This common lined chiton was prised from a King Island rock by François Péron, a half-blind French zoologist in 1802, to become part of the most comprehensive collection of Australian natural science in the world.
Peron gave the mollusc to a French scientist, who gifted it to Edwin Ashby, an Englishman who migrated to Adelaide in 1888, bringing with him the best collection of chitons and fossils in the world. Ashby donated this to the South Australia Museum where the mollusc remained until 2012, when it was united with sextants and stuffed parrots from the South Australian Maritime Museum’s exhibition, First Voyages: Exploring the Southern Coast Expedition. Now the chiton serves as a portal into a world where the French Revolution was fundamentally changing the boundaries of the world, and the ambitions of the Enlightenment Age inspired episodic war between England and France as well as the pursuit of land, knowledge and power. Monsieur Peron’s mollusc also takes us to early New South Wales where the third Governor, Phillip Gidley King, was struggling to feed the fledgling colony, quash the illicit rum trade of the New South Wales Corps and put down insurrectionist Irish convicts. Less than a year after Napoleon Bonaparte became the First Consul of France, Nicolas Baudin, received orders to lead the expedition to beat the British in charting the unknown south coast of New Holland. In contrast to the Investigator, said to be the leakiest boat in the British navy, and used by Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate the continent at precisely the same time, Baudin left France with more than 20 scientists on board and two fast and vast floating laboratories called Geographie and Naturaliste. Half of these revolutionary scientists baulked at Baudin’s naval discipline and jumped ship at Mauritius. Their departure resulted in the promotion of Péron, who was to slip this chiton into a sample bag during the expedition’s King Island ‘reconnoitre’. Peron had been blinded in one eye and invalided out of the army, joining Baudin’s expedition after an unhappy love affair. His ‘extreme enthusiasm’ infuriated Baudin, whose attempts to chart the Australian coast were constantly hampered by the curious zoologist, who was in the habit of wandering into the coastal scrub, getting hopelessly lost, and returning days later, half crazed and starved. The French and English expeditions met at what is now Encounter Bay. Flinders shared his charts with Baudin, who realised he had been ‘pipped’ at almost every post by the British sea captain. There was little more to do, so the scurvy-ridden French party headed for Port Jackson desperate to replenish stocks and spirits before returning to France. During the five months Baudin’s party recovered in Sydney, the British Governor and Baudin forged a frank and fond bond, pledging to reunite in Europe and reminisce upon their time in the region they variously described as New Holland or Terra Napoleon. This was not to happen, for Baudin was taken by Tuberculosis on the voyage home, and King, who was forced to resign as Governor, died within a year of returning to England in 1808. In Sydney, the loose-lipped Peron boasted of French designs upon King Island, which represented a strategic landfall for both countries in the Tasman seas. No sooner had the French ships sailed out of Port Jackson, than the British Governor despatched a schooner with a surveyor on board to the island that bore his name. Within hours of the French party establishing camp upon Isle de King, a British soldier appeared and hoisted a billowing Union Jack in the centre of the French tents. To Baudin, this ‘childish ceremony’ was ‘ridiculous’, and made even more so by the ‘way in which the flag was hung, ‘upside down’. For over a fortnight, the two great European powers of the age maintained their uneasy co-existence in this obscure wind-blustered portion of the world. We might imagine Citizen Peron scrambling through rock pools in search of chiton and crab, as the French captain battled with bad weather, lost a longboat, and despite being the first to circumnavigate, fix position and outline the island, was daily reminded that it had been for naught by the ‘ridiculous’ flag billowing upside down in the middle of his camp. In less than a year, Baudin was dead. Peron returned to France, bestowing gifts of kangaroos, emus and wombats upon the first Consul’s wife, Josephine, who released them into the gardens of Malmaison. There they roamed among her rose gardens — although she had to keep an eye on the black swans, which Napoleon liked to shoot from his study window. Our hard-cased and humble chiton was protected from the violent moods of the future Emperor of France and is now the only survivor of this ill-fated attempt to name and claim Australia ‘Terre Napoleon’. Dr Kiera Lindsey teaches Australian History and Australian Studies at the University of South Australia Terre Napoléon – Land of Napoleon continues at the South Australian Maritme Museum until Friday, June 21 Image: Chiton: SA Museum, Ashby Collection D 10237. Ischnochiton, lineolatus The King Cotype – given to Edwin Ashby by Paul Dufrois who received it from Peron & Lesueur. First: Elongates-ventral. Second: Elongatus-lateral.
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