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Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755–1834)

The story of a famous botanist and explorer

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755–1834), URL = <http://www.rationalrealm.com/science/reviews/citizen-labillardiere-naturalists-life.html>.

Publication Information

Duyker, Edward, Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755–1834), Carlton South, Australia: Miegunyah Press, 2003, pp. xx+383, (paperback).

1821 lithograph of sketch of Jacques Labillardière by Julien Leopold Boilly. Original lithograph in Wellcome Library, London.

This book review is a concise summary of Edward Duyker's comprehensive account of the life of botanist Jacques Labillardière through times of rapid scientific discovery and political upheaval and recounted in his Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration.

Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière served as naturalist on Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux's 1791–93 expedition to the South Pacific in search of the lost La Perouse. He was one of the founders of the sciences of botany, zoology and anthropology in Australia, publishing pioneering books on Australian and New Caledonian flora. In his works, he named many plant species.

Born in Alençon, lower Normandy, in 1755, he was the ninth of 14 children and son of a lace merchant and lace-maker Houtou. His father added the name of an estate they owned, La Billardière, to their own name. Labillardière was educated at the College Royal d'Alençon, with its excellent library and apothecaries' herbal gardens. Feeling cramped by its small-minded culture, he left at 17 to study medicine at Montpellier in Languedoc, where the new Linnaean classification was taught. However, medical lecturers stuck to early Medieval Galenic idea of diseases resulting from disordered 'humours'. In 1774, he moved to Reims and Paris, frequenting the Jardin du Roi. There, he worked with its great botanist Le Monnier, but soon abandoned medicine for natural science.

By July 1783, Anglo–French hostilities over the American independence war abated. So, he crossed to England, became fluent in English and mixed with the savants' circle around Joseph Banks. He studied Bank's collection from Cook's Endeavour voyage, while his friend, d'Heritier, became immersed in Eucalyptus classification at Kew. In 1786, he botanized in the French Alps and in Italy, developing a lifelong interest in alpine flora. In 1787 and the next year, he travelled around Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon, discovering new plant species and taking barometric readings. He then travelled to Corsica, Crete and Turkey, eventually publishing a book on the plants of Syria.

Following the terrible winter of 1788, near bankruptcy from expensive wars and aristocratic extravagance led to acute financial crisis in France that provoked the onset of revolution in 1789. Proposals of a constitutional monarchy quickly gave way to a republic, with aristocratic and clergy privileges abolished. Several friends became National Assembly delegates, magistrates or military captains. However, Labillardière remained absorbed in his Syrian botany book.

With all the political turbulence and social upheaval, the National Assembly still gave attention to the disappearance of La Pérouse's 1787–88 scientific expedition to the Pacific. In 1791, the Assembly sent Bruny d'Entrecasteaux with Huon de Kermadec and two ships, Recherche and Esperance, along with more scientists, to search for his ships around New Caledonia. Amid much tension between the royalists and republicans aboard, they left France on 28th September for a four and one half year journey.

Book cover: Citizen Labillardiere: A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755-1834) by Edward Duyker

Along the way, they botanized on the Canary Islands and at Capetown while regretting the sight of slave ships. Indian Ocean storms blew them to Recherche Bay, Tasmania, where, for some weeks, Labillardière alternated between botanizing on land (discovering ferns, the Cherry Ballart, Silver Banksia, Melaleuca, Olearia, Epacris, some eucalypts) and spending days on board organizing and describing his collections. They explored the channel, established that Bruny is an island and left their names over many land and sea features. The crew then went off around the east of Australia to New Caledonia, missing Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Islands, where some of La Pérouse's sailors yet survived, and on past New Guinea. Sailing south again to explore the southwest corner of Australia, they spent weeks at Esperance bay, botanizing while the Esperance was repaired. There, they collected many birds and found Kangaroo paw and Stipa elegantissima.

Water shortage caused the Bight survey to be aborted. So, they scooted across to Tasmania again, this time in spring, finding flowers instead of autumn fruit. Botanizing was intense for three weeks, with Labillardière finding Correa reflexa and other now well-known shrubs. He spent a lot of time with aborigines, acquiring much irreplaceable anthropological evidence of pre-contact lifestyles, vocabulary and tool-making. These people would become extinct within decades. Field trips on Bruny Island resulted in more discoveries, while other scientists did survey work, discovering the Derwent estuary.

On the return journey, they spent time in Tonga, New Caledonia, where, in May 1793, Huon de Kermadec died of illness, aged 45. Two months later, d'Entrecasteaux died suddenly of scurvy-related haemorrhaging. Arriving in Java, with most crew suffering severe scurvy, they learned that France was at war and that the king had been executed. The tensions between royalists and democrats erupted into open hostility and the expedition disintegrated. In mid-1796, after having all of their collections and documents confiscated by a British privateer and spending two years in prison in Java, they had to find their own way back to France. Through Banks' intervention, they eventually managed to recover their collections and documents. They left as the National Assembly was debating French democracy, and so missed the 10-month long Terror of 1793–94. Unfortunately, many of their friends had either been executed or exiled, or otherwise had lost their positions or fled.

Napoleon's sudden rise in the army and his invasion of northern Italy prompted a coordinated effort to loot its museums, libraries and art galleries. A group of artists and scientists was selected to manage these institutions, including Labillardière. For five months, they toured northern cities, taking charge of many crates of precious material to cart back over the Alps to Paris. Much of the treasure has never been returned. In 1799, aged 44, Labillardière married a twice-widowed woman from Alençon. He then worked on the journal of d'Entrecasteaux' voyage, which became a best-seller. In later years, Labillardière worked on several botany books, on the floras of Australia (1807) and New Caledonia (1824). These works showed what is now known as the Gondwana relationship between Australia and New Caledonia. He survived the repeated transitions from empire to democracy to monarchy, though many others were killed or persecuted. He died, aged 79, a respected recluse.

Duyker is the author of several other biographies. For this book, he has done an amazing amount of research; exploring the life histories of all Labillardière's associates, visiting every place connected with him and reading up on eighteenth century botany. In the end, he has assembled a fine biography of a most adventurous man. Some of the plants named after him, like Poa labillardierei, are standard species used in the revegetation of our city of Melbourne.

Copyright © 2016

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