Among the passages in the reports, diaries and letters written by the people on the Uranie that bring the differences between their world and ours most vividly to our attention are the references to communications, or lack of them, with the home country. In the entry in his personal diary for the 16th of July 1818, when the Uranie was moored off Mauritius, the surgeon Joseph-Paul Gaimard wrote that:
I was invited by Mr. Arrighi to a lunch [but] the arrival of one of my comrades, Adrien Bermond, surgeon aboard the Cybèle, whom I was very anxious to see, prevented me from going there. I gave Adrien a letter from his father and news of his family; he in turn told me that the Cybèle, which left France on March 16, 1817, had visited Pondicherry, Macao, Cochinchina, Manila, Malacca, etc. Some of the gentlemen from this frigate had bought some very fine birds of paradise, for the sum of four piastres a piece [Gaimard’s Diary, p. 223].
One can imagine the scene that led up to this. Bermond’s father would have given Gaimard the letter, while saying the French equivalent of “Look, old chap, I gather you’re sailing into the Indian Ocean. My son is out there. If you should happen to bump into him, give him this letter”. And the Uranie did indeed ‘bump into’ the Cybèle, off Mauritius and also off Réunion. At Réunion the bump was a real one, although it was the Cybèle that did the bumping; it joined the Uranie in the roadstead of St Denis at a moment when its captain was more interested in entertaining his passengers than in seeing to the management of his ship. The Uranie lost an anchor in that incident but at least Bermond got his letter. It is impossible to guess the odds against that happening, but there must have been thousands of letters sent out in similar fashion during the days of sail that never reached their destinations.
The other method was to specify in advance the ports to which letters could be sent, to await a vessel’s arrival. This was the tactic adopted for the Uranie, but it seems that only two such ports were nominated. The system worked well as far as Sydney was concerned, and the de Freycinets found a considerable bundle of mail waiting for them there, but the planned second visit to Cape Town never happened, because instead of being there at the appropriate time, the Uranie was beached and slowly disintegrating in Berkeley Sound in the Falklands. One wonders what happened to all the letters that were sent to Cape Town, destined to never to be opened or read.
Figure 1. Handwriting samples. Left: The beginning of the copy of Letter 4 from Rose de Freycinet to her mother, from a collection in the possession of the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Right: A part of a letter from Louis de Freycinet to his brother Henri, also in the Mitchell Library. A comparison leaves open the question of whether these two examples were written by the same person.
Writing home was a different matter, since at least home was a fixed point on the globe, but even so many letters must have never reached their destinations. We know that Rose sent at least fifteen letters to her mother that did arrive, because copies were made of that number, almost certainly by or for her husband, and these have survived and are now safely deposited in the Mitchell Library, a part of the State Library of New South Wales. They went by a variety of routes, some simple and some very complicated. The first in the series never even left France, because just before she went with Louis to board the Uranie in the Toulon roads Rose gave it to the friend who had been keeping her hidden.
The second letter would have arrived sooner than expected, because Rose took advantage of the unscheduled stop in Gibraltar, caused by the adverse winds that prevented the Uranie from leaving the Mediterranean, to send home as much as she had written up to that time. As she did so, she congratulated herself on having written things down as they happened, rather than waiting until they were in port, where she was often far too busy to put pen to paper.
Letter 3 described the unsatisfactory visit to Tenerife and Letters 4 and 5 were both sent from Rio de Janeiro, one a few days after the Uranie dropped anchor and the other just as she was leaving. Letter 6 went from Cape Town and had so little to say about the town that one wonders whether Louis, in copying it out, decided to act the censor and omit any references to the DeLettre family with whom they were staying. What Rose wrote about them in her journal, written for her close friend Caroline de Nanteuil, was certainly not complimentary, and Charles Duplomb, who edited the first published edition, represented the name by a row of asterisks.
Letters 7 and 8 both covered parts of the visit to Mauritius, but Letter 8 was sent from Réunion and described the stay there also. The comments Rose made about the Desbassaynes family, and particularly about Jeanne Eglé Morgue, wife of the Intendant, were much more muted in the letter than in the journal, but this might have been due to discretion rather than subsequent censorship. Her mother would undoubtedly have wanted to show her letters to other people, and Rose could not be sure how widely they might be read.
At Shark Bay at the extreme western tip of Western Australia there was no prospect of despatching any mail, and in Letter 9, which was sent from Timor to Batavia (now Jakarta) just before the Uranie left the Dutch settlement of Kupang, Rose described the visits to both Shark Bay and Kupang. Letter 10 was very brief, but its route to France would have been a remarkable one. The Uranie spent almost two weeks becalmed within sight of Timor and vainly attempting to enter the Banda Sea via the Ombay Strait, and for much of that time she was in the company of an English whaling vessel in similar difficulties. The two ships were close enough to each other for visits to be exchanged, and the captain of the whaler offered to take mail back to London with him, from where it could be forwarded to Paris. Rose seized the opportunity with delight, noting at the start of her letter that that:
….. the Captain, a very good fellow, has been to dine on board and, being due to go to England in six months, he suggested that he take charge of a letter which will prove, if it reaches you, that we wish to waste no opportunity of writing to you.
and at its end:
I am so pleased with the unforeseen opportunity presented by the goodwill of the English whaler that I am convinced that this letter will reach you, perhaps even before the one that that goes via Batavia
Such were communications in the days of sail, when correspondents could take pleasure in the thought that their letters might reach their destinations in not much more than six months!
It was at this point that Duplomb switched from Rose’s journal to Rose’s letters, because the section of the journal covering the voyage from Timor to Sydney has disappeared. Duplomb’s Chapter V ended abruptly with Rose writing that ‘the commandant sent a boat to the island of Ombay’, but this was not, in fact, the end of that particular notebook. The sentence appears in the journal as an insert a little less than half-way down FL687024 (Figure 2), and Rose not only filled the rest of that page but wrote a few lines on the page that followed. In Letter 10 she had a little more to say about the excursion to Ombay (the island is now known as Alor) but Duplomb chose not to use it, starting instead with Letter 11, which described the brief stay in Dili, in Portuguese-controlled Timor. In that letter, which was left in Dili to be forwarded at the first opportunity, Rose wrote ‘This kindly governor is also willing to promise to entrust this letter to the first ship going to Europe’. It would be interesting to know which of the three letters sent from Timor arrived first in Paris.
Figure 2. The entry in Rose’s journal that mentions the excursion to Ombay. Image from the online reproduction posted by the Mitchell library.
Rawak, on the equator north of the New Guinea ‘Bird’s Head’, was no more a place from which letters could be sent than was Shark Bay, and Letter 12 was not completed until the Uranie reached Guam. The letter left there on a Spanish ship which departed for Acapulco a few days after the Uranie arrived, but which leaked so badly that it had to return. By the time it left again, almost exactly a month later, Rose had written enough to add another letter to the packet, so Letters 12 and 13 would actually have travelled together across the Pacific, and then by land across Mexico (which was in a state of revolt) and then across the Atlantic.
Letter 14, by far the longest, completed the story of the stay on Guam and followed that with accounts of the visit to Hawaii, the discovery of the Isle Rose in the Samoas and the first few days in Sydney. It was only then that Duplomb was able to revert to the journal, but it was not a smooth transition; even though the period is covered in the letters, there is nothing in Duplomb about the early days in Sydney. This leaves out much interesting detail, and notably (and perhaps this was the reason for the omission) the tale of the theft of the Freycinet linen and silver almost as soon as they had taken up residence ashore.
Letter 15, the last in the collection, was left to be sent from Sydney when the Uranie set sail for Cape Horn. It can be assumed that Rose continued to write to her mother, since we know that she continued to write to her mother-in-law, presumably a lesser priority, but these letters seem not to have been copied.
Still, an apparently complete sequence for the voyage from Toulon to Sydney. It would seem that, in defiance of all probability, all the letters despatched by sometimes complex and circuitous routes reached their destination. There is, however, one question mark, and that concerns the third letter, which describes the visit to Tenerife. It ends with a passage in which Rose, having nothing else to write about, described how she kept herself occupied when at sea – a passage that could well have been written on board before they left the island, or when she was ashore and confined to the Lazaret. The next letter begins
You will soon receive, I hope, the news of our trouble-free passage and our arrival in Brazil. I sent this to you, in a message of a couple of words, by the packet-boat that we found was about to leave as we arrived in this harbour. Now that I am not in such a hurry, I can write to you with less brevity!
No such letter has survived, even as a copy, so it would appear that there was one letter that failed to reach its destination. If so, it is rather odd that it should have been the one that was sent by what should have been the most reliable method, a packet-boat headed for Europe. That is certainly one possibility, but it also supposes that the letter describing the visit to Tenerife was actually sent from Tenerife, a place where the French consul, Bretillard, had proved remarkably unhelpful. Would Rose have left one of her precious letters with such a man?
If she did not, was it that letter that went by the packet-boat, and was the description she provided in it of her life on board all that there was to say about the journey from Tenerife to Rio ? That is not how her journal tells the story. That part of the voyage included the ceremony of crossing the line, in which Rose took an active part.
The ceremony of the crossing of the line, as observed aboard a Nineteenth Century French warship. According to the attribution provided by Wikipedia, the vessel in question was the Méduse, a 40-gun frigate that was lost when it struck a sandbank off the west coast of Africa in 1816, and the artist was Jules de Caudin, about whom very little is known except that he was supposedly borne in 1853. The book in which the illustration reportedly first appeared (Relation complète du naufrage de la frégate La Méduse faisant partie de l’expédition du Sénégal en 1816, by A. Correard, H. Savigny, D’Anglas de Praviel and Paul C.L. Alexandre Rand des Adrets) was published in 1821! The presence of women amongst the onlookers indicates that this was indeed the vessel’s final voyage, because on that voyage it was carrying French officials and their wives as part of a project to re-establish French control in Senegal after its occupation by the British. On that voyage, however, the Méduse never crossed the equator.
Whatever the problems with these conflicting ‘facts’, what is being shown is not very different from what took place on the Uranie in late 1818.
There seem to be two possibilities. Either Letter 3 was sent by Rose from Tenerife, despite her well-founded distrust of the French consul, and the letter she sent almost immediately after the Uranie anchored in the roads of Rio de Janeiro never arrived. If this is the case, then it is surprising that there is no mention in Letter 3 of how it was being sent, because Rose provided that sort of information for all the fourteen other letters in the collection.
Alternatively, Letter 3 might be the letter that went with the packet boat, despite being a message of ‘only a couple of words’, but Louis chose not to copy the part dealing with the voyage from Tenerife to Rio. That might be understandable if we suppose that the description of the crossing of the line formed the major part of it. Of this event Gaimard provided the following description:
At six o’clock on the 18th the King of the Line sent a messenger to the commandant who, after having hailed him, demanded to know his name and that of his ship. At 10 o’clock on the 19th the traditional ceremonies were begun. Madame de Freycinet came with very good grace to receive her baptism; she was the first and set an example of the obedience due to the supreme will of that yellow-bearded sovereign whom sailors have honoured from time immemorial. This example was followed by all those amongst the officers and crew whom the King had not previously seen in his domains. The evening was very cheerful; the sailors had double rations and were joined in their celebrations by several of the officers and midshipmen, and M. and Madame de Freycinet honoured them with their presence. (Gaimard’s Diary, p. 144)
This all seems harmless enough, but perhaps not very dignified, which might have been enough for it to be removed. Duplomb certainly left out some sections of Rose’s journal that he considered discreditable to the French Navy and might be thought unduly sensitive in that respect. A hundred years earlier Louis may have had similar scruples. This seems the more likely of the two solutions, but it does raise a very important question.
How much else was omitted from the copies that we have?