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Dillon, Peter (1788–1847)

by J. W. Davidson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Peter Dillon (1788-1847), adventurer, was born (by his own account) of Irish parents in Martinique on 15 June 1788 and taken by his father, also Peter Dillon, to County Meath, Ireland, as a small child. As a youth he served in the navy. He arrived in Fiji from India in 1808 on a vessel trading for sandalwood.

Between 1809 and 1813 he served, first as seaman and later as officer, on vessels trading mainly from Sydney to Fiji, New Zealand, and the Society Islands. This work involved lengthy periods ashore. In particular, he lived on the island of Borabora in 1810-12 assembling cargoes of salt pork for Thomas Reibey and others. This experience enabled him to obtain a good knowledge of several Pacific languages and cultures and to establish sympathetic relations with the indigenous peoples. In 1814 Samuel Marsden engaged Dillon as master of the brig Active and instructed him, with Thomas Kendall and William Hall, to proceed to the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, to 'open a friendly intercourse with the natives', as a preliminary to the foundation of a Church Missionary Society settlement there. This task they successfully accomplished.

On 22 September 1814 Dillon married Mary, daughter of Patrick Moore, an emancipist businessman and farmer. Marriage and the birth of three children cut him off for some years from the adventurous life of the islands. For two years he was employed in the coastal trade. In June 1816 he moved to Calcutta, from which port he made a number of voyages to the Australian colonies. From 1819 he was both owner and master of the ships in which he sailed.

In 1823-25 he extended his voyages to the Pacific coast of South America, which brought him into touch again with the Pacific Islands. In 1825 he discovered sandalwood in the New Hebrides. He himself made no attempt to exploit this discovery despite its commercial importance, his deepest interest being in the people of the islands and in their history. In 1824, when he had been at Callao, he had obtained a manuscript that enabled him to publish the first accurate account of the previously mysterious Spanish voyages to Tahiti in the 1770s. In May 1826 he called at Tikopia, in the Solomons, to renew an acquaintance made thirteen years before. One member of a party that came out to the ship carried a silver sword-guard. Dillon had long been interested in the disappearance of La Pérouse and had concluded that he had probably been wrecked in this part of the Pacific. The story that he was told here of the wreckage of two ships on the neighbouring island of Vanikoro, 'when the old men now on Tucopia were boys', convinced him that the mystery was at last solved. When he reached Calcutta, he persuaded the government of Bengal to send an expedition to Vanikoro under his command. His evidence fully confirmed the truth of his hypothesis.

He travelled to France to present the results of his quest. In 1829 the French government granted him an annuity for life and created him Chevalier de l'Ordre royal de la Légion d'honneur, and he published his Narrative and Successful Result of a Voyage in the South Seas … to Ascertain the Actual Fate of La Pérouse's Expedition … (2 vols, London), of which French and Dutch editions appeared in 1830.

Celebrity increased his desire to be concerned in great events. He drafted a scheme for the establishment of Roman Catholic missions and French commercial settlements in the Pacific. Its missionary aspect gained the support of both church and state. A French naval store-ship was provided to take the missionaries to the islands; and in December 1829 Dillon, who was to accompany the expedition, was commissioned as French consul. The overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in July 1830, however, ended his chance of holding public office under the French; and it was only a minor consolation to him that his plans were largely followed when the first Catholic missionaries were sent to the Pacific several years later. In 1831 he offered his services to the newly established kingdom of Belgium for the purpose of founding a colony in Fiji. Towards the end of that year and early in 1832 he seems to have hoped for an appointment connected with the proposed colonization of South Australia; but, when this did not eventuate, he became a trenchant critic of the proposal and of its first promoters. In 1832 he also published a pamphlet urging British colonization of New Zealand. All his schemes were argued forcefully and with knowledge of the facts, and he cultivated the acquaintance of politicians, diplomats and scholars to gain support for them. But he remained an outsider in the world of power.

In October 1834 Dillon arrived back in Sydney, on his way to New Zealand to establish a factory for the treatment of flax. This novel enterprise lasted only a year. He returned to Sydney, purchased a schooner, and set out on the last of his Pacific cruises. In its course, he landed the first Wesleyan missionaries in the centre of the Fiji group (thus becoming responsible for another major missionary advance), quarrelled violently with the Wesleyans in Tonga, and obtained a request from the leading chief of Borabora for Catholic missionaries.

In 1838 he returned finally to Europe. He renewed his attempt, without success, to obtain an official position in New Zealand or the Pacific Islands. He published pamphlets criticizing the New Zealand Co. and the Wesleyan mission in Tonga. The latter was taken so seriously by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in London that it published a rejoinder: A Refutation of the Chevalier Dillon's Slanderous Attacks … by David Cargill (London, 1842). He corresponded voluminously with British politicians and permanent officials and with the headquarters of the Marist mission, offering advice on Pacific matters. In 1842 he edited and published a book entitled: Conquest of Siberia and the History of the Transactions, Wars, Commerce … Carried on Between Russia and China, From the Earliest Period.

Dillon was an impressive figure, 6ft 4 ins (193 cm) in height and heavily built. His sensitivity and wit made him as welcome in the houses of the eminent in France and England, Bengal and New South Wales, as in those of his friends in the islands. His writings on Pacific ethnography rank with the best of his times. But his hero was Napoleon, after whom he named his younger son; and he lusted after a career of public eminence and power that eluded him till the end. The occasional outbursts of violence that had characterized his earlier years became transmuted in his later life into a settled cantankerousness.

After the death of Mary Dillon in 1840, his daughter, Martha, looked after him. She was with him when he died in Paris on 9 February 1847; and the French government provided her with a passage back to Sydney to join her grandfather, Patrick Moore, and her two brothers.

Select Bibliography

  • George Bayly, Sea-Life Sixty Years Ago (Lond, 1885)
  • J. W. Davidson, ‘Peter Dillon and the South Seas’, History Today, vol 6, no 5, May 1956, pp 307-17.

Citation details

J. W. Davidson, 'Dillon, Peter (1788–1847)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dillon-peter-1978/text2397, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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