Napoleonic ‘treasure’ unearthed in Tasmanian bookshop

Co-owners of the Cracked and Spineless bookshop, Richard Sprent (left) and Mike Gray, with the journal, standing inside the shopImage copyright
Paul Carter

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Co-owners of the Cracked and Spineless bookshop, Richard Sprent (left) and Mike Gray, with the journal

A handwritten journal found buried in an Australian bookshop is believed to be a prominent soldier’s diary from the Napoleonic wars, writes Paul Carter.

Royal Engineer John Squire was an officer who fought for the British army in the Napoleonic era, but his interests extended far beyond the battlefield.

Sophisticated and possessing a talent for writing, he served in theatres of war around the world and was prominent enough to be mentioned in diplomatic dispatches.

Lt Col Squire was a worldly man, with an interest in history and antiquities. So it’s fitting that his writings are now causing great excitement on the other side of the planet, in the colony he’d have known as Van Diemen’s Land.

At the back of a second-hand book store, at the back of a Hobart arcade, at the back of the world in Tasmania, it appears that one of Squire’s journals has been discovered.

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Paul Carter

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The journal’s author wrote about culture, history, geography and soldiering

The new owners of the Cracked and Spineless bookshop discovered the journal in a pile of old books tucked away in a cupboard.

It details the English-Portuguese army’s second siege of the Spanish city of Badajoz, which took place in May and June 1811, during the Napoleonic Wars.

The bookshop’s co-owner, Mike Gray, said the journal was discovered a couple of weeks ago.

“The previous owner collected hundreds of thousands of books,” Mr Gray said.

“Some of them were in a cupboard so I sent in someone interested in old books to see if they could find anything.

“They brought out the journal and I thought ‘yeah, maybe about $20, but I’ll check it’.

Mr Gray said the journal could have been in the shop for 20 years, but no-one knew how it arrived. A working theory is that it arrived with the colonists who established Van Diemen’s Land.

‘A treasure’

Squire died of fever in 1812, soon after the third and successful British siege of Badajoz, which comprised part of the Peninsular War during the Napoleonic era.

Some of his letters survive at the British Library. His journals and essays ranged in content from the technical aspects of war to his involvement with antiquities.

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Paul Carter

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The journal is mostly focused on the technical aspects of the siege, rather than the broader context surrounding it

These works and his supporting role in some of history’s great moments have made Squire a moderately well-known figure among scholars who study the era.

Gavin Daly, an expert in the Peninsular War at the University of Tasmania, said he believed the journal was a genuine “treasure”.

A handwriting match could be made with Squire’s letters kept at the British Library, he said.

Dr Daly said Squire was mentioned twice in dispatches by the Duke of Wellington.

“Squire pops up in Egypt in 1801 when the French surrendered Alexandria. He was in South America in 1807. He was in Sweden in 1808. He was in the Netherlands at various stages and ended up in the peninsula,” Dr Daly said.

Officer and gentleman

“He’s not just an interesting figure as an engineer but he’s also important because he had broad interests in history, geography and antiquities.

“He was present when the Rosetta Stone was given to the British. He writes a paper on Roman antiquities in Egypt, and he accompanies William Richard Hamilton east and is involved in bringing some of the Elgin Marbles to Britain.

“When he died in the peninsula in 1812 of fever, not long after the third and final siege of Badajoz, there was a considerable lamenting of his life.

“He’d been rapidly promoted … but there was also this sense that he was the archetypal gentleman officer, who mixed in broad intellectual circles. He had a broad curiosity about the world.”

Dr Daly said the journal was focused on many of the technical aspects of the siege.

“There’s not a lot in the journal about broader reflections about the nature of the war or the nature of the campaign,” Dr Daly said.

“What comes through though is someone who is very much focused on being as good an officer as he can – he says his foremost obligation being an officer is to do his duty.

“This is a very professional soldier.”

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