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Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière
(1755–1834)

Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière

Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière was a French biologist, and a member of the La Pérouse expedition to Australia. After studying at Montpellier and Rheims, he moved to Paris and became the apprentice of the naturalist Louis Guillaume Le Monnier. He went to Britain under orders from Le Monnier to study the plants being collected and catalogued there and met Sir Joseph Banks. In 1787, he travelled to the Near East to try to identify plants described by Islamic Golden Age naturalists, and then to the eastern Mediterranean in 1788. In 1791 he took the role of naturalist on Bruni d’Entrecasteaux's expedition to Oceania to search for Jean Francois de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, who had disappeared off the coast of the Soloman Islands. Bruni d’Entrecasteaux’s mission failed to find La Pérouse, but made stops in Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and the East Indies, collecting botanical samples along the way. Unfortunately, the French Revolutionary Wars broke out during the procession and the expedition and the entire collection was seized by the British in Java. Labillardière’s earlier acquaintance with Joseph Banks eventually enabled him to recover the specimens a few years later.

He wrote an account of the expedition, “Relation du Voyage à la Recherche de la Pérouse”, published in 1799, which gained him an election to the Academy of Sciences. It records their encounters with native people. The Kanak people of New Caledonia were disparaged for their reluctance to let their women on board the ship; he wrote that there was a “great corruption of manners among these cannibals” after a Kanak chief denied them the opportunity to have sex with his wife. They saw women diving for shellfish in Tasmania and were horrified that the women had to do such dangerous work, and tried to intimate that they should be spared this labour. Labillardière swapped a pair of brightly coloured pantaloons for a kangaroo skin with a young girl. After the return of the samples, he also wrote the first general description of the flora of Australia, ‘Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen’.