In 1827, a young woman dressed in men’s clothing slipped on board the French ship Uranie, joining by stealth one of the nineteenth century’s major expeditions into the Pacific. She was Rose de Freycinet, wife of the expedition’s commander Louis de Freycinet, and this daring feat made her the first woman that we know of to circumnavigate the globe.
In 2014 the Library acquired the diaries and letters Rose kept on the voyage, in which she recorded her impressions of the people and places she encountered. A recent addition to the collection shows us how Rose was perceived by those she met along the way. This latest acquisition is a poem dedicated to Rose, composed by Judge Jacques Mallac while Rose and the Uranie were visiting Mauritius.
As recounted in her journal, Rose was given a tour of Mallac’s printing press, during which ‘it was proposed that something be composed and printed in front of my very eyes.’ After demonstrating the workings of the press, Mallac presented Rose with a paper headed ‘To Madame Rose de Freycinet’. The poem begins:
D’Orion brilliantes étoiles,
Vous, enfans de Leda, chers aux navigateurs,
Astres qui de la nuit ornez les sombre voiles,
Ne cachez point vos feux à ces observateurs
Qui vont, guidés par Uranie,
Porter aux rivages lointains,
Et leur courage et leur génie:
Zéphyre, et toi Vénus protégez leurs destins.
It is clear that Rose treasured the poem; in the journal, she recounted the event of its printing and presentation: ‘As soon as his work was finished, he presented the paper to me and invited me to admire the fine characters…I was very touched by his gesture and judged the good intentions rather than the end product.’
Jennifer Kirkby, who has provided the Library with an English translation of the poem, advises that ‘the poem is written in a mix of classic French Alexandrines, of 12 syllables, with a caesura in the middle, and octosyllabic lines’. She adds that the poem is loosely based on a poem by Horace, in which Venus is invoked to protect his friend Virgil on a voyage to Athens (Horace, Odes and Epodes, Book 1, Poem 3, Sic te diva potens Cypri). Mallac laments the bygone days of French naval glory, referring in the poem to the French admirals Duguay, Renaud and Suffren. Jennifer points out that the poem was written only a few years after the British had captured Mauritius from the French.
The Uranie arrived in Mauritius on 5 May 1818 and remained there for two months. The Freycinets mingled with Mauritian society, and Louis became friendly with Judge Jacques Mallac. Rose described the judge as highly respected, religious and gracious. She writes that he had lost his fortune in a major fire ‘which had destroyed half the capital’, and to support his family had imported a printing press from England as a commercial venture. Mallac was chief editor of The Mauritius Archives, which was published on his press.
As an unsanctioned stowaway, Rose was carefully removed from the official record of the Uranie expedition. Although her own journals and letters recount her experiences in detail, there are few artefacts generated by other parties attesting to her presence on the voyage. This makes the poem a valuable piece of documentary evidence for Rose’s place in history.
What is apparent from this poem is the admiration Mallac felt for Rose. He entreats Venus to honour Rose for her courage in daring to face pitfalls and storms, comparing her bravery to celebrated sailors such as Magellan and Suffen. Two centuries later, the story of intrepid Rose de Freycinet, one of the first women to circumnavigate the globe, continues to capture the imagination of the public.
The English translation reads:
O shining stars of Orion
You, children of Leda, beloved of sailors,
Never conceal your fires from these who watch below,
Who, guided by Urania,
Carry to shores so far away
Their courage and their genius:
Zephyrus, and Venus, protect their destinies.
Venus, with good cause I beg you
For his friend long ago Horace offered to you
Wishes which in our time, each of us now renews
Which by your power came to pass.
And yet upon those seas where you received your life
Virgil had not his love to keep him company
And if we should believe some of the reporters
This poet little knew of all the sweets of love
Here, Kythera's patron goddess
with your son and Hymen, and one sister of nine,
On the seas of both hemispheres
Guide this man and his wife worthy of your goodwill.
If, on that isle of enchantment,
Where your cult is, they say, the dominating faith,
The wife with snow-white skin, with noblest of brows,
With such expressive face, who speaks so charmingly,
In showing her own self, destroys all the renown
Of those untamed beauties submissive to your laws;
Or if, in Tahiti, fearing the darksome woods
The husband on the shore stays with his well-beloved,
Venus, take no offense at this;
Rather you should be proud to demonstrate your might
There where your true blessings are all as yet unknown.
Yes, be proud; a woman braves the risk of shipwreck,
And dares to thread the reefs sprinkled across these seas
Which only doughty tars have travelled through before.
May days of great serenity
Coming to her at last, replace the mighty storms
Which raise the billows high on shores where Magellan
Steered his vessel towards a different ocean.
No other in the world, till she,
Had dared to follow in that course;
Kythera, o Ocean's daughter,
You owe her the honours of your first sojourn.
Make it especially that, returned to France's shores,
She finds the end of her voyage;
Make it ennobled twice over
By courage and by science both,
These sailors, warriors, of the Lily's empire
Renewing the days of its glory that has passed;
The fine days of Duguay, of Renaud and Suffren.
At this thought I must halt myself,
And by this sweetest hope I soothe my bitterness...
O Venus, Zephyrus, o all you kindly orbs,
Watch the Urania, assure her safe return:
She sails already with the happy auspices
Of glory and of love.
Jennifer Kirkby has recently completed an Honours degree in French Studies at the University of Newcastle. Her dissertation was on Rose de Freycinet.
Librarian, Collection Strategy and Development