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Napoleon's Love Affair with Australia

Black swans



You may be aware of the love affair between Josephine and Napoleon, but the French Emperor and his wife also had a surprising fascination with Australia. 

This intense interest in our fair nation was shared by the people of France. In the early 1800s,Australia was the most exotic, exciting and unexplored place on earth, so it’s natural that Napoleon and Josephine, wanted to be seen as trendsetters, leading the world in it’s exploration.

In 1800, an expedition was sent to Australia with instructions to bring back Aboriginal artefacts and as many specimens of our flora and fauna as possible.  

As well as Aboriginal shields and spears, the voyage returned with 200 live plants for Josephine's garden at the Chateau de Malmaison, 12km from Paris.  

It’s incredible that the crew managed to keep the many diverse plants alive on the six month voyage, particularly as they sailed through dramatically different seasons and climates. 

Even more impressive was the (mostly) successful transport of Australian animals. The ship was like Josephine's personal ark as the captain was instructed to bring back two of everything. The ship's crew reportedly kicked officers out of their cabins, filling them with emus, kangaroos and black swans.  It's remarkable they survived at all as the animals were fed bread soaked in wine for the whole return journey.

The expedition brought two black swans, a male and a female, to Malmaison for Josephine. These extraordinary animals were a huge drawcard and well-to-do Parisians would come to Malmaison to visit Josephine and marvel at these exotic birds.  When they reproduced, Josephine became the first person in history to breed black swans in captivity.    

The first kangaroo arrived in Josephine’s garden in 1804. Only one of the three kangaroos that were loaded onto the ship in Australia survived. Others were donated to Josephine over time, but they didn’t respond well to the European climate. When Josephine died in 1814, only one remained alive. The black swans, however, not only survived but thrived, swimming about on the artificial lake and roaming the gardens freely.

Josephine collected plants competitively, vying with the Museum of Natural History for specimens. She gathered plants for her garden from the botanists who accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns as well as from other voyagers.

During the Napoleonic Wars, ships carrying specimens for Josephine were allowed free passage. Between 1803 and 1814 hundreds of plant species were introduced to Europe. Josephine pioneered the planting of acacia, melaleuca and eucalyptus throughout France and propagated many species of Australian plants.

When he was exiled to Saint Helena island, Napoleon introduced two new specimens to remind him of Josephine and Malmaison: the Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia) and the Australian Golden Everlasting (Bracteantha bracteata). Both species can still be found on the island today.


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