Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Baron Hyacinthe Bougainville

L'moure's ups and downs at the Sydney Botanic Gardens

by Pamela Mawbey 2009

In the spring of 1825, a beautiful young Anglo-French woman, married to one of the wealthier men of Sydney, has agreed to a midnight rendezvous with a gallant French nobleman on board his ship anchored in Port Jackson near the Botanic Gardens.

She has known him less than a month, but has already been in his company on 11 occasions.

He, in true French fashion, has wooed her assiduously, despite her ‘jealous’ husband, and is already calling her ‘my beloved’ in his personal notebook.

She is Mrs Harriott Ritchie, the eldest of six daughters and four sons of John Blaxland, the elder brother of Gregory Blaxland, one of the three first white men to cross the Blue Mountains.

He is Baron Hyacinthe de Bougainville, son of the famous French Pacific navigator, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville after whom the Papua New Guinea island and the colourful flowering vine are named.

She is 25. He is 43. She married when she was 16, to a Scottish merchant in Calcutta, and has three children. He has an eye for the ladies but is still a bachelor.

The couple first met on Sunday 21 August 1825 when the French nobleman paid a social visit to the Blaxland family home, Newington, on the Parramatta River near what is now Silverwater. He had seen the house from the river a couple of days earlier and decided to call in on his way back from Windsor by road.

Since arriving in Sydney in late June, Bougainville had been engaged in a busy round of social engagements with the local who’s who. As commander of two ships charged with circumnavigating the globe by the French government, he had been fêted by the press and now everyone wanted to meet him.

The baron has already met the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, and been his guest at Government House, Parramatta. He has also dined at the villa of Captain Piper at Eliza Point (now Point Piper) and stayed with Sir John Jamison at his Regentville estate on the Nepean River near Penrith. It was inevitable he would pay a social call on Mr John Blaxland and his family, sooner or later.

Bougainville’s first impression of Mr Blaxland’s eldest married daughter, Mrs Ritchie, was that she was ‘jolly and lively’. The next day, he records in his notebook that he is suffering from depression ‘while also experiencing a feeling of elation for inexplicable reasons’.

Harriott’s mother was half-French and this may have contributed to a mutual attraction. Her grandfather, Count Louis de Marquet, had been a bodyguard of the ill-fated Louis XVI during the French Revolution. He had fled to India after his royal master had unceremoniously lost his head.

On Friday 26 August, Bougainville ‘went on a pilgrimage’ to the last known landing place of the illustrious French explorer, Comte de La Pérouse, at Botany Bay, and has elected to have a monument to him erected there. Governor Brisbane has already erected one to the great British navigator and hero of La Pérouse, Captain James Cook, on the other side of the bay.

The Comte de la Pérouse and the two ships sailing on his around-the world-expedition had entered Botany Bay on the morning of 26 January 1788. This was on the same day as the British captain, Arthur Phillip, had taken the bulk of the First Fleet further north and into what is now Sydney Harbour.

La Pérouse and his men stayed at Botany Bay for six weeks before leaving on 10 March, never to be heard of again. There was great dismay in France and it is said that Louis XVI on his way to the guillotine in 1793 asked if there was any news of La Pérouse.

Bougainville was happy to pay for the monument himself, and very pleased when the governor gave him the land for it and the services of the government architect to draw up the plans.

On Thursday 1 September Bougainville went hunting wild cattle with the wealthiest man in the colony, John Macarthur, ‘with his whips and 22 hounds’ at Cow Pastures.

Three days later he is back at Newington, travelling there alone in a yawl on the river after dining at the governor’s residence in Parramatta.

He invites the family to visit him on his ship, the Thétis (named after a sea-nymph or goddess in Greek mythology), which they do the following Wednesday.

Before they arrive, he drafts an inscription for the La Pérouse monument, having laid the foundation stone for it at an official ceremony the day before at Botany Bay.

Bougainville had been planning to leave Sydney on 7 September, but he decides to stay a little longer after receiving an invitation to a gala ball being held that evening in his honour.

He enjoys himself there, saying he ‘did not do too badly for a 40-year-old adolescent’.

The following Saturday evening there was another ball, this time at Captain Piper’s home. Here, the baron says, he ‘danced like a young beau’ and makes note that ‘Mrs Ritchie is a beautiful woman with a jealous husband’.

The next day and the following one, he is back at Newington, staying at Parramatta overnight. 

On Thursday 15 September Bougainville paid a social visit to Mr Ritchie and his wife, thinking it would be one of the last times he would see ‘Mrs R’ as he was planning to set sail on the 17th.

The next day he ‘went and fetched my beloved’ and took her and the wife of the superintendent of police to have lunch on his ship. They all then went to Captain Piper’s residence where the would-be couple dined and danced.

Bad weather had delayed his departure, but it had not dampened his ardour for Mrs R.

Bougainville records in his notebook: ‘I wooed the lady in question most assiduously, despite the jealous husband, made rapid progress and fixed a rendez-vous for the next day.’

Only a Frenchman would describe a husband as ‘jealous’ when planning to seduce his wife!

On Saturday 17 September, the couple met at the home of the colonial treasurer where Bougainville records Mrs R ‘had pledged she would be’. He confides: ‘We enjoyed a romantic tete-a-tete and promised to meet the next day at midnight on board.’

But Mr Ritchie is not going to give up his wife without a fight. Even if it means offending his noble guest.

Sunday 18: ‘Received a letter from Mrs R who has been obliged to go to Newington due to a prior engagement. I suffered from deep melancholy, struck off a reply and felt indisposed. Mrs R haunts my thoughts; what a pity I became acquainted with her so late in the day! Beloved Harriott!’

Bougainville then gets a visit from the sheriff, accompanied by the attorney-general of the colony, and is forced to accept an invitation to dinner that evening.

Apparently he did not know that Mr Ritchie had been appointed to the Court of Civil Jurisdiction and had friends in high places too.

At the sheriff’s house, at the far end of Hyde Park, he finds his beloved sitting beside her husband and is forced to eat humble pie.

Bougainville is back on board at midnight as planned, but, alors, alone. 

The next day, he gets a letter from Mr R, ‘probably at his wife’s instigation’. He goes ashore, but is deterred from ‘the strong desire to see her one more time’ by ‘the prospect of being confronted with an angry husband, the angriest in the world, and, above all, the futility of such a course of action on the very eve of my departure.’

Later that day, Bougainville takes a final walk along Mrs Macquarie’s Road, a pleasant pastime which he has grown accustomed to doing every evening. He is informed by one of his second lieutenants that Mrs Ritchie has been seen doing the same that morning, but in the company of her husband. The baron says: ‘There can be no doubt as to her motives’.

Bougainville finally leaves Sydney on Wednesday 21 September, fare-welled by a 21-gun salute as he sails past Captain Piper’s residence. His heart is heavy and he is feeling the pain of unrequited love, but he can still acknowledge ‘the joy of loving and of being loved! …

‘Farewell, happy days spent under the spell of mutual love! Alas, how fleeting you were! And how painful are the days that follow a parting that is bound to last for ever!’

Little did Bougainville know that Mr Ritchie was destined to die less than 12 months after his departure, and that his beloved would not re-marry for nine years.

Hyacinthe was destined to lead a productive life back in France, but never to marry. Harriett became one of the most influential women in Sydney after she re-married to a man who became Chief Justice of the colony. When he was knighted, she joined the ranks of nobility, a realm she might have entered sooner if things had gone differently 14 years before.

The Governor’s Noble Guest - Hyacinthe de Bougainville’s account of Port Jackson 1825, translated and edited by Marc Serge Rivière, and published by The Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University Press), Carlton South, Victoria in 1999.

© Pamela Mawbey 2009