I had come across Jules Sébastien César Dumont D’Urville when we reissued his Voyage au Pole Sud et dans l’Océanie sur les corvettes l’Astrolabe et la Zélée: Exécuté par ordre du roi pendant les années 1837–1838–1839–1840 (in 10 volumes: the original French edition was in 24, plus maps and plates) in the Cambridge Library Collection, and thought of him vaguely as a French emulator of Captain Cook. However, I recently discovered that although he is best remembered as a southern hemisphere and Antarctic explorer, he has two other claims to fame: one through an extraordinary incident early in his naval career, and the other in the tragic circumstances of his death.
Born in 1790 into what would a few years earlier have been the minor aristocracy of Normandy, the young Jules was raised by his (over-)devout mother and her brother, a priest, after the death of his father in 1796. From 1804 he attended the lycée at Caen for three years: his imagination was fired by the accounts of Cook, Anson, and of course Bougainville, which he found in the school library.
Dumont failed the necessary physical test to enter the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris. (He was always sickly, though his bouts of ill health in adult life could be fully explained by the privations of his career.) Instead, he joined the navy. At the time, this was not obviously a good career move: the French fleets were underfunded by comparison with the army and mostly blockaded in their home ports by the British.
In fact, Dumont D’Urville spent four years on shore at Brest, and later at Toulon, where he made good use of his leisure to improve his polyglot knowledge of ancient and modern languages. (He seems to have had a ‘language brain’, as well as a very retentive memory: he later picked up some Melanesian and Polynesian dialects.) At Toulon, he also pursued natural history with enthusiasm, and studied astronomy and navigation while his ship lay at anchor inside the blockaded port.
Finally, after Napoleon’s exile to Elba, Dumont D’Urville went to sea, as an ensign on a short cruise of the Mediterranean. In 1816 he married Adélie Pepin, daughter of a Toulon clockmaker: his mother disapproved and refused to meet her daughter-in-law, and later her grandchildren … In 1820 came the remarkable event which brought him to prominence. He was on board the Chevrette, carrying out a hydrographical survey, when in April a French contact on the island of Melos told him about a statue recently unearthed by a local peasant.
Dumont offered to buy it, and planned to ship it off immediately, but his commanding officer demurred, pointing out (a) that it was too big and heavy to fit easily into the ship, and (b) it could be damaged in rough weather. He did not give up, and wrote passionately about the discovery to the French ambassador in Istanbul, following up with a personal visit when the Chevrette arrived there on 22 April.
The ambassador was convinced, and sent a representative to Melos, who, arriving in the nick of time, prevented the statue being removed by a priest who had subsequently bought it from the peasant. Thus the Louvre acquired the Venus de Milo, and Dumont D’Urville became a lieutenant and a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. More to the point, he became known to the Academy of Sciences, who looked favourably on his proposal for an expedition to Australasia (territory from which the French had been effectively barred during the war).
A ship, La Coquille, was provided, and Dumont was made second-in-command to his friend and senior Louis Isidore Duperrey. Leaving Toulon in August 1822, La Coquille returned in March 1825, after a voyage which was successful in terms of exploration, surveying and the collection of specimens, but seems to have been unfortunate for Dumont himself: he was demoted on his return, in spite of praise for his work from none other than Baron Cuvier. His lack of social graces and attention to personal hygiene (both important in the confined quarters of a ship) may have had something to do with it.
Undaunted, he proposed a new voyage, and with La Coquille newly fitted out and renamed L’Astrolabe (in honour of the lost ship of the explorer La Pérouse), he left Toulon again in April 1826, to survey the coast of southern Australia and both islands of New Zealand. He proceeded across the Pacific, and managed to locate the site of La Pérouse’s shipwreck, even salvaging some planking. However, by his return in March 1829 he was in very bad health, suffering from kidney problems and gout, exacerbating an already problematic temper.
‘Grounded’ by the navy to write up a report on the voyage, he produced five volumes, published in 1832–4, in which he was rude about everyone from his shipmates upwards to King Louis-Philippe; but in spite of this, his lobbying for a third voyage (in emulation of Cook?) was successful. However, by direct command of the king, he was to sail south through the Pacific, locate the magnetic South Pole and claim it for France (or at any rate to sail further south than James Weddell had in 1823).
Dumont hated the cold, but, realising that the prestige resulting from a successful voyage would be enormous, he set sail in L’Astrolabe, accompanied by La Zélée (commander, Charles Hector Jacquinot) in September 1837. This four-year voyage was arduous and complex, but it achieved almost all its aims, including the determination of the magnetic South Pole and the raising of the French tricoleur on the ‘Archipel de Pointe Géologie’. Dumont named the land behind the islands Terre Adélie: he also named an Antarctic penguin after his wife.
Promoted to rear-admiral on his return in 1840, Dumont again settled to the writing of reports. But on 8 May 1842, returning to Paris from a day out at Versailles, he, Adélie, and their only surviving son (several other children had died in infancy, mostly while their father was abroad) were killed in the first French railway disaster, in which burning coals from the derailed engine set the coaches (into which the passengers were customarily locked for their own safety) on fire.
An appalling end for a talented and capable (and still relatively young) scientist and explorer.