The Library has added a complete firsthand account of the French explorer Dumont D’urville’s
second Astrolabe voyage to our extensive Antarctic exploration collection
The Library recently acquired a complete firsthand account of the French explorer Dumont D’urville’s second Astrolabe voyage. The journal is a handwritten account by Astrolabe crewman Pierre Seurin, and is accompanied by a commemorative brass medal engraved with Seurin’s name.
French naval officer Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d’Urville made two long scientific voyages to the Pacific in the first half of the nineteenth century. Approving the proposal for the second voyage, King Louis Philippe decreed that d’Urville must explore the Antarctic and claim the South Magnetic Pole for France. If the Antarctic claim proved impossible, d’Urville was asked to travel at least as far as the most southerly latitude of 74°34’S achieved in 1823 by British navigator James Weddell. When the Astrolabe and Zélée sailed from Toulon on 7 September 1837 France joined the United States and United Kingdom in an international competition for polar exploration.
During the voyage’s first Antarctic descent in early 1838, d’Urville sailed from the tip of South America to the South Orkney Islands, then probed the Weddell Sea hoping to find a passage to the South Pole. The expedition was unsuccessful. D’Urville’s second Antarctic descent set out from Hobart in early 1840. This expedition claimed for France a section of Antarctic territory, which was named Adélie Land after d’Urville’s wife.
Seurin’s journal mentions the temperate climate of Hobart and describes the penal colony that had been established in 1804. He notices that some convicts are kept in chains while others are free to dress and move around as they wish if they report every Sunday at church.
The crewman was the first to spot the Antarctic mainland from the Astrolabe’s crow’s nest on 21 January 1840, and devotes several pages to the charting of the Antarctic coastline. He records daily duties onboard the ship, discusses the naming of Adélie Land, and concludes with a list of the ship’s anchorages, providing a clear summary of the voyage. Very little is known of Seurin himself. He began the voyage as a first class sailor and was promoted through the ranks, becoming quartermaster first class on 1 January 1840. He is an informed observer, referring to voyages of previous Pacific explorers including Bougainville and La Pérouse.
The bronze medal accompanying the journal was created for distribution during the voyage of the Astrolabe and Zélée by French engraver Jean-Jacques Barre (1793–1855), general engraver at the Monnaie de Paris (the Paris Mint). It is believed that around 30 silver and 450 bronze medals were made for the expedition. Early expeditions often presented gifts or tokens such as commemorative medals to people encountered on the voyage as a way of recognising their help and leaving a tangible reminder of contact. Anchored off Cape Horn, having found that people the expedition encountered were no longer interested in receiving medals, d’Urville marked the 1838 new year by presenting 18 silver medals to officers and eight bronze medals to petty officers.
With the medal completing the acquisition, Pierre Seurin’s journal adds to our understanding of Antarctic exploration and the Hobart settlement. It will be digitised so that it can be more easily transcribed and translated.
This article was first published in SL magazine spring 2017
Sarah Morley, Curator, Research & Discovery