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John Apps - If Napoleon had been a Sailor...

John submitted the following article for the 2021 Peter Batterley Award. 

You can download the PDF by clicking here.

 

If Napoleon had been a sailor? by John Apps King Louis XVI of France was very impressed with Captain James Cook’s expedition of scientific discovery and decided that France needed to conduct its own voyage of discovery concentrating on the Pacific. Comte de La Perouse. National Portrait Gallery Canberra Louis XVI appointed an experienced naval officer, Jean-Francoise de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse to lead the expedition and provided two ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe. On board there were botanists, astronomers, hydrographers, artists and natural historians. Louis XVI giving instructions to La Perouse, Palace of Versailles. A young Corsican artillery 2nd Lieutenant put his name down for the expedition. He was accepted for the first interview as he had a good knowledge of mathematics and geography, but didn’t make the final crew as he lacked knowledge of seamanship. That young 2nd Lieutenant was of course Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole, Palace of Versailles The La Perouse expedition set sail in May 1785 provisioned for a four year voyage. The voyage of La Perouse went very much as planned and much scientific data was collected. While on the Kamchatka Peninsula in modern day Russia in September 1787 La Perouse received a message from Paris ordering him to investigate a new British colony to be established in New South Wales. La Perouse’s two ships arrived off Botany Bay on 24 Jan 1788 four days after the First Fleet. On the 26 January Capt Arthur Phillip who was to be Governor of the new colony moved his fleet to Sydney Cove (now Sydney Harbour) some miles up the coast. La Perouse moved his two ships into Botany Bay and anchored remaining a month. Some convicts attempted to give themselves up to the French but as France and Britain were not at war and La Perouse was quite the diplomat they were handed back to the new Colony. A number of social exchanges occurred between the Royal Marine officers and men and the French expedition although Governor Phillip and La Perouse never met. La Perouse left dispatches with the Colony documenting his voyage to date to be forwarded to the French Ambassador in London by the returning Convict transports. The dispatches reached the French Ambassador in London in June 1789 just a month before the storming of the Bastille. The French expedition left Botany Bay in mid March 1788 and disappeared. As Louis the XVI was in the tumbrel on the way to the Guillotine in Jan 1793 he is said to have asked ‘What news of La Perouse?’ However before the execution of Louis XVI an expedition under Rear Admiral D’Entrecastreaux departed Brest in Sept 1791 to search for the La Perouse expedition. Initially the mission headed to the islands north of Australia. D’Entrecastreaux was unable to find any evidence of the La Perouse expedition but it did much to add to the body of science and geography in the Pacific In 1826 an Irish Sea Captain Peter Dillon saw objects in the Solomon Islands that came from the island of Vanikoro in that group. He was eventually given the survey vessel Research and he went to Vanikoro to investigate. Artefacts collected by Dillon were taken to Paris and identified as belonging to La Boussole and L’Astrolabe. Local verbal history has the two ships being wrecked on the reef in a storm. Later some of the wreckage was found on the reef. Anecdotal evidence would also suggest that a number of the survivors of both the wrecks and a massacre of some of the crew by the locals, built a two-masted boat and were able to sail off to the west. Further anecdotal evidence and some European objects would suggest that the two-masted craft was wrecked on Murray Island in the Torres Strait. Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea is notorious for the number of wrecks that have occurred there. Two questions arise from the loss of the La Perouse expedition. Firstly what if Napoleon has been on that expedition? Would the very capable Napoleon have been able to prevent the loss of both ships in that storm off Vanikoko? That may be an unlikely hypothesis as it is unlikely one junior officer could prevent the wreckage of two ships in a storm. Secondly the more important question is how might France and indeed the whole of Europe be different today if Napoleon had died either on Vanikoko or even Murray Island? Napoleon’s defeat of a royalist counter revolution in 1795 was critical to the continuation of the Republic. Would Revolutionary France been quite so dominant in Europe without Napoleon? Would we have cannon blazing out during the 1812 overture? Would a system similar to the Napoleonic Code have been introduced without Napoleon? Would France’s foreshore law have been enacted giving the state control of all foreshores unlike the UK where foreshores may be under private ownership? Most importantly of all would Nelson or Wellington have been quite so significant in British history without Napoleon? What would the Pigeons in Trafalgar Square defecate on without Nelson’s Column? What would we have called Wellies if Arthur Wellesley had never advanced from being a colonel in India? - Napoleon crossing The Alps, Chateau de Malmaison