Research Stream


Paul Gibbard
The University of Western Australia

Epistolary Sensibility and Exploration: Australian Letters of the French Naturalists

In the early nineteenth century, French naturalists were starting to move towards what we might think of as the modern idea of scientific objectivity in their writings, but at the same time viewed their emotional responses to phenomena as a valid form of scientific knowledge. The interplay between empirical observation and emotional expression takes on a particularly complex form in the letters they wrote about their travels.


This project will explore the way in which French naturalists gave voice to the emotions in letters written during and in the wake of the voyages of discovery to Australia in the period 1770‒1820. It will focus especially on the archival letters of the botanist Théodore Leschenault de la Tour, who accompanied the Baudin expedition, and will examine these in relation to letters by other French naturalists and scientific officers who visited Australia in this period.

The emotional life of the naturalists is richly expressed in their letters, and gives us broad insights into many aspects of scientific voyaging. The relations between writer and addressee, whether superior, sponsor or intellectual colleague, are performed in various emotional turns. Habitual emotions of travel appear: ranging from homesickness through to feelings of melancholy or wonder before the natural landscapes visited. Encounters with indigenous peoples provoke a gamut of feelings – from delight, merriment and sympathy through to feelings of betrayal and disgust when Rousseauian preconceptions of the ‘noble savage’ are shattered. A particular focus of this project will be the relation between emotion and empirical observation that obtains in the letters. While modern scientists tend to value notions of objectivity and detachment, in the late Enlightenment period there was no such dissociation between empiricism and sensibility, and leading naturalists, from Buffon to Humboldt, accorded an important place to individual temperament and emotional response in the gathering of information. This project will seek to explore the role emotion played in scientific observation in the letters of Leschenault and other French naturalists, and explore how these operate in the context of the French exploration of Australia.

Image: Labillardière Peninsula, Bruny Island, Tasmania