FRENCH LESSONS

Fran­cois Peron’s re­mark­able ‘mem­oir’ of life in colo­nial NSW is noth­ing short of an in­va­sion plan, one that re­casts our un­der­stand­ing of the Euro­pean dis­cov­ery of Aus­tralia, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

BY train­ing a zo­ol­o­gist, by tem­per­a­ment a con­spir­a­tor, am­bi­tious, youth­ful, aflame with pa­tri­otic feel­ings, Fran­cois Peron was an ex­plorer well-suited to his tu­mul­tuous times. When he set sail from Le Havre in Oc­to­ber 1800 on the French sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion to the “south lands”, he was barely 25 years old, and al­ready a vet­eran of the Napoleonic wars, blinded in one eye dur­ing com­bat on the Ger­man front. He had a gilded in­tel­lec­tual pedigree — he had been taught by the fa­ther of com­par­a­tive anatomy, Ge­orges Cu­vier, and by the cel­e­brated bi­ol­o­gist Bernard Ger­main de La­ce­pede — but there was an ob­ses­sive el­e­ment in his make-up. What­ever he did, he did full-tilt, he “plunged in head­long, fu­ri­ously”, as his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer put it, he had no time to waste. He favoured ex­treme out­comes, he was a com­ing man.

Peron’s place in his­tory rests on the vast ma­rine spec­i­mens collection he gath­ered along the South Aus­tralian coast­line be­tween 1801 and 1803, on his de­tailed de­scrip­tions of Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­i­nal life and on his vivid ex­pe­di­tion jour­nals. But sci­ence on a new fron­tier, on the shores of a new world rich in marvels, was not enough for him — not by any means. He had sharp opin­ions, and a strong sense of him­self and his own mer­its.

On board ship, he fought bit­terly with his com­man­der, Ni­co­las Baudin, who thought him slightly cracked. The long re­turn jour­ney at last over, on his own ini­tia­tive Peron wrote a suc­cinct ac­count of the fledg­ling English colony he had ob­served at Port Jack­son — a kind of am­a­teur es­pi­onage re­port, based on his sur­rep­ti­tious strolls through the streets of Syd­ney, on his tact­ful, low-key min­glings and quick trips out to the set­tle­ments in the fring­ing bush.

This strange doc­u­ment has only re­cently come to light. It ap­pears for the first time in trans­la­tion in the mag­nif­i­cently pro­duced, en­gag­ingly edited and sub­limely well-ti­tled vol­ume French De­signs on Colo­nial New South Wales, which is noth­ing less than Peron’s pri­vate blue­print for the in­va­sion and take-over of Eng­land’s new out­post.

The “mem­oir” may never have reached its in­tended read­er­ship in the higher ech­e­lons of the ad­min­is­tra­tive bu­reau­cracy — we can­not tell for cer­tain — but its vigour and its para­noid enthusiasm mark it as a doc­u­ment typ­i­cal of its time. In the wake of France’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary up­heavals and their desta­bil­is­ing af­ter­shocks, such wild ideas and schemes lay close to the sur­face of diplo­matic life. Re­la­tions be­tween the su­per­pow­ers of western Europe in the first years of the 19th century were dom­i­nated by ri­val­ries, sus­pi­cions and in­trigues, by strate­gic thrust and counter-thrust, by dreams of am­bush, re­tal­i­a­tion and re­venge.

There was a keen aware­ness of com­pet­ing na­tional in­ter­ests in the Pa­cific. Not only Eng­land and France, but Spain, Rus­sia and Hol­land were en­gaged. Peron longed to have a voice, and he had a strat­egy for mak­ing his ideas known. He ad­dressed the man­u­script to his old men­tor in chem­istry, An­toine-Fran­cois, Comte de Four­croy, re­cently ap­pointed to high Parisian of­fice as a coun­cil­lor of state. His pre­sen­ta­tion be­gins in low-key style: he sketches out the grounds for his be­lief that the true pur­pose of the French mis­sion to the south seas had been more po­lit­i­cal than sci­en­tific. Hence, of course, the ne­ces­sity, and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, for his rather cloak-and-dag­ger free­lance spy­ing: The na­ture of my work and my dual ca­pac­ity as doc­tor and naturalist, in help­ing me to arouse less sus­pi­cion, en­abled me to ask a host of ques­tions which, on any­one else’s part, would have been frowned upon. I trav­elled to most parts of the colony, I in­spected herds and farm­lands, I ques­tioned farm­ers, in or­der to ob­tain ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion that may serve my coun­try’s in­ter­ests.

Jac­ques Bond in the cow pas­tures! The pic­ture of the English colony that re­sults is drawn with bright, deft touches: in­deed, Peron is strik­ingly pos­i­tive. Syd­ney, in his de­scrip­tion, seems like a fresh, well-or­dered heaven. The port the French mariners sailed into was busy, the ship­yard bustling. There was a net­work of new roads, well-main­tained, there were grain, fur­ni­ture and tool stores, there was a brick­works, a prison, wind­mills, bar­racks quar­ters, a pow­der bat­tery. The print­ing of­fice pro­duced of­fi­cial notices and gov­ern­men­tal or­ders. The first news­pa­per, the Syd­ney Gazette, was on the verge of pub­lish­ing its in­au­gu­ral is­sue. A mere 14 years of set­tle­ment had been enough to lay the ground­work for a com­pletely new so­ci­ety, an “ad­mirable coloni­sa­tion plan” was be­ing ful­filled, even the en­vi­ron­ment was be­ing re­shaped: “The axe and fire have top­pled these an­cient forests that time had hitherto pre­served; the hum­ble grains of the north grow over the de­bris of the eu­ca­lyp­tus trees, those gi­ants of the south­ern forests.”

Peron goes on to give pre­cise fig­ures for the pop­u­la­tion of the Port Jack­son colony and for Nor­folk Is­land: both wild ex­ag­ger­a­tions. What ex­actly was he up to? Jean For­nasiero and John West-Sooby, pro­fes­sors of French Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Ade­laide and co-trans­la­tors of the mem­oir, pro­vide a de­tailed com­men­tary which

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