25 September 2023

Napoleon’s Australia

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Terry Smyth, Ebury Press, $34.99.

This one is a surprise, Napoleon’s secret plan to invade Australia, but enthralling, nonetheless. Award-winning journalist, playwright, scriptwriter and songwriter, Smyth takes us on an incredible journey.

As one quote states: “a fascinating insight into French ambition and amity in Australia, bursting with joie de vivre”.

There was plenty of speculation in the early days of the Port Jackson settlement that it might be vulnerable to other European powers, and as it turns out, spies were sent, Sydney’s defences – or lack thereof – were meticulously noted, and orders given by no less than Napoleon himself to invade. So what went wrong for the French? Why were they so interested in the settlement of Port Jackson anyway?

In the northern winter of 1814, a French armada set sail for NSW. Its mission was the invasion of Sydney, and its inspiration and its fate were interwoven with one of history’s greatest love stories – that of Napoleon and Josephine.

What is also astonishing is how the tempestuous relationship between Napoleon and his empress affected the fate of the Great Southern Land.

They both engaged brilliantly with Australia. Josephine, as a woman of influence, had a great glasshouse in the grounds of her Chateau at Malmaison where she propagated and cultivated many varieties of exotic plants, the like of which had never been seen in Europe before.

In the gardens of her grand estate, she kept kangaroos, emus, black swans and other Australian animals, along with hundreds of native plants brought back by French explorers in peacetime. Even when war raged between France and Britain, ships known to be carrying Australian flora and fauna for ‘Josephine’s Ark’, were given safe passage.

Napoleon, too, had an abiding interest in Australia, but for different reasons.

Bonaparte’s agenda for world dominance included the conquest of Australia and comprehensive proposals had been made for the invasion. Measures were also in place for how French Australia would be governed. How the plans came together and how it all fell apart are captivating.

What makes for an even more of an extraordinary story is how this account came to be written – inadvertently – due to “appalling ignorance of native flora”.

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