Arriving at the Aegean island of Milos in 1820, a young French naval officer heard of an interesting piece of sculpture recently unearthed by a local farmer. He asked to see it and, immediately recognising its worth, pressed the French ambassador in Constantinople to purchase it on behalf of the nation. The naval officer was Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville, and all his life he basked in the renown of being the means by which France came to possess one of the world’s most famous statues—the Venus de Milo.
The true course of events was more complicated, and Dumont d’Urville’s role in them less singular than he later implied, as Edward Duyker makes clear in his impressive biography, Dumont d’Urville: Explorer & Polymath. Yet the qualities that were to shape a spectacular career at sea, and lead to accomplishments of lasting value, were already evident: among them force of intellect, generosity, and enterprise undercut by vanity, ambition and a debilitating moodiness.
D’Urville had no interest in military glory—he was on leave for much of what he called “Bonaparte’s invasion”—the 100 days of Napoleon’s defiant return from exile in 1815 that ended with his crushing defeat at Waterloo. As an enthusiastic naturalist and future ethnographer and linguist of note, d’Urville was attracted to what he called “the navy of exploration”, not the “purely military navy”.
Following the example of James Cook, d’Urville was to make three voyages of exploration and discovery—the first as a naturalist aboard the Coquille; the second as commander of the same vessel, now refitted and renamed Astrolabe, and the third again in that ship, accompanied by the Zélée.
From the outset, his distaste for uniforms set him apart. “His customary clothing was shabbier than that of the sailors,” wrote a fellow officer. And smartly turned out British officers stepping aboard to greet the ship’s commander were astonished to be met by “a big untidy man, without stockings or tie, wearing torn canvas trousers, and unbuttoned twill jacket, and crowned with a battered straw hat full of holes”.
Yet d’Urville got the job done. A “tireless and ardent” walker, his enthusiasm for collecting botanical specimens knew no bounds. He did so under the watchful protection of Russian soldiers in the Caucasus and from the confines of port lazarets, on tropic Pacific shores and across the windswept wastes of the Falklands. The result was an impressive catalogue of plants, seaweeds, birds and insects, many new to science and some of them type specimens.
He was also a talented linguist and ethnographer, and keenly compiled vocabularies and compared languages across the Pacific. It was on the basis of this labour that he reconceptualised the peoples of the region, coining the ethno-geographic terms “Micronésie” and Melanésie”.
D’Urville’s voyages came at a time when France’s colonial impulse in the Pacific was reawakening, and Duyker’s research reveals that he had secret orders to locate anchorages suitable for times of war, and to search for likely sites for a French penal colony in Australia—his mere presence there panicked the British into pre-emptively colonising Western Australia and Victoria. He also visited New Zealand in 1824, 1827 and 1840, undertaking the first precise surveys since Cook on what he called “the most vaguely traced coasts in all the Pacific Ocean”.While doing so, and despite leaving a sprinkling of toponyms himself,
d’Urville assiduously restored Māori names to the charts where possible, remarking that “it would be ridiculous not to adopt designations applied to points, for centuries perhaps, by tribes as numerous and as intelligent as those of New Zealand”.
In his final voyage, d’Urville twice pushed south towards the Pole, almost coming to grief on the first occasion when his vessels, which were not suited to the rigours of Antarctic exploration, became trapped by ice near the South Orkney Islands. He had more success the second time when, sailing south from Hobart, he reached Antarctica,naming the new territory to the west of the Transantarctic Mountains Adélie Land in honour of his wife.
Duyker chronicles all this and more. But he also makes insightful and often unexpected connections and corrects much that previous biographers got wrong. And why, given d’Urville’s wide-ranging intellectual pursuits, did no one before Duyker think to cite the inventories made of his library on his death?
Dumont d’Urville is a substantial book, both in heft—it weighs in at 671 pages, many beautifully illustrated—and in scholarship (notes account for 82 of those pages, sources another 39). And it presents what must be the fairest and most compelling assessment of the great French explorer yet produced.