When Young Napoleon Missed the Boat

Every year Australia Day generates its usual controversy concerning the claim, cultivated by Indigenous activists and left-wing sections of the bureaucracy, that Captain Arthur Phillip ‘invaded’ Australia. It is less well-known that other stories, indirectly linked to Australia Day, have had an inordinate influence on the fate of the world.

Every person who is familiar with the Australia Day story knows that, on that momentous day – Jan. 26, 1788 – Captain Phillip hoisted the English flag in Sydney Cove and started the penal colony of New South Wales. On the same day, a French naval officer, Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse, arrived at Botany Bay and spent a few days fraternising with the English before returning, but never reaching, France. Indeed, the fate of Lapérouse’s two ships,  the Astrolabe and Boussole, remained a mystery until 1826, when it was confirmed they had been shipwrecked on Vanikoro, now part of the Solomon Islands. It is possible that some sailors survived the ordeal, but nothing was heard of them, and their fate remains unknown. The Generalist Academy reported that, on the morning King Louis XVI went to the guillotine, January 21, 1793, he asked whether there was “any news of Lapérouse?”[1]

Lapérouse sailed to the Pacific to establish trade connections, also being tasked with the establishment of French settlements. Lapérouse, a great admirer of James Cook, also intended to expand the maps Cook had made of the area. Quadrant has published two fine books by Margaret Cameron-Ash on the rivalry and imperial intrigue driving the great powers of the day’s race to Sydney. (editor’s note: Click on the cover illustrations to place your order). The story of Lapérouse’s expedition to the Pacific, however, is noteworthy for another reason.

In 1785, Napoleon Bonaparte applied to serve as a crew member on one of the ships. He was a 16-year-old from Corsica, fresh out of the École Militaire in Paris, and although short-listed he was not selected to join the expedition. One could say that the world would have been a very different place had he been welcomed aboard and perished with the other crew members.

There would have been no French Empire, no ill-fated invasion of Russia, no Waterloo, no Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square, and no notoriously profligate Empress Joséphine. There would also have been no reason to make a movie about him – a film recently released to mixed but mostly poor reviews prompted in no small part by its often laughably inaccurate depictions of what really happened. Napoleon did not, as the final scenes present, lead a last and doomed cavalry charge, instead slipping away from the battlefield in his green coach. Thus did one of the most influential and divisive figures of the 19th century meet his comeuppance.

After his application to serve on Lapérouse’s expedition was rejected, Napoleon instead joined an artillery regiment, gained rapid promotion, became the ruler of France and one of the most influential and divisive figures of the 19th century.

In my opinion, one of the mistakes made by Napoleon was to crown himself Emperor of France on December 2, 1804, in Notre Dame de Paris. Although Napoleon’s imperial ambitions were approved by an 1804 constitutional referendum, his coronation did not greatly increase his political power because he was already First Consul. But vanity obviously prevailed. His arrogation of the imperial throne would undoubtedly have made the leaders of other European countries both jealous and wary. This would not have helped him create political alliances and conduct military campaigns.

This historical foray is relevant because history is the mirror in which the future is reflected. It also enables us to reflect on the might-have-beens. Indeed, the Napoleonic era, with its imperial splendour, legal achievements – the adoption of the Civil Code in 804 comes to mind – and military campaigns only emerged after the rejection of Napoleon’s application to join the Lapérouse expedition around the world.

Lapérouse’s story provides further evidence that history often hinges on fluke and happenstance. Rejected, Napoleon redirected his energy and ambitions to military endeavours that transformed societies. The what-if scenario becomes even more tantalising if one considers what might have happened if Napoleon had joined Lapérouse expedition and decided to stay in Sydney Cove — a most unlikely but nevertheless intriguing incitement about which to speculate. The writers of popular “alternate histories” could make a meal of it.

In any event, the fact that the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove a day or so before the French  led to Australia becoming a lucky country blessed with its British-derived institutions and rule of law.

Australia Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the vicissitudes of life, especially if one were to visit, on Jan 26, the picturesque, albeit misspelled, Sydney suburb of La Perouse – named in honour of the intrepid French explorer. Happy Australia Day!


[1] The Generalist Academy, ‘Napoleon I in the Pacific’, 25 November 2021, at https://generalist.academy/2021/11/25/napoleon-australia/.

5 thoughts on “When Young Napoleon Missed the Boat

  • KemperWA says:

    One could imagine, how much clout and tenacity would the young boy-wonder Napoleon have had amongst the crew of Laperouse? Would he have argued to stay in New Holland with the British? What if the Astrolabe and Boussole hadn’t shipwrecked, but returned to France with the news? Would France have made plans to settle the western side post-haste? Would we also be English speaking and French speaking a la Canada? Fascinating reading.
    Indeed, ‘the world turns on a dime’.
    I wouldn’t be here if not for WWII. Father wouldn’t have visited Australia if his aunty hadn’t married a Pole, been put in a displaced persons camp and shipped to the wheatbelt… he wouldn’t have sought new horizons if he hadn’t been conscripted to the German navy, left his country for the first time, sailed on a destroyer around England, visited London, and had his eyes opened to a world beyond his village. All of these sentient decisions made at a point in time.
    Hence why I don’t believe in ‘punishing the son for the sins of the father’.
    Therefore why the threatening ‘always was, always will be..’ now in this time? If their culture is so strong, as is claimed, why the need for this nastiness? Do they understand a great majority of Australians have left their own lands to be here? And this is what we get? My father left his entire family behind. I have lost my connection to the country and culture of my ancestors (Germany and maternally, Italy), can’t even speak the languages, couldn’t speak at all to my German grandparents. Oma still calls at 96 years of age asking “when are you coming home son”.
    Last year was the first time in my 36 years I researched emigrating. Increasingly I am thinking this is not my home. A damaging psychological consequence of relentless ‘welcomes’ (permission) and ‘acknowledgement’ (declarations) and the most divisive government on record perhaps?

  • KemperWA says:

    Thank you, we shall. The Labor governments and corporations can snub our national day as much as they want, but this Australia Day BBQ with friends and their children will be a bigger get-together than ever before. I have encouraged my friends to “go ahead and make or bring something that showcases the best of Australian produce and drink!” Life is short, let’s get some self-esteem back!

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Interesting and used to wonder about La Perouse frequently when flying out of Sakhalin Island for Japanese ports for he sailed between the northern Japanese Island of Hokkaido and Sakhalin Island apparently to prove/disprove that Sakhalin Island was connected to the Siberian mainland. La Perouse Strait is only about twenty miles wide between Cape Crillon on Sakhalin and Cape Soya on Hokkaido Island. The “wondering” bit was of –what on earth possessed him to sail from Botany Bay to Siberia and then back down towards the Solomons–

  • padraic says:

    Botswana, I think he may have gone to Siberia to send back messages to France via Russia. I think I read about that ability to transmit messages to Europe from the Pacific in one of Margaret Cameron-Ash’s books. I don’t know why he would have gone back to the Solomons, unless he was on his way back to Europe and stopped by there.

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    Napoleon is responsible for the particularly beautiful central Paris we see today.

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