Search This Blog

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Woman of Great Courage

Rose de Freycinet, lover, seafarer, castaway
A favourite in my bookshelf is a handsome translation of the letters of Rose de Freycinet, who stowed away on the corvette Uranie to sail around the world with her handsome husband, Captain Louis-Claude de Freycinet, and endured shipwreck on the homeward lap of the voyage. Called A Woman of Courage. The Journal of Rose de Freycinet on her Voyage around the World 1817-1820, her amazingly intimate and confiding correspondence was translated and edited by Marc Serge Rivière, and published by the National Library of Australia.

Dressed in blue frock-coat and trousers, 22-year-old Rose stole on board just after midnight on September 17, 1817, the day that the expedition sailed from Toulon. Her heart beat with fear and excitement, but the tolerant French officers welcomed her into the afterquarters, toasting her brave feat in wine. And, despite her cross-dressing, her illegal presence did not stay a secret for long. On October 4, the Monitor Universel declared, “This example of conjugal devotion deserves to be made public.” Reportedly, Louis XVIII was amused.

By contrast, the Lieutenant-Governor of Gibraltar, the first official to receive visitors from Uranie, was scandalized, and the French Ministry of the Navy was not very happy about it, either. One result of this was that every now and then the two artists of the expedition, Pellion and Arago, painted the same scene twice, one work being true to life, and the other sans Madame. This subterfuge was necessary for the official record, Voyage autour du Monde…exécuté sur les corvettes de S. M. l’Uranie et La Physicienne, which was prepared by de Freycinet and published between 1827 and 1839.

From Gibraltar, the expedition sailed for Western Australia via Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Mauritius, and Bourbon Island, and from there to Timor, the Moluccas, the Marianas, Guam, and Hawaii, arriving in Port Jackson on November 18, 1819. These “stopovers” (as the fluent and readable translation dubs them) were all described with great attention to detail by Madame, presenting a vivid and novel view of these places, partly due to the writer’s bright, pert personality, but also because she was so very French. For surely only a Frenchwoman would observe that a certain Australian lady was not just “very pretty,” but had “a ravishing ankle, or so Louis noticed!”

Departing from Sydney on Christmas Day, the corvette rounded Cape Horn on February 6, 1820, struck a submerged rock, and was deliberately beached in the Falkland Islands so that as much as possible of the scientific collection could be salvaged before the ship broke up. The party camped on the shore (Madame slept on a plank set up on two casks, with just a sarong for covering, but never complained). Their plight was soon noticed. Two American vessels – the whaler General Knox and the trader Mercury arrived, but alas, the captains were more avaricious than Christian. Instead of rescuing the desolate Frenchmen (and one Frenchwoman), they vied with each other to charge the most to carry the party to Rio. This was finally resolved, after many complicated maneuvers, by buying the Mercury and taking over the ship. They promptly renamed her Physicienne, but sadly for Rose, this did not make her any more comfortable or seaworthy.

An amazing and compelling tale, highly recommended to anyone interested in early nineteenth century Pacific and life on board a discovery vessel, here described from a fresh and beguiling perspective.

1 comment:

Shayne Parkinson said...

What a wonderfully stirring tale!

By the way, Joan, I greatly enjoyed your discussion with Chris Laidlaw on Radio New Zealand this morning. Audio of the programme is available here: