Book Review: Napoleon’s Australia, by Terry Smyth

In 1814, a French armada set sail for New South Wales. The armada’s mission was the invasion of Sydney, and its inspiration and its fate were interwoven with one of history’s greatest love stories.

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Terry Smyth is an award-winning journalist, writer on historical topics, maker of programs for the ABC and a working musician. I have to admit to being suspicious of a history book with the subtitle The Incredible Story of Bonaparte’s Secret Plan to Invade Australia, particularly when looking up his other works. I discovered this is his second Incredible Story. The first was about Australian gangsters in California.

The book is well researched and with good sources and notes, so why does the author feel the need to suggest what people were thinking? How does he know Bennelong ‘is more bemused than impressed’ by London (page 12)? Unlike Smyth, I do find it difficult to imagine Bennelong chuckling when the French are also called savages by the London press.

I enjoy history books which are not written in a straight chronological narrative and fill in the bigger picture with interesting side stories and features but the rambling style of this book is just too much. Each chapter is quite short but the author still manages to cram in a disparate collection of facts.

An instance in point is Chapter 1. It begins with kidnapped Aboriginal Australians, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne, being paraded in European clothing at the opera in London; proceeds to a description of the filthy state of the city and the Thames; moves through a biblical story to the divine right of kings; to the introduction of the guillotine; back to Bennelong reading newspaper coverage of the French Revolution; a quick view of Napoleon’s military and strategic prowess; and concludes with the execution of Louis XVI – all between pages 10 and 19.

The side story, which is the most interesting, is the collecting of plants and animals for Josephine’s garden and menagerie at Malmaison on Nicholas Baudin’s 1800 voyage to Australia. But again, we have the rambling style. In the multiple chapters on this topic, Smyth has included a chapter on Humboldt who was not on the voyage, presumably only to highlight Napoleon’s jealousy of the famous naturalist, and concludes with stunning condescension as well as inaccuracy that, ‘Alexander von Humboldt…will be all but forgotten’ (page 64).

This book does introduce the reader to a panoply of characters who had an impact on French, English and Australian history from Napoleon onwards. The author also relates aspects of the Enlightenment’s project to introduce reason and science into all aspects of society, hence the drive to discover new lands, peoples, plants and animals. I just wish he had done it in a more straightforward way.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  6

Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: August 2018
RRP: $34.99

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