- Sullivan, John
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- July 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This story came about because of a reference in ‘The Three Headed Dog’ (the Victorian Chapter’s newsletter) to the ‘siege’ which began on 9th March 1842. The editor of T.H.D. obtained his information from Lew Lind’s book, ‘Historic Naval Events of Australia Day by Day’, where Lew refers to the French corvette L’HEROINE standing off Port Adelaide with her guns run out, where she held the Port under virtual siege for eighteen days. Lew told me that he got the story from H.M. Cooper’s book, ‘The Naval History of South Australia’.
In trying to find further information for this article, I read various newspaper accounts from the period, Cooper’s book to which I refer above, and ‘Wooden Hookers’ by C.B. Maxwell, all by courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. I was also assisted by Captain J Gillespie, a local seaman and historian, who kindly gave me a copy of an article he has written about ‘VILLE DE BORDEAUX’, which will probably be included in a book he is currently writing. Finally, Mr Mike Lockley, of the Fort Glanville Historical Association, gave me an extract from ‘Southern Passages’ by Ron Parsons.
The story began in France in 1836, when ‘VILLE DE BORDEAUX’ was built at Bordeaux for the French navy. However, possibly because the navy did not have the money to commission her, she was sold to a group of Bordeaux merchants who fitted her out as a whaler. She was a large ship for her day, being registered as between 800 and 900 tons. She sailed on 12th December 1837, and her maiden voyage ended twenty-eight months later when she arrived in Sydney on 28th March 1840, with nearly 4,000 barrels of whale oil. Her master sold the oil, and then called for a survey which condemned the vessel as being unseaworthy. She was sold at auction by the colony’s best known auctioneer, Samuel Lyons, who lived at Five Dock farm, where the suburb of Five Dock is now situated. Lyons Road in Five Dock is named after the Auctioneer.
One James Stewart bought ‘‘Ville de Bordeaux’ and said he intended to send her whaling again. However, he in turn sold her to M. Didier Numa Joubert, a merchant of Hunter’s Hill, who apparently had dual French and British nationality. For some reason the authorities in Sydney insisted that, despite Joubert’s British nationality, the ship should fly the French flag and have a French captain. This insistence indirectly led to the events in South Australia, which could have resulted in an international incident and even a renewed war between Britain and France. Captain Symers was appointed as master.
Flying the French flag, Symers sailed on 27th August 1840, for the East Indies, where at Lombok he picked up a cargo of rice and ponies. At the end of 1840 ‘Ville de Bordeaux’ arrived in Fremantle. Here Captain Symers decided to relinquish his command of a vessel with an unsatisfactory past and a doubtful future. This created a problem for the authorities in the West – where could they find another Frenchman to take command? In fact they found him in Fremantle jail, and he was released from custody to occupy the master’s quarters. It is not known whether he was a man of the sea, but he was French!
There is a discrepancy here, as Captain Gillespie has given the above information about the resignation of Symers and his replacement being found in jail. However, Parsons in ‘Southern Passages’ describes the ship’s further movements as still being under the command of Captain Symers. Both agree that the ship sailed for Holdfast Bay (Glenelg, S.A) via Albany. Parsons adds that, with the permission of the authorities in Western Australia, ‘Ville de Bordeaux’ carried some cargo without charge between Fremantle and Albany.
‘Ville de Bordeaux’ arrived in Holdfast Bay on 29th January, 1841, and it was announced that she would load livestock for Reunion, the island south of Mauritius. However, someone convinced Robert Torrens (later Sir Robert), the Collector of Customs, that the cargo was intended for Fremantle. Torrens also claimed that the ship had illegally carried cargo from Fremantle to Albany, despite this cargo having been carried without charge and at the request of the authorities in the West. The Navigation Act prohibited local cargos being carried in foreign ships – here is where the decision made in Sydney that the ship be considered as French began to cause trouble.