Welcome to Quadrant Online | Login/ Register Cart (0) $0 View Cart
November 01st 2009 print

Michael Connor

The secret plan to invade sydney

There exists an extraordinary Napoleonic period plan for the invasion of Sydney; a plan which may even have been put into execution.

In July 1802 France and England were at peace and a French scientific expedition, under the command of NicolasBaudin, was at Port Jackson. Amongst the visitors was the naturalist FrançoisPéron. He later authored the first volume of the official account of the expedition, and also wrote a substantial and practical proposal for the sending of another French expedition into the southern oceans, to invade Sydney.

In late 1803 France and England were again at war and the Baudin expedition was at the Isle of France (now Mauritius) on its return journey to Europe. The island’s governor received at least two reports on the military defences of Port Jackson from members of the expedition: one by PierreMilius, promoted commander of the Géographe after the death of Baudin, and the other by Péron. These reports are well known and form part of most books which discuss the expedition. Less well known is another and far more substantial document, transcribed and published in Paris in 1998 by RogerMartin. Its title, in English, “Memorandum on the English establishments in New Holland, Van Diemen’s Land, and in the archipelagos of the great Pacific Ocean”.[1] The Isle of France report, which is largely incorporated into the later document, covers twenty-eight pages, this later manuscript is 116 pages.

In Péron’s Isle of France report, written to impress a colonial governor, he made a claim which historians naturally find fascinating but mistrust for it seems unsupported by other documentation. He claimed Napoleon had mounted the expedition to disguise a secret political mission: “all our natural history researches, extolled with so much ostentation by the government, were merely a pretext for its enterprise”.[2] If the expedition did have secret ambitions it would have been hardly likely, as ErnestScott suggested, that Péron would have known of them. In the later manuscript, destined to be read by officials of the Napoleonic regime, that claim was radically modified. Rather than being directed by secret government directives he said that he, under the inspiration of the Napoleonic example, had soon came to regard the Baudin expedition as “much less a scientific than a most enlightened and most useful political scheme”.[3] What he wrote was the work of an inspired amateur, not the report of a government agent.

Having enjoyed its hospitality, Péron recommended the destruction of the English colony—Milius only offered suggestions for its invasion. Other members of the expedition had also discussed military matters. The journal of EmmanuelHamelin, commander of the Naturaliste, also contain notes on surmounting the colony’s defences and, according to Péron, Louisde Freycinet had “specially researched the places around Port Jackson favourable to an invasion.”[4] The expedition returned to France carrying black swans for Josephine at Malmaison, and Péron’s ideas of colonial conquest. When he worked on his new text, probably both during the voyage and back in France, his ideas changed. Now he argued not for the destruction but the invasion of Sydney.

The Memorandum has an introduction and five chapters which present an admiring overview of the English colony, vital statistics, an argument for its conquest, a blueprint for invasion, a plan for its administration, and a discussion of its use to France. Addressed to AntoineFrançoisFourcroy, a member of the State Council, the manuscript is a major piece of work. A book length study advocating colonial invasion. Part of it was used in the official account of the expedition. The only known copy appears to be a draft with corrections, some chapters are signed, nothing is dated.

Péron has been defended by some historians from accusations that while in Sydney he was a spy, their protective arguments based only on their knowledge of the Isle of France document. Here Péron boasts of his skills as an espionage agent, though he was never as far from suspicion as he boasted:

I don’t guarantee that that my observations are complete but I can assure you that they are accurate … I was able to gain the confidence of the governor, his secretary, the lieutenant governor, of most of the civil and military officers, the colonial doctors, the protestant ministers and the nature of my work, my double title of doctor and naturalist, made me less suspect and allowed me to ask a mass of questions, which coming from anyone else would have been badly received. I have visited most parts of the colony, I have visited the flocks, the countryside, questioned the farmers etc, to obtain exact information which may be useful to the interests of my country. [5]

In 1802 Governor King, after hearing of statements made by the French, and seeing the evidence of French charts marked with proposed territorial annexations in the south of Van Diemen’s Land, despatched a vessel with a message for the recently departed French commander reminding him that it was his intention to make a British settlement at the south of Van Diemen’s Land and querying French intentions in the same area. The confrontation took place at KingIsland. What happened was serious, though historians commonly mock the ceremony performed by the British. Admittedly they did fly the ensign upside down, to the bitter amusement of the French officers, but the flag raising ceremony they performed on KingIsland was a proper form of asserting sovereignty by a European nation.

In Péron’s account, which may have been based on conversations with the English officer and not on a perusal of the actual letter from King to Baudin, the message from Governor King reminded the French scientists that Van Diemen’s Land and the southern part of the continent were part of the British Empire “and in consequence to avoid any break between two people so recently become friends we should abstain from any enterprise of this type”. This was a significant consideration and Péron was convinced that the English were serious in their intentions to settle Van Diemen’s Land. He referred to a report from the Cape of Good Hope that a big ship had passed there loaded with men and material which he believed was to carry this out. His several references to the incident suggests that King’s reaction was completely successful.[6] Perhaps the fear of breaking the peace between the two nations stopped Baudin from raising a French standard elsewhere on the Australian continent. By the time the expedition learnt that hostilities had resumed the opportunity for staking a territorial claim had passed.

Péron argued that it would be useless to contemplate invasion unless France was determined to hold the territory, “at least until the peace”. This would be done by continuing the policies which had proved so successful in their development by the English.

With imagination, and maps, Péron saw the English colony on one side of the Pacific as having important implications for the other—specifically Peru and Chile and the eventual conquest of the Spanish colonies by the English. New South Wales seemed to be a geopolitical base for further British expansion into the Pacific. He asked how this “monstrous invasion” could have been allowed and especially how Spain could have permitted this threat to her richest possessions.[7]

Péron suggested immediate action – “Monseigneur, there is not a moment to lose …” He laid down three possible routes for an invasion force—from Broken Bay in the north, through Sydney Heads, from Botany Bay in the south. Milius had recommended invasion from the north. In 1813 JorgenJorgenson said just such a French plan existed but little credence was given by the Colonial Office to his assertions.

Péron proposed an invasion force of 1,800 soldiers who would be carried in a fleet of frigates. Several extra frigates would be used as transport ships to carry 2 or 3 thousand rifles for the Irish who would rise to support the French.[8] Péron does not specify how many ships would be needed. The ships would carry supplies for eight months although in his plan he allowed for a voyage from France to New South Wales of five months.

The secret armada would sail below the usual sea lanes at 18 or 20 degrees south. They would take on water on uninhabited islands in the South of the Indian Ocean or, preferably, at a site close to present day Albany where the ships would rendezvous in case of dispersement.[9]

From there they would sail to the Entrecasteaux Channel and the English establishment in the south of Van Diemen’s Land. The settlement was to be captured. An effort was to be made to gain the latest information on Port Jackson and, if they found a knowledgeable Irishman, discover the signals used by English ships to identify themselves to each other. This second landing at the Entrecasteaux Channel would be a final rallying point for the flotilla. All ships in the settlement, capable of taking to sea, would be sunk to prevent a warning being sent to Sydney.

Péron proposed the French armada should enter Botany Bay at night. As quickly as possible the troops would be landed, near a malt house belonging to a man named Smith, and at daybreak rapidly marched into Sydney. The road the soldiers would take, which led through the brick fields, is clearly marked in LouisFreycinet’s map which accompanied the official record of the expedition. In less than three quarters of an hour, he claimed, the French troops would be in the town centre. Péron gave details of the fortification, and of the New South Wales Corps—pointing out that they were distributed over the territory and that it would take time for them to be informed of the invasion and make their way to Sydney. Péron had little confidence in their fighting abilities and wrote of the proofs of their cowardice he had derived from discussions with them. The invasion could be accomplished while the town slept and the conquest could be carried out “without bloodshed”.[10]

If surprise was not achieved then the landing would be carried out in daylight. The vessels should draw together and under their covering fire the troops sent ashore: “the bad soldiers and the militia would be forced to give way from the first shock to the superiority of our troops”.[11]

With Sydney Town taken Péron believed that all the dependent settlements would capitulate.

Of the period when he had been in the colony Péron wrote that if two French frigates had then appeared in Port Jackson to take off the Irish prisoners “it would have been more difficult for the French to prevent the massacre of the English than conquer the colony.”[12] An insight into what would have happened if the Vinegar Hill revolt had been successful.

In case of failure the frigates still had three months supplies to enable them to flee across the Pacific to South America.[13]

Underpinning Péron’s planning was his observation that “the attack on New Holland must be exclusively considered in the context of European politics”.[14]

He raised three possibilities for dealing with the colony – destroy it, make it independent, keep it. In 1803 he had suggested that “it should be destroyed as soon as possible. To-day we could destroy it easily; we shall not be able to do so in 25 years’ time.”[15] Now, while making a similar argument and pointing out that in 25 times the colony would be able to hold off the unified forces of France and Spain, he argued against destruction and drew up ideas for the territory’s French administration.[16] Some of his plans were based on the colonial government at the Isle of France. He proposed that a Grand Council of three men be established—a governor general (preferably a naval man), a lieutenant governor commanding the military forces, and a superior judge or colonial prefect charged with administering the civil and legal administration. Their first occupation would be to load the English military aboard the captured vessels and return them to Europe where they would be exchanged for French prisoners with the English.[17] It seemed perfectly logical. Enter French troops, exit British troops.

Political prisoners would be freed. Milius had been disdainful of the Irish politicals and wrote that while in the colony the French had taken ‘the wise precaution of having no communication with these unfortunates and I dare to flatter myself that in this matter, the governor would have no reason to reproach the French of the expedition.”[18]—which may not have been true. Other convicts would work out their original sentences but these would be reduced in time. Confiscated properties would be given to the Irish supporters of the French. Impressed by the English administration which he had seen, and analysed Péron suggested keeping much of it intact.[19]

600 Irish would immediately be incorporated into the French army commanded by their own Irish officers.[20]

Once taken it would be defended. The Heads would be closed off with batteries and the entrance to Botany Bay defended.

Having “proven” that the invasion was “indispensable to our political relations”, that the goal was easily attained and could be defended Péron discussed its future after a “definitive peace” was obtained with England.[21] While leaving it for the Emperor to decide the future of his new acquisition Péron suggested that if it was returned to the English when peace was restored then it would be done so for a “reciprocal compensation”.[22] He stressed that it would be necessary to guarantee the interests of the Irish so that they would not have to repent “a second time” for their involvement with the French.

In his conclusion Péron returned to his beginning. He believed it was his duty to seek out information on the colony: “my double title of doctor and naturalist gave me more facilities for research than I dared to believe”. And he remained hopeful that his efforts would gain him new rights to Fourcroy’s good will, and the gratitude of the government. [23] In December 1810, at the age of thirty-five, he died.

Napoleon had thought about the colony of New South Wales. In June 1810 he had issued what turned out to be futile instructions to the Isle of France administration: “It is proposed, on the arrival of these expeditions, to take the English colony of Port Jackson … where considerable resources will be found.”[24]

There is also another tantalising scrap of paper. On 13 August 1814 the Sydney Gazette carried an interesting, and far too brief story, that could inspire some serious research in the French archives, and a brilliant novel. The Broxbornebury had recently arrived and the newspaper reported that several months before it left England there were reports that France had sent three or four frigates towards New South Wales. There was speculation about the reason: “Let the design of the French equipment be what it might, it was doomed to fail in the outset; for scarcely were the frigates well at sea before one or two were taken, the rest dispersed, and no more heard of.” Had someone read and taken note of Péron’s Memorandum?

There is a touching literary conclusion to the Napoleonic interest in Australia. In 1815, after Napoleon left for Saint Helena, and all that was finished, for the present, Chateaubriand wandered through the looted chateau of Malmaison. He recorded impressions of dreariness and desolation, and noted that on the canals, even the black swans were gone.[25]


[1] Péron, François, “Mémoire sur les établissements anglais à la Nouvelle Hollande, à la Terre de Diémen et dans les archipels du grand océan Pacifique”, Revue de l’institut Napoléon, 1998—I, No.176.

[2] Translation by Ernest Scott, The Life of Captain MatthewFlinders, R.N. (Sydney, 1914)

[3] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 22

[4] Edward Duyker, François Péron: An Impetuous Life: Naturalist and Voyager (Carlton, 2006), footnote 28, p 274

[5] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 24

[6] Péron, “Mémoire”, pp 132 – 133

[7] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 98

[8] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 151

[9] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 153

[10] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 154

[11] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 155

[12] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 147

[13] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 156

[14] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 159

[15] Ernest Scott, The Life of Captain MatthewFlinders, R.N. (Sydney, 1914), p 464

[16] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 134

[17] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 163

[18] Pierre-Bernard Milius, Voyage aux Terres Australes (Le Havre, n.d.), p 45

[19] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 165

[20] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 166

[21] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 168

[22] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 168

[23] Péron, “Mémoire”, p 172

[24] Frank Horner, The French reconnaissance: Baudin in