Antoine de Bruni Charts the Tasmanian Coast

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Antoine de Bruni Charts the Tasmanian Coast


During the closing years of the eighteenth century, French exploration of the Pacific Ocean began in earnest. One of the most important French sea captains during this period was Antoine de Bruni, known as the Chevalier d'Entrecasteaux (1739-1793), whose voyages to Australia returned valuable knowledge of this continent and its neighboring islands. Bruni's voyages helped establish France as a serious presence in the Pacific and served to counterbalance the existing presence of the British, Dutch, and Spanish in these waters.


European exploration of the Pacific Ocean began in 1519, when Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) led his small fleet through the Straits of Magellan into the reaches of the Pacific. Although Magellan did not live to complete the voyage, the reports returned by his expedition whetted the appetites and imaginations of most major European powers. Sensing the opportunity to expand colonial and trade empires, Britain, Spain, and Holland rushed to explore the Pacific and its neighboring lands.

Oddly absent in this rush was France, who was concentrating on Continental European matters almost to the exclusion of overseas territories. With the exception of her American colonies in the Caribbean, Quebec, and Louisiana, France chose to forgo empire-building at first.

By the late eighteenth century, it became obvious that this policy was flawed. Spain returned untold amounts of gold, silver, and gems from her New World colonies, Britain's American colonies gave her a commercial and strategic foothold in the Western Hemisphere, and the Dutch colonies and trading centers in the East Indies were returning huge dividends to Holland. Following the resounding success of James Cook's (1728-1779) voyages of discovery, King Louis XVI realized that France must follow suit to remain a great power.

In November 1766, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811) led France's first expedition to the Pacific. A veteran of France's war against England in Canada, Bougainville had seen France lose many of her possessions to the English. Bougainville's ships passed into the Pacific in January 1768 and arrived at the eastern shore of Australia in June of that year, the first European to do so. He continued on and returned to France in 1769, the first French naval captain to successfully complete a circumnavigation.

Bougainville was followed by du Fresne, who, in 1772, made the second French landfall in Australia, on the island of Tasmania. He was followed by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Tremarec, who set forth from France's base on the Ile de France (now called Mauritius) in search of the austral continent. Although Kerguelen did not find it, another ship in his squadron, separated in a storm, did proceed on to Australia, claiming possession of the west coast for the King of France. Unfortunately, Kerguelen died before this information could be transmitted to France, and the claim was not recognized.

The next French expedition into Australian waters was led by the Comte de la Perouse (aka Jean de Galaup, 1741-1788?) in 1785. After two years of exploration, la Perouse left Botany Bay in March 1788 and was lost at sea. La Perouse's disappearance was one of the factors leading to yet another French expedition to these waters, this time led by Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni. Bruni and his crew arrived in Tasmania (then known as Van Dieman's Land) in April 1792 and spent the next several months charting the Tasmanian and Australian coasts, while failing to find any sign of la Perouse.

During his search for la Perouse, Bruni discovered a number of islands and made significant progress in mapping the coasts of Tasmania, parts of Australia, and many of the region's islands. He did not, however, locate la Perouse, his crew, or their remains. As it turned out, Bruni was not only unsuccessful in locating any trace of la Perouse, but he was also to die of scurvy before completing his mission and returning to France.


Bruni's voyages were part of a larger picture of French explorations in the Pacific, and their impact must be viewed in that larger context. However, his work was also important in and of itself. For this reason, the impact of his work alone will be examined, as will how his work fit into the context of the times.

The most immediate impact of Bruni's expedition lay in his geographical discoveries. Bruni visited lands that had been previously unvisited by Europeans, or that were marginally known. By constructing accurate maps of their locations, he provided a service to the French government, which was interested in laying claim to these islands. In addition, accurate maps were of military importance, helping to plan both attacks and defense of colonial and military outposts. And, finally, by showing the locations of newly discovered islands, Bruni helped future mariners avoid unpleasant surprises.

In addition to constructing maps of new coastlines and lands, Bruni maintained records of weather, ocean currents, prevailing wind directions, and other oceanographic and meteorological information that was turned in to the French government when his expedition returned to France. This information was very important to future mariners because, when combined with similar records maintained by other captains, they helped in developing a comprehensive picture of ocean and weather conditions throughout the world. This information, in turn, could be used to help plan trade routes, travel times, locate military bases, and so forth. In those times, the oceans were the world's highways, and the winds were the engines that drove commercial and military vessels around the globe. Bruni and his fellow captains provided the French government with information, from which accurate maps were developed, showing French merchant and naval vessels how best to navigate the oceans. Such maps were closely held state secrets precisely because of the commercial and strategic advantage they could confer.

In the larger setting, Bruni and his fellow captains were charged with helping France make up for lost centuries of exploration. In mounting an all-out effort to explore uncharted waters, the French hoped to offset the advantage enjoyed by the other major powers. Bruni's part of this effort was to help explore the Pacific Ocean in the vicinity of Australia while searching for the missing la Perouse. Through his efforts, he was able to help France claim some important territories in this part of the world, adding to those already claimed by Bougainville, la Perouse, and others. Through these territorial possessions, which included much of Polynesia, Indochina, and many of the islands near Australia and New Guinea, France was able to exercise some degree of military prowess in this strategically important part of the world.

It is also important to recall that, at this time, the great European powers were in the process of becoming history's first truly global powers—that era's equivalent of today's superpowers. Britain, Holland, and Spain all had territorial possessions in the New World, the Indian Ocean, and in Southeast Asia. Only France, arguably the strongest European power, lacked such a far-flung empire. Bruni's voyage, among others, was her attempt to redress this imbalance of power and to return France to the upper echelons of global political importance.

The South Seas islands, including those in areas visited by Bruni, were of great interest to the French philosophers of the day, primarily because they provided an opportunity to see humanity unencumbered by the trappings of society and civilization. At this same time, Jean Jacques Rousseau had published his treatise on the inherent nobility of man. Arguing that man was inherently good and that it was only society that made men bad, Rousseau speculated about the "noble savage" that, in the absence of society, would reveal humanity's true nature. These philosophers saw the apparently simple cultures of the South Pacific with their seemingly simple lifestyles and free sexual activity as confirming their speculations.

Finally, these discoveries provided France the opportunity to establish military bases in precisely those areas from which they could prey on Dutch, Spanish, and British merchant shipping. Heavily laden merchant vessels bound for European ports sailed through a handful of choke points that could be watched by a relatively small number of naval vessels. Seizing these merchant ships on the high seas not only hurt France's enemies, but enriched France at the same time since the French government would sell the cargoes at market value.

In short, Bruni's mission, though it failed to accomplish the original goal of locating and (if necessary) rescuing la Perouse's expedition, was nonetheless successful in many respects. As an individual expedition, it returned a great deal of valuable information about the South Seas that proved valuable to the French government and to French military and commercial vessels. In addition, in conjunction with information returned by other captains, France was able to compile a better set of information about ocean and weather conditions throughout the world, giving her ships added advantage when sailing those waters. Finally, by claiming lands for France, Bruni and his compatriots helped France to establish herself as a global power as she now owned territories across the world and, from these territories, could challenge merchant and military vessels belonging to the other great powers.


Further Reading


Allen, Oliver. The Pacific Navigators. Time-Life Books, 1980.


"France's Role in Exploring Australia's Coastline."

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Antoine de Bruni Charts the Tasmanian Coast

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