French naturalists' contributions to Singapore's natural history recognised in book

A male Firey Minivet scientific drawing by two French naturalists Pierre-Medard Diard and Alfred Duvaucel, projected onto a building facade along Armenian Street on Nov 8, 2019.
A male Firey Minivet scientific drawing by two French naturalists Pierre-Medard Diard and Alfred Duvaucel, projected onto a building facade along Armenian Street on Nov 8, 2019.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - While most Singaporeans are familiar with the names Raffles and Farquhar, it's been unveiled that two French naturalists Pierre-Medard Diard and Alfred Duvaucel also played an important role in the study of Singapore's natural history.

Their illustrations were showcased as part of the Voilah! France Singapore Festival on Friday night (Nov 8), through video projections on the facades of the buildings in Armenian Street.

French artist Julien Nonnon put together the display, which involved digitised, colourful drawings of animals such as a turtle, a pheasant and a finch. It runs daily till Sunday (Nov 10), from 7.30pm to 10pm.

The pair of naturalists' contributions were highlighted as well in a book titled Voyageurs, Explorateurs et Scientifiques: The French and Natural History in Singapore, launched Friday afternoon.

The book, which has multiple co-authors, is a collaboration between the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris.

The first chapter of the book was written by Ms Daniele Weiler, 69, a Frenchwoman who has lived in Singapore for 15 years. She was working as a teacher and librarian at the Lycée Français de Singapour when she begun her research on the duo, and is now retired.

Her section details how Diard and Duvaucel had worked with Sir Stamford Raffles, and had actually come to Singapore together in 1819.

During their four weeks here, the pair collected specimens and made notes and drawings of the flora and fauna here.

Much of these ended up in Raffles' possession after a dispute over a contract regarding the ownership of the materials collected.

Raffles left Singapore by ship in 1824. He had packed the scientific collection together with his belongings, but all was thought lost in a fire that broke out on board two days later. While the passengers were saved, the cargo was destroyed.

Unbeknownst to many, some of Diard and Duvaucel's work made it through the ages, as the duo had smuggled them to France beforehand.

This was uncovered by the French Embassy, which worked with local and French partners to showcase their story in this year's Voilah! France Singapore Festival.

Some information about the two was first included in the book The French in Singapore, written by Ms Weiler and Mr Maxime Pilon, published in 2011.

Ms Weiler was asked earlier this year by the embassy to further research the two and expand on their contributions in the chapter she authored in the new book.

French Ambassador to Singapore Marc Abensour said: "The findings of Diard and Duvaucel are important because they were among the earliest naturalists to study the biodiversity of Singapore and the surrounding region."

Some of the duo's original works are on display at the National Museum of Singapore (NMS), on loan from the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.

They are part of the NMS' bicentennial-themed exhibition An Old New World, which will run till March 29 next year.