Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • Causing a Scene in Prince's Square

    Causing a Scene in Prince's Square

    “It’s the people’s park,” my friend Tim fairly shouted at me one afternoon in Prince’s Square, where a large crowd had gathered for the wake of Launceston’s Deputy Mayor. It was a lovely spring evening, and dusk fell on an eclectic group of local characters. Towns like ours produce strange stories, wonderful connections. “People sleep here,” Tim went on, “they make love here, they get arrested here…”

    Tim had done some research on the park, and in particular, on its fountain. An ornate construction of mythical figures (including Neptune and his bare-breasted missus), the fountain was produced by art foundry Val d’Osne, of Haute-Marne, France. A local myth has persisted that Launceston, Tasmania mistakenly received it as a gift meant for the homonymous town in England, but this is unlikely; the Cornwall Chronicle of 1859 does, however, cast doubt on Mayor Henry Dowling’s book-keeping with regards to the cost of the fountain. Mayor Dowling’s claim that it cost only £50 seemed doubtful to the wry editor of the paper at the time.

    In the 1850s, the place was designated a public park, with Prince Alfred planting two oaks that are still growing. The fountain was the pièce de résistance. But even before it was made a park, the site was used to crowds. First, it was a convict brickfields. Then, Launcestonians started to use it to host their public events: the area drew military drills and political gatherings. There was also a hanging. John Conway and Riley Jeffs had become a bushranging duo, and on May 4, 1843, they put a gun to the head of a landowner along the South Esk River, who was sitting on his verandah at the time.

    “Stand,” said Conway, breathing heavily through his prominent proboscis.
    “No,” said the landowner. “I’m comfortable sitting down. What do you want?”

    The landowner and his servant were detained, and the bushrangers set about pilfering the usual – firearms, tea, sugar, flour, and rum. Soon after they left, Constable Thomas Connell was in hot pursuit, supported by a group of local vigilantes. Unfortunately, poor Jeffs had been wounded the previous day, and was easily caught; nor was Conway a great athlete, and he too was captured.

    It turned out they had also murdered a constable, and for this, they were sentenced to be hanged. In July of that year, a crowd of 1000 – near a quarter of Launceston’s population of the day – slept out for a midwinter’s night in order to see the dawn hanging. The mob gathered were unruly, singing and making a scene, throughout the night. A disgraceful scene, said the Cornwall Chronicle.

    Some weeks after the wake, I was part of a small impromptu gathering of people, which also included Tim, a Frenchman, and a musician. We stood next to the fountain, with plastic cups of sangria, talking about these layers of history - the ghosts of the area. The Presbyterian church has just been renovated by a design firm; behind the Anglican church, there were once Chinese market gardens, and probably opium dens too. A statue of a local doctor stands where Riley and Jeffs were hanged. Across the road from the park is the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre: before any of us were here, there was an indigenous population, for millennia.

    The wind was cold. Cigarettes were lit by a few. No-one else was around; it surely was not a night for sleeping out in the park. The talk was serious for a moment, but then, someone started talking about ‘continental breakfasts’, about the pineapple-looking thing on top of the fountain, about the French, and finally about how it was probably time to go home. The scene was “not a disgraceful one”, despite the personalities involved.

     

    There are more stories from the area. In 1811, Jonothan Burke McHugo sailed into the young colony of Launceston and claimed himself its Maharajah.

  • The Captain's Lover

    The Captain's Lover

    It was one of the most important voyages in history. When the Géographe and Naturaliste returned to France with their cargoes after four years at the bottom of the world, some of the most impressive specimens in natural science arrived in Europe for the first time.

    At the helm was Captain Baudin. He was a passionate man, driven by his desire to chart the Terres Australes before his rival, the English prodigy Matthew Flinders. They had only the one confused meeting at Encounter Bay. Flinders’ navigation had been superior. Whereas Baudin had gone back and forth, and tried to in natural sciences with exploration, the Flinders expedition had run smoothly.

    And aside from this, Baudin’s own men were against him. The roguish Freycinet brothers wryly tried to undermine the skipper’s authority; the petulant zoologist François Péron rewrote Baudin’s own diaries at the end of the expedition, and wrote the expedition’s account to paint Baudin in such unflattering light that Napoleon himself said: “Baudin did well to die; on his return I would have had him hanged.”

    He had died instead of tuberculosis in Mauritius, only a short few months before the voyage concluded in France.

    Péron’s own log takes note of the woman Baudin took as his companion for the latter part of the journey. She was a 17-year-old convict, believed to be a whore, named Mary Beckwith. What did she see of the world in those days? Sentenced to Sydney for simple theft, Mary’s life changed forever when she was surreptitiously spirited away by the French and taken for a ride across the seas. At first it was all adventure, around the coasts of Van Diemen's Land and South Australia; but after Baudin tried to dump her in Timor, she became renowned for drunkenness and for sleeping with numbers of the French sailors on the ship.

    None of this did wonders for Baudin’s reputation.

    Interestingly, it was Baudin’s chief rival who gives us our last piece of information on Mary Beckwith. Shortly after Baudin’s death, Flinders was imprisoned on Mauritius. One day, Baudin’s brother Augustin approached Flinders, apparently asking his advice “concerning the propriety of taking a young woman to India whom his brother had brought hither from Port Jackson”.

    We don’t hear of Mary ever again. It seems likely that she did follow Augustin Baudin to the Tamil lands of India. We can only hope things turned out better for her there.

    Tasmania has plenty of French nomenclature. Explorers Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Huon de Kermadec and Marion Dufresne are honoured. Biologists (Labillardière), astronomers (Bernier) and mineralogists (Hauy) are remembered in rocky formations, alongside Freycinet and Péron. Baudin has a small (and belatedly-bestowed) mountain named after him.

    I would like to suggest that a memorial to Mary Beckwith would be fitting, should an opportunity present itself.