Peron was born in Cerilly in 1775, the son of a harness maker. He enlisted in the revolutionary army in 1792 and was taken prisoner. During this time he lost an eye but he was able to return home safely in 1794. He began studying medicine but when he heard of the Baudin expedition he pestered long and hard to be included as part of the scientific team. Baudin's expedition was much larger than Flinders's. There were two ships, Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste, a team of twenty two civilian scientists, anthropologists, botanists, mineralogists and natural history artists to name but a few. Both ships carried a huge amount of equipment for measuring, collecting, drawing and storing. Napoleon's France had a much grander vision for this expedition than the British had for the Flinders journey. However, bad luck and terrible sickness plagued the expedition all the way and it didn't end up quite the way that had been planned.
Baudin selected Peron at the last minute as the expedition's field anthropologist (but served also as a zoologist) and ended up disliking him intensely. In fact on the eve of the voyage Peron described himself as being argumentative, difficult to get along with, a know-all and a maker of enemies! As it turned out, Peron disliked Baudin just as much. Both men wrote journals about the expedition and both men have a go at each other throughout the books. Peron accuses Baudin of being obstinate, full of fault, a wretched tyrant, an oaf, a fool and utterly incompetent as a sailor. Peron blamed Baudin for all the problems that the expedition encountered, even those that were clearly out of Baudin's control. Ironically, though it was Baudin's responsibility to select the names for coastal features being named by the expedition, Peron ended up as the expedition member with the greatest number of Australian coastal features named in his honour.
Peron Peninsula, Shark Bay, Western Australia
Baudin's task was to explore and map New Holland or Terra Australis as it was also known. The British had already established a convict settlement on the east coast at Port Jackson. At the time both Empires were suspicious of each other. The French wanted to chart and map the far west and southern coasts of the continent for scientific purposes but also with the possibility of laying claim to some of it. Both France and the British Empire had possession of islands and territory in the Pacific Ocean region and New Holland would make an ideal base to keep watch on their possessions and each other. On Flinders Investigator, there was only one botanist, Robert Brown whose main job was to collect plant specimens. Peron was part of a large team and he had many jobs to do. His studies on the voyage included anatomy, anthropology, botany, zoology, meteorology, oceanography and naval hygene! He even took it upon himself to write about the British settlement at Port Jackson., He mentioned the strengths and weakness of the British in the region and even suggested a way to mount an invasion of Port Jackson using Irish convicts!
Life was obviously very hard on board ship. Indeed as the ships were sailing to their destination in November, 1800, tempers flared and fights erupted. When the ships called in at Mauritius in 1801 many of the scientists and artists left the expedition. Sickness was a big problem that faced the Baudin expedition, especially from scurvy and dysentery. In fact of those scientists and artists who remained with the expedition when it left Mauritius for New Holland only seven survived the journey. It therefore fell to the junior members of the expedition, namely Peron, Lesueur and Petit (zoologist, natural history artist and landscape artist respectively) to take on the roles of official scientific researchers and recorders. Peron became the senior zoologist.
New Holland: New South Wales. Spotted-tail quoll. "A Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere" by Francois Peron and Louis Freycinet. L'Imprimerie Imperiale, Paris 1807-16. Charles-Alexandre LESUEUR. Jean Dominique Etienne CANU
On the voyage Peron and Lesueur became lifelong friends and colleagues. Lesueur began the expedition as an merely an artist but under the guidance of his new friend he developed many extra skills. Peron instructed Lesueur in scientific, zoological and botanical studies. He taught him the art of taxidermy and how to hunt and trap animals. Through Peron, Lesueur perfected the use of colour and precise attention to detail in his drawings. Peron took it upon himself to study the tiny soft marine creatures of the Australian waters. At King George Sound he collected some 1060 new species of seashells and a vast collection of starfish. Lesueur was always at the ready with brush and many of the images he captured remain deeply admired and treasured today. Encouraged by Peron, Lesueur draw a wide range of Australian animals in strict scientific pose and detail. These include emu from Kangaroo Island (believed to be an extinct species), platypus, fish and frogs. Many species of birds and animals were trapped and killed and put into specimen jars filled with alcohol to preserve them.
Point Peron, near Perth, Western Australia
Peron proved to be a great help to both Lesueur and Petit as they tried to make drawings of Indigenous Australians. He would dance about and play the fool to cause a distraction while the artists quickly drew their subjects. The Indigenous Australians were mostly cooperative but at times they did get fed up and even angry with the Frenchmen. Several times pistols and muskets had to be raised. Petit narrowly escaped being clubbed by an extremely angry Indigenous Australian. He had made a grab for the sketches that Petit had drawn On another occasion Peron had a long hat pin driven into his leg by an Indigenous Australian. At the end of the expedition Peron and Lesueur had collected what is considered to be most complete and best documented collection of marine natural history. Over one hundred thousand species of animals had been collected and stored in thirty three large packing cases aboard Le Naturaliste.
Upon completion of the expedition Peron and Lesueur returned to France in 1804. They set about the task of publishing the results of the expedition. When the two presented their large and impressive collection, the professors at the Museum d'Histrorie Naturelle in Paris were very excited. While the professors were excited Napoleon appeared to have lost interest in the project. There was some delay in actually getting down to work and publishing the findings in writing. Finally in late 1804, in a crowded apartment near the Museum, the two friends spent their time cataloguing specimens and getting their living plant and animal specimens used to living in a new country. Lesueur worked on producing watercolours from the sketches he had done in Australia. He exhibited some of them at the Museum in the hope that he might gain the place as their resident artist but he was not successful.
In 1806 the Emperor Napoleon himself gave permission for Lesueur and Peron to publish their findings in a Journal to be called Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes, written by Peron and illustrated with forty plates by Lesueur. They were issued a pension or salary to support them as they worked on it. The first volume appeared in 1807, which included many of Lesueur's drawings. Peron also worked on a journal of the expedition called Memoire sur les establissements anglais a la Nouvelle Hollande. In this journal he combined accounts of the scientific work that was done, harsh criticism of Baudin and full and flowery praise for himself! Before the second volume of Voyage? was completed, Peron took ill and died of tuberculosis in 1810. The directorship of the project was taken over by Louis de Freychinet, the map maker and surveyor who had been aboard the Naturaliste The second volume was eventually published in 1816.
Peron is described as the first informed zoologist to land in Australia. He collected an enormous amount of material and his extensive fieldwork and attention to detail was ahead of its time. The extensive collections of Peron and Lesueur remained undisplayed in the Museum national d'histoire naturelle Paris along with all the meticulous recordings of animal specimens. It wasn't until 1846 that Lesueur finally got hold of his drawings and Peron's materials. From the time of Baudin's expedition, nearly two hundred years would pass before a visual record of the work of Peron and Lesueur was brought to public view.