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Sunday, 4 September 2016

Le Havre in April, a fishy tale

Talking of red light districts (OK, I wasn't, but let that go), Nicolas Baudin left Le Havre in France in 1800 with two ships, intent on mapping the Australian coast, but it was largely a scientific expedition.  Mind you, it wasn't all fun carrying scientists, and he wrote to his friend, the NSW governor, also a naval man:

“I must say here, in passing, that those captains who have scientists, or who may some day have them aboard their ships, must, upon departure, take a good supply of patience. I admit that though I have no lack of it, the scientists have frequently driven me to the end of my tether.”

One of those on board one of the ships, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, was an artist when he left Le Havre, but he worked with the scientists, and as disease knocked out most of the scientists, he shifted across and took on-the-job training as a biologist.

While many specimens were collected in 19th century Australia, the scientific work and later storage all happened in Europe. Older Australian type specimens are generally to be found in European countries.

We know now that for the sake of accurate science, and for the sake of records, collections made in Australia are better studied and stored in peaceful Australia, but that notion would not take hold for almost another century. It was still the age of the pillaging visitor-expert who came to fetch, rather than to study. One Scot went back to Cambridge in the 1880s with 1300 pickled echidnas, and having married an Australian heiress, did no further research on them.

Over time, that attitude to specimens would change, but it would be a perilously slow change, and back then, I was interested in when the changes happened. The Good Guys were the Germans, the Bad Guys were the British and the French. The Germans wanted their specimens kept in Australia, the French and the Brits took everything away with them.

After his voyage, Lesueur wrote up his work and then moved to New Harmony in Indiana in 1815 (with his specimens).  While he was there, he pursued his trade of naturalist-artist, but in 1837, he returned to France and settled in his native Le Havre, taking his collections of specimens with him. And so Australian specimens came to be in the Natural History Museum in the French port city of Le Havre in 1944.

Europe is currently experiencing its longest-ever period free from war in recorded history, but it hasn’t always been so. Florence, the resting place of French botanist Julienne Houtou de La Billardière’s Australian type specimens, was damaged in World War II and London’s Natural History Museum was badly damaged in the Blitz in 1941.

Ports are natural targets in modern warfare, and in that year, the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle du Havre was badly damaged by bombing and fire.  Anyhow, for good and valid reasons, I needed to get to Le Havre, and in 2004, Chris and I walked around Cyprus, then had a fortnight based in Paris, and we allowed one day to visit Le Havre.

We always set out early when we are headed for towns with unusual museums. This helps us avoid crowds, but the plan can have its drawbacks.  We expected to wander the station, take in the sights, have a coffee and a sweet item or two, and then take a slow train, just in time for the museum opening at 2 pm.

The snag was that the efficiently helpful SNCF (railway) staff at Gare Saint-Lazare railway station in Paris took us in hand and bundled us onto a speedy train earlier than the slow service we had planned to catch. The combined result of an early start and a fast train was that we arrived in Le Havre, three hours before our target museum opened.

It was a chilly, windy and rainy day in late April, more winter than summer.  We wandered, buffeted this way and that, through a town where unseen (we did not dare look up!) workers above us scrubbed a winter’s supply of seagull excrement from buildings and awnings.  To dodge the wind-blown spray of lime-rich, fish-stinking splatters, we took refuge in a tavern.

We were drawn to one tavern because it was on the intersection of Rue Lesueur and Rue Laperouse, and we decided to wait there for the museum to open so we could see Lesueur’s Australian collections, relatively unspattered. Rue Lesueur was clearly appropriate, but unless you are Australian, I need to explain that Laperouse was an early French voyager to Australia.

It was, we decided a Sign (or Signs?) from on high, so we went in and met an odd sight. The occupants of this small tavern resembled the chorus of pimps and madames from Irma La Douce, but we just took them to be quaint rural folk, and they made Chris and I welcome. We must have seemed equally exotic to them, but we chatted in franglais, and got along for an hour or so, before we went out, through the drizzle of dilute bird-droppings that was still splashing down, to examine some stuffed Australian animals.

Later, I learned that our refuge was at the epicentre of the town’s red light district. The other customers were almost certainly professionally qualified for roles in the film, but they had welcomed us as fellow humans on a cold day.

I will always recall rainy windswept, chilly Le Havre, on a spring day where winter struck back, as the shop awnings dripped stickily after their annual scrubbing to redistribute the guano deposits contributed by the hardy seagulls. I probably learned more at the Musée de la Marine in Paris, but Le Havre, the port so many French explorers departed from, has fonder memories for me.

And being able to say, honestly, “when we were in the red light district or Le Havre…” is a good way of getting attention at a dinner, almost as good as “when I used to light a bushfire each afternoon…”

But that’s another story…      

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