The most vivid description of an encounter between Baudin’s men and the Nuenonne is given by Péron. It took place right here.
Péron is walking the shore alone when he sees a 20-strong group of Aborigines coming towards him. Alarmed, he returns to his comrades, but when the two parties come together the Aborigines are seen to be women carrying shellfish, including crays and crabs, in large woven bags fastened around each forehead. One of the older women invites the French to sit, ‘whereupon they asked us a number of questions, seeming often to criticise our appearance and laughing heartedly at our expense’.
The expedition’s surgeon, Jérome Bellefin, sings and dances, for which ‘some applauded him with loud acclamation’. The most vivacious of the women then begins ‘to mimic his action and the tone of his voice’, after which ‘she began to dance and throw herself into diverse attitudes’. The same woman approaches Péron, taking charcoal from ‘a bag made of rushes’. Crushing it between her hands, she ‘paints’ Péron’s face.
The clear impression one gets is that the women are in control for the duration of the encounter. Péron notes that any attempt to approach the women causes them to run away; ‘we were therefore obliged to conform entirely to their wishes, that we might longer enjoy their company’. But when the party eventually falls in with their husbands the women utter ‘a cry of terror’.
A few days later Péron encounters the lively young woman from the shell-gathering party and discovers that her name is Arra-Meïda. At his request, the artist, Nicolas-Martin Petit, sketches Arra-Meïda. It is a strong, evocative likeness of a young woman with a babe at her breast.
We have Péron’s account of these two meetings, but what did Arra-Meïda make of them? We will never know: she vanishes from history, there being no further record of her.
Piron’s image ‘Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land preparing their meal’, from Labillardiere’s Atlas, can be found reproduced often, including in Frank Horner, Looking for La Perouse, Melbourne Univ. Press, 1995.
The images of Arra-Meïda (or other women) are from the following sources, in order of appearance to the right:
Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, Le Havre, Collection Lesueur (cote 20004-3), sourced from Daugeron, Bertrand, A la Recherche de l’Esperance, rivisiter la rencontre des Aborigenes tasmaniens avec les Francais 1772-1802 (Ars apodemica, 2014).
Lesueur and Petit’s, Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands, An historical record; Atlas (Artus Bertrand, Paris, 1824). Sourced from NJP Plomley, The Baudin Expedition and the Tasmanian Aborigines, 1892 (Blubber Head Press,Hobart, 1983).
Labillardiere’s ‘Voyage In Search Of La Perouse Volume II’, available at Project Gutenberg.
Detail of print “Terre de Diemen, Paraberi”, from Francois Peron’s Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes. Atlas (plate 11); National Library of Australia, Rex Nan Kivell Collection (NK660). Sourced from: Daugeron, Bertrand, A la Recherche de l’Esperance, rivisiter la rencontre des Aborigenes tasmaniens avec les Francais 1772-1802 (Ars apodemica, 2014).
The image of Peron, just before his death, is from Anthony J Brown, Ill-starred Captains Flinders and Baudin, Crawford House Publishers, 2000. It is held in the Collection Lesueur, Museum d’Histoiree Naturelle, Le Havre.