Auction 203 Highlights

Welcome to Smalls Auction Sale 203

As the debate continues about the legitimacy of celebrating Australia Day it is worth contemplating a few what ifs.

The colonisation of Australia by the British ensured that its written history would be essentially anglocentric. However, in the 1700s there were many other international players who were eyeing off this vast ‘new’ continent, and so it is seems improbable that the original inhabitants would still solely populate today’s Australia.

History may be set in stone, but have you ever wondered what Australia would have looked like if Captain Cook had not sailed into Botany Bay on the 29th of April 1770? Perhaps this vast island continent would have been populated from the north and would now be a thriving Asian nation home to over one hundred million people living in the hot humid reaches of its northern environs that we Australians of European heritage tend to avoid. Or even a nation of Islam considering that Matthew Flinders when circumnavigating Australia noted in his journals that the Aborigines of the north were circumcised thus speculating that Muslim traders from what is now the Indonesian archipelago had long interacted with the natives.

Or perhaps we would now be speaking French if the ships of the First Fleet had been delayed by the howling gale that arrived a week later and sailed into the same Botany Bay on the 26th of January 1788 instead of the 18th only to find the Tri-colour flag of the French Explorer Compte De La Perouse flapping on Bare Island in competition with the Union Jack planted at Kurnell on the opposing shore.

Of course, history records that La Perouse was greeted cordially by the English on the 26th as they were preparing to relocate the eleven ships of the First Fleet to Port Jackson to establish a beachhead for British colonisation.

But imagine if it were the French who arrive first and greeted the surprised English?

Would the meeting have been quite so friendly if the French had been sent packing by the numerically superior English and would they have felt sufficiently aggrieved to return later in force on the directions of the Empire building Napoleon Bonaparte, who earlier as a 16-year-old second lieutenant had unsuccessfully applied to accompany La Perouse on this Voyage of Discovery.

La Perouse was himself inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook and with the personal backing of King Louis XVI, mimicked Cook’s 2nd, and 3rd voyages, for which the Resolution and Adventure medals were struck, by commissioning an impressive commemorative medal which much like the English version bore a regal side portrait of the king on its obverse. The reverse of the medal provided a written inscription detailing the departure of La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, from the Port of Brest on the 1st of August 1785.

Only one hundred of the double-sided medals were struck which were split between silver and bronze and a further six hundred uniface medals were made in bronze to be given away on the voyage. Again, this paralleled the medals struck for Cook’s 2nd voyage which were struck in small numbers in gold and silver for presentation with a further two thousand struck in platina (bronze) to be given out as gifts to the peoples Cook encountered on the voyages.

In fact, the preparations for La Perouse expedition had some direct English input with Sir Joseph Banks intervening with the Royal Society of London to allow two of Cook’s personal compasses to be taken on the voyage while further scientific instruments were secured from the prestigious London firm Ramsden’s the preferred maker of telescopes and maritime instruments for the early explorers.

As it turned out the English upped stakes at Botany Bay and sailed north to establish a penal colony at Farm Cove while La Perouse stayed on until the 10th of March before resuming his voyage and sailing north-east to an unknown fate.

Meanwhile, back in Europe there had been a sharp decline in Anglo - French relations sparked by the French Revolution that kicked off in 1789 and which led to the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 despite international condemnation.

With no word of La Perouse, rumours circulated that the English had a sinister hand in his mysterious disappearance, and such was the ongoing concern that it is even said that just before the deposed King Louis’s head fell into the basket he had enquired if there had been any news of the boats. But it was not until 1828 that the French explorer d’Urville discovered that the ships and crew of the La Perouse Expedition had met a watery grave on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon’s Archipelago, a fate imagined in Jules Verne's famous novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

History can be even stranger than fiction, but can you imagine the different course that the World would have taken if Napoleon Bonaparte had actually made it onboard the La Perouse expedition? But of course, the fickle hand of fate intervened in his destiny and just fifteen years later he had risen meteorically to be the dictator of France as First Consul of the French First Republic. Like the Roman Emperors who telegraphed their legitimacy by stamping their portraits on the coins of their realms, the soon to be Emperor Napoleon's Caesar-like portrait appeared on a medal struck in 1800 to commemorate the voyage of Captain Nicholas Baudin to the South Pacific.

Napoleon had personally authorised the voyage and hand-picked Baudin who was tasked with mapping the West Coast of Australia and the largely uncharted Southern Coast, which is where in 1802 he ran into Matthew Flinders at Encounter Bay who was doing the same for the British. Despite the tetchy relationship between the French and British, Baudin was welcomed at Sydney Cove when he called in to replenish supplies and this gave Baudin and his crew a chance to have a good look around. Recent research has revealed that Francis Peron, the zoologist on Baudin’s voyage, drafted a secret report on a strategy to capture Sydney for the French signalling that the ambitious Napoleon had greater long-term plans than just conquering Europe. However, if he had seriously contemplated invading far-flung Australia it was soon pushed to the backburner as he focused his attention on taking on all-comers in Europe. Of course, Napoleon’s ambitions were thwarted in Europe and so the what ifs came to naught, and history arrived at today’s outcome.

History is indeed set in stone even if the history unleashed by intrepid explorers like Cook and La Perouse is viewed these days from opposing perspectives. It is up to the individual to choose to celebrate their national day or not depending on how they read that history.

In our Sale we have on offer a number of important Explorer Medals that celebrate the courage of the men who set forth to discover the new world. Like the space explorers of the 1960s they embraced their fate knowing that there was no support team to rescue them if something went catastrophically wrong. It will be interesting to see if the history of Armstrong and Aldrin is reinterpreted if and when the Moon is colonised.

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