Reconstruction of the Encounter Between Baudin and Flinders from an original painting by John Ford F.A.S.M.A.
The encounter between The British captain, Matthew Flinders and the French captain, Nicolas Baudin was not planned …
They set out on voyages of discovery just over 200 years ago, when France and Britain had been at war for almost a decade.
There was fierce competition between these two nations, both hoping to claim as their own territory the land then known as New Holland or Terra Australis (Terre Australis to the French).
Matthew Flinders left Portsmouth in July 1801 aboard the ‘Investigator’, and Nicolas Baudin departed from Le Havre in October 1800 with two ships, Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste.
Although the two countries were at war, both men were issued with passports by the opposing government. These passports indicated that the voyages were for scientific and geographical studies only, not for spying. These documents exempted them from attack on the high seas, that is, they were accorded ‘Freedom of the Seas’.
The purposes of both expeditions were exploration, mapping of the new lands, their coastlines, and claiming land for their respective countries.
Until then maps of the continent were incomplete and it was believed that New Holland (in the west) may have been a separate land from the colony of New South Wales (in the east). It was thought that an inland sea, running from north to south, divided these two land masses.
Flinders sailed from the western side of the continent, mapping and naming the coastline and, having followed both Spencer and St Vincent’s Gulfs to their upper limits, is credited for determining that the land was one body with no inland sea.
Baudin sailed from the east, having completed the coastal navigation of Van Diemen’s Land, and then mapped the southern coast of what is now Victoria.
On April 8, 1802, Flinders’ and Baudin’s ships crossed paths in what is now known as Encounter Bay, some six miles off shore. The two captains met amicably at sea, exchanged notes and maps and thus, at this point in time, the first complete map of the Australian coast was compiled.
Baudin died on his way back to France, and Flinders spent years incarcerated by the French on Mauritius, the authorities being unaware that the French-British war had ended.
When Flinders arrived home, his atlas Terra Australis was published and the great southern continent, now acknowledged as one single large land mass, was given the name it carries today, Australia.
For a more comprehensive history of the Baudin voyage check out the Baudin Project.