In February 2003 the Australian news media started carrying news of the discovery in Recherche Bay (SEE MAP), in the lower Huon district , of low stone walls which archaeologists had identified as belonging to gardens established by the French expedition of Rear-Admiral Bruny d'Entrecasteaux. As such, this humble edifice comprises the earliest European artefact in Tasmania, and one of the oldest in Australia.
The expedition led by d'Entrecasteaux was originally commissioned by the French National Assembly to search for the long-overdue explorer La Perouse, who had left France in 1785 and had intended to return in 1788. Such was the esteem in which La Perouse was held that, despite the turmoil in which France found itself following the Revolution of 1789, mounting a search was deemed essential. d'Entrecasteaux was given two 500-ton frigates, named Recherche and Esperance. The Admiral had command of the former, while in command of the latter was Commander Huon de Kermadec.
The discoveries made in Southeast Tasmania were actually the result of an accident. When the expedition first sighted Tasmania on April 21st 1792, d'Entrecasteaux was in bed recovering from an injury, and his sailing-master evidently misunderstood his instructions to sail north to anchor in Adventure Bay, charted by Tasman, and instead sailed southwest. They anchored in a grand stretch of water that they supposed was Storm Bay on Tasman's chart, but which was in actuality a hitherto unvisited inlet, later named Recherche Bay after their flagship. The actual inlet within the bay in which they anchored was what is now North Bay.
During their stay, a thorough survey of the whole of Recherche Bay was undertaken, and accurate charts made. Late in May one of the exploring parties proved that there was a channel between the main island and the land on which Adventure Bay existed, and the two ships sailed the length of it from south to north.
There followed an extended search for La Perouse and an exploration which took the expedition to New Caledonia, the Admiralty Islands, the Solomons, Bougainville, Between New Britain and New Ireland and around New Guinea to the Moluccas. From there they sailed down the west coast of the Australian mainland; the southwestern corner of the continent is speckled with the names Point d'Entrecasteaux, Cape Riche (after one of the naturalists on board, who managed to get lost for two days), Esperance Bay (today with the town of Esperance) and Archipelago of the Recherche. Coasting around the Great Australian Bight, they put in for repairs at St Francis Isle before limping back to Recherche Bay in Tasmania to effect repairs on the Esperance and to replenish their water and other supplies. They arrived in January 1793. In heading down to Tasmania, d'Entrecasteaux noted that the currents suggested that there was a passage between the land he had been exploring and that to which he was heading. Had he not been so pressed to reach safe haven, and had the opportunity to pursue his theory, he might have been the discoverer of Bass Strait, exactly five years before Bass and Flinders reached the same conclusion, and six before they were able to prove it. After effecting repairs to the Esperance, they moved base to Green Island, and from there explored the Channel thoroughly. Their most important discovery in these investigations was the mouth of the Derwent River, which a party sailed up as far as the Glenorchy Rivulet. They named it La Rivière du Nord.
The Recherche Bay gardens were established in May 1792. Greg Hogg,The Huon Valley News (Wed 19th Feb, 2003) p.9 commented that the French expeditioners made several gardens here, but that the one that has been found is Felix La Hale's first garden. Though there has been knowledge of the existence of the gardens, they have eluded efforts to find them until recently. Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the Governor, led an expedition [in 1839] which included the ornithologist Gould and botanist Gunn. They attempted three times to find the garden. Local historian Bruce Poulson pays tribute to legendary local bushman John Hitchins, recently deceased. "He told me a couple of years ago that his father had seen it back in the early part of last century and that it had been perfectly formed with rock sidings. This was the clue that we needed."
It was not uncommon for ships to attempt to cultivate some plants that could provide fresh supplies for them on their anticipated return. Paul Healy writes (The Sunday Tasmanian, March 2nd 2003, p.24) that in this case the altruistic was that some of the plants might naturalise and provide supplies not only for themselves but for later visiting ships. Healy points out that the size of the four plots (about the size of an average kitchen garden in rural France) and the types of plants (chicory, cabbages, sorrel, radishes, cress and potatoes) put it beyond doubt that this was a Potager plot, or food garden. However, as he recounts, the gardeners were disappointed with the results of their efforts on their return 9 months after planting, seemingly a combination of some possibly spoiled seed, the late planting, an unsuitable rather dry clayey site, and undoubtedly the depradations of the local possums and wallabies.
A hope expressed by the expeditioners in establishng the gardens was that their "gift from the French people to the natives of the new land" would provide an example for the Aboriginals, to demonstrate to them the usefulness of European plants and perhaps foster in them a motivation to sustain the plots. Certainly the expeditioners made brief, though amicable, contact with the local inhabitants on both visits, particularly their second.* That the aboriginals were aware of and interested by the novelty of the plants was noted by d'Entrecasteaux, but it seems unlikely that these hunter-gatherer would have taken any interest beyond possibly harvesting some of the crop for their immediate use.
The Tasmanian government responded cautiously to news of the discovery. The fact that it is private land on which the remains are located, and that clearfell logging is scheduled to take place in the area, present some problems but make it all the more critical that the decision-makers do not procrastinate too long in arranging for the protection of the remains. Tasmania, like many places, has a history of missed opportunities to conserve sites in an adequate and timely manner.
*The descriptions of the Aboriginals left by naturalist Labillardière were some of the earliest and most accurate; see Lloyd Robson, 1983. A History of Tasmania. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, pp.25-7.
References on the early exploration of the Huon and Channel region are detailed in Richard Ely, 1989. The History of the Huon, Channel, Bruny Island Region: Printed Sources. (Historical Bibliographies of Tasmania No.1). Hobart, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania.
The material in this short note has been extracted from newspapef aricles and from H.G.Taylor, 1973. The Discovery of Tasmania. Hobart, Cat & Fiddle Press.