Louis De Freycinet’s Epic Circumnavigation Of The Globe

Those who perform great deeds are guided by inner lights whose intensity never wanes.  Perhaps the most significant French maritime expedition of the nineteenth century was that of naval commander Louis Claude de Saulces de Freycinet (1779—1841).  Its chief aim, according to novelist Jules Verne, was  “to survey the shape of the land in the southern hemisphere, and to make observations in terrestrial magnetism, without, at the same time, omitting to give attention to all natural phenomena, and to the manners, customs, and languages of indigenous races.”  In an epic voyage that lasted over three years, he and the crew of the corvette Uranie covered a vast portion of the earth’s surface; and he was the first explorer to chart the precise contours of the Australian continent.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the French navy was able to turn from the thrill of combat to the thrill of discovery.  Freycinet assembled his crew of 120 with great care, making certain that every man was able to contribute something of value; he had with him carpenters, scientists, artisans, engineers, technicians, and military men.  The ship sailed from Toulon on September 17, 1817, heading for Brazil.  It will be useful to review Freycinet’s complete itinerary, extracted from Jacques Arago’s 1823 report to the French Academy of Sciences:

The expedition sailed from Toulon on the 17th of September 1817;  arrived at Gibraltar on the 11th of October, and left it on the 15th, for Teneriffe, where it remained from the 22d to the 28th of the same month.  The Uranie cast anchor at Rio Janeiro on the 6th of December. This city being considered a proper station both for the pendulum and compass observations, Captain Freycinet remained there nearly two months.  At the Cape of Good Hope, the next place of rendezvous, he stopped from the 7th of March to the 5th of April 1818; and the time there was employed in similar observations, which are of the greater importance, as they can be compared directly with those of Lacaille. The same consideration gives an interest to the observations at the Isle of France, where the Uranie arrived on the 5th of May, and which she left on the 16th of July.  After a very short stay at the Isle of Bourbon, Captain Freycinet sailed on the 2d of August for Shark’s Bay, which he had visited in his first voyage with Captain Baudin.  He arrived there on the 12th, and quitted it on the 26th of September, for Coupang, the capital of the Dutch settlements in the Isle of Timor.  Farther on will be found an enumeration of the observations of different kinds made at this port, from the 9th to the 23rd of October 1818, when the expedition sailed for Diely, the residence of the Governor of the Portuguese settlement, at the northern part of the Island.  Leaving Diely on the 22d of November, the Uranie steered her course for the little island of Rawak, situated near Waigiou (New Guinea), almost exactly on the equator:  she remained there from the 16th of December 1818, to the 5th of January 1819.

The next rendezvous was at the Marianne Islands, and was of nearly three months’ duration; a delay rendered necessary by the important operations to be executed at those islands, by the necessity of laying in fresh provisions, and of allowing time for the sick, who were then pretty numerous, to recover. On the 5th of April 1819, the Uranie sailed from Guam; she cast anchor at Owhyhee, the largest of the Sandwich Islands, on the 8th of August: on the 16th she touched at Mowhee; on the 26th at Woahoo; and on the 30th, finally quitted that Archipelago for Port Jackson; where it became necessary to refit the vessel, and make the usual observations on the weight of the atmosphere and on magnetism. The expedition left New South Wales on the 25th of December 1819, for Terra-del-Fuego; but scarcely had they cast anchor in the Bay of Good Success, on the 7th of February 1820, when a furious hurricane obliged them suddenly to cut their cables, and to let the ship run under bare poles for two successive days. When the storm abated, it became a matter of consideration, whether, considering the importance of pendulum observations in the high southern latitudes, they should return to Terra-del Fuego, from which they were now a considerable distance, or rendezvous at the Malouine Islands; Captain Freycinet determined on the latter. The Academy has received from this excellent officer complete verbal details of the shipwreck of the Uranie, which took place in French Bay, on the 13th of February 1820, and of the stay made by the ship’s company at that desert station.

It will be therefore sufficient for us to mention that the expedition quitted the Malouine Islands on the 17th of April 1820, on board an American vessel, which had accidentally come there, and was purchased by Captain Freycinet; that they first put into Monte-Video, and, after a residence of a month in the River Plate, the Physicienne (the name given to the new vessel) sailed on the 7th of June for Rio Janeiro, where she arrived on the 19th. During a stay of three months, our navigators repeated the observations of different kinds which they had made there on their passage out.  Finally, on the 13th of September 1820, the Physicienne quitted Brasil: stress of weather obliged her, on the 10th of November, to put in to Cherbourg; she left that on the 12th, and arrived at Havre on the 13th, where she was laid up. The duration of the voyage was therefore three years and two months nearly; and the distance sailed amounts to about 23,600 leagues, of 25 to a degree.

This, in broad outline, was the itinerary.  Freycinet’s comments on his experience in Rio de Janeiro are tinted with his own prejudices; he claims to have encountered bands of gypsies there, and tells us, with a career military man’s disapproval, that “most of them, possessing immense wealth, make a great display in dress and in horses, especially at their weddings, which are celebrated with much expense; and they find their chief pleasure either in riotous debauchery or in sheer idleness…The government most unaccountably tolerates the nuisance of their presence, and goes so far as to appropriate to their exclusive use two streets in the neighborhood of the Campo de Santa Anna.”  This comment surprised me, as I had never before heard of the presence of Roma in Brazil.  I have since attempted to educate myself more on this subject, and have learned that the Roma have existed in the country since the earliest times, but that the community has not been comprehensively studied.

Elsewhere Freycinet makes another idiosyncratic observation of Rio de Janeiro life at that time, showing the hallmarks of a visitor’s incomplete perspective:  “The respectable classes never go out except in the evening, unless compelled by some pressing circumstance or for the performance of religious duties;  and it is in the evening that the ladies especially show themselves.  During the day all remain indoors, and pass the time between their couches and their looking-glasses. The only places where a man can enjoy the society of the ladies are the theatres and the churches.”

Louis de Freycinet

From Brazil the Uranie sailed to the Cape of Good Hope, and then from there to Port Louis in the Isle de France.  The island had come under British administration since 1815, and the crew made extensive observations and measurements there.  By the second of August 1818, the ship set out for the western coast of Australia; it anchored at the Bay of Sharks in mid-September.  In Timor a few of the crew were seriously taken ill with dysentery.  In the Channel of Ombay, Freycinet encountered strong currents and caused several weeks of lost travel time; the crew put ashore and encountered heavily armed natives who were not at all afraid of firearms.  The native weapons were described in this way:

The points of the arrows were of hard wood, or of bone, and some of iron. The arrows themselves, displayed fan-wise, were fastened on the left side of the warrior to the belt of his sword or dagger. Most of these people wore bundles of palm leaves, slit so as to allow red or black colored strips of the same to be passed through to hold them together, which were attached to the belt or the right thigh. The rustling sound produced with every movement of the wearers of this singular ornament, increased by knocking against the cuirass or the buckler, with the addition of the tinkling of little bells, which also formed part of the warrior’s equipment, altogether made such a jumble of discordant sounds that we could not refrain from laughing.

The crew found it advisable to leave Ombay as quickly as possible.  From here the Uranie roamed throughout the region, making ethnographic and geographic observations wherever they could.  What especially fascinated Freycinet was the exotic flora and fauna of the region; he notes the palms, roseapple trees, nutmeg trees, and other trees that come across his path.  In Papua he notes the prevalence of leprosy among the islanders, and attributes the disease to the harshness of the climate and perhaps a poor diet.  By January 1819 the Uranie was approaching the Ayou Islands; they reached Guam soon after this, and were able to enjoy sumptuous feasts.  In one meal, he tells us, no less than “forty-four” separate dishes were served.   “This dinner,” he proudly relates, “cost the lives of two oxen and three fat pigs, to say nothing of poultry, game, and fish. Such a slaughter, I should think, has not been known since the marriage feast of Gamache.  No doubt our host considered that persons who had undergone so many privations during a protracted voyage ought to be compensated with an unusually profuse entertainment.”  In June 1819 the crew explored the region around the Marianne Islands, and by August they had reached the Hawaiian Islands.  Freycinet was surprised to find the Hawaiians remarkably well-informed of political events in Europe, having learned a great deal from their contacts with whaling ships.

Disaster struck in Berkeley Sound in the Falkland Island, where the ship ran aground.  Freycinet had done all he could, but the navigation of these regions was too difficult in adverse weather.  All of the ship’s papers were saved, but some of the specimen collections were lost.  They were even able to save the merino sheep, presented to them as a gift in Sydney, Australia.  By February it was clear that the Uranie could not be repaired; Freycinet thus decided to build another vessel out of the ship’s remains, and hoped in this way to reach safety in Monte Video—three hundred and fifty nautical miles distant.  By April 1820 Freycinet and his crew had found help and secured passage to Rio de Janeiro; they arrived there safely and stayed until September, at which time they departed for France.  Their ship dropped anchor in Havre, France in November 1820, after a voyage of three years and two months.

French military law required a hearing and investigation into the loss of his ship in the Falklands, but he was acquitted of all culpability for the wreck.  In fact, the tribunal praised his heroic conduct during the three years of the voyage and the incalculable contributions he had made to geographic knowledge.  A few days later, he was received by a grateful King Louis XVIII, who acknowledged the glory of his achievements by taking him aside and telling him:

You entered here the captain of a frigate, you depart the captain of a ship of the line. Offer me no thanks.  Reply in the words used by Jean Bart to Louis XIV, ‘Sire, you have done well.’

Freycinet was elected to the French Academy of Sciences in 1825.  He spent the remainder of his days at Saulce-sur-Rhône, Drôme, secure in the knowledge that he had straddled the globe, and had lived to tell the tale.


Read more in Thirty-Seven: