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
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