Three years at sea with 125 men

Three years at sea with 125 men
Life as the Captain's wife
17 September 2016

A curious, dry-humoured young French woman seems an unlikely figure to play a key role in the history of Pacific exploration. Yet 23-year-old Rose de Freycinet (1794-1832) fulfils this role in providing a unique insight into life at sea. Unwilling to be parted from her husband Louis (1779-1842) while his expedition circumnavigated the globe, she chose to accompany him on the long voyage rather than wait at home.

Rose and Louis de Freycinet, 1812, from an engraving of the original portraits in the possession of Baron Claude de Freycinet. From Realms and Islands, Marnie Bassett, 1962.

Stowing aboard the night before the ship Uranie sailed, Rose dressed as a boy to avoid detection. In doing so she risked personal danger and the establishment’s censure of her husband’s career. The risk ultimately paid off. While her presence on the ship was initially controversial, once the ship dropped anchor at Rio and the Cape, the French consuls received them warmly.

Rose’s actions resulted in a life richly lived, and provide a primary source of social history from a woman’s perspective. During the years at sea, she kept a journal in the form of letters to a close friend, Caroline de Nanteuil. The letters were published in 1926 in Rose’s native French. Marnie Barrett’s 1962 ‘Realms and Islands’ provides a detailed account of Rose’s experiences, but it was not until 1996 that Marc Serge Rivière’s engaging translation, ‘A Woman of Courage: The Journal of Rose de Freycinet on Her Voyage around the World 1817-1820’ was published by the National Library. Our publication ‘National Treasures’ from 2005 also explores Rose’s story in some depth. With the translation of her journal and later publications, Rose’s experiences and insights were made more widely available to an English-speaking readership.

With a remit to document scientific work rather than to explore, Louis de Freycinet was charged with making a comprehensive record of the government, customs, trade, and flora and fauna of all countries visited. The expedition left Toulon in September 1817 and dropped anchor at Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Shark Bay in Western Australia, Waigeo, Hawaii, Port Jackson and the Falkland Islands where the Uranie was shipwrecked. The crew returned to Le Havre on the Physicienne in November 1820.

Like their fictional contemporaries Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Louis and Rose were separated by about 10 years, and were by all accounts devoted to the other. Rose’s love for her husband is imbued in the letters to Caroline where she describes concealing her fears from Louis ‘who has enough worries of his own,’ and following the Uranie’s wrecking, her distress at his suffering:

 .... this saddens me and troubles me so much that I cannot stop crying.

Louis is more circumspect in his own writings, but in his official despatch of the voyage, he describes the origin of Rose Island—now part of American Samoa—as ‘... from the name of someone who is extremely dear to me.’

The tone of Rose’s diaries, courtesy of Riviere’s elegant translation, is light and reflective. Her longing for feminine company is revealed as early as December 1817 when being hosted by the family of the Admiral at Rio de Janeiro, as is her eye for social customs, particularly with regards to fashion. She is somewhat rueful as she describes wearing a scarf in Mauritius, and experiencing extensive pointing and whispering taunts of ‘Mrs Virtue’ from the ladies ‘… who claimed that undoubtedly I must have … some scar that was hidden by the gauze.’ Her eye for the ridiculous is revealed when she describes the rather pompous wife of the Dutch ambassador in Rio. For a day trip into the forests surrounding Rio, the lady dressed in ‘an Indian muslin dress, embroidered by hand ...’ with silk shoes, and was later humiliated by having to walk through mud. 

She writes of the self-imposed routines whilst at sea to ensure she did not succumb to lethargy or homesickness. This included an hour respectively practicing her guitar, writing in her journal, studying English and sewing. The voyage was not without its dangers, and Rose experienced a frightening trip in a canoe through choppy waters, a close encounter with a snake on Waigeo—‘Do you believe that I have recovered from such a fright by now?’, a long bout of food poisoning, and the pain and distress caused by a malaria bout after leaving Waigeo.

Rose also writes of dining customs and food; of an official banquet in their honour in Timor with sumptuous desserts including ‘various pastries, Chinese jam and fruit…’; of her weariness with the ocean going diet of ‘salted beef or boiled pork, cold roast pork, dried fish, rice and beans’; and of a mishap on board the Uranie when the chef, trying to prepare for a meal to be held on board for dignitaries in Sydney, used one of the cannons for additional bench space. The salute taken during dessert, and ensuing calamity, led to his distress that ‘all was lost, and ruined!’

During the expedition, Rose was carefully removed from official records of the voyage in print and image, with the single exception of Rose Island. An example can be seen in two images of the expedition’s arrival in Dili.

the Uranie expedition’s arrival in Dili

Jacques Arago, Ile Timor: Reception a Diely  1818, colour collotype, nla.obj-136212363

the Uranie expedition’s arrival in Dili 

Alphonse Pellion, Ile Timor: Vue de Notre Premier Debarquement a l’Etablissement portugais de Dille 1818, watercolour, nla.obj-134725109

The artists Jacques Arago and Alphonse Pellion were members of the Freycinet expedition and would have been present at the Dili arrival. Pellion has not included Rose in his depiction of the scene; an example of a wider agreement on board the Uranie to remain as discreet as possible about Rose’s unauthorised presence on the expedition.

On returning to France, Rose and Louis were reunited with family and friends and lived contentedly for a time. Rose’s untimely death from cholera in 1832 followed a period during which she had devotedly nursed her own husband. He would mourn her until his own death, in 1841. Despite her short life the echo of Rose’s words through two centuries to keep her story alive.

Further reading:

That was a delightful recount of a remarkable woman and incredible story. I look forward to sharing it with my Primary School students. Well done Angela Writer.
It will be wonderful to read the book (letters) in further detail, so many ocean voyage books of the time but not many explained from a womens perspective. What a brave couple and so nice they had that time together.
Monday special