From Den Helder to Australia –
A Napoleonic Connection

By Marijke Eysbertse


William Buckley, who was born in England in 1780, would become famous in Australia’s early colonial history as the first white man to live for 32 years amongst the Aborigines. Apart from his fame in Australia, there is an interesting connection between Buckley and Napoleon. In August 1799 Buckley landed in Den Helder as a footman in the Duke of York’s Own Regiment to fight against the French Napoleonic troops under the command of General Guillaume Brune and the Batavian troops under General Herman Daendels.

When 19-year old Buckley, who worked as an apprentice bricklayer, discovered he was to receive ten guineas for joining an overseas campaign to Holland, he was keen to enlist. The assembly of the troops took place on Barnham Downs and preparations were soon under way for the Den Helder expedition. The British thought the time was right for an invasion of Holland to reinstate Stadtholder William the Fifth, who was in exile in London, as head of the Batavian Republic.

The British fleet landed close to Den Helder, which in 1799 was a small fishing village. Initially, the invasion was successful, but the battle of Castricum – in later times often referred to as a mini-Waterloo - was disastrous, with many casualties. The Duke of York retreated to Den Helder and French General Brune allowed them to do so without too much interference.

Back in England, Buckley was apprehended stealing a bolt of cloth and deported to Australia as a convict in 1803. The aim of this expedition was to establish a British settlement in the South of Australia before the French, who had explored and named French island nearby, would claim this part of Australia. Buckley, whose only desire was to live as a free man, managed to escape and went into hiding in the dense bush land. When a group of Aborigines, belonging to the Wathaurung tribe, saw the giant man with a long beard, they thought he was the spirit of a long departed warrior and took him into their clan. 32 years later, Buckley walked into a camp site of the white settlers. Initially, they did not believe he was the escaped convict and that he had been able to survive the harsh conditions of the Australian bush. 

That’s how the saying ‘Buckley’s Hope’ entered the Australian vernacular, meaning ‘that he had not a hope in the world’ of escaping his fate. The same could be said about Napoleon’s fate on St.Helena or that of his faithful Dutch general Dirk van Hogendorp, who lived in self-imposed exile on a coffee plantation in Rio de Janeiro after the battle of Waterloo.

Whilst his younger brother Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp became a renowned statesman under King William of Orange, Dirk chose the side of Napoleon to the bitter end. Napoleon and van Hogendorp received many visitors at their isolated locations. In the Dutch National Archives I found a moving handwritten account by Herr von Leitholz of his visit to van Hogendorp in his farmhouse on the Corcovado Mountain near Rio de Janeiro. For many years my husband Dirk and I have travelled in the footsteps of Napoleon. In Rio we visited a school on the site, where van Hogendorp’s farmhouse used to be. The school, called ‘Novo Sion’ after van Hogendorp’s farm, is now part of suburban Rio. Only the garden gives you a sense of the abundant nature that once surrounded ‘Novo Sion’. Van Hogendorp died one year after Napoleon. There are persistent rumours that he thought of ways to help Napoleon escape from St.Helena. But for both of them it was a case of ‘Buckley’s Hope’.

Marijke Eysbertse



Marijke Eysbertse studied French at Leiden University. She worked as a secretary and librarian at the Kern Institute of Leiden University and as an airhostess with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Since 1993, Marijke has been living half the year in Mt.Martha, Australia and the other half in The Hague, the Netherlands, facilitating her historical research on both sides of the globe for her many projects.

In Australia, a Diploma of Professional Writing and a NAATI Degree in Interpreting and Translating Dutch/English and vice versa lead to a career in writing. Her latest play From Roses to Poison, Napoleon and the Australian Connection was staged in the theatre room at The Briars homestead in Mt.Martha in 2009 and will be performed by the Melbourne French Theatre Company in 2013. Marijke and her husband Dirk are guides at the Napoleonic Museum at The Briars in Mt.Martha, Victoria, Australia.