, and the depredations of the English. While the ship’s surgeon Guillou referred mockingly to ‘the King of the Marquesas Islands, the Emperor of the Archipelagos, this autocrat of Oceania, this potentate of New Zealand’,2 Dumont D’Urville who liked to think of himself as something of an embattled outsider, was sufficiently charmed to recognise his claims. Nevertheless he advised the Baron that ‘it was improbable that France should agree to break the good harmony that existed between it and England, on account of the complaints, although in part well-founded, of an adventurer.’3
On 8 May 1842, after celebrating the King’s birthday at Versailles, Dumont, his wife Adelie – after whom he had named France’s slice of the ice – and their son Jules boarded a new-fangled steam train for the return trip to Paris. Shortly afterwards it broke an axle and jumped the tracks. The carriages caught fire and more than fifty passengers died, including the Dumont d’Urvilles. The Admiral and his family had become a sacrifice to what would become a potent symbol of the modern world, and a technology that would in time make redundant the sailing Navy.
Another symbol of modern Paris was its recently-established cemeteries, where the tombs were laid out in avenues and streets, in an ironic simulacra of the city itself. He was buried at Montparnasse, where his friends at the Societe de Geographie erected a monument which commemorates his achievements in the faraway Pacific and Antarctica. The exhibition Lure of the Southern Seas: the voyages of Dumont d’Urville is on view at the Museum of Sydney, Bridge Street, Sydney until 27 April 2003.
Sue Hunt, Martin Terry & Nicholas Thomas, Lure of the Southern Seas: the voyages of Dumont d’Urville 1826-1840, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Sydney.
1 James Raeside, Sovereign Chief, a Biography of Baron Thierry, Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1977, p. 223.
2 Op.cit., p. 282.
3 Op.cit., p. 277.