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On 14 February 1820, the French corvette Uranie, in the last stages of what was planned to be a science-based circumnavigation of the globe, was entering Berkeley Sound in East Falkland when it struck a rock and began to sink. Herculean efforts on the pumps by the crew  in the middle of the night kept the vessel afloat long enough to reach the sandy beach of what is now known as Uranie Bay, but she could not be refloated. It was to be two-and-a-half months before the castaways were able to leave the islands. Four of the people aboard the corvette left written records of the event that survive to this day, and although similar in many respects, the comparison is still interesting. Inevitably, one of these accounts was written by the ship’s captain, who was also the expedition commander.  

Berkeley Sound. Contemporary map from James Weddell’s Voyage towards the South Pole, annotated to show the locations of the collision and the final resting place of the Uranie.

The captain’s story 

Although Louis de Freycinet, the captain of the Uranie, would have delivered a report on its loss to the Ministre de la Marine almost immediately after his return to France, it was not until very much later that his version of the event was published, in the last of the six volumes of the Historique, the narrative section of his massive Voyage autour du Monde, on which he worked for the rest of his life and yet still failed to complete. It contains more details of the actual collision than any of the other accounts and, since it would have drawn extensively on his the reports he wrote much earlier with an eye to the subsequent court martial (at which he was fully exonerated and after which he received promotion to Capitaine de vaisseau), it emphasises, and possibly over-emphasises, just how unlucky he was. His mention of La Pérouse, however, is made with hindsight. The fate of that expedition did not become known until several years later, when the place where his two ships were wrecked was found in the Solomons by Dumont D’Urville.

Louis de Freycinet, Voyage autour du Monde, Historique v.2.2, pp. 1232-1235. Chez Pillet Ainé, Imprimeur-Libraire. Paris, 1839

When we arrived at the entrance to French Bay, the sky was clear, the sea very beautiful, and a pleasant breeze propelled us at a speed of five knots; lookouts placed at the masthead and in the bows saw nothing likely to cause us concern; soundings were being taken from the chains, and the entire crew was at their posts ready for anchoring. At 5:45 in the afternoon, the lead, which until then had found no bottom at 20 fathoms, indicated rocks at this depth, and shortly only 18 fathoms; we were then only about half a league from land. Out of prudence I thought it necessary to move a little further from it, and I therefore altered course by two points, a precaution that was to become so disastrous for us! It was in fact at the moment when everything seemed to going according to our wishes, that the corvette was suddenly stopped by a violent impact on a submerged rock! The lead at that moment indicated 5 fathoms to starboard, and 12 to port, so that the fatal reef that we had just struck had a width less than that of the corvette: it was like the top of a church steeple.

By sharply backing all the sails, we easily refloated the vessel; but we soon feared, from seeing various pieces of wood scattered on the surface of the sea, that the hull of the Uranie had been seriously damaged, as was unfortunately the case. Having immediately sounded the hold, the master caulker found at first 15 inches of water, then soon 27 and 35 inches. Our royal pumps were immediately brought into use, and very quickly also the rotary pumps: the whole crew, and the officers, were employed in operating them. But with anguish I realised that these means, although very powerful, would suffice merely to lessen the inflow! I immediately set to work for fothering, a technique which consists, as we know, of sewing mesh to a sail and then sliding it under the vessel, so that it enters the opening through which the water is coming and reduces the flow.

Due to our particular situation, this laborious and difficult operation was less successful than we had hoped and, despite all our efforts with this method and with the pumps, the water still increased in the hold. I therefore had to consider beaching the corvette, so as to at least save the crew and the results of the expedition.

Soon the wind turned against us, and the night, which did not take long to envelop us in its shadows, added still more to the difficulties of our position. But what a night, great God! …… We had to tack to reach the far end of French Bay, the only place where we could hope to find a sandy cove sheltered from the waves and suitable to receive our vessel. To think of running the corvette ashore on the steep and rocky shores that we were alongside, would have been to expose ourselves to certain loss, of both lives and property. We would then have been even less fortunate than the crews of La Pérouse, for no one would ever have known what our fate had been; everything would have been swallowed up in the deep sea!

As has been said, everyone on board was employed in working the pumps, and I temporarily exempted only the small number who were essential to operating the sails. However, and despite our efforts, the water was still gaining within the ship, and it was already half full of water, while the contrary breeze forced us to continue to tack. In this truly terrible situation, the tack led us to a small rocky cove, where the less experienced would have liked me to abandon the corvette, and one of them even dared to venture to give me the advice; I in turn made him understand that, having been brought on board to obey and not to give advice, he should return to his post. The poor boy did not see to what extent the manoeuvre he had contemplated would have been unwise. Far from thinking like him, I did not hesitate to tack again to run offshore, hoping to be able, on the next tack, to get abreast of Penguin Island, where I was certain of finding a more secure refuge; but, as if everything conspired to test us during this agonising night, the breeze, already weak, suddenly failed altogether, and forced us to drop anchor a mile from land to the east of Penguin Island. It was then 11 o’clock at night.

I felt it was impossible to remain in this cruel situation for long; the crew was tired, and the water, already at the level of the lower deck, was still gaining. The need to run aground became more and more urgent and strengthened the desire we all felt for the return of the breeze and the safety of the crew.

In order to make use of this enforced pause, I despatched the skiff under the command of M. Duperrey, to search, in the area to the SW of our anchorage, for a suitable place for the corvette to run aground; because I saw clearly that I must abandon the plan to enter the harbour of Saint-Louis. Until then, the need to manoeuvre had prevented all our boats from being put to sea; we then did this, and found in the action a last hope of salvation, in the event of the ship sinking beneath us.

From the first moments of our disaster, the powder and some weapons had been protected from damp in one of our boats, and we had placed in the poop all the biscuit it had been possible to save from the storeroom before the sea entered it.

However, the pumping continued with force and without interruption, each man encouraging his companions with the continued singing of improvised song. The tunes sung by each of the two divisions of the crew still resound, and will perhaps always resound, in my ears. During the ten dreadful hours of our agony they excited not only the ardour, but I would almost say the cheerfulness, of the crew.

It was, says M. Quoy,  a sublime and imposing spectacle when contemplated dispassionately, to see in the night 120 French people at the ends of the world, close to a deserted island in a little-known place, seeking to save their shattered ship from destruction, and whose last words, if the abyss had opened beneath them, would have been cries of joy (This conduct, says M. Gaimard, recalls the noble devotion of the ship Le Vengeur, whose heroic action was immortalized in a few verses by Lebrun.

But from the waves the victim,/ Like the Avenger it is beautiful to perish / It is beautiful, when fate plunges you into the abyss / To appear to conquer it).

On the 15th, at about 1 a.m., a slight breeze having arisen, we hurriedly set out again and headed for the coast to the south of Penguin Island, without waiting any longer for M. Duperrey to return. The tide then turned, and favoured a movement which the extreme weakness of the wind would otherwise have made impossible. We met, during this journey, with the boat of this able officer; he had found the long sandy beach marked on Pernetty‘s map, and was able to direct us with certainty to the part of the coast most suitable for us to beach. I would have liked to place the corvette perpendicular to the shore, but the uncertainty of our movements, during a very dark night, combined with the extreme weakness of the breeze, caused us to approach it a little askew, with the sea to starboard; it was then 3 a.m.

Unfortunately when we ran aground, signalled by three extremely light tremors, it was almost low tide and for that reason the pumps were not stopped immediately; it was first necessary to secure the sails and carry a throw-anchor ashore to prevent, as far as was possible, the corvette from turning parallel to the coast; the lower yards were also brought down to be deployed as props but, despite this precaution, we were not able to prevent the corvette from tilting strongly to starboard, increasing until it reached 20 degrees. It was 4 a.m. when we stopped pumping. At that moment the fatigue of our men was such that it was necessary to cease every kind of work, and allow the crew to rest, which was all the more essential as our situation would force us to carry out a host of very arduous operations.

The surgeon’s story

The voyage of the Uranie was for science, but there were no professional scientists on board. On the previous Baudin expedition such people had proved to be fractious and uncooperative, and de Freycinet, with the full support of the Minister of the Navy, had opted instead to have an unusual number of medical staff, and have them carry out the scientific work as well. Twelve years later the more senior of the two surgeons on board, Jean-René Quoy, published his own account of the shipwreck and the subsequent stay in the Falklands. In his memoirs, he wrote that “I then had some dealings with the Revue des Deux Mondes and its cross-eyed editor. At that time she was not the great lady she is now and would not have offered herself for a million. She was, on the contrary, very modest and kept on its frontispiece America, which it has since neglected, along with Europe. I only gave her two unpaid and unsigned articles. One related to our shipwreck on the Uranie ……”

Jean-René Constant Quoy, Un Naufrage, Revue des Deux Mondes, v. I – II, 1831, p.455-457 

…………  next day the coasts of America and the settled lands were far behind us. We [456] had rounded one of these great capes, home of storms and eternal ice, and when the green coasts of the Falkland Islands appeared before us, we considered as completed a journey begun on an easterly heading more than two and a half years before.

Exhausted after a long and difficult navigation, we greeted with joy a land that promised us some days of calm and rest. On a beautiful autumn evening, we were heading swiftly towards the haven when an uncharted rock halted the ship in her course and ripped open her hull. The shock was violent, the danger immediate. Water entered with force; we ran to the pumps, which were those of a first-rate vessel. It was in vain: more entered than we could expel. Little by little we saw our ship filling and sinking; all our efforts were just keeping it afloat. Some among us, nonetheless, would on occasion leave the pumps to manoeuvre, to alter course, and to try to tack to reach the shore, which was several leagues away. An almost complete calm was combined with a dark night: we heard no noise except that of our arms working on the handles of the pumps, and of the swirls of water rushing into the hold of the corvette. Nonetheless, something inspiring emerged from this desperate position, and there was pride in the sight of one hundred and twenty Frenchmen, far from their homeland and at the ends of the world, fighting with song against their imminent destruction; for if the ship had suddenly sunk, the last sounds that would have been heard would have been cries of joy. At this moment there was perhaps just one single thought that saddened these young people, who did not fear death; it was to see in their midst a young woman, the honour and model of her sex, exposed to a danger that her marital love had brought her to face. The admiration she inspired led us to leave the deck for a moment to try to save her from the catastrophe that could suddenly occur, because imperative duty did not allow the one naturally charged with this task to take care of her. We found her, as she always was, calm and resigned. But we could do nothing, and we must all perish or escape together.

We entered slowly into an immense bay. Our strength, exhausted by nine hours of excessive toil, would no longer allow us to keep the water with which the ship was filling to a level that would keep her from sinking when she grounded on the beach. It was two o’clock in the morning, and day had not yet dawned. The crew, overwhelmed with fatigue, stretched out during the manoeuvres and took a few moments of rest.

The wife’s story

The ‘young woman, the honour and model of her sex’ mentioned by Quoy was the captain’s wife, Rose de Freycinet, who had been smuggled aboard the Uranie the night before and became the second woman definitely known to have completed a circumnavigation of the globe. The diary she kept for her friend Caroline de Nanteuil and the letters she wrote to her mother, when brought together, provide a complete account of the voyage, from a very unusual viewpoint. Digital images of the original of the diary and copies of the letters made by her husband after her death are now in the possession of the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Rose de Freycinet, Journal pour Caroline

On the 14th, the weather having improved, we headed for French Bay, where we were to make some observations; we were nearly round the last point hiding the entrance to the anchorage when the vessel struck a rock; progress ceased for a moment, but it was handled to put it back on the course and at first the visits that were made to the stern of the vessel did not reveal anything new; we were at the table when this occurred and the impact was so weak that nothing at all was spilled; however we left the table and lacked the courage to eat elsewhere. Louis, who was on deck, had not been able to come and we left our dinner until later, not thinking then that, although we would be awake all night, we would not get anything to eat until daytime the next day. The first visit was followed by another which reported that water was entering the hold quite rapidly, probably because the piece of the rock struck by the Uranie had remained in the hole that it had made on impact and had been dislodged by the motion of the vessel.

The place where we were to anchor was very far away, and all the beaches around us were steep and bordered by rocks, so that the vessel would be lost there with everything it contained. Louis therefore put everyone to the pumps and decided that, if these could keep the vessel afloat, to reach a sandy beach and at least save what the Uranie contained, which is to say all the instruments and the results of the voyage. Was it not cruel to see two years of work and effort swallowed up in this way!

However, the water was still gaining, the wind was light and the strength of the men, who had not eaten for a long time, was beginning to be exhausted, when night came to surprise us in this terrible position…!

Alone in my cabin, and understanding all the horror of our situation, my position was all the more terrible because there was nothing useful for me to do for the common salvation. I was entirely absorbed in my thoughts, which were very painful, as to how this disaster that had happened to us might end; the worst of all was the realization that the ship might sink and that even supposing that we might with great difficulty save ourselves, it would be our fate to be cast ashore without any resources on this deserted place. I was distracted from these reflections by the arrival of the Abbé who, exhausted from a session on the pumps, came to comfort me in my isolation and pray with me to the Supreme Being, that he might look with pity upon us. After the first moments, there was a diversion that helped make the time pass more quickly than it might have seemed to do, with the water always gaining, despite the extraordinary efforts being made; the biscuit was brought up to up to the dunette, so that it at least it would remain dry. It was 1 a.m. and the wind had fallen away completely, but the courage of the sailors was sustained in an astonishing way: the officers, busy amongst them, animated them and encouraged them to sing, so that the unfortunate Uranie , half under water, resounded with songs and cries which did not suggest the state the crew should have been in, in such a difficult situation,

GOD took pity on us and sent a light breeze which moved us towards the beach where we thought we would find sand.

Louis had sent a boat with an officer to find the most suitable place to beach the corvette; we met with him and he directed the course of the corvette, which was grounded gently on the sand at 3 o’clock in the morning. Although for a ship this was the situation most to be feared, yet it was our only option and certainly it came in time to save us all, because everyone’s strength was exhausted. There was still work to be done, to prop up the vessel so that she did not fall completely on her side, but as this could not be done quickly enough, the corvette tilted a little and remaining on board was not very pleasant, walking always on a sloping deck.

The artist’s story 

In the days before photography, voyages of science and exploration were made with at least one artist to record the work. On the Uranie this position was filled by Jacques Arago, who was the younger brother of one of France’s leading scientists but a very different character, emotional, unstable (in later life he spent some time in a mental hospital) and, as Suzanne Falkiner has said, always the hero of his own narrative. That narrative, in the form of letters to a friend, was the first account of the voyage to be published after the expedition returned to France, and an English translation, from which the extract below is taken, appeared the following year. Many years later, Arago wrote a second account, in the Souvenirs d’un Aveugle, which was even more dramatic and almost certainly even less reliable.

Jacques Arago, Narrative of a Voyage around the World, pp. 237-241. Treuttel and Wurtz. London, 1823 (Translator not credited).


……….  On the morning of the 14th, the sky being quite clear, we directed our course with a very manageable breeze towards the bay, to which, for three days, all our wishes and sighs had been directed.

How rash and uncertain are all the wishes and projects of men! Here is the point which we so much desired to see, and which we supposed would put an end to all our long fatigues. Alas! on the contrary, it was to be the beginning of our misfortunes. Hitherto Providence had favoured our toilsome voyage with too many advantages. In our presumption we attributed this constant success to our own feeble exertions ; a single moment has abased our pride, humiliated our skill, and almost annihilated our resources. Our courage is all that is now left us.

We were going at the rate of about six miles an hour, the top-gallant masts on end, and the wind a-stern. The sea was smooth, the sky clear and serene ; we regarded with attention every part of a coast entirely destitute of verdure, and inhabited only by numerous flocks of birds and marine animals. We were promising ourselves, shortly, very fine sport, from the pursuit of these creatures, little accustomed to the attacks of man, and with them to increase our supplies ; our fowling-pieces were polished, our flints in order.

We were off the Cape, which forms the north point of the Bay, a mile and a half from the land, and the ship was sending the waves before her. Suddenly she strikes and stops. We all look at each other, anticipating a horrible catastrophe. The sailors themselves, in their expressive language, say to one another, ‘We are all going drink out of the large bowl!  but terror is not visible on any countenance ; and the slight murmuring which takes place at the moment of the event, is soon repressed by the pipe of the courageous boatswain commanding silence.

The people go to work, however, with great activity ; the ship tums round on the rock, and gee off;. while the indefatigable carpenter, with the sounding-rod in his hand, informs the Captain that she leaks very fast. The pumps are manned; but whether we have carried off a piece of rock in the ship’s bottom, which was thus opened, and which our progress has shaken out, or whether the leak increased as we went on from any other cause, I know not, but the four pumps are insufficient to stop the ingress of the terrible element which now threatens to swallow us.

More zeal and cheerfulness, however, are probably never displayed. During twelve consecutive hours, the crew labour with unexampled ardour; and jovial couplets recruit their nearly exhausted strength. Never perhaps in such critical circumstances did the French character show itself to greater advantage.

Can you believe that the men who have braved many dangers, experienced so many sufferings, and who had to-day a certain prospect of a happy return to their country, have not been one moment discouraged by this unexpected misfortune? Do you hear our lively and not very orthodox strains? DO you listen, as calmly as we, to the doleful noise of the water which is now destroying our provisions and our property? Do you see us sinking gradually into the ocean, yet still observing the singular aspect of the land, and the immense quantity of birds which exist there? The carpenter comes up and announces that our efforts are vain ; we are uselessly wasting our strength, the upper deck being almost under water. A sinister and gaiety never forsakes our lips. Away, away! sing with us the beautiful verses of the rival of our Pindar: Il est beau, quand le sort plonge dans l’abime, de paraitre le conquérir(Tis brave, when fate plunes us into the abyss, to appear its conquerors) Lebrun, Ode on the ship Le Vengeur. How many original sallies, how many pleasant quid-pro-quos were uttered both on the main and lower decks, whenever the progress of the leak was announced ! Pigs swimming amidst floating ammunition-boxes, and caught to be thrown into the large boat which was towing the ship, gave rise to many burlesque stories ; while the tales of a thousand shipwrecks, told by the orators of crew, tended to raise the courage of all. Now also, counting on the same impunity, the sailors describe aloud the various manners in which they had on other similar occasions revenged themselves for the severities of discipline.- An intrepid drunkard boasted of having penetrated to the Lieutenant’s cabin, and emptied his bottles before his face, telling him that wine was better than salt water, and, since he must die, he would die by the juice of the grape ; another tells of stealing some biscuits, and when asked what he was doing with them, replied, he was hungry, and intends to soak them in the sauce which is preparing; another says that he is accustomed to drowning, and that his present situation has nothing alarming in it; while his neighbour, less acquainted with suffering, asks him for his recipe to still hunger and quench thirst. We hear nothing all around us, I assure you, but jovial couplets; everybody is full of courage, and the voice of the crew seems to resound only songs of triumph.

But the hope of stopping the leak is entirely extinguished ; we are even afraid vessel cannot reach the coast, and our thoughts are directed to other resources. At least let the powder be saved, exclaims one person. It was saved by the astonishing activity of the gunner (Rolland, of Toulon), who had been eighteen times before in similar circumstances. Never were more signal services performed, nor greater fatigues encountered; and while he multiplied himself, as it were, to carry succour where the danger was most pressing, it might be supposed from the little importance he seemed to attach to it, that we had nothing to fear from the terrible element, and that such catastrophes were every-day occurrences in his way of life.

You see him at present calm and quiet; so he always showed himself in our men of war, when he directed their batteries against British ships, when enemies of our country. Covered with honourable scars, he has, I assure you, well deserved the place he has filled for many years.

The boatswain, Bonnet, whose activity during our long voyage has not been one instant relaxed, and whose seamanship is equal to his activity; his old comrade M. Fouque, who, as well as himself, has suffered the greatest fatigues ; the carpenter and his mate ; the master at arms, M. Redon, who acquired his rank by his good conduct on board ; M. Tournier, head steersman, who during the whole-of the voyage, and particularly off Cape Horn, showed great skill in the management of the ship ; and the master caulker, of whom I have already spoken, an active enterprising man, as courageous as he is docile and experienced ; emulated each other in zeal and provident care. They were everywhere, and saw everything; and though they have constantly set an example of the greatest exertion and obedience, they have also predicted from the moment the ship struck, the loss of our poor Uranie.

May they be deceived in their dismal conjectures I


WE anchor in the centre of bay, while a boat commanded by M. Duperrey goes to seek out a proper place to run the corvette on shore. He returns, pilots the ship, and the stream carries her on the beach with an almost imperceptible shock. At first the ship was lying on sand; by degree she was forced upon the rocks, and, notwithstanding the assurances which had been given me to the contrary, she fell over on the starboard side, and my cabin was immersed in the water.

With what poignant regret did this occurrence fill my heart! I possessed so many valuable things, which I had acquired after numerous crosses! collection of shells which I had gathered at every place where we stopped ; the different arms of every nation on earth ; rare birds and curious reptiles; my linen, my books; ten portfolios of sketches and finished drawings ; all – all were engulphed. As soon, however, as the water began to enter my cabin, I laid my hand on what was nearest, and saved several articles on which I set great store. If I had not been indisposed at the time of the shipwreck, the greater part of my property would certainly have been saved; if not in good condition, yet as a remembrance. But alas! two small boxes of curiosities ; a few mats; one shoe; and a cloak from New Zealand, which I constantly wore during our stay at the Malouine islands, were all I brought on shore with me……….