By Eric ShackleEmperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine stocked their Versailles palace garden with gum trees, kangaroos, emus and black swans. Those little-known facets of history must have surprised many viewers of Gardening Australia on TV-1 the other day. Melbourne garden guru Jane Edmanson interviewed Amanda Dunsmore, one of the curators of an exhibition. “Napoleon: Revolution to Empire”, at the Melbourne National Gallery:
The interview went like this:
JANE: I think everyone's very well aware of how famous Napoleon was for his military battles in Europe and conquests, but perhaps people are not quite so aware of his interest in Australia and the scientific interest that he held for Australia since he was a young boy and reading Captain Cook's Voyages. He was a man of taste and scientific interests.
Josephine, his wife, had a passion for exotic flora and fauna and she brought of Australian plants to France for the first time where they are still growing today.
Napoleon's interest in Australia seemed to begin early. The explorer, La Perouse was sent to New Holland by the King of France, Louis XVI in 1785 and Napoleon, as a teenage cadet, tried to join the expedition, but was knocked back.
It's incredible to think that La Perouse landed at Botany Bay just days after the First Fleet and I like to think just how excited he would have been in jumping out and seeing our Australian flora and fauna for the very first time.
Amanda, La Perouse died at sea - that we know - and if Napoleon had been on that expedition, history would have been really different.
AMANDA: Oh indeed, indeed. They sent out another expedition to look for La Perouse - they still didn't necessarily believe that he was actually dead. It was led by a man called d'Entrecasteaux.
JANE: So what did he discover?
AMANDA: La Perouse, who was, in fact, lost at sea, but he did undertake scientific explorations of the south-east of Australia and particularly Tasmania and with his botanists and gardeners and scientists, collected thousands of specimens of flora, but also fauna - Australian animals as well.
One of the publications of the d'Entrecasteaux mission is his book by his botanist Labillardière and the book is the most significant publication on Australian flora to this date.
While Labillardière gathered plants in Australia, back home, the French Revolution was in full swing. Napoleon's battlefield victories saw him rise decisively to power and he married Josephine.
Together they set up house at Malmaison - an extravagant home just outside of Paris. It was in Malmaison's vast grounds that Josephine was able to indulge her love and passion for plants from all around the world, including many from Australia.
AMANDA: Malmaison was where she really stamped her mark and people, both explorers and collectors and naturalists, would send her specimens from all over the world.
JANE: So she was a real 'plantoholic'?
AMANDA: Oh undoubtedly.
JANE: So what kind of Australian plants did she end up with?
AMANDA: She had over 200 species of Australian flora growing. She was cultivating all thirteen known varieties of Eucalypts, she grew Mimosa of course, she had the banksia - these are all published in her very famous book Jardin De La Malmaison.
JANE: And a third of this book includes species from Australia. It was published in 1804 and these are the examples of the first Australian plant in her garden - named after her, Josephinia imperatricis.
Amanda, that's an amazing illustration of Josephine's hothouse. Was that her secret weapon to growing Australian plants?
AMANDA: I suppose you could put it that way. She built this hothouse within the first five years of moving to Malmaison and it really would have been one of the largest hothouses in Europe. That, of course, is where she was able to cultivate so many plants that otherwise wouldn't have survived out in the gardens of Malmaison.
JANE: A further French expedition in 1800 saw Nicolas Baudin not only finishing the final piece of Australian coastline mapping from Wilson's Promontory to Adelaide, but also providing fresh supplies of thousands more Australian plants - not just for the natural history museum, but specifically for Josephine's beloved garden. Did Josephine continued to love her plants and garden?
AMANDA : Yes absolutely. She lived at Malmaison till the day she died in 1814. By this stage though of course, she's divorced from Napoleon. He's remarried to Marie Louise and then of course, we know the rest of the story. He's defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and he's sent to exile in St Helena where he dies in 1821.
JANE: There's a touching poetic epilogue to this story. When Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, he took with him a collection of Australian plants as a constant reminder of Josephine and they are still growing there today.
Napoleon: Revolution to Empire: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/napoleon