Peter Dillon

Merchant captain, South Sea trader and sailor of fortune Peter Dillon (1788 – 1847) was born to Irish parents on the French island of Martinique in the West Indies, though his father took him back to Ireland's County Meath as a small child. Other details of his early life are vague, but he claimed to have served in the Royal Navy and to have been present at the Battle of Trafalgar. Things become more definite after he arrived in Calcutta in 1808, looking to establish himself as a trader in the South Seas.

Between 1809 and 1813 he worked on vessels operating out of Sydney bound for Fiji, New Zealand, and the Tahiti, though he also spent extended periods ashore in the islands. As a result, he acquired a sound working knowledge of Pacific languages and cultures and established sympathetic relations with various groups of indigenous peoples. Those skills saw the Anglican clergyman Samuel Marsden engage him as master of the brig Active for missionary activities around New Zealand's Bay of Islands in 1814.

Later that year Dillon married the daughter of an emancipist businessman and farmer in Sydney, and he turned to the coastal trade before relocating to Calcutta in June 1816. From there, he made voyages to Australian ports, from 1819 as both owner and master of the ship in which he sailed.

By 1823 he was extending his voyages further, to the Pacific coast of South America and his renewed acquaintance with the islands along the way rekindled his interest in the peoples and cultures of the islands. 

At Callao in 1824, he had obtained manuscript sources that enabled him to compile an account of Spanish voyages to Tahiti in the 1770s. In May 1826 at Tikopia to renew an acquaintance made thirteen years before he heard of the two ships wrecked on the neighbouring island of Vanikoro, which he believed would have been La Pérouse's La Boussole and Astrolabe. Convinced that the mystery of La Pérouse's disappearance had been solved, Dillon sailed to Calcutta to report his discovery, and he persuaded the government of Bengal to send an expedition to confirm the hypothesis.

The British Governor-General of India Lord Amherst gave him command of the East India Company vessel Research. Dillon sailed for Vanikoro in January 1827, arrived there in September after a long and arduous voyage, and recovered items from the wrecks. He heard both ships had been wrecked during a storm, and that while some  survivors had sailed off in a boat they had built from the wreckage, two had remained on the island but had died some time ago.

Having solved the mystery, Dillon travelled to France with the results of his expedition and met the expedition's Russian interpreter Barthélemy de Lesseps, who had left the expedition in Siberia and returned to Europe overland. De Lesseps confirmed that items recovered in Vanikoro by Dillon had been carried on the voyage.

Dillon received his reward in the form of an annuity for life and a knighthood (Chevalier de l'Ordre royal de la Légion d'honneur,).  His two-volume Narrative and Successful Result of a Voyage in the South Seas … to Ascertain the Actual Fate of La Pérouse's Expedition … appeared in London in 1829, with French and Dutch editions in 1830.

While that was the high water mark of a remarkable, but largely forgotten life, the disappointing results of his attempts to be involved in significant events was not entirely Dillon's fault. While he was a forceful and knowledgeable advocate for the schemes he proposed and he cultivated the acquaintance of diplomats, scholars and politicians to gain their support he remained, essentially,  an outsider in the corridors of power.

A proposed scheme to establish Catholic missions and French commercial settlements across the Pacific gained support from both church and state, Dillon was appointed as French consul, and a naval store-ship was assigned to take missionaries to the islands, but the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in July 1830 temporarily put paid to that scheme.

When the first Catholic missionaries went to the Pacific several years later, they mostly followed Dillon's blueprint, but by that stage, he had moved on. 

Dillon offered his services to the new king of Belgium, who was looking towards a colony in Fiji in 1831. Towards the end of that year and seems to have angled for a role in the proposed colonisation of South Australia the following year. That particular scheme failed to eventuate, and he turned his attention to proposals for British settlement in New Zealand while launching trenchant criticism of what was happening in South Australia.

Dillon was back in Sydney in October 1834 en route to establish a factory to treat flax in New Zealand. That scheme only lasted a year and was followed by the purchase of the schooner that landed the first Wesleyan missionaries in Fiji group in another significant missionary advance. He then fell out with the Wesleyans in Tonga, picked up a request from Bora Bora's leading chief for Catholic missionaries and returned to Europe in 1838.

The next years saw repeated unsuccessful attempts to obtain an official position in New Zealand or the Pacific Islands which were probably not helped by the pamphlets he published criticising the New Zealand Company and the Wesleyan missionaries in Tonga. In the latter case, his criticism prompted a response A Refutation of the Chevalier Dillon's Slanderous Attacks … from the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in London in 1842. 

Meanwhile, he corresponded voluminously with politicians, government officials and the Marist mission, offering advice on matters relating to the Pacific. He seems to have been passionate, physically impressive (193 cm in height and heavily built) but volatile in personality. As a result, his quest for a career of public eminence in the corridors of power eluded him until the end of his life.  He died in Paris on 9 February 1847.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography; O.H.K. Spate The Pacific Since Magellan, Volume III: Paradise Found and Lost, Wikipedia

© Ian Hughes 2017