Baudin, Flinders and the Discovery of Kangaroo Island

August 20, 2019

The discovery of Kangaroo Island and the way it earned its name is a fascinating tale embedded in modern Australian history. Referred to as the Ultima Thule – the farthest reach from European civilisation – Kangaroo Island played an important role in the earliest phase of European contact with South Australia.

It is believed Aboriginal inhabitants once occupied Kangaroo Island a few thousand years before its discovery by Europeans, but the demise of Aboriginals on the island remains a mystery today. When Captain Matthew Flinders first landed on Kangaroo Island on March 23, 1802, there was no sign of human inhabitants. Flinders was a British explorer commanding HMS Investigator on the second circumnavigation of New Holland, a land he would ultimately name ‘Australia or Terra Australis’. Flinders was 28 years old and it is said he had a commanding presence, was sensitive to the welfare of his crew and intensely competitive.

On landing near Kangaroo Head on the north coast of the island, Flinders and his hungry crew were delighted at the discovery of fresh food in the form of kangaroo, which would then be his inspiration for the naming of the island. According to his journal; ‘The whole ship’s company was employed this afternoon in the skinning and cleaning of kangaroos. After four months’ privation they stewed half a hundredweight of heads, forequarters and tails down into soup … and as much steaks given … to both officers and men as they could consume by day and night. In gratitude for so seasonable a supply, I named this south land KANGAROO ISLAND’. Flinders and his crew of 94 ate a recorded 31 kangaroos over three days!

Flinders was closely followed on the voyage to Australia by French explorer Captain Nicholas Baudin, who was sent by Napoleon Bonaparte on a parallel mission on behalf of France. On his ship Le Géographe alongside companion ship Le Naturaliste, Baudin was exploring the coasts of New Holland to fill in the final piece of the continental world map. Baudin was 20 years older than Flinders, famous for his botanical expeditions, and was instructed by Napoleon to collect interesting souvenirs for his wife Josephine.

On April 8, 1802, Flinders HMS Investigator and Baudin’s Le Géographe had a chance encounter as Flinders was sailing east along the ‘Unknown Coast’ of South Australia from Kangaroo Island, and Baudin west along the Coorong and Victorian coastline. It was five months since the Investigator had sighted another ship and Le Géographe had just been separated from Le Naturaliste, with the entire crew sick with scurvy. Raising a white flag, Baudin invited Flinders aboard.

This encounter was made remarkable as both their respective countries were at war – or so they thought – as neither knew a treaty had been signed just two weeks before. Nonetheless, the two rival maritime explorers met peacefully and respectively.

‘On that day, during breakfast, they exchanged charts and agreed that Australia was one continent, it wasn’t divided by a big river down the middle and that basically they’d covered it,’ says Lindl Lawton, senior curator from the South Australian Maritime Museum.

Flinders went on to recommend to Baudin that Kangaroo Island was a great spot for a feed. Parting cordially, Flinders sailing west and Baudin south, they were to never meet again.

The place where the two ships rendezvoused is now known as Encounter Bay in South Australia, per Flinders recollection of the events. Baudin had wanted to call it Baie des Invalides (Bay of the Invalids), perhaps a nod to his disease-ridden crew who were in a bad way when they encountered the Investigator. Clearly Flinders won out with naming rights!

Flinders also named places along the coast of South Australia from Fowlers Bay to Encounter Bay, including the north coast of Kangaroo Island, which he had been first to discover.

In 1803 Baudin returned to circumnavigate and map Kangaroo Island, exploring the southern coast for the first time. Many of the landmarks he surveyed south of the island have retained their French titles, including Cape de Couedic and Vivonne Bay, near Southern Ocean Lodge. Kangaroo Island today is roughly divided in half with Baudin’s French names and Flinders English names.

Southern Ocean Lodge also nods to Kangaroo Island’s European discovery, with guest area Baudin Lounge for presentations, reading and games and the eleven Flinders Suites, in recognition of the two explorers who first chartered the land.