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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

Peter Dillon

Peter Dillon

The interest in Peter Dillon's scattered voyages lies in the fact that he solved the mystery of the death of the French navigator, La Perouse. 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.

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 page 96bolts 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, recog-page 97nized, 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 Honor, 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.