In 1791 Bruni d'Entrecasteaux's ships La Recherche and L'Esperance set sail from France for Van Diemen's Land in the hope of locating the lost expedition of La Perouse. Jacques-Julien de Labillardiere was one of the three naturalists included in the complement of 400 men (and one woman in disguise) aboard the two ships. Sailing via Tenerife and the Cape of Good Hope they arrived in van Diemen's Land in 1792 and de Labillar-diere, then aged 37, set about collecting specimens which included a coral lichen. He was the first European to explore inland Tasmania.
Both d'Entrecasteaux and his succeeding expedition commander Huon de Kermadec died at sea. In 1794, when the ships reached Java, it was to discover that Louis XVI had been executed and the French were at war with the Dutch. The ships, crews and goods were seized be the Dutch and Labillardiere taken prisoner. Although able to retain his journal the collection of specimens was sent to Europe on the Dutch ship Hooghly. The following year this ship was captured by the British in the Atlantic, the English and Dutch also being at war, and the collection was taken to London as a Royal Navy Prize.
De Labillardiere was able to return to France in 1796 and set about trying to recover his collection. One of the letters was sent to his friend Sir Joseph Banks who returned the specimens to him unexamined because Banks believed "science should rise above political differences".
It was not until 1806 that a description of coral lichen was, for the first time, described in a scientific journal. In the second volume of Novae Hollandiae Plantarum it was classified as an alga Baeomyces retepous.
* When de Labillardiere died in 1834 his collection was acquired by Philip Barker Webb, an amateur botanist, and is still housed in a museum bearing Webb's name in Florence.* Lichens are composite organisms of fungi and algae or cyanobacteria and by convention now bear the binomial name of the fungus.
(By Diana Ball)