Kangaroo Island historian Steve Berzel translates the journal of French explorer Louis Freycinet

NEW BOOK: Kangaroo Island historian Steve Berzel with his new book, a translation of French explorer Lious Freycinet's journal, at Baudin Beach where he lives.
NEW BOOK: Kangaroo Island historian Steve Berzel with his new book, a translation of French explorer Lious Freycinet's journal, at Baudin Beach where he lives.

Kangaroo Island amateur historian Steve Berzel has just published his translated book of the journal of French navigator Lieutenant Louis Freycinet, which puts a new perspective on the early history of the European charting of the Australian coast.

Freycinet was commander of schooner Le Casuarina, a small vessel that accompanied better known navigator Nicolas Baudin on the second campaign of the French voyage of discovery mission beginning in 1803, that went on to chart the South Australian coastline.

"Deciding to translate the work of Mr Freycinet while he was in command of the Casuarina happened after a visit to the State Library of South Australia, where I found an old microfilm of the journal copied in 1963," Mr Berzel said.

"After only a few pages in, I realised the historical significance of what I was viewing. I had some spare time on my hands so I went to work on it, never quite grasping the enormity of the task."

The young naval officer Freycinet was sent over from another French expedition ship, le Naturaliste, to assist Baudin in his Voyage of Discovery, departing from Port Jackson, Sydney, 16 November 1802, in command of the locally built sailing ship Casuarina, the ship being named after the wood from which she was constructed.

The book begins with a prologue called 'The First Campaign' by the expedition's zoologist Francois Peron, and also Louis Freycinet, putting the latter's journal into context.

"The prologue is integral, since the journal commences in Sydney at the beginning of what historians refer to as the second French campaign. But what of the trials faced by the expedition during the two years preceding?" he said.

"Some retrospect was required. I started writing a backstory to add continuity, but after tapping out ten thousand words I then deleted it after considering what I'd written was virtually no different to any other article on the subject.

"I then realised that the perfect prologue already existed through the words of Peron, who in 1807 published the official expedition account. I owe Mr Peron a debt of gratitude in translating extracts of his written passages to create the prologue, and I'm hopeful he would have approved of the result."

The shallow draft of the Casuarina was ideal for exploring bays and inlets, although Freycinet complained that it was poorly built, taking on 20cm of water a day before it even left port, and was much slower than Baudin's vessel, the Geographe, and the Naturaliste commanded by Captain Hamelin.

The decision of Baudin to purchase the Casuarina, built by Kable and Underwood, during his Sydney stopover, was made in order to better the excellent charting earlier done by English navigator Matthew Flinders.

The trio of French vessels set out from Sydney and sailed south, first exploring the islands of Bass Strait and King Island before le Naturaliste left the expedition to return to France with a vast haul of scientific specimens, leaving Commander Baudin and Freycinet to continue.

From there Geographe and Casuarina returned to South Australia and became the first vessels to complete the circumnavigation of Kangaroo Island on January 6. 1803.

Baudin then anchored off Kangaroo Head, which he named Cape Delambre, while Freycinet sailed the Casuarina on a mission to chart St Vincent's and Spencer's Gulfs. Baudin stayed on Kangaroo Island until February 1, but for some reason he then sailed away without awaiting the return of Lieutenant Freycinet's ship.

Mr Berzel said Freycinet's journal and his further research indicates that Baudin and his fellow expeditioners, including Freycinet and Peron, did not get along.

"The relation between the commander and his officers had cooled over many months, yet the failed rendezvous with the Casuarina while returning to Kangaroo Island from Port Lincoln was a tipping point, as it destroyed any last shred of esteem Mr Baudin may have held," he said.

"In the eyes of men under his command, Baudin could no longer be trusted to act in their best interests, and Mr Freycinet's account seems to back this."

The French discovery mission was never really seen as a success, as Matthew Flinders and other British navigators such as Captain Grant had already charted much of the southern waters. The French never claimed any part of Australia for themselves.

Mr Berzel suggests a theory that Baudin may have conspired to use Freycinet as scapegoat for the failings of the expedition, as there were multiple occasions where the commander gave incorrect coordinates to the lieutenant.

These errors happening too often to merely be coincidence, Freycinet also writes that he is surprised that separations between both vessels were not more frequent.

"What we soon discover after reading the exposure from Lieutenant Freycinet is that the current narrative, being that the commander was treated unfairly by a rowdy gang of insubordinate young officers now seems fanciful, and any success gleaned from the French expedition was made despite numerous errors committed by Baudin. Or so Mr Freycinet claims," he said.

Mr Berzel points out that his translation and publication of the journal has taken nearly the same amount of time as Baudin's entire mission - three years.

The accomplishment of the KI amateur historian, who just so happens to reside in the seaside community of Baudin Beach, is all the more remarkable given he is not all that familiar with French language.

"It was a fair hurdle to clear, I admit, so teaching myself to read French was of course a necessary component. I found the language not really that difficult to learn, but we are talking only about reading," he said.

"Please don't ask me to speak French as I still have no idea how to correctly pronounce words. I also applied Google Translate to various passages and used two reference books that were a French nautical terms dictionary from 1888, and a French to English dictionary published in 1673.

"Yet most words in the journal don't correlate to modern French spelling, similar to how modern English language evolved over the last few hundred years.

"More challenging, however, was deciphering Freycinet's sloped handwriting scrawled while in command of a pitching boat, complete with ink blots and absorbed red wine spills.

"For the most illegible passages, I was able to rely on the services of a young lady living in France, Adelaide Chiappella, who was palaeographer of the project.

"Being skilled in classic French, without the valued transcribing of Ms Chiappella this book might not have been possible."

Baudin died on the way back to France on Mauritius, then known as Isle of France. Writing the completed history of the Southern expedition was left to both Peron and Freycinet, who edited and published the maps.

Louis Freycinet would go on to have a long and illustrious career in the French navy, even returning to Australia during a three-year voyage across the Pacific, and in 1825 he was admitted into the French Academy of Sciences, becoming one of the founders of the Paris Geographical Society.

"I am grateful for having the opportunity of publishing Mr Freycinet's journal, yet the entire project was indeed a collaborative effort from many contributors," Mr Berzel said.

"I'd like to extend my gratitude to the State Library of South Australia for allowing me to access the microfilm scans, and also appreciate the cooperation shown by Archives Nationales, Paris, for granting permission to publish the translation and other various articles."

"Although compiling this book was essentially for my own reading enjoyment, I'm hoping other readers will also find the book interesting and engaging. I feel a great sense of achievement in seeing the book published. Would I ever attempt a similar project in future? Probably not."

The Journal of Louis Freycinet is out now on Ebay and is also available at the Penneshaw cruise ship markets over the summer.