This sumptuous coffee table book is a fascinating introduction to the role of French explorers around Australia’s southern coasts in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book contains side by side French and English text from Noelene Bloomfield alongside contemporary photographs by Frédéric Mouchet and reproductions of drawings from the voyages. The two distinct texts, including in captions for drawings and photographs, works well to enhance the book and is not a distraction.
Rather than commerce, many of these voyages were inspired by the writings of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau which reflected the quest for knowledge in the Age of Enlightenment, particularly in the sciences of geography, geology, botany and zoology. Nonetheless, there are historical reports included which demonstrate that commercial interests had not been forgotten, such as Baudin’s comment on Shark Bay in 1803 ‘…a suitable area for whaling…that should not be overlooked’.
The wide range of modern photographic subjects reflects the equally wide range of the French explorers’ interests and includes beautiful seascapes, the rugged landscapes of Tasmania and the Blue Mountains, and Australian fauna. As sailors and navigators they were, of course, interested in mapping and the French were renowned for their accuracy and the reproduced maps are impressive in their details.
Much of the groundwork in cartography around Tasmania was completed by French explorers. This is reflected in many of the French place names such as Recherche Bay, named for a ship, Cape Raoul, named for Recherche’s chief pilot and his second, the Raoul brothers, and Labillardiere Pensinula, named after the naturalist Jacques de La Billardiére. La Billardiére was a friend of Sir Joseph Banks and his publication Novae Hollandiae plantarum specimen was one of the first to describe unique Australian plants.
The Australia of the French Explorers would make a wonderful gift for anyone interested in Australian history or exploration. The concise yet informative text wonderfully complements the historical drawings and contemporary photographs which well deserve repeated viewings, each time finding something new to see and wonder at. It would also be a great travel guide and provides inspiration to see the areas the French explorers visited. I think I would start with Kangaroo Island to see Remarkable Rocks, Cape de Couedic on the south western tip of the island and the Ravine des Casoars (cassowaries), even if the French explorers did misidentify the emus.
Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
The Australia of the French Explorers (L’Australie des Explorateurs Français)
Authors: Frédéric Mouchet and Noelene Bloomfield
Publisher: Somogy Editions d’Art, distributed in Australia by Wakefield Press
Release Date: June 2016
RRP: $65 incl GST