An archipelago nestled in the southern hemisphere and surrounded by the Indian Ocean preserves an adventurous history linked to France and the Principality of Monaco. Kerguelen Islands, integral part of French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Terres australes et antarctiques françaises - TAAF) are still counted among the most remote places in the world, being nicknamed ‘The Desolation Islands’. Far more than three thousand kilometers from an inhabited centre, the nearest land being Madagascar. In modern times, these remote lands, constantly shaped by the force of nature, constitute a treasure of biodiversity where local flora and Antarctic fauna thrive, having no predators except human beings and animal species imported by them (e.g.: cows and sheep). The sub-Antarctic territories, in fact, embodies a great concentration of marine birds and mammals in the wild. Consequently, it is currently visited by scientists and meteorologists. Moreover, UNESCO included the French Austral Lands and Seas in the World Heritage in 2019.
But who discovered them and why are they considered French territory? On the 9th September 2022 at theOceanographic Museum Conference Hall, Bruno Fuligni, historian and author, reconstructed the story of their discoverer providing an unprecedented portrait of him during the lecture 'Les Kerguelens 250 ans de présence française' (The Keguelens , 250 years of French presence). That was the final celebration of the dedicated double exhibit offered the public by the Oceanographic Museum throughout the summer period. MONACŒCOART® attended the event to collect some feedbacks about a little-known piece of history.
Captain Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémerac, from North-East of France, was an extremely adventurous French Navy officer and pioneer in preserving ocean ecosystems through a multidisciplinary and creative educational approach. It was not so common for his time, the Eighteen Century, to nourish amultiple knowledge at the same time: politics, science, meteorology and nature. As underlined by Bruno Fuligni, Kerguelen believed in the need to modernize the French navy. His adventurous spirit pushed him to embark to discover new lands, pointing the compass more and more to the South, after reaching the island of Mauritius. Finally, on the 16th January 1772 he noted in his diary the sighting of a land after observing abnormal concentrations of seabirds in previous days. The Captain returned to France with great enthusiasm and King Louis XV received him with great honours and acknowledgments, amazed by his extraordinary travel tales announcing treasures and a new continent to colonize.
“A sept heures, le soleil ayant dissipé la brume et éclairci l’horizon, je distinguai parfaitement une continuation de terres, qui s’étendaient à toute vue depuis le Nord-Est jusqu’au Sud du compas, ce qui comprenait environ 25 lieues de côtes…” Kerguelen’s diary, 16th January 2022
Photo >> The conference by Bruno Fuligni, historian and author, & the official poster of the event (Oceanographic Museum, Conference Hall, 9th September 2022) - © Michel Dagnino
The Sovereign therefore authorized a second operational mission seeking to know more about that nearly ‘Terra Incognita Australis’, a dreamy land sought for a long time. However, the islands were definitely not the hoped-for ‘paradise’ but a tree-less territory without mineral resources, apparently not inhabited by human communities, where rain, snow and strong winds were the daily routine. An ideal biodiversity for penguins, albatross, sea lions but a hostile place for humans forced to eat a native cabbage, the only existing edible vegetable. Kerguelen’s fame inevitably collapsed and on his return to France he was removed by the navy, tried and sentenced to six years in prison. While in prison British Captain James Cook visited the sub-austral islands naming them Kerguelen after finding a message from his French counterpart, not considering the land of interest to the British Crown. Actually, Kerguelen served in prison only three years but his dignity seemed lost until the French Revolution allowed him to access again the navy and finally hold the post of admiral thanks to his adventurer charisma.
After a period of total disinterest on the part of France, Kerguelen Islands were ‘rediscovered’ in more recent times as a pristine archipelago to study under the lens of science. After some unsuccessful attempts to introduce agricultural crops during the nineteenth century, a technical and scientific station, Port-aux Français, was built in 1950 to open up a new era for those remote lands. Under the presidency of President François Mitterand, in fact, the French government claimed possession of the islands which represent today the only French territory in the Southern Hemisphere. Therefore, it turns out that the true precious resource of Kerguelens’ is their insular biodiversity. Nowadays, a temporary international community set up in the islands, favourite destination for scientific communities, lovers of nature or distinguished institutional figures committed in sustainability like H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco and His Foundation who have a special interest, also to pay tribute to Prince of Monaco Islands (included in the archipelago) after the name of Prince Albert I of Monaco.
Photo >> The dedicated double exhibition about expeditions to the Kerguelen Islands offered the public by the Oceanographic Museum throughout the summer period - (Oceanographic Museum, Conference Hall, 9th September 2022) - © M. Abbati
Interview with Bruno Fuligni (B.F.), historian and author, graduate at Sciences Po, Senior Official, responsible for the Editorial Mission of the French National Assembly.
MONACŒCOART®: What fascinates you most about the history of Kerguelen?
B.F.: As a historian, Kerguelen’s life and his extraordinary sense of possession are exciting. He sails into the unknown in the Southern Hemisphere seeking a new continent, and he finds something totally different. At the time he is despised for this but today his discovery takes on an incomparable value. Then, after the constant presence of human beings, since the 1950s things have changed completely building up a French territory out of the ordinary which also becomes a linguistic island where a new vocabulary takes shape. A unique social community is formed that forges its own linguistic codes as well as a mental and visual imaginary. That is something!
MONACŒCOART®: Principality of Monaco and its Institutions, notably Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and the Oceanographic Institute, launched a campaign of new science explorations, does the spirit of discovery still exist?
B.F.: Yes, absolutely. There are still many things to discover with special regard to the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF). For example, many places have no names. This to say that exploration will continue. Not to mention the underwater world of the Sub-Southern Ocean. I therefore expect that science will soon make new discoveries. Visiting TAAF territories is for sure considered as the consecration of years of research, from what scientists tell me. ***
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By Maurice Abbati