Table of Contents
































Also by John Dunmore in this series:

Storms and Dreams: Louis de Bougainville–Soldier, Explorer, Statesman

Where Fate Beckons: The Life of Jean-François de La Pérouse

Front cover: Dumont D’Urville at the age of 43, before his great final voyage. TRANZ/Corbis

Back cover: The Venus de Milo, Louvre, Paris. TRANZ/Corbis


It was Sunday, 8 May 1842, the King’s feast day – or as the English might call it, his official birthday. The famous fountains of Versailles were to give their displays, graceful curving jets of water, large and small cascades. It was a warm spring day, with early signs of summer, and crowds, estimated at over 10,000, travelled from Paris to the gardens of Versailles for the celebrations.

The outing was made easier by the newly installed railway, a fascinating novelty at the time, but it proved so popular that the authorities found themselves forced to use all the rolling stock they had, and to turn around the trains as quickly as they could. The 5.30 train, by which Dumont D’Urville, his wife and their son intended to return, was so crowded that it was late in leaving, and the drivers – there were two, one in the front engine, one in the more powerful back engine – were told to hurry as best they could to make up time.

There had been a tendency on the part of travellers to get down at the intermediate stations to farewell their friends, or merely to look around. There were also show-off teenagers who would run along the platform, and climb up into their carriage as the train gathered speed. To stop this practice, which was both dangerous and time wasting, the stationmasters had ordered the carriage doors to be locked once the signal to leave was given. This practice was followed even though, on this occasion, in order to ferry the returning excursionists back to Paris as quickly as possible, stops at the intervening stations were cancelled. The 5.30 train therefore travelled as fast as – and apparently faster than – those early engines could manage. The next day, newspapers reported what happened.

A through train consisting of fifteen wagons or coaches travelling towards Paris and drawn by two engines, the Matthieu Murray and the Éclair, went through Bellevue station. Two minutes later the axle of the Matthieu Murray broke in two. The second engine, unable to proceed, was flung onto the first, carrying four coaches with it as it fell; flung pell-mell one upon the other, they reached the height of the upper windows of a house. One or two people who happened to be near shouted for help; men belonging to the station came on the scene; shrieks and groans issued on every side. The doors were locked: it was impossible to open them. One of the drivers had disappeared and the second, flung to the ground, was in no condition to let the passengers out. Mr Tartel, the Bellevue stationmaster, came as quickly as he could and opened the doors of the first coach, but it was too late – fire had already taken hold of the inflammable material of the coaches piled onto the engine as for an auto-da-fé, and it was impossible to give any sort of aid to those who were shut up inside. There ensued the cruellest scene that has ever taken place in the memory of men.[1]

Originally, it was estimated that more than a hundred people had perished. As the bodies were taken to a temporary morgue, and the names of those reported missing were checked, this total was reduced to fifty-nine. It was known that Dumont D’Urville and his family had gone to Versailles that day and had not returned, so an inspection was carried out by a group of specialists, including Drs Hombron and Jacquinot and the phrenologist Dumoutier who had sailed with D’Urville. Dumoutier was able to identify the navigator’s skull from the remains. A partly melted gold chain clearly belonged to his wife, and the remains of a youth’s body were those of the boy.

The Académie des Sciences, meeting during the week, was formally told that there could be no further doubt: Rear-Admiral Dumont D’Urville, with his wife and only surviving son, had been burnt alive in the catastrophe.

The remains lie buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.


May 1790–October 1807

Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont D’Urville was born on 23 May 1790 in the small town of Condé-sur-Noireau, inland from the city of Caen.

The ‘Sébastien’ stands like a wedge between the Jules and the César, as if an anxious father wanted to avoid his son being teased by his playmates laughing at a diminutive Julius Caesar in their midst. Not that it would have been entirely inappropriate for someone born in a place founded by the Romans, a stronghold they called Condate Nigrum, black Condé. The name subsists in the river Noireau that trickles its way down from what tourist offices now call la Suisse normande – Norman Switzerland, rather more hilly than most of Normandy, but, like most of the region, rich in agricultural resources.

Peaceful it may be today, but it was often the scene of wars and invasions, from the Vikings, the North Men, who settled the region and gave it its name, to the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of Religion, and in modern times the Normandy landings of 1944 that resulted in 95 per cent of Condé-sur-Noireau, including the Dumont D’Urville house, being destroyed.

Jules’ father, Gabriel Charles François, belonged to what was called the noblesse de robe, the nobility of the gown, so called because of the dress normally used by members of the judiciary. He was bailiff of Condé and of nearby Fresnes, an office that was hereditary. In addition, he was lord of Urville, a small country estate and even smaller village of some 200 inhabitants. This allowed him to use the second title, and made him an eligible suitor in the eyes of the Croisilles family who could trace their name back to feudal days. He married Jeanne Françoise Victoire Julie de Croisilles on 23 August 1774 in nearby La Villette. He was forty-six, she was twenty. The Croisilles may have been proud of their lineage, but they had very little money. Jacques’ father was, like Gabriel, a bailiff of the relatively small district of D’Harcourt. Marrying off his daughter Jeanne was a weight off his mind.

The D’Urvilles had several children, although, as was not uncommon in those days, most of them died young. Their first child, Jean, died shortly after birth; a second boy, Pierre, died at the age of four; and two, possibly three, of their daughters similarly died young.

By the time Jules was born, their last hope of a male heir, the father was sixty-two. He was in poor health, having recently suffered a stroke. Moreover, the French Revolution had broken out, bringing ruin on people like the D’Urvilles and the Croisilles who held hereditary positions in the old administration. He could not cope with the collapse of the only world he had known, and kept to his home, allowing his illness to take over. Madame D’Urville, on the other hand, remained a determined and often belligerent royalist. Hearing republicans in the streets celebrating some new political triumph, she went upstairs, took a chamber pot and emptied its contents over the crowd. This earned her a week’s jail, but the punishment did not quell her fighting spirit. When her husband was accused of ‘complicity with foreigners and plotting against the safety of the State’, she strode off to the courthouse and argued vehemently and successfully that, in his state of health, her husband could not possibly plot against anyone. The case was dropped, but they decided that it was time to move away. Louis XVI and his family, who had already been forced to leave Versailles and move to Paris, were now in prison. There were street riots and attacks on the prisons where the noblemen – the hated ‘aristocrats’ – were being held, with a number of them being killed. Condé-sur-Noireau was a quiet enough place, a backwater in fact, but the D’Urvilles were too well known and too easy a prey for the extremists who were gaining the upper hand in France. The family moved first to Vassy, then to Vire, some 60 kilometres south of Caen. It was not wise to spend more than a few months anywhere, because by now the Terror was in full swing. Led by the energetic Jeanne de Croisilles, they moved to Caen itself, then to a secluded property at Feuguerolles-sur-Orne. And there, Jules’ father, an invalid hardly aware of what was going on, finally died. It was 12 October 1796.

Naturally, the boy’s education suffered through these constant moves. Under normal circumstances, he might have had a tutor teaching him at home, or the local priest might have given him lessons. But priests had been driven away, some being executed, and all of them required to swear an oath of allegiance to the republican constitution. Jules’ mother, a devout Catholic and royalist, would have nothing to do with any clergyman who had taken such an oath, and indeed on occasion, and especially at Feuguerolles, she provided shelter for a loyalist priest, a réfractaire, who had refused to take the oath and was now fleeing for his life. These taught him a little grammar, the rudiments of Latin and some ancient history. Otherwise, he had to depend on his mother for his education. She taught him to read, and gave him a few religious books, a catechism, a small Bible and one book he remembered in later years, Fr Bérruyer’s Histoire du Peuple de Dieu (The History of God’s People). But, above all, she tried to build up his physique, since from all reports he was a rather frail-looking little boy.

She encouraged him therefore to take walks into the surrounding countryside, sometimes, if he is to be believed, barefoot in order to harden him for the future. But he did love to get away from the tense household in which he lived, and roam free through the fields and the woods, along narrow paths or the banks of a small river. He developed a love of nature that never left him. Plants he had not seen before fascinated him, and he often brought them home, asking their name and sorting them among his few belongings. He sometimes did this also with small insects he found, although this made him less popular when he brought them to show his mother or his sisters. He also loved observing the changes in the weather, the mists, the light rain, the play of the sun on the meadows and the low hills.

He was eight when they were joined by his uncle, Father Jacques de Croisilles, a highly intelligent, scholarly ecclesiastic, but like his sister a committed conservative, forced to seek refuge in the homes of Catholic loyalists. Now, young Jules had a teacher worthy of his talents who could take his education in hand. He brought some order to all the information the boy had collected from a wide range of sources, and started teaching him Latin grammar, Greek, mathematics, and the orderliness of botany and zoology. Fr de Croisilles discovered that the youth had a remarkable mind and great ability to memorise things, whether they were the texts of the Roman poets, the plays of Racine or the principles of mathematics. And for his part, young Jules remained everlastingly grateful for his uncle’s contribution to his education:

The little that I am worth I owe to my good uncle, whose scholarship was as attractive as it was varied in scope. After a couple of years, I could translate with little difficulty the works of Quintus Curtius and Virgil, and I had learnt arithmetic and geometry.[1]

Gradually, the revolutionary fervour that had dominated French life since 1789 began to abate. Robespierre had imposed his rule of terror, had been overthrown and executed; a more democratic form of government was adopted, called the Directory, and was eventually taken over by a highly successful general named Napoléon Bonaparte. Anti-clerical laws were repealed, and men like Fr de Croisilles could begin to relax. He was appointed vicar-general and diocesan administrator in Bayeux. Madame Dumont D’Urville and her family followed him there. Jules would soon turn twelve, and it was time for him to attend an educational institution.

To begin with, the Abbé de Croisilles arranged for him to attend the College du Bessin, now once again run by priests. They were an enlightened group, and the boy embraced with enthusiasm a wide-ranging curriculum: Latin, of course, which was the Church’s working language; Greek; mathematics, and the natural sciences. He had never attended a school. He had never mixed with boys of his own age and social level, and he proved to be ill at ease with them, something of a loner, devoted to his studies and not interested in their games and jokes.

His mother was delighted with his progress, and even more pleased that he was attending a religious institution because she felt sure that his seriousness and the influence of his uncle would direct him towards a career in the Church. But the Abbé de Croisilles, who had been much closer to him than his at times imperious mother, had his doubts about this. Jules, he rightly guessed, was no more devout than any boy of his day, and his tendency to question everything and to search for answers in books and in the thoughts of the Graeco-Roman philosophers was an indication that his line of thinking would not fit in with the attitudes of the church leaders. He once said to him, when the boy confided that he was unhappy about his mother’s ambitions for her son:

Maybe a man of wisdom is more to be admired than one who is truly devout. Philosophy is the throne of wisdom; religion is only its support.[2]

In 1804, Napoleon reorganised French education. Everyone, not merely the wealthy and the nobles, was now to have the opportunity to advance. All that mattered was merit. Secondary colleges known as lycées were set up, dependent on the state, not on the church. And the Abbé de Croisilles suggested that Jules, now fourteen, should attend one of these. Reluctantly, because this meant the end of the dreams she had cherished for her son of a brilliant career in the Church, his mother agreed. Jules sat the required entrance examination, passed easily, and was granted a bursary by the town of Bayeux to attend the Lycée Malherbe at Caen. The only condition his mother laid down was that he would not attend as a boarder, subject to all the temptations and hooliganism of dormitories and halls filled with boys from every social class. He was perfectly happy with this condition: the last thing he was interested in was fooling around and gossiping with teenagers. His change of status and the relative freedom that came with it gave him new opportunities to read anything that interested him and to study botany in particular. He joined a local lending library, discovered the writings of the philosophes, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, in particular, as well as accounts of the voyages of Bougainville, James Cook and George Anson. He also visited the botanical gardens of Caen, where the curator, noticing his frequent visits and his keenness, made him particularly welcome.

The problem was that the lycée had its own curriculum, and that progress in the educational system, then as now, depended on competitive examinations, the concours. His uncle had advised him to aim for the prestigious new École Polytechnique, founded in 1794 to turn out top graduates, mostly engineers, for positions in government enterprises and, particularly now that France was embroiled in countless European wars, in the army. Jules had agreed, but when in 1807 he sat the entrance examination, although he passed, his marks were not sufficient to make the list for the Polytechnique. He was however, listed for admission to the École de Fontainebleau, a creditable institution, but of a lower level.

It was a bitter disappointment. Jules, then as always, took rejection badly. He felt it as a slight, almost an insult. He refused to complete an application form for Fontainebleau, and refused to resit the Polytechnique examination the following year. He gave up any plans to join the army. He turned instead to the navy.


November 1807–February 1819

It was not a good time to join the navy if one was keen on action and a glorious career. Since the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805 when Nelson sank or captured twenty French and Spanish ships without losing one of his own, Napoleon had all but turned his back on the navy. He was a military man, a great strategist, a master at handling troops and politicians. Ships were slow and costly to build, and even if France made an all-out effort to strengthen her fleet, she was unlikely to be able to challenge Britain’s supremacy.

Nevertheless, in November 1807, Jules Dumont D’Urville made his way to Brest at the distant tip of Brittany, against the wishes and hopes of both his mother and his uncle. The army seemed to have snubbed him, so he was determined to make his way in the sister service.

Even this required a little string-pulling. Fortunately for him, the prefect of the Calvados area had met him, and the Abbé de Croisilles, giving up his plans for Jules to attend a military school, had asked him to put in a good word on his behalf with his brother – who happened to be the Préfet maritime of Brest. This ensured that Jules was made welcome. The prefect, Mr Caffarelli, arranged for him to receive a provisional appointment as a midshipman while waiting for a chance to sit the next set of examinations. He also got him appointed to the Aquilon, which provided him with some form of board and lodging. The young man’s keenness and his application to his studies impressed her captain, Maingon – so much so that he helped him with the section of the curriculum dealing with navigational mathematics and astronomy. Maingon also showed him the new and still relatively rare marine chronometers. Unfortunately, because of the British blockade, the Aquilon never left her anchorage at Brest, except for a few basic manoeuvres in the bay, so that the young novice’s practical experience of seamanship was limited to handling sails and climbing the rigging of a ship at anchor.

When the examinations were held, Jules came a brilliant first out of seventy-two candidates. His provisional appointment was now confirmed, and his modest pay of eighteen francs a month was almost tripled. But there was nothing for him to do apart from more study. He now had more freedom to read what he liked, and began to study, of all things, Hebrew. He thought he might study the various texts of the Bible and see whether the Greek and Latin translations were correct or, as was being argued at the time, had been skewed by church authorities. Not surprisingly, his fellow midshipmen, who spent most of their spare time in the local taverns or attending functions given by Brest notables, looked upon him as a boring and pompous geek. As he had done at the college and at the Caen lycée, he ignored them.

Still, sitting at a desk or carrying out basic duties on deck were both somewhat boring activities. There was one brief interlude – a mere three weeks – during which he did some survey work at the mouth of the bay on a small lugger called the Requin, keeping an eye out for the English warships blockading the coast, but there was nothing after that. There would be no daring raid, no bold expedition against the enemy, no chance of earning fame and promotion. His thoughts turned to a voyage of discovery. There were rumours – one among many in those dreary days when gossip seemed to rule supreme – that such a voyage was being prepared in Le Havre. A frigate, the Amazone, was being readied for such an undertaking, so it was said. And why not? Napoleon might have given up thoughts of a landing on English soil, involving a confrontation between a revived French navy and its traditional enemy, but there had been one major expedition to Australia, led by Nicolas Baudin and formally approved by Napoleon, a very successful enterprise from the point of view of geography and the natural sciences. And the great navigator Louis de Bougainville was a friend of the emperor’s. The French Empire was reaching its apogee, the emperor would soon marry Marie-Louise, the daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Would not a major voyage of discovery which, as they had done with Baudin, the English might be willing to allow, add lustre to his reign?

It was all very plausible. All Jules needed was a transfer to Le Havre, and if possible an appointment to the Amazone. Both were arranged through Caffarelli and the Abbé de Croisilles. Jules took up his new appointment in February 1809. Years later, he wrote about his new ambitions:

In my opinion, nothing is nobler or more worthy for a generous spirit than devoting one’s life to the progress of knowledge. That is why my inclination pushed me towards voyages of discovery rather than into the purely military navy ... Unfortunately, expeditions of discovery were seldom considered at the time, but I wanted at least to exchange the absurd and meaningless service in harbours and anchorages for active navigation, in which I could acquire skills and visit distant lands. That is why I embarked on the frigate Amazone.[1]

But the Amazone was not bound for distant lands, or even ones nearby. It simply stayed in harbour and Jules’ life was merely a copy of what it had been in Brest. The solution, he now felt, was to move to a harbour that was less significant strategically, like the port of Toulon on the Mediterranean. That enclosed sea was now so firmly controlled by the British that they might not worry too much if a French warship carried out a few manoeuvres along the coast.

Once again, strings were pulled. The ever-helpful Abbé de Croisilles wrote letters seeking his nephew’s transfer. The officers of the Amazone had no objection: Dumont D’Urville the loner had made few friends on board or in town. The request was granted: promoted to the rank of ensign first class, he travelled to Provence and was appointed to the Suffren. It was quite an impressive ship, but the situation in Toulon was no different from that in Brest or Le Havre. Naval units simply stayed in the harbour, not always at anchor but never venturing outside the port itself.

Dumont D’Urville in time was moved to other ships, the Borée, the Donawerth, the Ville-de-Marseille, with brief interludes working at the offices on shore. In between time, he learned some Spanish and Italian, but above all he roamed the countryside, studying the flora of a region that was unfamiliar to him, and meeting other botanists. And as usual, he took little notice of the other young officers who mocked his habit of secluding himself with his books, and nicknamed him ‘The Owl’.

Then came the fall of Napoleon I and his exile to the island of Elba, not far from Toulon itself. This was followed by the return of the monarchy, with the late Louis’ brother ascending the throne and taking the title of Louis XVIII. Jules’ mother and uncle naturally warmly welcomed this, but he himself had reservations. He had read so much over the years, including the works of the ancient Greek philosophers and the more recent French ones who had laid the foundations for the republican movement, that he could not simply accept a return to the Ancien Régime. He had welcomed the rise of Napoleon because it had meant an end to the excesses of the republicans and had brought internal peace to France, but this had been followed by the First Consul’s assumption of absolute power and of the title of emperor. This seemed too much like the old system in a new guise: a new nobility had even been created, with counts and dukes, barons and peers.

What D’Urville did welcome was the end of the war with Britain, which meant an end to the years of blockade the French navy had endured. Now ships could safely venture out of their home ports. He was serving at the time on the Ville-de-Marseille, and for the first time in his career he sailed into open waters, breathing the fresh breeze of the open sea.

It was not a long voyage, but an interesting one. The frigate was taking the king’s brother, the Duc d’Artois, to Palermo in Sicily to fetch his wife and family who, like him, had spent the war years as émigrés. They came back safely, to an official welcome at Toulon, and the duke expressed his thanks to all the officers. Their paths would cross again, some years later and in less pleasant circumstances, when the duke, by then King Charles X, stepped onto the deck of Captain Dumont D’Urville’s ship to go back into exile.

Meantime, Jules had other things on his mind. He had several times visited the shop of Joseph Marie Pépin, a watchmaker of Toulon who stocked marine instruments and timekeepers, and had fallen in love with his daughter Adèle. She was young, pretty, vivacious in the lively style of the Midi, and quite well educated. She knew about maps and charts, about the voyages of explorers and what still needed to be done to complete the maps of distant seas. Joseph Pépin had no objection to what was obviously an excellent match. D’Urville was a nobleman, a serious and knowledgeable young officer with good connections and a bright future ahead of him, whom his daughter loved.

Madame D’Urville did not share his point of view. Marrying a shopkeeper’s daughter was quite inappropriate for a descendant of the Croisilles and the D’Urvilles. But Napoleon had brought in a new legal system, the Code Civil, which curtailed the earlier powers of parents. Once a son reached the age of 25, he no longer required a parent’s permission to marry. All that was needed was a formal request couched in ‘respectful terms’. The alternative was a falling-out between parent and child. Jules would be 25 on 23 May 1815. With evident reluctance, but making a show to save face, Madame D’Urville gave in before then. On 26 January, she formalised her consent in front of a lawyer in Wassy, had it recorded at Condé-sur-Noireau the next day, and sent it on to her son. Jules completed the formalities with a lawyer in Toulon on 17 February, and on 1 May 1815, he and Adèle Pépin were married. It was a quiet wedding, with just a few guests from the naval base and members of the Pépin family. His mother did not come down for the ceremony, saying that her state of health would not allow her to make the long coach journey. But she never did meet her daughter-in-law, even in later years.

A far as travel to Toulon in 1815 was concerned, she was right: it would have taken her a minimum of five days, and the French countryside was still unsafe after the recent political upheavals. These included the return of Napoleon from Elba and his triumphant journey to Paris, soon followed by a resumption of the war. Then came a referendum on a new Napoleonic constitution. Jules voted ‘No’ and even offered to resign from the naval service.

Napoleon’s return to power was brief – the period is known as the Hundred Days – and was ended by the Battle of Waterloo and Bonaparte’s final exile or imprisonment on distant St Helena. Ever ready to further his nephew’s career, the Abbé de Croisilles used Jules’ refusal to endorse the new imperial constitution as a sign of his loyalty to Louis XVIII. In April 1816, he wrote to the Minister of Marine: ‘During the interregnum, his conduct was pure and irreproachable. He remained faithful to the King’s cause and recorded his formal opposition to the proposed additional clauses of the constitution.’ Dumont D’Urville himself later put it somewhat differently:

I deplored the absurd attitude of the Bourbons since their return from exile, but I disliked even more the military despotism of the great man. The ineptitude of the Bourbons at least left a prospect of some forms of liberty for the future; the gilded fetters of the crowned soldier offered no other outlook than perpetual slavery, so when everybody rushed to register their vote in favour of the Constitutional Instrument he put forward to the French people, I did not hesitate to say ‘No’.[2]

The Restoration re-established the status quo and enabled Jules to look for some active service. There was not a great deal offering, merely the storeship Alouette bound for Italy. This did allow him to make a brief journey to Rome and to visit some of the places and monuments of that ancient Roman civilisation he had read so much about. The ship came back to Toulon, and then sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic and to the port of Lorient. It was about to depart for Mauritania on the African coast when Jules requested leave to travel to Normandy, to pay a quick visit to his mother and his uncle and go on to Paris. He had heard that France was organising a research expedition into the Pacific and round the world under the command of Louis de Saulces de Freycinet. After all the crippling setbacks of recent years, the French navy was preparing to make its mark on the world of exploration and scientific research. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Armed with his uncle’s usual letter of commendation, Jules called on Freycinet. If his account is to be believed, he was coldly received. Freycinet’s officers had already been appointed but eager applicants were still pestering him. Dumont D’Urville was merely one more of these. The corvette Uranie would leave from Toulon in the following year with a full complement, but Jules would not be part of it.

He was, not surprisingly, bitterly disappointed. In later years, he seldom had a favourable word for Freycinet – whose wife, as it turned out, had sneaked onto the ship in male attire and accompanied him on the voyage. The Uranie expedition was, however, a creditable undertaking, the itinerary including Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Mauritius, Australia, the Mariana Islands, Hawaii, back to Australia and then across the Pacific to the Falklands, where the ship was wrecked. Freycinet, however, was able to complete the voyage back to France on another ship, with his crew and most of the material they had collected on the way.

After being turned down – abruptly and unjustly, he felt – Jules returned to Toulon and spent almost three years ashore. This gave him the opportunity to spend time with his family – there was a newborn child, a boy, also christened Jules – to study and to go botanising and to build up a collection of ‘circumtoulonese’ plants.[3] He was even asked to give a talk to a local scientific society on the samples he had gathered over the years. This passion for botany earned him his next appointment. Rear-Admiral Emile Hamelin, a fellow botanist, recommended him to Captain Gauttier of the Chevrette, who was carrying out survey voyages in the Mediterranean. Gauttier was about to undertake his fourth such mission, among the Greek Islands. He needed officers to assist with his hydrographic work, but lacked a botanist. Dumont D’Urville could help in both areas, and Gauttier was glad to take him on board.

It promised to be an interesting if not a spectacular voyage. As it turned out, it would propel Jules Dumont D’Urville into the limelight and change the course of his so far humdrum life.


March 1819–August 1821

The first voyage Dumont D’Urville made in the Chevrette was fairly brief and relatively uneventful. It was mainly to Greece, but it gave him the chance to see some of the sights he had only read about. He had the opportunity – the good luck in fact – to meet the French consul in Athens, Fauvel, whose passion was centred on the ancient ruins of the region rather than on political or trade matters. Fauvel took him to visit some of his favourite haunts, and gave Jules a chance to collect some of the rare botanical specimens he was looking for.

On board ship, his colleagues were much more impressed with D’Urville’s character and seriousness than had been the case when they were spending most of their time in idleness ashore during the days when the navy was confined to port. He was hardworking, always ready to help and clearly enthusiastic about his work. Captain Gauttier also developed a high regard for the young officer – or relatively young, since Jules was now entering his thirties. He appreciated his skill in mathematics and the precision of his calculations. Gauttier was a stickler for precision and punctuality – he was known as ‘Gauttier the clock’ – and Jules was the most dependable of his officers. He was happy to recommend him for his next voyage, a survey of the Dardanelles and the shores of the Black Sea.

They sailed, but after a delay. They were held in Toulon on quarantine because one of the sailors had died and the authorities suspected some contagious disease caught in Greece. The delay gave Jules plenty of time to work on the botanical and entomological specimens he had gathered, but sadly it kept him away from his family. He sent a parcel from his collection to the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and others to friends in the Toulon area. His reputation much enhanced, he was elected a member of the Société des Sciences, Belles-lettres et Arts of the Var department.

The Chevrette had arrived back in Toulon on 15 November 1819. It sailed out again on 3 April 1820. A fortnight later, they were at anchor in the bay of Milo to enable Captain Gauttier to check his timepieces before undertaking the main part of the voyage through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to the Black Sea. D’Urville went exploring with his friend, Lieutenant Matterer, and paid a visit to the French representative on the island, a certain Mr Brest. The latter told them of recent discoveries made by a local Greek farmer, including a statue he considered particularly beautiful. They went to see it. D’Urville later wrote an account of what they saw:

The statue was in two pieces, firmly held together by two strong iron studs. The Greek peasant, afraid of losing the fruit of his efforts, had had the top half deposited in a stable, with two statues of Hermes. The other was still in its niche ... I measured the two pieces of the statue separately: the statue was roughly six feet in height; it was a representation of a naked woman, holding an apple in her raised left hand, while her right hand was holding up a skirt that was carefully draped and falling roughly from her hips to her feet; both these arms were damaged and actually detached from the body ... The only foot that was visible was naked; the ears had been pierced and must have worn some pendants. All these features seemed to suggest Venus at the judgment of Pâris; but in that case, where were Juno, Minerva and the handsome shepherd?[1]

Matterer’s account is somewhat different in that he makes it clear that the arms were not part of the statue they saw: ‘The two arms, unfortunately, had been broken off, and the tip of the nose had been slightly damaged.’[2] Arms or no arms? The argument went on for years. In later years, Matterer withdrew his statement. ‘I lied in my report on the poor D’Urville because I had to. He is right in what he says: when we saw the Venus de Milo in 1820, it still had its two arms.’[3]

Matterer had always regretted that they did not buy the statue from the farmer there and then. He had always felt guilty about this, but they could hardly have it brought back to the ship and presented Captain Gauttier with a fait accompli. It was, after all, only a marble statue, partly damaged if not entirely armless, just one of many ancient relics still lying around in Greece. The Chevrette had hardly begun its hydrographic work, and there was no room on board for a statue.

However, Dumont D’Urville did tell the French ambassador in Constantinople about his discovery. An embassy secretary attending the function, Vicomte Charles de Marcellus, a keen antiquarian, was excited by the news of D’Urville’s find, and urged the ambassador to make sure it could be acquired by France. Jules had to rejoin his ship and proceed to the Black Sea, but the ambassador gave in and despatched Marcellus in the schooner Estafette to Milo to acquire the statue. By then, however, the Greek peasant, having failed, as he thought, to sell it to the French, had agreed to sell it to a local priest who planned to offer it to the pasha’s dragoman in Constantinople and restore his apparently tarnished reputation. The Venus had in fact already been loaded onto a Greek trading vessel bound for Turkey. Again, accounts of what happened next vary. Marcellus wrote that he found Turkish soldiers lining the rail as he approached, ready to fire at him if he came too close. So he used his considerable diplomatic charm, stressed that the friendly relations that existed between France and the Ottoman empire would be severely damaged by a clash, paid over the amount that had been offered – but not yet handed over – to the farmer, plus a few bribes, and wrote a letter to the pasha, whom he knew, to explain the situation and protect the Greeks and Turks involved in the affair from his possible fury. Other reports mention a confrontation between the Turks and the French, which the latter won, taking the statue off the Greek ship by force.

The statue of Venus that D’Urville had seen had by now lost its arms. This probably happened when it was dragged from the peasant’s barn, but if there was a struggle and it was hastily dragged on board a ship in the face of local Turkish opposition, the damage could have occurred then. Ironically, it is the fact that the Venus de Milo has no arms that has made it so famous, a central feature in the Paris Louvre.

Once the statue was stored on board the Estafette, Marcellus proceeded to Smyrna, apparently calling on the way at Rhodes, Cyprus and Alexandria. In Smyrna, the Venus was transferred to the Lionne, which was about to sail for Constantinople. The ambassador was delighted by its safe arrival, but tactful about its presence in the Turkish capital. The need for discretion may explain the circuitous route it had followed: there was a swelling wave of opposition to the removal of antiquities from the Middle East, the most famous and controversial case being that of the Elgin marbles, which had been taken to London a few years earlier. Lord Elgin had saved a number of statues from being broken up and used as building material, but since then the Turkish authorities who ruled Greece had realised the value, monetary and otherwise, of these antiquities. The French ambassador was consequently keen to avoid any open disagreement with the Turks over the Venus from Milo. He was preparing to return to France, having been appointed to a post at court, and he had already begun the customary round of farewell visits. A few questions may have been raised about the statue, but the courteous Gallic shrug, combined with an equally courteous raised eyebrow and the handing out of parting gifts, ensured that relations were not spoiled and that his successor would be made appropriately welcome.

He left in October 1820, taking the statue with him, and put in on the way at Milo in the hope that there might be other suitable remains for sale. There were none and he went on to Marseilles, where he arrived on 1 December. He handed over the statue to an agent of the director of the royal museums, who packed it carefully and sent it on to Paris. On 1 March 1821, the Marquis de Rivière solemnly presented the Venus de Milo to Louis XVIII. It was then put on display at the Louvre.

By then, Dumont D’Urville had completed his work in the Black Sea. The Chevrette was back in Toulon by October 1820, but once again she was placed in quarantine – there had been an outbreak of the plague in Constantinople. This gave him time to sort out the various plants he had collected, and to write up a report on his work, not forgetting details of the discovery of the Venus. Captain Gauttier, whose appreciation of Jules’ qualities had grown throughout his period of service, sent glowing reports to the Ministry of Marine in Paris, making sure that D’Urville would not be forgotten. He asked him to give a talk to the local Society of Arts and Sciences, which D’Urville did on 24 November. Articles based on this talk were published in the Journal des Voyages and the Annales maritimes et coloniales the following year. Gauttier then sent him to Paris to check and make fair copies of the charts they had drawn.

Dumont D’Urville thus moved with his wife and child to Paris. By now, he was regarded as the man who had actually discovered the statue, a claim he did not refute. Recognition was finally coming to him, and he made sure, by asking friends and acquaintances to intervene on his behalf, that he at last would obtain the promotion he so richly deserved. On 28 April 1821 he was awarded the Legion of Honour, and on 22 August he was made lieutenant de vaisseau. He could now look forward with confidence to being appointed to a more substantial ship than the Chevrette, but what he really yearned for was a voyage of exploration. He still felt bitter about having missed out on being chosen for the Uranie expedition. Now, living in Paris, meeting government officials and scientists, and having built a solid reputation for himself, he felt confident that his luck would change. He was not mistaken.