The Role of Indigenous Australians in the Race between Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin

As I look back at my schooling I realise that much of the content I was taught about Aboriginals revolved around them in the late 19th and early 20th century and focused more so on what ‘Australians’ did to them rather than what Aboriginals did for Australia. Furthermore, after starting my practical teaching component this year I was again faced by this dilemma as I taught the basic policies towards Aboriginals and how they were affected by these policies rather than what they had done for Australia. This project was an attempt by myself to

Who were Flinders and Baudin?

Captain’s Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin were two men sent by their governments, Flinders being English and Baudin being French, in a ‘race’ to finish mapping out Australia. In previous years both the English and French governments believed that there was an inland sea splitting the east and west sides of the Australian continent.

Matthew FlindersImage

Much is written about these men’s voyages around Australia and the various hardships that they encountered, but very little is said regarding the contact of which they had with the Aboriginal people. In many cases the Aboriginals were simply portrayed in one of two ways, as harmless individuals that became easily amused by little trinkets that the Europeans traded with them and were very hospitable, despite obvious language barriers. The second way, which the more publicised way, was that the Aboriginal people were savages who would turn on you in the blink of an eye and before you knew it you would have a spear protruding through your shoulder, such as in the case of one unlucky Frenchman, midshipmen Maurouard on Baudin’s journey.


Role of Aboriginals in the Race

Whilst I was hoping to find the Aboriginal people played a large role in the mapping out of Australia, they didn’t. Out of the French and the English the latter made better use of the Aboriginal people, mainly through the use of a man called Bungaree who accompanied Flinders on his voyage. Bungaree was a very useful companion to have on the voyage as he often acted as a liaison between the English and the Aboriginals they met on their voyages. It is interesting to note that Australia had many different ‘countries’ of Aboriginal people and in these different countries the Aboriginals spoke different languages. As a result Bungaree often had no idea what the other Aboriginals were saying but he was still able to help defuse situations.


However more often than not the Aboriginals played more a role in hindering the efforts of both Flinders and Baudin as there were often times where they would land and then be attacked by the local Aboriginal people. Many times upon landing in new areas the explorers would set out to try and find new flora and fauna, which they would take back to France or England, and would often come in to contact with Aboriginals. Initially they would be rather standoffish however more often than not they would end up trading with the Europeans for various trinkets and goods that were novel to them, such as a ‘cabbage hat’.


The French had a more positive relationship with the Aboriginal people however; they often did not play any role in the actual mapping out of Australia. Similarly to the British the Aboriginals more often than not hindered the exploration by the French, as they would often be met by Aboriginals with spears and shields. Baudin believed though that this was as a result of previous explorers lack of compassion towards these people, something that the English often lacked, unless the Aboriginals were able to prove themselves useful to them.

Some of the more prominent reasons for the French winning the race to complete the map of Australia include issues on both sides with each of their ships. During their voyages both ships experienced extended periods of time where they were forced into port as a result of their ships poor conditions. In Flinder’s case he was forced to abandon his voyage early as a result of poor ship conditions and at one point during his voyage the Investigator was taking on water at a rate of 14 inches per hour. However, the probably the biggest reason for the French completing their map was that on Flinders’ way back to England he was captured and held at the French controlled island of Mauritius, where he was held for 7 years.

All in all there were many factors that have seemed to influence the race between the French and English to map out the entirety of the Australian coastline. Aboriginals may well have had more to do with the mapping of Australia but as a result of the time in which this event took place there may well have been a lack of recognition by the captains and their crews.


Further Reading

Baudin, Nicolas. The Journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin: Commander-in-Chief of the Corvettes GÉOGRAPHE and NATURALISTE. Translated by Christine Cornell. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia.

“Project Gutenberg’s A Voyage to Terra Australis Volume 1, by Matthew Flinders.” Project Gutenberg.

“Project Gutenberg’s A Voyage to Terra Australis Volume 2, by Matthew Flinders.” Project Gutenberg.

“Encounter 1802-2002: Celebrating Flinders’ and Baudin’s expeditions in search of the ‘unknown’ southern coast of Australia,” State Library of South Australia.

Dyer, Colin. The French Explorers and the Aboriginal Australians: 1772-1839. Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2005.

Hill, David. The Great Race: The Race Between the English and the French to Complete the Map of Australia. North Sydney: Random House Australia Pty Ltd, 2012.

Smith, Kevin Vincent. King Bungaree: A Sydney Aborigine meets the great South Pacific Explorers, 1799-1830. Kenthurst: Kangaroo Press Pty Ltd, 1992. 


3 comments on “The Role of Indigenous Australians in the Race between Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin

  1. samuelclear says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    Your blog post is very well constructed and definitely does an effective in job in promoting your paper to the reader. Like you, I have long been frustrated by the focus of the NSW curriculum on the impact of colonisation on the Indigenous population and virtually ignoring the two way relationship. Thus, I commend you on using the opportunity of MHIS300 to explore the issue in greater detail. Personally, I found the two contrasting ways that the Aboriginals were portrayed by the Europeans to be particularly interesting. Clearly, both are either overwhelmingly negative or condescending, and were maybe made in an attempt to devalue their important role in the race to map Australia? The point you make about the English using the Aboriginals to greater effect, despite the French having a more amicable relationship, is thought-provoking. Did you uncover any reasons to why the two nations treated the indigenous populations differently? Overall, an interesting blog post for what seems to be a compelling paper. Well done!

  2. esilk90 says:

    Such an interesting read. I too am a history teacher and rarely do we hear about quests such as this prior the arrival of Captain Cook. It is always interesting to discuss the different ‘countries’ of Aboriginal people within the nation. Many people are ignorant of this fact today. Perhaps their understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal kinship and traditional tribes would greatly assist in reconciliation and land rights progresses today?

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    Your article certainly caught my eye! It’s very common for historians to grasp at straws and find prolific research when there is very little of it, so it is rare to see the admittance that your finds were small! However, I thought that made the piece even better. It made me appreciate how little we know about our indigenous Australians and how they have been immortalised in our nation’s history – the fact that they haven’t. For all we know, their role could have been immense, but they were merely rejected as vital in the records of Flinders or Baudin. I would be very interested to find out more about this topic, as I believe indigenous history is vital in being Australians.
    Great stuff!

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