Peter DILLON (1768-1847) - trader, explorer, raconteur
PETER DILLON was a sandalwood trader, self-proclaimed explorer, raconteur, and discoverer of the fate of the La Pérouse expedition.
Dillon was an impressive figure, 6ft 4 ins (193 cm) in height and heavily built. His sensitivity and wit made him as welcome in the houses of the eminent in France and England, Bengal and New South Wales, as in those of his friends in the islands.
His writings on Pacific ethnography rank with the best of his times. But his hero was Napoleon, after whom he named his younger son; and he lusted after a career of public eminence and power that eluded him till the end. The occasional outbursts of violence that had characterized his earlier years became transmuted in his later life into a settled cantankerousness.
The interest in Peter Dillon's scattered voyages lies in the fact that he solved the mystery of the death of the French navigator,
Comte de La Pérouse (1741-1788).
Dillon was an officer on the Calcutta ship Hunter in 1813, when it called at the Fiji Islands to trade for sandalwood and found itself involved in a punitive expedition against the Fijians. As a result of the strained situation, a man named Martin BUSHART and his Fijian wife asked to be taken elsewhere. The Hunter on her way to Canton dropped Bushart, his wife, and a lascar off at Tikopia Island on September 20, 1813.
On 22 September 1814 Dillon married Mary, daughter of Patrick MOORE, an emancipist businessman and farmer. Marriage and the birth of three children cut him off for some years from the adventurous life of the islands. For two years he was employed in the coastal trade. In June 1816 he moved to Calcutta, from which port he made a number of voyages to the Australian colonies. From 1819 he was both owner and master of the ships in which he sailed.
In 1823-25 he extended his voyages to the Pacific coast of South America, which brought him into touch again with the Pacific Islands. In 1825 he discovered sandalwood in the New Hebrides. He himself made no attempt to exploit this discovery despite its commercial importance, his deepest interest being in the people of the islands and in their history. In 1824, when he had been at Callao, he had obtained a manuscript that enabled him to publish the first accurate account of the previously mysterious Spanish voyages to Tahiti in the 1770s
In 1826 Peter Dillon was captain and owner of a ship named the St. Patrick. On a voyage from New Zealand to Bengal, he anchored off the island of Tikopia on May 13 1826. Martin Bushart and the lascar came on board, the lascar with a silver guard from a sword. This guard, together with several iron bolts and chain plates from a ship, axes, knives, china, and glass beads, all of French manufacture, were in the possession of the Tikopians who stated that they came from Malicolo (Mannicolo, or Vanikoro), where two large ships had been wrecked.
Dillon took Bushart and a Tikopian on board to visit Vanikoro, which was ordinarily two days sail, but Dillon abandoned the search after being becalmed for seven days. He reached Bengal on August 30.
Captain Dillon entered into correspondence with the Bengal Government, urging that a search expedition be placed under his command, and he also brought the matter up before a meeting of the Asiatic Society. Finally, the Government decided to place the East India Company's surveying vessel, the Research, under the command of Dillon to proceed to Vanikoro to obtain full and accurate information regarding the shipwreck of the two vessels presumed to be the French frigates commanded by La Perouse.
1827 to 1828
After repairs and delays caused by trouble with a Dr. TYTLER who had been appointed ship's surgeon, the Research finally sailed out from the mouth of the Hooghly River on January 23, 1827.
During the voyage to Tasmania, Captain Dillon placed Dr. Tytler under arrest and confined him to his cabin.
The ship reached Hobart on April 5, and Dr. Tytler brought an action against Dillon for assault. The Civil Court sentenced Dillon to two months' imprisonment in Hobart jail, a fifty pound fine, and sureties for 400 pounds to keep the peace for twelve months. A petition to the Lieutenant-Governor stating that two months delay in prison would prevent him from reaching Vanikoro, owing to the coming on of the monsoons, resulted in Dillon's discharge after paying the fine set by the court. Meanwhile, Dr. Tytler had evaded reprisals by leaving on a convenient ship for India.
Dillon sailed for Port Jackson and then to New Zealand where he arrived at the Bay of Islands on July 1.
After pottering about, he reached Tonga on August 12, and Tikopia on September 5, where he made a list of articles brought in from Vanikoro.
He reached Vanikoro on September 7, bought up all the relics of the wrecks that he could and located the remains of the ships on the reef. He made additional lists and then sailed for New Zealand, arriving at the Bay of Islands on November 5.
As the Research was in bad shape he tried to buy or borrow the missionary ship Herald from John Williams and was much annoyed at a refusal. The Research, however, was able to sail to Port Jackson in January 1828, and finally entered the Hooghly on April 5.
Dillon interviewed the Governor General of Bengal, showed him the relics he had brought, and was ordered to take them to Europe.
He sailed on May 20 in the Mary Ann and arrived at Plymouth on October 26.
After some negotiation, Captain Dillon was officially received at Paris. Viscount LESSEPS, who had been sent back from Kamchatka with La Perouse's first reports, and who thus became the sole survivor of the expedition, recognized, among other things, the carronades and mill stones brought back by Dillon.
The French adequately rewarded Dillon with the order of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, paid all his expenses from India to Europe and granted him an annuity of 4,000 francs a year for life, with half of that sum to go to his family survivor. The crowning incident of Dillon's visit to Paris was his presentation to the King of France.
1829 to 1847
Celebrity increased his desire to be concerned in great events. He drafted a scheme for the establishment of Roman Catholic missions and French commercial settlements in the Pacific. Its missionary aspect gained the support of both church and state. A French naval store-ship was provided to take the missionaries to the islands; and in December 1829 Dillon, who was to accompany the expedition, was commissioned as French consul.
The overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in July 1830, however, ended his chance of holding public office under the French; and it was only a minor consolation to him that his plans were largely followed when the first Catholic missionaries were sent to the Pacific several years later. In 1831 he offered his services to the newly established kingdom of Belgium for the purpose of founding a colony in Fiji.
Towards the end of that year and early in 1832 he seems to have hoped for an appointment connected with the proposed colonization of South Australia; but, when this did not eventuate, he became a trenchant critic of the proposal and of its first promoters. In 1832 he also published a pamphlet urging British colonization of New Zealand. All his schemes were argued forcefully and with knowledge of the facts, and he cultivated the acquaintance of politicians, diplomats and scholars to gain support for them. But he remained an outsider in the world of power.
In October 1834 Dillon arrived back in Sydney, on his way to New Zealand to establish a factory for the treatment of flax. This novel enterprise lasted only a year. He returned to Sydney, purchased a schooner, and set out on the last of his Pacific cruises.
In its course, he landed the first Wesleyan missionaries in the centre of the Fiji group (thus becoming responsible for another major missionary advance), quarrelled violently with the Wesleyans in Tonga, and obtained a request from the leading chief of Borabora for Catholic missionaries.
In 1838 he returned finally to Europe. He renewed his attempt, without success, to obtain an official position in New Zealand or the Pacific Islands. He published pamphlets criticizing the New Zealand Co. and the Wesleyan mission in Tonga. The latter was taken so seriously by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in London that it published a rejoinder: A Refutation of the Chevalier Dillon's Slanderous Attacks (pdf file) … by David Cargill (London, 1842). He corresponded voluminously with British politicians and permanent officials and with the headquarters of the Marist mission, offering advice on Pacific matters.
In 1842 he edited and published a book entitled:
Conquest of Siberia and the History of the Transactions, Wars, Commerce (eBook) … Carried on Between Russia and China, From the Earliest Period.
After the death of Mary Dillon in 1840, his daughter, Martha, looked after him. She was with him when he died in Paris on 9 February 1847; and the French government provided her with a passage back to Sydney to join her grandfather, Patrick Moore, and her two brothers.
PETER DILLON (June 15, 1788 – February 9, 1847)