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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 82 [19]

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Josephine Bonaparte’s Kangaroos

The Empress Josephine

It’s been a frog summer here in the mountains. Night after night I’ve gone to sleep listening to them. The most dominant has been the Péron’s tree-frog, a sound like a winch, or a long nail being pulled out of a packing-crate. But I’m not writing about them. It’s just the happenstance of things. I’m writing about Josephine Bonaparte’s kangaroos.


I think it’s their loneliness that’s drawn me, amidst the splendour. There probably is a novel in it, if one hasn’t been written already (I can find no record). And in truth I don’t know if it’s ‘kangaroos’ or ‘kangaroo’. At one point Josephine Bonaparte had several, but I can’t find it recorded whether her collection started with only one of the three surviving kangaroos aboard Nicholas Baudin’s Géographe, which arrived back in France from its remarkable Australian expedition in March 1804 (sans Baudin, who had died of tuberculosis on Mauritius), or whether she took a second, or even all three. According to other accounts kangaroos from this expedition

went also to the Museum of Natural History in Paris and were housed it its menagerie at the Jardin des Plants. Baudin himself records in his diary that he took twenty-seven kangaroos aboard the Géographe at Kangaroo Island. Can twenty-four of those have died before the ship reached Paris? Who knows? By all accounts it was an horrendous voyage, but I suspect we might be dealing with a mistranslation somewhere and that the most likely scenario is that Josephine, when the Géographe arrived in Lorient, snaffled three of the surviving kangaroos for herself, while the rest – somewhere between six and a dozen? – went on to the Jardin des Plants. At least one kangaroo – a large male – died on a cart en route from Lorient to Paris, a journey of well over three hundred miles.

There were in fact two ships in Baudin’s expedition, the Géographe and the Naturaliste. The Naturaliste was sent back earlier and had arrived in France in June 1803, but the likelihood that the ‘three surviving’ refers to a contingent on that vessel is very slim. Baudin records elsewhere in his diary that the last kangaroo on the Naturaliste died, of an abscess of the thigh, before the ship left King Island.


Let us say three kangaroos then, to Napoleon and Josephine’s large estate – 150 acres – at Malmaison, twelve kilometres west of Paris. Malmaison, that strange name because it had once been the site of a leprosarium. Along, in that extensive caravan of carts, with black swans, emus, wombats, dingoes and other Australian birds and quadrupeds (seventy-three live animals had survived the voyage; Josephine apparently took fifty of them). An estate which, ahead of her time, Josephine conceived as a kind of open zoo, in which a considerable variety of animals could move about without fences (though it is also said that she kept the kangaroos, her favourites, in an enclosure adjacent to the great house).


I’m not sure whether Josephine’s penchant – it would develop almost into an obsession – with antipodean flora and fauna (she had a vast glasshouse built, for Australian plants) predated her relationship with Napoleon, or began with him. Certainly he had had his antipodean penchant for a while. In fact, several years before, as a young officer, he’d applied unsuccessfully to join Le Pérouse’s doomed expedition in 1785. Interesting to contemplate how much the course of European history might have differed had he been accepted. By 1800 he was in a position, as Emperor, to instruct Baudin to bring back, for Josephine at Malmaison (which she had bought the year before, with money she expected Napoleon to bring back from his Egyptian campaign), two of every antipodean creature he could find, as if to stock an ark.


But I think of them, Josephine Bonaparte’s first kangaroos, after that nightmare voyage and that probably no-less-nightmarish journey from Lorient by cart, released into an area of manicured lawn – was it large enough for them to hop? – amongst the ladies and gentlemen of society, with the Empress, proprietorial, at their centre. How often were they visited? Did they have a keeper? Were they fed anything other than grass (I hope not; on shipboard they’d been fed on grain, and then rice mash, bread soaked in wine, sugar, to counteract their sea-sickness)? Josephine’s orangutan, named Rose, was invited to table with the dinner guests, and reportedly had excellent manners. Were the kangaroos ever taken inside? Were they given names? Their disorientation would seem to me almost unimaginable, and by the time they arrived in France would already have been more than a year long. I am glad that they at least had each other. Did they ever settle? Ever feel ‘at home’? Were they ever taken into the glasshouse, amongst the wattles and wildflowers and native grasses of terra Australis? What were their ages? Were they a boy and two girls? How long did they have to wait, before further companions arrived? Human lives are recorded, animal lives very rarely.


Eventually other kangaroos would come, as gifts to the Emperor or Empress, or from further expeditions. Visitors were generally intrigued by them, though noted that they could not be taught things – tricks – like sheep could. Josephine envisioned a whole herd of them, a herd that could breed herds, for zoos, even for meat, but, unlike the black swans, who had done marvellously, could not get them to reproduce, even when the Museum sent her a couple more to boost her breeding program. It’s unrecorded how many kangaroos her collection extended to at its largest – a dozen? more? – but by the time Josephine died (it was only 1814) there was only one left. The first ones, the ones we’ve been wondering about, were doubtless long dead.


How to think of them, ‘in human terms’? Emigrés? No. Exiles? No. Slaves is more like it. Plucked from their native habitat, transported, as prisoners, by ship, to work eventually on a grand estate…


I’ve searched for a picture of them. There doesn’t appear to be much. No portrait of the Empress with a kangaroo that I can find, or portrait of the roos by themselves. The best I’ve come up with is this medallion-like frontispiece, showing animals at Malmaison, from Voyage de Découvertes aus Terres Australes (1807), an account of the Baudin expedition put together, in Baudin’s absence, by François Péron, one of the few naturalists to have survived the venture.

Interesting that, right at the front, ahead of the emus and the black swans, is a group of three kangaroos.

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