d'urville : astrolabe and zelle, 1837
d'Urville : Voyage of the Astrolabe
and Zelle, 1837. Dumont D'Urville: Two Voyages to the South Seas
Volume 2: Astrolabe
and Zelee 1837-1840 Translated by Helen Rosenman
Melbourne University Press, 1987.
The first French
ship named Astrolabe
was a converted flûte built in 1781 at Le Havre, originally
named the Autruch.
The name derives from an early navigational instrument, a
precursor to the sextant. In 1785, the Boussole (previously the Portefaix) commanded by comte de Lapérouse
and the Astrolabe under Fleuriot de Langle departed
for a round-the-world voyage of scientific exploration. The two ships were
last reported sheltering in Botany Bay in 1788, while Arthur
Phillip was establishing the English penal settlement at Port
Jackson, before they disappeared in the Pacific.
The second Astrolabe was a horse barge, first named La
and converted to an exploration ship of the French Navy.
As La Coquille and commanded by Louis Isidore
Duperrey, with Jules Dumont d'Urville as second, she
circumnavigated the globe in 1822–1825, visiting the Falkland
Islands, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, New Guinea, Australia, and
the archipelagos of the Pacific.
Following the success of this expedition, the renamed
Astrolabe under the command of Dumont
d'Urville departed Toulon in April 1826 on another voyage. Apart from collecting
navigational and scientific information, the objectives of the
mission included assessing the viability of south-west
Australia as a possible French colony and establishing the
fate of the Lapérouse expedition. In 1826, the Astrolabe, sailed up the south east coast
of Australia, anchoring for several days inside Jervis Bay,
and recording an early and detailed account of the bay and
local Aboriginals. Having first examined the
south-west coast of Australia and passing through Bass Strait,
in late November the Astrolabe was off Wilson's Promontory and
See: Dumont d'Urville: Voyage
of the Astrolabe, 1826.
Dumont d'Urville's third and final voyage to the
Pacific was with the Astrolabe
and the Zélée,
captained by Charles Jacquinot, from 1837 to 1840. France’s last and
greatest scientific voyage of discovery by sail, Dumont
d’Urville was promoted to rear-admiral on his return.
Tragically, he had
completed only three volumes of the official
account of the voyage, when d'Urville, his wife and son, were
killed in a railway accident at Bellevue on 8 May 1842.
The remaining volumes of Voyage au Pôle Sud et dans l’Oceanie
(Voyage to the South Pole and Oceania) were completed by other
members of the expedition.
Chapter IX: Sojourn in Raffles Bay
Page 387 28th March 1839
I was scarcely back on board Astrolabe when we saw a
poor looking canoe manned by three natives crossing the
shallow strait that separates the little
observatory island from the
mainland, and making for the spot where M.
Dumoulin had set up his tent.
... Judging from the canoe that brought
our visitors, their industry is still in its infancy; a
few pieces of bark
clumsily cobbled and held together by two sticks are all
that constitute this craft, and if, being light, it can be
easily carried, it does not permit
these savages to venture far from the shore and out to
sea, however calm. In a
country like New Holland, where you do not find any of the
fruit trees or food plants that grow wild in tropical lands
and sustain their many
inhabitants, life must be difficult for the Australians;
these unfortunate people
must turn to the coasts, for it is there that they most
easily find food. Some
shells we saw in their hands provided us with an opening to
ask them questions,
and we soon learned from them that in the arm of the sea
observatory island from the mainland, there was a huge bank
of these shellfish
and that the shallowness of the water covering it makes
fishing very easy.
that was the only information we could get from them.
M. Dumoulin informs me that the natives have crossed from
the mainland to
Observatory Island without their boat, the water was only up
to their waists; on their way
they gathered some cockles which they then happily handed
over for a slab of ship's
biscuit. These shellfish, which I ate, are delicious; this
is a valuable discovery that we can exploit ur
Page 392 1st April 1837
during my rambles I had noticed in several places little
built of dry stones joined side by side to one another.
I had racked my brains
to make out what these little structures could be for, when
the Malay fishermen
Their boats were scarcely anchored before they quickly
brought on to
the island several big boilers of cast metal, hemispherical
in shape and about
a metre in diameter.
They placed them over the little stone walls I spoke of
which were used as fireplaces.
Near these improvised stoves they erected open
bamboo sheds composed of four strong stakes stuck into the
ground supporting a
roof with covered frames, meant, no doubt, for drying fish
when the weather is
During their stay in the bay, as the weather was favourable,
fishermen did not use the sheds which, I presume, they had
got ready as a
precautionary measure. This
crowd of men working hard at establishing their plant had
given an unusual
appearance to that part of the bay that could not be long in
of the mainland savages to this spot.
And soon, in fact, they came running
Almost all of them arrived at the little island, either by
or wading across the narrow stretch of shallow water that
separates it from the
I only saw one very rough looking canoe that had brought
When night fell, the Malays had finished all their
of them remained to guard the stuff they had placed ashore,
all the others went
back to their boat.
For a long time after the departure of the fishermen, the
natives still prowled around the boilers and sheds; then
assembled, twenty-seven of them, on a sandy beach at the
was lit, they all lay down on the sand in a circle around
the fire, lying on
top of one another like cattle in a stable.
Among these savages three only were
armed with spears which they could hurl quite a distance
with great skill.
were quite inoffensive; it was before eight o'clock and they
peacefully asleep untroubled by the mosquitoes. ... I had left the troop of
savages and I was going back to my tent when I
noticed three more praus flying the Dutch flag
coming into the bay.
Each of these boats is equipped with two rudders
(one on each side) which can be raised as required
when the boat touches bottom.
These ships usually sail; they have two masts
without shrouds which, if desired, can be folded
back on to
the deck by means of a hinge.
Their anchors are all of wood, for there is little
iron in anything of Malayan construction.
Their cables are of rattan or gomotou.
The crew consists of about thirty-seven men.
There are six small craft to each boat.
When we were visiting they were all busy fishing and
some were moored a short distance away.
Seven or eight almost naked men were diving to seach
for trepang on the sea bed.
The skipper of each small craft alone remained in
the boat and did not dive.
The blazing sun hurled down its rays on their heads
without causing them any discomfort; there is no
European who could stand up to such a job for more
than a month.
It was close to noon, and the Malay captain told us
this was the best time to fish for trepang.
And, in fact, we could see each of the divers coming
back to the surface every time holding at least one
and sometimes two fish in each hand.
It appears that the higher the sun is in the sky,
the more easily they can see and catch their quarry.
The divers only just appeared on the surface to
throw into the boat the fish they caught before
immediately diving again.
When these small boats had a big enough load they
were replaced by empty boats and taken to the beach
on the island.
I followed one of them to watch the cooking of the
trepang it was carrying.
The trepang or holothurian of Raffles Bay is almost
five to six inches long with a diameter of two
It is a fat fleshy mass, cylindrical in form and it
is hard to distinguish any organ on the outside.
This mollusc sticks to the sea bed and as it is
capable of only very slow movement, the Malays catch
The first requirement of a good fisherman is to be
able to dive perfectly and have a trained eye to
pick it out on the sea floor.
To preserve it, the fishermen throw it alive into a
cauldron of boiling sea water, which is constantly
stirred with a long wooden pole that they rest on a
fork stuck in the ground to act as a lever.
The trepang loses the water that it contains and
after two minutes or so it is taken out of the
A man using a large knife opens it up to clean out
the intestines, then it is thrown back into another
boiler where it is again heated in a very small
amount of water and wattlebark.
In the second boiler a lot of smoke is produced from
the burning of the bark.
The purpose of the second operation seems to be to
smoke the animal to ensure its preservation.
Lastly, from there the trepang is placed on frames
and left in the sun to dry out.
After that it only remains to pack it on board.
It was 2 p.m. when the divers stopped their fishing
and came ashore.
Soon my tent was surrounded by them.
Amongst them I recognized the skipper of the prau I
had visited in the morning; he came closer and
examined minutely all the physics apparatus that was
in the observatory and wanted to know its use.
A gun I had beside me amazed him, especially when I
gave him a demonstration of the superiority of its
mechanism to that of a flintlock.
He told me these weapons were still unknown in the
Celebes where he came from, but I remained
unconvinced about that.
Then later, as he was questioning me about the
places we had already visited and those we intended
to go to, I ventured to draw for him on a piece of
paper a sketch of the map of New Holland, New
Zealand and New Guinea.
Then he took the pencil from my hand and added the
whole of the Indies archipelago, the coast of China
and Japan, not overlooking the Philippines.
Surprised, I asked him in my turn if he had been to
all these places; he replied in the negative, but
adding at the same time that he knew the exact
position of all those lands, and that he could
easily take his boat there.
He finished up asking me for a glass of arrack.
I do not know if this worthy Malay professes the
Muslim religion, but what I do know is that he
drank half a bottle of wine and half a litre of
arrack without any apparent ill effects at all.
He then offered me some prepared trepang, urging
me to taste it.
I found that this fish when processed had a
taste very like lobster; my men thought it was
very good and gratefully accepted the captain's
As for myself I felt an insurmountable
repugnance to even tasting it.
Trepang is sold in the Chinese markets;
according to the information our Malay skipper
was able to give us, the price of the foodstuff
would be between fifteen rupees (about
thirty-two francs) a pikul of 125 pounds.
He estimated his cargo as worth about 3000
francs; three months is enough to get it.
Since time immemorial Malay fishermen have
exclusively exploited this trade, and it will
always be difficult for Europeans to set up any
competition to them because of the economy the
Malays can apply to the equipping of their
boats, thanks to the excessive sobriety of these
men who are both intelligent and energetic.
It was nearly 4 p.m. when the Malays finished
In less than half an hour they had stowed
their harvest on board, the sheds were taken
down and, with the boilers, put on to the boats
which were preparing to set sail.
At 8 p.m. they had hoisted their sails and were
on their way out of the bay.
Island, Raffles Bay
and Port Essington,
Raffles Bay and Port Essington :
Lieutenant Barlatier Demas of Astrolabe
... Later on, at the
very moment we least expected it, two kangaroos
did bound out about ten yards from us: they made
prodigious leaps, and each time they came down
they struck the ground with great blows of their
strong tails to propel them upwards again; we
fired, but they were already out of range.
Back on the beach, we were surprised to see a
small cutter flying the British flag and pennant
moored between the two corvettes. There was no
boat on shore; luckily about a
hundred yards further on we found a savage with
a little bark canoe: he had a basket on his
back, I dropped a note in it and pointed to Astrolabe;
this chap understood me with an intelligence I
never would have expected.
He paddled out to Astrolabe, handed my note to
the first sailor he saw on deck and soon they
came to fetch us.
We were parched; we had walked for twelve hours
without finding a drop of drinkable water.
In the evening we saw two canoes coming out to
the ship carrying eight or ten savages.
They are indeed the most miserable race we have
seen so far: the poor wretches were half-starved
and jabbered the word bread, bread; to make us
better understand what they wanted, they slapped
their hollow bellies to arouse our pity.
The canoes in which they had paddled out to the
ship were tree trunks crudely hollowed out,
without sails, and for paddles they had only
bits of poorly trimmed wood.
Bowen Strait and Croker Island
Enseigne Coupvent Desbois of Zelee
I left on the 29th [March] in the morning to
explore the Bowen Strait.
The work had taken longer than I expected:
eighteen miles of channel to sound and forty
miles of coastline to chart in three days left
me little time to waste.
We had lit our camp-fires on the beach.
While poking about around our bivouac, the
sailors found two roughly-made bark canoes with
room for two people at the most, even in calm
weather; we left them alone, assuming they were
the property of natives probably living in the
interior of the island.
Our friends from the morning had not lost sight
of us, for a canoe like the ones we had found on
the beach was in the centre of the channel,
coming from one of the bays we had charted the
It was steering towards us and a little later we
recognized our guide and one of his companions,
who settled in confidently among us; from their
canoes they brought mussels which served them as
food; they offered us some and our sailors had a
feast; to open them they left them in the fire a
few minutes; they were tender and tasty ...
The Bay of Islands to
Guinea and Torres
Strait: the route of
Zellee, 23 May to 12
Tudu Island is scarcely a mile in length.
The reef surrounding it and exposed at low tide
greatly increases its extent from north to
It is a bank of sand hardly above water level,
and from the northern point on which there is a
clump of trees, the rest of this very poor soil
is saline, marshy and covered with grass and
scrub which give almost no shade.
On its southern end continually battered by the
sea, there is a small dune where about a dozen
huts can be seen.
It is on this point, the one that is most
exposed to the sun and wind, that the natives
have set up camp.
On this sandy island there is not a trickle of
drinkable water, or coconuts, indeed no
vegetable product suitable for use as food. To
procure fresh water the natives carefully
collect rain water, which is certainly abundant
in these regions.
To do this they place giant clam shells under
the pandanus trees, the leaves of which are
broad and hang down towards the ground to catch
Some of these shells were very big.
When we were there all these reservoirs were
almost full, and if, in these areas the rains
are always as plentiful as at the time we were
there, there is no doubt that they amply provide
for the needs of the population.
The natives we saw were remarkable for their
fairly tall stature and appeared robust;
however, they seemed to lead a poverty-stricken
They had quickly learned the times the crew had
their meals; they then flocked aboard our ships
to ask for pieces of hard tack that they
Apart from a few shellfish and other fish, they
had nothing to offer us in exchange.
Fish seemed to be their main source of food;
each day we saw their vessels leave the island
and make their way north to get the day's meal.
Their fishing place was a long distance away.
The first time we saw these boats loaded with
women and children heading in that direction, we
thought they were terror-stricken at our
proximity and wanted to get away to avoid any
When our officers went to the village they found
all the huts deserted; they had purposely
removed their women and children to protect them
from being pursued by Europeans.
We noticed there spears tipped with iron points
and some axes.
In all probability these men have frequent
contact with English ships.
they were armed with bows and arrows which they
certainly had not been able to get on their own
These weapons very much resembled those of the
Papuans and I am sure they came from New Guinea.
The natives of Tudu Island go round stark naked;
their skin is black; their hair is frizzy; their
build slight; they are healthier than the
Australian natives and seem also to be more
industrious and enterprising.
They do a raised tattooing that lines their
shoulders with fleshy pads arranged like the
fringes of epaulettes.
They seemed to us to be gentle and shy and
affectionate, but we might have found them tough
and fierce if a smaller number had fallen into
Our weapons frightened them quite a bit, and the
trouble they had gone to to hide their womenfolk
is sufficient indication of the extent to which
our proximity alarmed them.
Beside the village we saw about thirty canoes on
One of them was more than ten metres long.
It was hollowed out of a single tree trunk,
obviously not from their island and probably
from New Guinea.
All these canoes were decorated with crude
carvings, the prow of one of them represented an
old man with a long beard of seaweed.
We also noticed tombs, over which were heaped
pyramids of skulls and bones of dugong.
It appears that the coral reefs of Torres Strait
are the true home of this seal species, of which
the expedition already had a specimen, thanks to
the kindness of M. Stuers the Governor-General
of the Moluccas.
We do not know whether the natives ate the flesh
of these animals, but what is certain is that
they caught a lot of them, for, on the northern
part of the island we saw a huge quantity of
their remains, forming ossuaries intended as
decoration for the sepulchres; using the ribs of
these animals they had been able to construct
walls one to one and a half metres high by
nearly two metres thick.
The skulls were piled up sometimes into a
pyramid; sometimes they were suspended from the
surrounding trees with very big shells. Footnote M. Dumoulin,
as in MonsieurDumoulin, and
used for all the officers,MM for plural.
References Dumont D'Urville: Voyage au Pôle Sud et dans
l’Oceanie (Voyage to the South Pole and Oceania),
Gide, Paris 1846-1855. Bibliothèque nationale de france http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k976992
Dumont D'Urville: Two Voyages to the South Seas,
Volume 1: Astrolabe 1826-1829
Translated by Helen Rosenman
Melbourne University Press, 1987.