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Baudin and the bees


Port Arthur may never have existed if it were not for two Frenchmen separated by 50 years of intense political activity.

In 1756 Charles de Brosses published his review of pacific exploration which was a major source of information for Captain James Cook

It is a little known fact that the idea for establishing a colony in the Pacific using, ‘…prisoners and foundlings…’ was first mooted by a Frenchman 20 years before James Cook discovered Australia. It is also little known that the person responsible for planting the first “European” plants in Tasmania was later involved in the growing, propagation and distribution of Australian flora transported to Europe by the early French and English explorers. The Eucalypt species was named by a Frenchman and, despite the establishment of an English penal colony in N.S.W. in 1788 and the explorations of Bass, Flinders and others, it was the French who first published illustrations of the exotic new flora from these recently discovered lands.

It is likely that much of this would not have happened were it not for two men who believed that science was above politics and a woman, born French by a twist of fate, who had a love of exotic species, probably engendered by her early years on the Caribbean island of Martinique.

This paper explores the lesser known byways of history as it relates to the collection, classification, transportation and exploitation of Australian flora and its eventual impact of the culture of France.

Felix Delahaye, the D’Entrecasteaux expedition’s gardener, who was responsible for planting the famous “French Garden” at Recherche Bay, worked at the Jardin de Plantes in Paris after his return to France. He subsequently worked for the Empress Josephine at her Malmaison estate where he was responsible, in part, for propagating much of the plant material brought back to France by his own and Baudin’s expeditions.

Josephine, who was a recognised amateur botanist, had a passion for exotic flora, probably arising from her early years in Martinique and went to great pains to add as many Australian species to her collection as she could. Even war between France and England did not stop her acquiring specimens from English horticulturists.

An indication of Josephine’s high regard for these plants is revealed by their prominence in Ventenat’s 1803 publication, Jardin de La Malmaison, where approximately 30% of the botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute’s images were of Australian flora, including three varieties of Acacia, called Mimosa by the French .[1]

Description des plantes nouvelles et peu connues… Ventenat, E. P. (Etienne Pierre), 1757-1808., Redoute, Henri Joseph, Morris Miller – Rare Folio – QK 45 .V45 1800

Jacques Philippe Martin Cels is a botanist specialized in horticulture French, born June 15 1740 in Versailles, formed a botanical garden in which he cultivated the foreign plants to make the trade of it


The bee, a symbol of immortality and resurrection, was chosen as a royal motif by Napoleon, “…so as to link the new dynasty to the very origins of France. Golden bees (in fact, cicadas) were discovered in 1653 in Tournai in the tomb of Childeric I, founder, in 457 of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis. They were considered as the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France”.[2]

Like bees, explorers were sent forth into the world during Napoleons reign to gather nourishment for their home. It was the time of the enlightenment and there was a thirst for knowledge of all kinds; navigational, ecological, environmental and humanitarian – the French were about to establish the first Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) and specifically requested that the Baudin expedition collect in depth information about the peoples they encountered. They were also to study changes in the earth’s magnetic field in the southern latitudes, gather details of marine and land based life forms and continue the mapping begun by Beautemps Beaupre during the D’Entrecasteaux expedition a decade earlier.

One might even liken Beautemps Beaupré’s, Atlas du voyage de Bruny-D’Entrecasteaux… to the dance performed by the returning bee to map the directions to the latest pollen discovery; it being a way to pass on information to those who would follow and continue the collecting.

Unfortunately, while the bees help to develop their finds by becoming a conduit for regeneration and transform their collected genetic material into something that is enjoyed by all, mankind tends to muddy the waters and cause disruption. Even the best of intentions often have unanticipated consequences.

While bees work to an apparently genetically encoded program that, over millennia has been adapted to meet the needs of themselves and their hosts[3] man, the thinker, charges in with little thought for the needs of those he encounters or the potential results of his actions.

Although a very basic understanding of plant genetics had been recently formulated by Linnaeus and was being used to classify the flora of the world into families there was no knowledge of the wider implications of environmental integrity as we understand it today. Genetic material was transported willy nilly around the world and grown well away from it’s natural environment where natural selection had created a suitably sustainable eco system. In many cases the end result has been, if not catastrophic then at least environmentally and economically problematic.

The encroachment on local communities by the, generally, self interested European explorers and the impact on their environment by the subsequent importation of non native species is a subject far beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, it will focus on the analogy of the bee as a symbol of transference and on the role of the Empress Josephine as a vector for dissemination in an endeavour to understand the work of the artist Fiona Hall as installed at this time in the Port Arthur Historic site.


Josephine de Beauharnais, christened Marie Joseph Rose La Pagerie, was born on the island of Martinique on the family sugar plantation in June 1763; just three months after the islands had been handed back to France by the English.

These early years amongst the brilliant and fragrant flowers of the Caribbean engendered an interest in botany which was to stay with her all her life and lead, as the Empress Josephine, to the construction of vast glass houses for growing exotic species on her estate at Malmaison just outside Paris.

Josephine’s passion for growing and propagating exotics was aroused when she saw the botanical results of the D’Entrecasteaux expedition housed at the Jardin de Plantes. In The General, Plomley[4] lists 202 plants from 62 species in the expedition Botanist Labillardiere’s collection including many that were subsequently grown at Malmaison. Amongst these were the Tasmanian native plants Allocasuarina verticillata (which appears in the frontispiece of the report on the Baudin expedition), Acacia melanoxylon (Blackwood) and Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian Bluegum). There were also many flowering plants such as Erigeron, Lobelia, Helichrysum, Boronia, and the climber Billardiera longiflora.

Once aroused Josephine’s passion for the plants of Terra Australis was insatiable. Despite the fact that France was at war with England she was able to obtain cuttings and seeds from English nurseries and of course her collection was greatly enhanced by the genetic material which returned with the Baudin expedition.

One of the reasons that Malmaison was so successful in growing Australian native plants was that Josephine employed the only gardener in the world who had actually seen them growing in their native environment; the gardener from the D’Entrecasteaux expedition who planted the “French Garden” at Recherche Bay, Felix Delahaye.

An indication of Josephine’s high regard for these plants is revealed by their prominence in Ventenat’s book , Jardin de La Malmaison, where approximately 30% of Pierre Redoute’s images were of Australian flora.[5]


Growing up in the leafy, middle class Sydney suburb of Oatley surrounded by native as well as exotic species it was perhaps inevitable that Fiona Hall would, sooner or later, turn to the garden as a metaphor for her interpretation of the world around her. Her first major plant centric work, Paradisus Terrestris, which was made for the 1990 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art grew out of research begun in the 80’s.  Visiting Botanical Gardens and delving into the vast amount of literature on gardens and plant collecting, ‘…enriched her understanding of historical relationships between nature and culture’[6] and she found, in Parkinson’s 1629 book, Paradisi in Sole Paradisis Terrestris inspiration for her contemporary take on gardens, sex and the written word. The juxtaposition of pornographic imagery, plants with suggestive common names and Latin nomenclature is a satirical take on the European obsession with collecting, sorting and cataloguing everything in the world – as though, by naming a thing we control it (a concept taken up again and again by the artist0.

[1] Ventenat, Étienne Pierre, Jardin de La Malmaison (imprimerie de Crapelet, Paris, an XI – 1803)


[3] Honey bees use the sun as a reference point in navigation and communication. Experiments have shown that bees have internal representation of the sun’s movement through the sky and suggest that this representation is innate, but is tailored by experience

[4] Plomley, N. J. B. (Norman James Brian), Piard-Bernier, Josiane., Queen Victoria Museum (Launceston, Tas.).Launceston, Tas : Queen Victoria Museum, 1993. pp 233-240

[5] Ventenat, Étienne Pierre, Jardin de La Malmaison (imprimerie de Crapelet, Paris, an XI – 1803)

[6] Ewington, Julie, Fiona Hall, Piper Press, Annandale, 2005. p101


 Baudin and the Bees _ complete

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