Barrallier, Francis (1773–1853)

Though he spent only three years (1800–1803) in the colony of New South Wales, Francis Barrallier made a substantial contribution to Australia’s early colonial history. As a cartographer and surveyor, explorer, architect, ship designer, engineer, artillery officer and sympathetic observer of the local Aboriginal people and their way of life, he added to Europeans’ knowledge and understanding of this land and its Indigenous inhabitants.

Francis Louis Barrallier was born in Toulon, into a family of strongly Royalist sympathies—a fact which obliged his parents to flee to England with Francis and his younger siblings in August 1793 when Napoleonic forces began bombarding Toulon. Under the tutelage of his father Jean-Louis, a distinguished naval architect and fortifications engineer, Francis became adept at cartography and surveying and, at the age of twenty, set his sights on the position of Deputy Surveyor-General in the colony of New South Wales. Unsuccessful in this ambition, on 26 November 1799 he nevertheless embarked for Port Jackson on board the Speedy in order to join the New South Wales Corps, where he met the French-speaking Governor-Designate of the colony, Commander Philip Gidley King.

Appointed Ensign by Governor Hunter, Barrallier soon received two substantial commissions as a cartographer-surveyor. The first, on The Lady Nelson under the command of Lieutenant James Grant, took him south from March 1801 to Wilson’s Promontory and Western Port in what is now Victoria, mapping those parts of the coast which had been missed by Flinders in 1798.  In the course of its journey, the little party planted fruit and vegetables at Western Port as well as discovering some previously unknown plants. Barrallier’s name was given to a small uninhabited island, a kilometre north of French Island.  The second journey, from June 1801, was northward, again in the Lady Nelson under Grant’s captaincy, but this time in the company of the Deputy Governor Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson, the surgeon Dr John Harris and the naturalist and artist John Lewin, with the purpose of surveying the Hunter River. Barrallier’s description of the party’s entrance into the harbour was to take the form of a highly dramatic account, in slightly anglicised French, which he forwarded to Governor King and which is included in Volume IV of Historical Records of New South Wales. Described by Dr Harris as ‘indefatigable’, Barrallier completed his task in a little over a month.

The multi-talented Barrallier was also involved in ship design and is credited with having at least an input into the design of the King George, a 185-ton vessel, the first of any significance to be built in the new colony.

In 1802, Barrallier undertook a reconnoitring trip along the base of the Blue Mountains in the hope of finding a way through to the west. Little is known of this expedition, but it is worth noting that its timing coincided with the Baudin expedition’s visit to Port Jackson. Zoologist François Péron noted in his journal that he had hoped to accompany Barrellier on a trip to the interior of New South Wales, but the Governor expressly forbade such an expedition: the French were still considered the enemy in this British colony.

Perhaps because of Barrallier’s contact with members of the Baudin expedition, Paterson now turned against him. Paterson objected to King’s wish to send Barrallier back to the Blue Mountains; indeed, he insisted that the Frenchman be returned to regimental duties. Two other factors were uppermost in his mind: first, as a Frenchman, Barrallier could still be regarded as an enemy alien; and second, the Home Office in England had issued orders expressly forbidding exploration missions to the west of Sydney, fearing that the convicts would make a break for freedom if they could travel beyond the coastal plain.

This left King in a difficult position. Paterson, as Lieutenant-Governor, may have been King’s subordinate, but he was after all Commanding Officer of the New South Wales Corps. Moreover, confirmation of Barrallier’s appointment as engineer and artillery officer had not yet been received from London. This meant that King had little option but to defer to Paterson’s wishes, and he relieved Barrallier of his extra-regimental duties, while praising him in a General Order for his work as a military engineer and artillery officer, as well as a civil engineer and surveyor.

King adopted a novel stratagem by seconding Barrallier from the army to be his aide-de-camp, thus making him part of the Governor’s household and free to continue his explorations. Barrallier was put in charge of an exploration party aimed at gaining as much knowledge as possible of the country at the foot of the Blue Mountains and of its Aboriginal inhabitants, who had had no previous contact with Europeans. Its official purpose was, if not the actual crossing of the Blue Mountains, at least the establishment of a depot from which a later attempt at a crossing might be made. Of all King’s exploring directives to Barrallier, it is for this journey that Barrallier is best remembered today.

Barrallier’s main expedition began on 6 November 1802, when he set out from Parramatta with a party consisting of four soldiers, five convicts and a number of Aboriginal guides. The original journal kept by Barrallier of this journey of exploration has been lost, but an early copy was deposited at the Public Record Office in Kew (UK) and is reproduced in Historical Records of New South Wales. As well as providing plentiful information about the Eora Aborigines of the Sydney district and the Gundungurra people of the Southern Blue Mountains, it reveals Barrallier to have been a highly sympathetic observer of indigenous lifestyles, habitats and beliefs. Indeed, unlike the majority of British colonial explorers who came in contact with Aboriginal tribes, Barrallier was anxious to establish a personal rapport with these people, describing their physique, clothes, methods of cooking, protocols, customs, and attitudes to each other and to him—even recording their given names and individual characteristics. He tasted their food, and in return shared his provisions with them. With some of them at least, he earned the status of a friend rather than an intruder on their tribal lands.

How close Barrallier and his party came to discovering the Blue Mountains crossing—some eleven years before Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson—would emerge only in later years; but with food supplies depleted and the soldiers’ shoes worn out, they decided to turn back, arriving in Sydney on 24 December ‘after three days of hard walking’. The Governor held a Christmas Eve reception in their honour, and Barrallier assured the Governor of his intention to make another attempt at a Blue Mountains crossing as soon as he was able.

This was not to be, however. Paterson, furious at the favourable treatment handed out to Barrallier by the Governor, again demanded that the Ensign return to regimental duties. In the face of King’s continued reluctance, Paterson embarked on a campaign of anonymous vilification which ultimately led to Barrallier’s return to the army. Was Barrallier guilty of the veiled accusations made by Paterson? The evidence points overwhelmingly to his innocence, but King could not be entirely certain in the matter, and in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks he expressed his doubts in tones more suggestive of disappointment than anger.

Barrallier submitted his resignation in May 1803, but this was not accepted by King, who entrusted him with the oversight of some 79 soldiers going back to England on a returning convict ship, the Glatton. On his arrival in England, he wrote up his exploration results for Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who retained an abiding interest in anything that concerned the land that he had visited with Cook in 1770.

Francis Barrallier would go on to have a distinguished military career in his chosen professional fields as engineer, cartographer and surveyor. Following a brief return to Toulon, he resided permanently in London. He died at home in 1853 at the age of eighty, having become a British subject in 1849.

Apart from his professional achievements, Barrallier made a number of significant contributions to 19th century European knowledge and understanding of Australia and its inhabitants. He was one of the earliest French explorers to study and record the koala, the use of the boomerang and ‘nulla’ or stone axe, the native call of ‘cooee’ and various Aboriginal names for flora and fauna, as well as recording numerous observations on botany, geology and Aboriginal society, many of which were conveyed to his patron Charles Greville and to Sir Joseph Banks.

Regrettably, no portrait of Barrallier is known to be in existence, and even in those few places in Australia where he has been granted some kind of memorial, it is as though the exotic French name had no standard spelling (Barrallier, Barrellier and Barralier are the names of a number of suburbs and streets in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory).

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Author: Kenneth Dutton, Emeritus Professor, University of Newcastle, October 2019

Journal of the Expedition, undertaken by Order of His Excellency Governor King, to the Interior of New South Wales, by F[rancis] Barrallier, Ensign in New South Wales Corps, in Historical Records of New South Wales [ed. F. M. Bladen], Vol V, Appendix A (pp. 748–825).
Cunningham, Chris, 1996, The Blue Mountains Rediscovered: Beyond the Myths of Early Australian Exploration, Kenthurst, NSW, Kangaroo Press.
Dutton, Kenneth R., 2010, ‘Barrallier in the Hunter’, Explorations, no 49, Part I, December 2010, pp. 38–50.
Dutton, Kenneth R., 2015, ‘Francis Barrallier (1773–1853) Cartographer’, French Lives in Australia, Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, pp. 61–74.
Else Mitchell, R[ae], 1938, ‘Barrallier’s Blue Mountains Explorations, 1802’, Journal and Proceedings, Royal Australian Historical Society, 24, Part 4, pp. 291–313.
Lhuedé, Valerie, 2003, ‘Francis Barrallier, Explorer, Surveyor, Engineer, Artillery Officer, Aide-de-Camp, Architect and Ship Designer: Three Years in New South Wales (1800–1803)’, Explorations, no 35, December 2003 (issued August 2004), pp. 5–25.
Macqueen, Andy, 1977, Blue Mountains to Bridgetown: The Life and Journeys of Barrallier, 1773–1853, Springwood, NSW, A. Macqueen.
Parsons, Vivienne, 2006, ‘Barrallier, Francis Louis (1773–1853)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, online edition.

Keywords: Barrallier, Blue Mountains explorations, French anthropology in Australia, early Australian exploration