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Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842)





Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville (23 May 1790 – 8 May 1842) was a French explorer, naval officer and rear admiral, who explored the south and western Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica. In 1807 Dumont was admitted to the Naval Academy at Brest where he presented himself as a timid young man, very serious and studious, little interested in amusements and much more interested in studies than in military matters. In 1808, he obtained the grade of first class candidate.
At the time the French navy was only a neglected "cousin", of a much lower quality than Napoleon's army and its ships were blockaded in their ports by the absolute domination of the Royal Navy. Dumont was confined to land like his colleagues and spent the first years in the navy studying foreign languages. In 1812, after having been promoted to ensign and finding himself bored with port life and disapproving of the dissolute behaviour of the other young officers, he asked to be transferred to Toulon on board the Suffren; but this ship was also blockaded in port.
In this period Dumont built on his already substantial cultural knowledge. He already spoke, in addition to Latin and Greek, English, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Hebrew. During his later travels in the Pacific, thanks to his prodigious memory, he acquired some knowledge of an immense number of dialects of Polynesia and Melanesia. He learnt about botany and entomology in long excursions in the hills of Provence and he studied in the nearby naval observatory.
Finally Dumont undertook his first short navigation of the Mediterranean Sea in 1814, when Napoleon had been exiled to Elba. In 1816, he married Adélie Pepin, daughter of a clockmaker from Toulon, who was openly disliked by Dumont’s mother, who thought her inappropriate for her son and refused to meet her and, later on, her grandsons from the marriage.

We selected a relevant part of his comprehensive biography on Wikipedia which describes his travels to the Pacific and New Guinea.

Voyage of the Coquille

In 1819 Dumont was sent to the naval archive where he came across Lieutenant Louis Isidore Duperrey, an acquaintance from the past. The two began to plan an expedition of exploration in the Pacific, an area from which France had been forced out of during the Napoleonic Wars. France considered it might be able to regain some of its losses by taking over part of New South Wales. In August 1822 the ship Coquille sailed from Toulon with the objective of collecting as much scientific and strategic information as possible on the area to which it was dispatched. Duperrey was named Commander of the expedition because he was four years older than Dumont.
René-Primevère Lesson also travelled on the Coquille as a naval doctor and naturalist. On the return to France in March 1825, Lesson and Dumont brought back to France an imposing collection of animals and plants collected to the Falkland Islands, on the coasts of Chile and Peru, in the archipelagos of the Pacific and New Zealand, New Guinea and Australia. Dumont was now 35 and in poor health. On board the Coquille, he had behaved as a competent official, but rather abrupt, little inclined to socialise and with a sometimes embarrassing lack of interest in his physical condition and medical and hygiene advice. On the return to France, Duperrey was promoted to commander, while Dumont was promoted to a lower rank, even after having been on his best behaviour. This greatly disturbed Dumont in subsequent years.
On the Coquille, Dumont tried to reconcile his responsibilities as second in command with his need to carry out scientific work. He was in charge of carrying out research in the fields of the botany and entomology. The Coquille brought back to France specimens of more than 3,000 species of plants, 400 of which were previously unknown, enriching moreover the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris with more than 1,200 specimens of insects, covering 1,100 insect species (including 300 previously unknown species). The scientists Georges Cuvier and François Arago analysed the results of his searches and praised Dumont.

The first voyage of the Astrolabe

Two months after Dumont returned on the Coquille, he presented to the Navy Ministry a plan for a new expedition, which he hoped to command, as his relationship with Duperrey had deteriorated. The proposal was accepted and the Coquille, renamed the Astrolabe in honour of the ship of La Pérouse, sailed from Toulon at the beginning of 1826 towards the Pacific Ocean, for a circumnavigation of the world that was destined to last nearly three years.
The new Astrolabe skirted the coast of southern Australia, carried out new relief maps of the South Island of New Zealand, reached the archipelagos of Tonga and Fiji, executed the first relief maps of the Loyalty Islands (part of French New Caledonia) and explored the coasts of New Guinea. The Astrolabe returned to Marseille during the early months of 1829 with an impressive load of hydrographical papers and collections of zoological, botanical and mineralogical reports, which were destined to strongly influence the scientific analysis of those regions. Following this expedition, he invented the terms Malaisia, Micronesia and Melanesia, distinguishing these Pacific cultures and island groups from Polynesia.
Dumont's health was by now weakened by years of a poor diet. He suffered from kidney and stomach problems and from intense attacks of gout. During the first thirteen years of their marriage, half of which passed far apart, Adéle and Jules had two sons. The first one died at a young age while his father was to board the Coquille and the second, also called Jules, on the return of his father after four years away.
Dumont d’Urville passed a short period with his family before returning to Paris, where he was promoted to captain and he was put in charge of writing the report of his travels. The five volumes were published at the expense of the French government between 1832 and 1834. During these years d’Urville, who was already a poor diplomat, became more irascible and rancorous as a result of his gout, and lost the sympathy of the naval leadership. In his report, he criticised harshly the military structures, his colleagues, the French Academy of Sciences and even the King - none of which, in his opinion, had given the voyage of the Astrolabe due acknowledgment.
In 1835, Dumont was directed to return to Toulon to engage in “down to earth” work and spent two years, marked by mournful events (the loss of a daughter from cholera) and happy events (the birth of another son, Émile) but with the constant and nearly obsessive thought of a third expedition to the Pacific, analogous to James Cook's third voyage. He looked again at the Astrolabe’s travel notes, and found a gap in the exploration of Oceania and, in January 1837, he wrote to the Navy Ministry suggesting the opportunity for a new expedition to the Pacific. This third expedition was of minor importance to natural history (merely a polar exploration) and therefore not dicussed here.

On 8 May 1842 Dumont and his family boarded a train from Versailles to Paris after seeing water games celebrating the king. Near Meudon the train’s locomotive derailed, the wagons rolled and the tender’s coal ended up on the front of the train and caught fire. Dumont's whole family died in the flames of the first French railway disaster, generally known as the Versailles train crash. Dumont's remains were identified by Dumontier, doctor on board the Astrolabe and a phrenologist.

Most of the insects collected by Dumont were scientifically studied and described by Jean Baptiste de Boisduval. Type specimens of this collection are now stored in Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, The Natural History Museum in London, Institute Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique in Brussels and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.



Full text of this biography



updated on 31st October 2010