French Navigations of Aboriginal Family, Culture and Bodies, 1793–1803

This project explores the entanglement of emotion and understandings about human nature, diversity and society in French views of pre- and early colonial Aboriginal Australians. It has been based on the ethnographic records produced by the d’Entrecasteaux (1791–1794) and Baudin (1800–1804) expeditions to Oceania, in the context of contemporary British-Aboriginal contact as well as French culture, society and politics.

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While giving consideration to the influence of developments in ‘anthropological’ theory, I have mainly investigated how these voyagers, as men, of particular times and places, approached, saw and experienced Aboriginal people and lives. Furthermore, I have been studying these men’s exchanges of knowledge about Aboriginal men, women and children, families and nations with British settlers in Australia, and the ways they presented their knowledge to the publics, scientific institutions and governments of the metropole.

This research on French-Aboriginal contact is directly relevant to the Centre’s Change and the Shaping the Modern research programs. The examinations of French encounters with and evaluations of Aboriginal individuals, communities and families during the Revolutionary era (1789–1804) have involved consideration of the effects of mass emotions and how they influenced feelings of national identity and human diversity. More broadly, the project has considerably boosted my efforts to provide new material on the history of emotions, to offer an alternative view of key historical discourses in the histories of Australian and European societies, and illuminate the continuing legacy of such discourses on contemporary discussions of Aboriginal life.


Submitted for publication:

Starbuck, N. ‘“Race”, Rank and Revolution: French Naval Ethnographies in Australian Waters, 1801–1803’, submitted to French Historical Studies.

Starbuck, N. ‘Les Enfants Sauvages: French Revolutionary Observations of Childhood in Tasmania, 1793–1802’, submitted to Aboriginal History.

Starbuck, N. ‘The Familiar and the Foreign: French Colonial Ethnography, 1802’, submitted to Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.

Research monograph is in progress.


Starbuck, N. ‘Raising Savages and Citizens: French Revolutionary Observations of Childhood and Parenting in Oceania’, ARC CHE Work in Progress Seminar Series, The University of Adelaide, 17 November 2017.


This research has highlighted differences between voyage ethnographies of the pre-Revolutionary, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary eras that are not attributable merely to developments in European, institutional science but more significantly to national politics and culture, and particularly emotional standards. There was a peak in sentimentality and idealisation of the ‘natural’, affective, family with the d’Entrecasteaux expedition (1791–1793) but, on the whole, a more refined and reflective engagement with the emotions of cross-cultural encounter itself amongst the officers of the Baudin expedition (1800–1804). Moreover, the latter tended not to apply emotional labels – friendly, fearful, fierce, etc. – to Indigenous people like French voyagers before and proceeding them as well as contemporaneous British voyagers did. This previously unrecognised pattern relates to a heightened consciousness in post-Terror France of the potency and significance of human emotion, including its highly contagious nature, as well as that moment’s awakening to the multitude and complexity of human differences and similarities across French environments, classes, professions, and histories.

Image: ‘Terre de Diemen. Habitations’, engraving by Jacques Milbert after Charles Alexandre Lesueur, in F. Peron [L. Freycinet], Voyage de decouvertes, Atlas Historique, vol. 1, plate 15, Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1824.