FRANÇOIS PÉRON WAS MY FIRST. A slight man with a sickly aspect, blind in one eye and possessing a long patrician nose that gave him an imperious air, he had a tendency to be self-indulgent and was not averse to plotting against anyone he disliked. He could easily bend the truth if he saw any benefit in it, and could never be accused of mincing his words. His dedication to self-justification was exasperating, to say the least.
I first encountered Péron when I was an undergraduate history student. I found him repellent; almost everything he said was disagreeable. Initially I was only interested in refuting him, dissecting his words and proving that he was an ignorant egomaniac. It was what he said about Indigenous people and how he perceived women that offended me. He could be callously clinical in his descriptions. He never refrained from running his cold eye over the body of a black man or woman, focusing on any physical quality he saw as lacking, aberrant or simply unattractive. He lacked self-awareness and humility, so he never missed an opportunity to present himself as a hero, a role that rested precariously on his slender frame.
Yet over the years I have begun to look beyond the oft-cited descriptions that sparked such ire, humoured his pomposity, and slowly changed my opinion of Monsieur Péron. Where once I dismissed him, now I try to engage with him. Without realising it I have developed a relationship with him, and like all romances it is turbulent. At times he appals me and I detest him. At other times, I affectionately imagine I can see through his façade, and see him as he truly is. I guess I have cast myself in the role of tragic heroine, and want to redeem my man.
François Péron significantly changed my life. He was the first to make me want to become an historian. He was my first primary source; his writings, the first object of my study. While I have since developed relationships with others, they can never be the same. I have journeyed to the other side of the world to see his handwritten letters and journals and to touch the same paper on which he spent the last years of his short life writing, to feel whether he left any remnant of himself imprinted on the surface. I walked through the town from which he departed on his epic voyage, whose people he imagined had wished “may you… return once more to your country, and the gratitude of your fellow citizens!” as he set sail for my side of the world. I have done all this in order to understand him better; to grasp exactly what it was that made him say those terrible things.
In 1800, at the tender age of 25, Péron was the last to join the scientific expedition to Terra Australis. Devised by the veteran seadog, Post-Captain Nicolas Baudin, its scale and cost had surpassed his humble amateur naturalist fantasies when it was co-opted by the newly formed Société des Observateur de l’Homme and sponsored by Napoleon Bonaparte. But I am jumping ahead of my story, and must return to Péron’s life before the expedition so you can understand how he became that self-confessed “irresponsible, scatter-brained, argumentative, indiscreet,” opinionated and alienating man, “incapable of ever giving way for any reason of expediency.”
Péron was not born into a wealthy family, and his father died at an early age. He was guided on the usual trajectory of an intellectually curious, eighteenth-century French man from the lower orders: he was encouraged to join the seminary. But in the course of one of Napoleon’s numerous campaigns he was forced to enlist, and became a prisoner of war at the age of nineteen. After his release he moved to Paris and, under the patronage of Monsieur Petitjean, enrolled in a medical degree, becoming a student of the esteemed men of science and members of the Société, Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and Georges Cuvier. Upon hearing of the expedition to Terra Australis, Péron abandoned his studies and immediately entreated his mentors to recommend him. He was given the post of zoologist and anthropologist, a science still in its infancy. An artefact of its recent inception was the disparity between the two treatises that served as his instructions: Cuvier’s were inspired by the new science of comparative anatomy, while Joseph-Marie DeGérando’s reflected the eighteenth-century philosophical approach of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
I had not anticipated arriving at Rousseau so early in this story. In order to best describe his significance, I need to jump ahead from Péron joining Baudin’s expedition, skipping over the departure of the Géographe and the Naturaliste from Le Havre and the ships’ stop at the Île de France (Mauritius) where they lost a significant proportion of their crew, disaffected by the slow journey and scant provisions. I want to pass over the brief visits to Western Australia, including their first encounters with Aboriginal people and their longer sojourns in Tasmania and Port Jackson. In fact I want to skip over all of the events on the journey that changed him. Instead, I want to introduce you to Péron as he was about halfway through the expedition, just after his departure from Port Jackson on 18 November 1802, when he had already become a disappointed man.
Péron had concluded volume one of the four-volume journal, Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere, and the ships were about to return to France via Western Australia. Péron’s last chapter describes the results of his experiment comparing the physical strength of Indigenous men and European men, using a newly invented mechanical device known as Regnier’s dynamometer. Within this ostensibly objective and empirical context Péron launched into a derogatory and bitter description of the Tasmanian people.
He began with a minutely detailed disquisition on their bodies, easing into his subject matter by stating that the Tasmanians’ height is similar to that of Europeans. The head warranted fuller description because Péron thought it “uncommonly large” and oddly proportioned, being much longer than it is wide. His comprehensive survey then moved down the length of the body, pausing at the torso, which appeared to merit more positive, albeit economically worded, praise. The Tasmanian men’s shoulders were broad, their loins “well formed” and their buttocks “sizeable.” It was when he scrutinised the men’s legs, however, that Péron’s aim became clear. He elaborated the muscular stockiness of their torso only to heighten the apparent feebleness of their extremities: his eye discerned “scarcely any muscle” and he thought their scrawniness was accentuated by their abdomens, which bulged like a “balloon.” This vignette is classic ethnography à la Péron, and widely quoted.
But it was not just the Tasmanians’ bodies that came under attack; he also dismissed their society, polity, abode, arts and diet. Péron’s entire description was damning. It inexorably led to his pronouncement that “the inhabitant of these regions unites all the characters of man in an unsocial state, and is, in every sense of the word, the child of nature.” This is a familiar sentiment to any student of Aboriginal history, but Péron’s pointed use of italics suggests the reason for his ire: it was a rebuke against those “vain sophists” who “attribute to savages all the sources of happiness and every principle of virtue.”
Now Rousseau can enter the story. As a student Péron had been influenced by the eminent philosopher’s thesis on the state of nature. He was seduced by the fantasy of the “noble savage,” a child of nature not only more virtuous than civilised man but physically superior in both form and function. My first impression of Péron’s vitriolic attack on the body of the Tasmanians was that it was fuelled by the bitter disappointment of a former acolyte – by the realisation that his deeply held faith was a fantasy.
My first sympathetic understanding came from believing that Péron’s disillusionment with “J.J,” as he intimately called Rousseau in his notes, was heartfelt, perhaps enflamed by having lost his real father. His filial misfortune led me to suspect that he did not take the disappointment of a fallen patriarch such as Rousseau lightly. I believed then that there was a tragic romance between Rousseau the mentor and Péron the disciple. Naturally, I concluded that the Tasmanians were merely innocent unfortunates caught in the crossfire, purely a means to Péron’s end of proving that Rousseau was a charlatan philosophe. The idea that the Tasmanians themselves played almost no role in shaping these derogatory European attitudes was compelling, and widely held by other scholars.
But re-reading Péron again and again I have come to question this belief, for although it is not often acknowledged, Péron was not always damning in his appraisals of the Tasmanians. It seems that his vitriolic fire was not sparked by Rousseau alone, but also fanned by the Tasmanians. Not by their inferiority and physical degradation as Péron implies, but rather by their cool indifference to him, their reluctance to play the foil to his heroic self-imaginings. After acquiring a more intimate knowledge of his writings, I have come to the conclusion that Péron’s unrequited romance was not with Rousseau at all, but with the Tasmanians.
I WILL NOW RETURN to Péron as he was on 13 January 1802: a prodigy in the science of natural history, idealistic and expectant. His enthusiasm was partly attributed to the relief of finally catching sight of Tasmania after an arduous sixty-one-day journey from Timor marked by dysentery, death and despair. To Péron the Tasmanian coastline was an Arcadian vision. Despite the brisk temperatures he stood on the deck of the Géographe transfixed by the sight of the “lofty mountains,” the inland plains which rose “in amphitheatres” over the whole island and the “immense forests.” He listened to the calls of the seabirds that circled the ships and the dolphins’ splashes as they danced in the ship’s wake. All the sights and sounds contributed to his solemn feeling that he had “touched the extreme boundary of the southern world.”
Péron’s admiration of the landscape grew as the ships sailed into the d’Entrecasteaux Channel in search of fresh water. Observing the lush green of the vegetation and prodigious mountains and the beautiful plumes of the local parrots and majestic swans, he declared that it was the “most picturesque and pleasant” place they had seen during their long voyage. It was in this halcyon environment that Péron first glimpsed the Tasmanians.
As the ships approached the shore two men appeared on the beach, disappearing as the ships neared. Then, after the French disembarked, another two men appeared, the braver of them immediately bounding down the rise to greet them. This young man captivated Péron with his athleticism, for he “seemed rather to spring from the top of the rock than to descend from it.” His physicality made him appear “strong” and the only defect he appeared to have was a looseness to his joints. Péron scanned the Tasmanian’s face and, seeing that his eyes were “lively and expressive,” concluded that his “physiognomy had nothing fierce or austere” about it.
This figure bewitched the young anthropologist. Here was his noble savage, a man of impressive physical strength and dexterity with an open and guileless demeanour. Péron’s compatriot Freycinet immediately embraced the man and he followed suit. It was in this fleeting caress that Péron got his first inkling that his admiration was not reciprocated. The aloof Tasmanian received the strangers’ embrace with an “air of indifference,” but in his excitement at finally beholding this fabled noble savage, Péron was willing to overlook the minor rebuff. Instead, he interpreted it as a sign that physical displays of affection had little meaning to the man, a theory he would later apply to all Tasmanians. But for the time being, Péron was enchanted by the man’s insatiable curiosity.
The Tasmanian ran his hands over the Frenchmen’s clothes, marvelling at their white skin and layers of attire. Opening their jackets and lifting their shirts, perhaps even rolling up their sleeves and tugging at their waistbands, he inspected their skin, punctuating his fervid manoeuvring with “loud exclamations of surprise” and stamping his feet. The boat then caught his eye, and he rushed over to inspect it with the same zeal. Ignoring the men still seated aboard he jumped in and immediately began running his hands along its wooden boards.
The young man was then distracted by a bottle of arrack given to him by one of the bemused sailors. Holding the bottle in the sun he slowly turned it, catching the rays of light that glinted off its surface. Suddenly, his attention again seized by the boat, he threw the bottle overboard, much to the chagrin of the sailors. The loud splashes as one of the Frenchmen dove after the bottle did not distract the Tasmanian, who was then attempting to push the boat off and sail it by himself. Péron was charmed by the man’s display of energetic inquisitiveness and impressed by his deductive reasoning. He would later write that they were “the most striking demonstrations of attention and reflection which we had ever seen among savage nations.”
While this scene was being played out in the water, Péron and Freycinet wandered further ashore to meet the second Tasmanian in a somewhat less frantic exchange. This man’s salt-and-pepper hair and beard suggested that he was more than fifty years old, and while he was obviously frightened by the strangers’ sudden appearance he gave an impression of “kindness and candour.” Once he too had dishevelled their strange clothes and scrutinised their white skin, he beckoned two women to join them on the beach.
After some deliberation, the women approached with the elder leading the way. The skin on her belly was marked with “furrows” and ridges, a telltale sign for Péron that she had mothered many children. The younger woman nursed a baby girl, giving Péron an excuse to linger over the shape and fullness of her bosom in his written description. But when he lifted his gaze to her face he was taken aback by her expression as she openly returned his stare. Unlike the “kind and friendly” countenance of the older couple, this young woman had “fire” burning in her eyes. Yet when her eyes flitted back to her baby they changed, becoming warm with affection as she fondled and cared for her infant in a display of “maternal love” that Péron could only assume was a peculiarity of women the world over. Again, Péron’s delight at beholding real-life noble savages led him to overlook the woman’s momentary flintiness.
After this meeting Péron’s fellow naturalists wished to move on to begin their scientific studies, but he opted to stay with the two women and the Tasmanian patriarch so he could “collect some words of their idiom.” Meanwhile the young man remained with the sailors, gathering wood and lighting a fire when he realised that they were cold. As both parties converged at the fire Péron had another opportunity to delight in the innocence of these “children of nature.” When one of the sailors removed his glove the young woman suddenly screamed, fearing that this strange man could simply detach his hand “at pleasure.” Realising her mistake, the Frenchmen all laughed heartily at her naivety. It was during this first stage of the romance that the ill-fated bottle of arrack re-entered the story.
Under the cover of this distraction, the elderly patriarch took the same bottle of arrack that had been given to his son and headed off towards his camp. The loss of such a valuable resource, comprising “a great part” of their “stock,” incited the sailors’ to roughly reclaim the bottle. The Frenchmen’s erratic behaviour over this supposed gift sparked the old man’s ire, and he immediately led his family away from the strangers, ignoring their subsequent gestures of appeasement and requests to stay. Despite this hiccup in the budding relationship, Péron was confident that he could regain their affections, so he joined his fellow naturalists for a spot of shell collecting.
Later that afternoon some explorers ventured further along the shore looking for specimens and discovered a hut and canoes, which they keenly inspected. After deciding that they lacked sophistication and workmanship, they met the same family, whose number had since swelled to nine. The Tasmanians rushed forward with cries of delight and joy, the earlier altercation seemingly forgotten. They took the sailors back to their hut and prepared a simple meal of broiled shellfish, which the Frenchmen found to be “succulent and well-flavoured.” The happy guests hoped to repay their hosts’ hospitality by regaling them with a spirited rendition of La Marseillaise. Péron thought the song would serve an anthropological purpose by revealing “what effect our singing would have on our audience.” The Tasmanians did not appear surprised by the sudden rendition, though they responded to the music with “diverse contortions” and “odd gestures” which greatly amused the explorers. The Tasmanians’ immediate “exclamations of admiration” at the conclusion of the stirring anthem encouraged Péron to entertain them with more song.
Changing the mood somewhat, he led his fellow voyagers in crooning some of their “tender airs.” Even though the Tasmanians appeared to “comprehend the sense” of these romantic ballads, they remained unaffected, much to the dismay of the amateur troubadours. After what could only have been an uncomfortable period of silence, the awkward atmosphere was broken by the sudden appearance of Ouré-Ouré, a Tasmanian belle. She was about sixteen or seventeen years old, thought to be the younger sister of either the energetic young man or his flinty wife, and attracted the strangers’ keenest attention. Her nakedness and “delicate” form could not be ignored, but Péron, in a moment of chivalry, refrained from clinically describing her body, and thought her beguilingly unaware that there could be anything indecent or immodest about her “absolute nudity.” Even though she paid Freycinet the most attention, Péron thought her glances toward all of them were “affectionate and expressive.”
To Péron Ouré-Ouré was a natural coquette. Yet, when she behaved in a more forward manner, Péron was taken aback. “Taking some burnt charcoal in her hands, she crushed it so as to reduce it to a fine powder” then daubed it all over her face, expressing a confident and satisfied attitude towards her beauty regimen. The Frenchmen were flattered by her attentions and amused to discover that “fondness for adornment… prevails in the hearts” of all women, but Péron was also distressed by how “frightfully black” it made her. Evidently Péron found her coy preening simultaneously enticing and disturbing. Yet he accepted Ouré-Ouré’s new look and later seized the opportunity to try to usurp Freycinet in her affections. Noticing that she owned a bag made of rushes, he thought to himself that “as this girl had also shewn me some marks of regard” he would venture “to ask her for this little trifle.” She happily gave him the bag, accompanied by “an obliging smile” and “some tender expressions” that he lamented not being able to understand. In response to this flirtation Péron inundated her with presents, including a handkerchief, a hatchet and a hammer, disregarding Baudin’s orders to be sparing with gifts.
Péron was enamoured not only of the Tasmanians’ hospitality and camaraderie, and Ouré-Ouré’s affections, but also of the playful mischievousness of the children, and the ease with which he seemed to converse with the Tasmanians, despite not sharing a common language. Upon bidding their adieus the French were accompanied back to their boat by the Tasmanians, where they met the French sailors, most of whom also noticed Ouré-Ouré’s considerable attractions and festooned her with even more gifts. The Tasmanians’ seemingly mutual feelings of affection were evident in their reluctance to allow the Frenchmen to leave.
THIS DAY WOULD be Péron’s most romantic with the Tasmanians, full of laughter and warmth. He was impressed not only by how the family had embraced their visitors but also by the tenderness they had shown one another. Later he would reflect that on that day he “saw realised with inexpressible pleasure, those charming descriptions of the happiness and simplicity of a state of nature, of which I had so often read, and enjoyed in idea.” Yet only two days later, on 15 January, Péron would begin to rethink this evaluation.
On that fateful day Péron was completely oblivious to how events would play out. In fact he was not even thinking of the Tasmanians, but was instead charting the Port of Swans in a small boat, marvelling at the countryside and wildlife. The naturalists had discovered a river, which they named after the celebrated hydrographer Fleurieu, and Péron decided that a European colony should be established there, as the river would supply the settlement with water all year round.
Meanwhile, hostilities flared on Bruny Island. That day some sailors had ventured out on a fishing expedition, and shortly after landing had encountered a group of Tasmanians. Péron later learned that a burly midshipman by the name of Jean Maurouard, perhaps anticipating the study Péron would later conduct with his dynamometer, had decided to test the strength of the infamously physically adept noble savages. After presenting the “natives” with gifts and finding them to be friendly, Maurouard felt at liberty to try something new. Selecting the one who “appeared to be the most robust” he indicated his desire to engage in a little roughhousing. Planting his feet firmly in the sand, the Frenchman grabbed the Tasmanian’s wrist and gestured that both should “pull as hard as possible.” Assuming that his gestures were fully comprehended the midshipman engaged in numerous feats of strength, repeatedly toppling or throwing his opponent into the sand. Mighty Maurouard won out every single time, but as the game was played amid much laughter and frivolity he did not anticipate the Tasmanians’ reaction.
Tired of wrestling and collecting fish, the Frenchmen decided to withdraw to the ship. They said their goodbyes and presented more gifts. With his back turned to the Tasmanians as he pushed the boat out into the water, Maurouard was suddenly speared in the shoulder. The Frenchmen immediately sprang into action: Sub-lieutenant St. Cricq drew his pistol, and together with the irrepressible Maurouard charged back up the rise to find the attacker. They later reported to Baudin that they came upon seven or eight armed men who did not react upon seeing the Frenchmen. Struck by their peculiarly impassive demeanour, St. Cricq and Marouard decided that it was most prudent to return to the ship, so retreated back down the rise without further incident.
Péron reported the story differently, however. When he heard news of this attack a few days later he was filled with horror. How could those noble savages whose company he had so thoroughly enjoyed only days earlier have behaved so barbarically? But then perhaps he recalled those brief incidents during his first day when their response had been cool or indifferent, not to mention their attempt to steal the arrack. Perhaps those minor rebuffs by the Tasmanian men preyed on him. He certainly remembered the hostile attacks that they had suffered on the west coast of New Holland. Possibly the Tasmanian men were not as different from their mainland neighbours as he had first thought. Péron judged this attack to be a “perfidious and cowardly” display of brutality. He immediately assumed that it was a vindictive response to their resounding defeat at the hands of Maurouard.
It never occurred to him that the Tasmanians might have been demonstrating their own indigenous game of skill, the art of spear dodging, or that the Tasmanians might have tired of the strangers’ presence and wanted them to leave. In fact Péron did not even entertain the notion that the Tasmanians had any motivation other than an inherent “destructive instinct,” because to him they were little more than a cipher for his fanciful projections. His penchant for melodrama, which became more pronounced over the course of his journey, revealed itself in his retelling of this incident. According to his narrative the French immediately gave pursuit, and he claims they would have “punished them as they deserved” had the cowardly locals not already “escaped among the rocks, or hid themselves among the brambles.” This would not be the only time that Péron allowed his fantasies to obscure the truth.
After a reprieve of only a few days, the French had another encounter with the Tasmanian men that played out in a similar fashion, again resulting in “violent aggression.” For a second time Péron missed out on the action, but at his request the botanist Jean-Baptiste Louis Claude Leschenault wrote him a report, so he had all of the important details. That is to say, the report described the violent actions, mentioning neither how the Tasmanians were encountered nor what their attitude had been, because after the spearing of Maurouard the French could only see the Tasmanian men’s actions as inexplicably and instinctively violent.
This day began with a small party, led by Jean Félix Emmanuel Hamelin, captain of the Naturaliste and including the artist Nicolas-Martin Petit, setting out to make some progress on their ethnographic research. After meeting a group of Tasmanians Petit drew portraits of the men as they sat in repose smiling and talking. Despite their relaxed demeanour Petit was soon to realise that they were not merely passive anthropological subjects; when Petit had finished the portraits, one of his subjects suddenly grabbed hold of the drawing. Petit steadfastly held on to his work, forcing the Tasmanian to relinquish his hold and up the ante by seizing and brandishing “a log of wood.” Thanks to the spearing of Maurouard the French were on guard against potential attacks, so the rest of the party immediately rallied to the artist’s side. The increased support induced the man to surrender his claim to his portrait, though not his indignation. Despite French attempts to placate the Tasmanians with another round of gifts, they were sent running back to their ships with a volley of rocks.
Leschenault reported this second attack to Péron, who included it in the official journal of the voyage. The report contained the critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau which would come significantly to influence Péron: “I am astonished,” wrote Leschenault, “to hear sensible people aver, that men in a state of nature are not wicked,” adding that it was preposterous to believe that the natives never played the role of aggressor. Two attacks were evidently enough for him to reject the claim that the Tasmanians were noble savages. Péron, on the other hand, with lingering memories of Ouré-Ouré, still had a soft spot for the women.
On the last day of the month, after almost two weeks with little contact, Péron came across a group of Tasmanians. Following Leschenault’s advice to the letter he turned back “without hesitating a moment.” Beating a hasty retreat along the shoreline he happened to meet sub-lieutenant François Antoine Boniface Heirisson. Bolstered by this extra support, he decided to return to where he had seen the “natives.” Realising that they had no chance of catching the Tasmanians if they chose to avoid them, Péron and Heirisson signalled their good intentions by calling out, holding up their presents so they could be seen, and “waving their handkerchiefs.” The group eventually submitted to these entreaties and stopped, allowing Péron and Heirisson to catch up. It was as they approached that Péron realised that “they were women, and that there was not a single male among the party,” which instantly lifted his spirits. Unfortunately these women were not to live up to Péron’s fantasies, for they were hardly shy and malleable coquettes.
FROM THE OUTSET of their encounter the women were in control. It was the women who allowed the Frenchmen to draw near, the women who instructed them to sit, and the women who made them disarm. The Frenchmen not only had to submit to the women’s instructions but also had to tolerate their interrogations and mockery. Péron thought that they seemed “often to criticise our appearance” and laughed “heartily at our expense.” When the surgeon Jérôme Bellefin attempted to repeat their earlier success with the Tasmanians by singing to them, the women again seemed to appreciate it, but one, who they later learned was called Arra-Maida, mimicked his “action and the tone of his voice.” Her singing had such an unfamiliar melody that Péron thought it difficult to “give any idea of music” and her dancing plainly shocked Péron. Her contortions and “attitude” bordered on “indecent,” forcing him to primly note that these savage people were still absolute “strangers to all the delicacy of sentiment and conduct” that was a natural “consequence of complete civilisation.”
Péron’s earlier ambivalence regarding Ouré-Ouré was only exacerbated by these seemingly brazen paramours. Having been tantalised by Ouré-Ouré and entranced by demure flirtations that allowed him to play the role of chivalrous seducer, he was clearly taken aback at being forced into the role of blushing coquette himself. But his surprise at this inversion of roles paled in comparison to the women’s attempt to transform the Frenchmen’s appearance. Once Arra-Maida had finished her performance she approached Péron, taking from her rush bag some charcoal which she crushed between her hands just as Ouré-Ouré had done. But instead of powdering her own face she applied it to Péron’s and then Heirisson’s. Even though both men “submitted to this obliging piece of caprice,” and Péron even recognised that the Tasmanians might have the same disdain for white skin that Europeans had for black, this meeting with the women further cooled Péron’s ardour for the Tasmanians.
In contrast to his chivalrously discreet account of the delectable Ouré-Ouré, Péron openly scrutinised these women, describing their bodies in clinical and derogatory detail, picking out any flaw, no matter how minor, in his exhaustive catalogue of imperfections. Even the young girls, who possessed an “agreeable form and pleasant features,” were criticised because their “nipples were rather too large and long.” He concluded that “in a word, all the particulars of their natural constitution were in the highest degree disgusting.” In Péron’s eyes, signs of the women’s brazen behaviour were now physically apparent in their bodies.
Even though Péron’s opinion of the Tasmanians had become jaded, he was not the one to end the romance. Despite his ambivalence towards the women Péron stayed with them as long as he could, playing the dupe to their “many tricks” and “drolleries” and enjoying a “merry” time. As he followed them home from their fishing expedition, musing on the unjust burdens imposed on savage women, he was suddenly roused from his reflections by one woman’s “loud cry of terror.” The women had just caught sight of the manned French boats. The realisation that there were more intruders waiting just off the shore ignited their fears, and all but one of the women fled towards the forest. The indomitably courageous Arra-Maida hectored her fleeing sisters and eventually convinced them to escort the party back to their boat. As they neared the shore Péron realised that the “husbands” of these women had also converged where the boats were moored, but instead of being fearful they appeared to be filled with “malevolence” and suppressed anger, which Péron assumed to be consequent to their “inability to contend” with the superior Europeans. Yet the Tasmanians seemed to have decided that the best way to contend with the French trespassers was to spurn their advances by evading them and giving the Frenchmen an apparently unambiguous sign of their disdain.
On 3 February, only a few weeks after their first meeting, the French returned to Bruny Island. On seeing two women walking down the mountain to the sea, two of the explorers who had yet to encounter the Tasmanian women immediately ran towards them hoping for a closer look. When the women realised they were being pursued they sprinted off, disappearing before the men could catch them. Disappointed, the entire party continued along the coast and eventually spied a huge bonfire that appeared to have been burning since the night before. As they approached the pyre they realised that it was surrounded by “almost all the presents” that the French had given to the Tasmanians. Like any jilted lover Péron was in denial. Instead of recognising that the Tasmanians had rejected the French explorers’ overtures, he imagined that this bonfire and deliberate return of their gifts was just a manifestation of their “puerile curiosity.” He deluded himself by thinking that “these uninformed men threw away what no longer pleased or amused them,” and refused to recognise that it was actually he and his compatriots who no longer pleased the Tasmanians.
Had this romance been a fiction rather than being based on historical events the story would have ended here, perhaps with Péron mourning the end of the affair, or moving on to look for another race of impossible noble savages. But the harsh and prosaic reality of the situation was that Péron and the French lingered in Tasmania, unwanted, for a few more weeks, meeting other Tasmanians and making further futile attempts to study these children of nature. The French continued to try draw their portraits, document their vocabularies, discern whether or not they indulged in “kisses and tender caresses,” and test their physical strength with their dynamometer. Their attentions were frequently rebuffed, and encounters usually ended in violent or aggressive altercations, with the French having to resort to drawing their weapons.
So why did I develop some sympathy for Péron, this vindictive, “irresponsible, scatter-brained, argumentative,” and “indiscreet” man? It was not because he lost his father at an early age, nor because he was a prisoner of war. My change of heart was because after years of reading him again and again, I recognised that he had been searching and longing for something that did not exist. He had adopted such a passionate faith in a singular idea that it bordered on religious zeal. He was desperate to find the perfect noble savage, a tabula rasa on which to project his fantasies of an ideal human society. When he finally found it on the temperate shores of Tasmania he did not anticipate that things would play out the way they did. He never expected that his offerings and paternalistic guidance would be rejected, that the noble savages would refuse to do his bidding and be model objects of study, and that they would fail to behave as Rousseau had led him to believe. So he reacted with the vindictiveness of a jilted lover.
So you may ask again, why do I sympathise with Péron? The answer is simply because his quest mirrored my own. As an Indigenous historian I have combed these first contact narratives for any accounts and revelations about pre-contact Aboriginal people in order to understand the heartbreaking experiences and momentous changes that colonisation wrought for indigenous Australians. Despite seeing myself as standing at the opposite end of a temporal and colonial abyss from François Péron, I now realise that we are in some instances uncomfortably aligned. For I too have idealistic fantasies about Aboriginal society and have attempted to impose this romanticised vision on the historical record. In doing so I have come to realise that I have inadvertently glossed over the complexities and idiosyncrasies of pre-contact Aboriginal society, and ignored the playful and amicable relations that were formed in those first moments of contact. I have been blind to the power that the Indigenous people had in those early colonial encounters. Like Péron I made the mistake of misinterpreting and misjudging the agency of eighteenth-century Aboriginal people and treated them as mere ciphers for my post-colonial theories. I sympathise with Péron because I eventually recognised this, and unlike him, I am now free to be intrigued and enthralled by the real complexities of the Tasmanians and other indigenous historical figures all over again. •
Shino Konishi is a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University, and a descendant of the Yawuru people of Broome, Western Australia. This essay is based on a chapter in Transgressions: Critical Australian Indigenous Histories, edited by Ingereth Macfarlane and Mark Hannah, published by ANU E Press and Aboriginal History Incorporated.