Rose redacted

How Rose de Freycinet was erased from the official narrative of the 'Uranie' voyage

The smiling young woman who takes centre stage in the sketch above is nowhere to be seen in a published version of the same scene. Discover why Rose de Freycinet was erased from the official narrative of the 'Uranie' voyage of 1817–20.

The first European woman to write an account of a circumnavigation of the globe, Rose de Freycinet was smuggled aboard the French scientific expedition of 1817–20 by her husband, the ship’s captain. However, Rose’s presence was omitted from the official expedition publications. Proof of her presence on board the Uranie (and the process of her erasure) can be found in a series of artworks held by and on display in the Caroline Simpson Library.

The circumnavigation of the globe by French naval captain Louis Claude de Saulces de Freycinet aboard the Uranie between 1817 and 1820 is considered one of the most significant voyages of scientific exploration of the Pacific region. The ambitious journey aimed to expand understanding of geography, ethnography, meteorology and terrestrial magnetism. The findings were published between 1824 and 1844 in nine volumes of text and four large folio atlases of 355 engravings. Yet there is one major omission from the official narrative – any mention of the presence of Freycinet’s wife, Rose, on the expedition. Had this official version of the voyage been the only source, Rose’s adventure would have been lost to history. Fortunately, her extraordinary experiences endure – both in her own words, and in a handful of depictions of her produced from life by artists on board the ship. These rare images also illustrate Rose’s deliberate erasure from the historical narrative.

‘I will share his fate’1

Born Rose Marie Pinon in 1794 into a middle-class family, Rose received a thorough education, probably because her mother ran a boarding school for young ladies in Paris. It’s not known how Rose met her future husband, the aristocratic naval captain Louis de Freycinet, yet despite a 15-year age gap and their difference in class, the couple wed on 6 June 1814, in Montmartre. They would remain inseparable until Rose’s death – even during Louis’s three-year voyage around the world.

There’s no doubt that Louis and Rose were both complicit in the plan to smuggle Rose aboard the Uranie to accompany him on his circumnavigation voyage. Louis had spent the months before departure altering the ship to incorporate a dunette – a small cabin and enclosed deck at the stern of the ship – which would provide additional accommodation and privacy for Rose away from the eyes of the crew. The plan was a huge risk for Louis to take – not only were women forbidden from travelling on naval ships, but there was also a superstition among sailors that women on board were bad luck. Despite the risks, on the evening of Tuesday 16 September 1817 a 22-year-old Rose stole aboard the Uranie, dressed as a man in a blue frock coat and trousers, her hair freshly cut short. She wouldn’t see France again for more than three years.

In her own words

Rose had promised to document her experiences for her childhood friend Caroline de Nanteuil in a journal. She also wrote numerous letters to her mother during the journey. Both primary sources remained relatively unknown in the archives of the de Freycinet family for over a century. It wasn’t until 1927 that her words were published, with heavy editing by Freycinet family members. Never meant for publication, the journal captures Rose’s perspective of the voyage. She rarely speaks of her husband or the purpose of the journey, but rather of her own experiences and encounters with unfamiliar lands and foreign peoples.

The party at Dili

Rose’s presence can be detected in a handful of images by two artists on board the Uranie – draftsman Jacques Arago and midshipman Alphonse Pellion. A watercolour by Pellion held in the Caroline Simpson Collection is of particular interest. It depicts the moment the crew of the Uranie arrived on the shores of Dili, the capital of the Portuguese settlement, located on the north-east side of Timor. After an unsuccessful attempt to restock the ship in Kupang, a Dutch settlement on the western side of Timor, and with several of the crew in poor health, Louis was forced to stop in Dili in November 1818. Established in 1769 when the Portuguese governor chose the site as the new administrative centre, by 1818 Dili was still a relatively small town with a mixed population that included Portuguese administrators and soldiers, indigenous people including ‘Régulo’ (chieftains) of local tribes, and enslaved Africans. The town centred around the official residence of the Portuguese governor – at the time of the Uranie’s visit, this position was held by Don José Pinto Alcoforado de Azevedo e Sousa.

After anchoring offshore, the Uranie was welcomed by the governor. Rose’s letters to her mother provide the most colourful, and personal, account of this visit. Upon learning of Rose’s presence on board, the governor sent a gift of fresh fruit and bread, and an invitation to dine at his home with the ‘notable women’2 of the settlement – daughters of local leaders who had married Portuguese officers. Rose writes of not having suitable attire for such an event; a light muslin dress and a bonnet adorned with feathers was the best she could manage. She also describes the ‘loud salute’ of the cannons and the large crowd on the shore, both of which unsettled her so that she required Louis’s arm for support as she descended the gangplank.

When I stepped ashore, [the governor] gave me his hand and invited me to share with him the shade of a huge parasol carried by a Timorese slave dressed in strange clothes. A similar parasol was held over Louis’s head.3

The process of removal

The watercolour by Pellion was presumably painted at the time of the event. All of the details described so vividly in Rose’s account can be identified in the scene, with Rose at the centre, the bright red feathers in her bonnet drawing the eye. She is supported by Louis as she approaches the governor, hand outstretched. Smoke from the cannon billows across the water, and the twin parasols held by enslaved indigenous Timorese await Rose and Louis. A man waiting to disembark the longboat carries Rose’s own parasol and shawl.

A closer look reveals a series of pencil lines, crosses and other notations on the work. These marks were probably made by Louis as he revised the artworks in preparation for the voyage’s official publication. The revisions were undertaken around 1822, by artist Pierre-Antoine Marchais, first in the form of a pencil sketch, with Rose removed along with the man holding her belongings.

Marchais then executed another watercolour in preparation for engraving. Here we see the deliberate simplification of the scene, focusing the narrative on the main characters of Louis and the governor.

By the time the sanctioned engraving is produced, there’s no longer any trace of Rose, or the central part she played at Dili. This version changes the reality of the event – rather than a celebratory occasion held to honour both Louis and Rose, and an opportunity for Rose to meet the ladies of Timor, the final version presents it as a moment of diplomatic exchange between significant men at a noteworthy juncture of an important journey. This was not a place for a woman in a feathered hat.

‘I shall never regret the decision which I took’4

In recent years, significant collections of Freycinet material have made their way into Australian collections such as the State Library of NSW, which holds the original journal Rose wrote for her friend Caroline and the early transcriptions of her letters to her mother. The works in the Caroline Simpson Collection are unique, however, in that they show the process of a woman being deliberately erased from the historical narrative. Now digitised and accessible to a wide audience, the images capture an important part of early French exploration of the Pacific. They also reveal the story of an intrepid woman who defied her era’s strictly defined gender roles to undertake a long and perilous journey, encountering along the way the same dangers of rough seas, ill health and shipwreck that the 120 men onboard did.

It would be Rose’s only great adventure. She died in 1832 at the age of 37.


  1. Rose de Freycinet, ‘Lettres de Mme Louis de Freycinet …’, State Library of NSW, MLMSS 9158, vol 2.
  2. As translated by Marc Serge Rivière, A woman of courage: the journal of Rose de Freycinet on her voyage around the world, National Library of Australia, 1996, p59.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Letter from Rose to her nephew Lodoix de Freycinet, August 1828, as quoted in Serge Rivière, pxxiv.
Watercolour of a group of people landing ashore
Featured display

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Caroline Simpson Library

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Caroline Simpson Library, which was created through an extraordinary cultural gift donated by the children of Caroline Simpson OAM (1930–2003).

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Mel Flyte

Mel Flyte

Collections Discovery Assistant, Caroline Simpson Library

Growing up in rural NSW, Mel’s childhood was spent undertaking her own archaeological excavations in the creek bed on her family’s property. Old bottles, cow bones, and the occasional piece of rusty farm equipment were all considered exciting discoveries. School holidays were punctuated with long car trips with her mum to see blockbuster exhibitions in Canberra and Sydney, so galleries and museums always felt familiar. Studies in archaeology and art history have inspired a passion for objects and their ability to elicit emotions and tell stories. Mel curated the exhibtion On The Move and relishes the opportunity to get hands-on with the treasures in our collections.

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