Launch speech — Hobart 30th April 2003

Edward Duyker's Citizen Labillardiere:

A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755-1834)

Melbourne University Press

Thank you very much to Hobart Bookshop for providing such a great venue for this launch – which is actually the launch, the national launch of this very important book which is manna from heaven for those of us campaigning to save the forests in Tasmania at the moment.

I have to confess at the outset that I've only just met Edward. Of course, I know about his works, and have a particular fondness for his style – his particular style of being able to present so much information that you feel you know the subject of the story, even when there's a paucity of information, even where there's a gap of centuries. The work that has gone into this book is prodigious. Right at the outset, Edward points out that there are only sixty or so letters extant that this man wrote (I'm going to try the pronunciation in a little while) and therefore it's very difficult to get a bead on his psychology. He's described – and I'm paraphrasing here – as having been 'a grump', and a bit of a dour character: so I have a great affinity with him right from the start. He was also meticulous; he was a republican at a time when it wasn't quite as easy to be a republican as it is today; and the thing that strikes a chord with me, he was one of the great travellers of the age. As you'll find, Labillardiere went to the Atlas Mountains, the cedars of Lebanon, to New Caledonia, Indonesia, to Tasmania twice and this book chronicles the life and travels of this man from cradle to grave. You feel like you've just got to know more. That's the mark of a great biography; and this is a great biography.

'Labillardiere' is not an easy name to run off our tongues. Edward points out that his sons have an easy way of getting around that: simply say 'la de da'. We Tasmanians have a fondness for dealing with difficult words from other languages – not least, the French. The air in Tasmania is the cleanest in the world — we all know that – but at this time of the year due to forestry regeneration burn-offs, it gets somewhat sullied. And looking out the car window the other day as I saw thunderclouds above where a forestry regeneration burn was adding monumentally to global warming through the burning of our forests, I couldn't think otherwise than 'the bloody air' due to forestry. Well now, if you've rudimentary French like me, you'll know that 'la' in French is 'the' in English. The peninsula on Bruny Island that's named after Labillardiere, if you have difficulty with it, has become in Tasmanian 'La Bloody Air'. You'll be able to pronounce it more readily if you remember that way. And Recherche Bay has become 'Research Bay' in Tasmania.

It's interesting that these colloqualisms — our versions of the French — go back to a very rich history that's largely unknown, in localities in Tasmania, in Australia. I don't want to under or overstate it, but Labillardiere's part in D'Entrecasteau's voyages of discovery and in search of the lost hero of France, La Perouse, to Recherche Bay, twice – in 1792 and again in 1793 — is one of the most fascinating scientific essays that you could want to examine. It's like us taking a trip to Mars – a forested Mars, at that – and then finally on the second trip round finding that there are Martians there after all. The description of finding the indigenous people of Tasmania, the Palawa, in the Southport Lagoon area, by these voyagers is fascinating.

It's so different to what happened when the British arrived a little later. It's such a marvellous interaction between indigenous people from one part of the world and indigenous people of another part of the world, with totally different cultures and languages.

Before I leave you to dip into this book, let me mention that Labillardiere shot a fantail and a swift parrot for his collection. We'd slap him — not over the wrist but with a writ — on both counts if he were to do it now. The French also shot two crows (Tasmanian ravens) or rooks as Labillardiere described them, for breakfast on their first day ashore. They ate these with, as he said, great delicacy.

They attempted on the second trip, a journey overland from near Cockle Creek towards La Perouse, before recognising that the Tasmanian countryside was too much for them. It's here that Labillardiere writes: 'Solitary in the midst of these silent woods, the mystery of which was half disclosed to me by the feeble gleam of the stars, I felt myself penetrated with a sentiment of admiration of the grandeur of nature which it is beyond my power to express.'

If only he were Premier.

I'm going to finish with a short description of that interaction with the indigenous people, from Edward's work. 'Inevitably some of the sailors thought that social intercourse might lead to sexual intercourse.' (This is the French sailors of course, and we're talking about indigenous people here). 'But their isolated advances to the naked local girls were quickly rebuffed.' We're told of the need to intervene to soothe the feelings of one Aboriginal man, upset by the advances of sailors towards his female kin. Labillardiere recorded that one crew member 'boasted of the favours he had received from one of the beauties of Cape Demon'. It is difficult to say how far his story was founded on truth. Van Dieman's Land was not Tahiti, and while Van Dieman's Land was not Arabia either, Labillardiere found the local songs reminded him of 'those of the Arabs of Asia Minor', noting that 'several times two of them' – this is the Aboriginal people – 'sang the same tune at once, but always one a third above the other, forming a concord with the greatest justness'.

For their part, the Aborigines had mixed reactions to European musical instruments. When a crew member played the flute, they lent an attentive ear and coveted the instrument. However, on 10th February, 1793, when Labillardiere visited a large group of eighty-four Aborigines in the company of one of the expedition who played the violin, the indigenes' reactions were such that the stunned musician actually dropped his bow. Labillardiere tells us that they were all seen 'stopping thir ears with their fingers, they wanted no more'. Young children busied themselves, trying to remove buttons from the Frenchmen's jackets, at times succeeding with the aid of the knives they had just been given.

Wonderful material! And there's so much more in this beautiful book. I recommend that you tell many others about it. The book is also a great contribution to the unfolding struggle to protect Recherche's Bay, Northeast Peninsula – for its fascinating history of just a few weeks of the history of the French expedition in a beautiful place. Let's hope that the campaign to save the peninsula, now threatened with clearfell logging, will be a winning one, so that might be part of Tasmania's glory and joy – and the French's glory and joy – and the world's glory and joy, right into the future. Congratulations Edward, I have great pleasure in launching your book.