My favourite place: Western Australia

In the May 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine, Guy de la Bédoyère selects Western Australia, as his favourite place. History Extra caught up with him to find out more...

Fremantle's High Street, with 19th-century buildings.

When did you last travel to Western Australia and why were you there?

February 2018. To see some of the many friends we’ve made here, enjoy the fabulous coast, visit the Shipwrecks Museum (again!) and to lecture in various places like Esperance and Perth on topics like Roman Britain (another period when an imperial power impacted on an indigenous culture so it has a real resonance in Australia), and the amazing fact that the Batavia was carrying a late Roman cameo of Constantine which had been the property of Peter Paul Rubens. It’s survived and is on display in Holland.

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Why do you love the location?

The coastal scenery is magnificent but also in many areas terrifying. I am totally captivated by the thought of the Dutch ships being wrecked here. The Zuytdorp ran into the cliffs several hundred miles north of Perth in 1712. None of the crew was ever seen again and the ship wasn’t even found till the 1960s. But I am also fascinated by the people who settled here in the 1800s and carved out a life so far from home. And I’m afraid I can never get bored of the sight of kangaroos and emus in the wild. They sum up the weirdness of this place.

What top 3 sights would you recommend people visit there, and why?

The Fremantle Shipwrecks Museum is an absolute must because it has so many dramatic and unexpected stories to tell about Australia’s earliest Europeans. I greatly enjoy the Perth Mint just because it’s quite remarkable to see so much gold. And then there’s Sugarloaf Rock, close to Cape Naturaliste near Margaret River south of Perth. It’s truly dramatic rocky outcrop just off the coast and nearby are beaches beyond belief.

During what period of its history would you most wanted to have visited Western Australia and why?

That’s really difficult. On one hand I’d have loved to be aboard William Dampier’s ship in the 1690s when he landed in northwest Western Australia and recorded what he saw only to sail away ad leave us with his tantalising descriptions of a voyage to ‘New Holland’ as Australia was known then. On the other I’d love to visit the Perth and Fremantle area in the late nineteenth century when they were both gradually turning into thriving and durable settlements and meet the people working to do that. Many members of my mother’s family emigrated to Australia so it’s always been in the background for me.

Where else in the world would you most like to visit?

I’m really looking forward to travelling around New Zealand. I’ve heard so much about it, but I have always also been fascinated by Captain Jame Cook’s achievements as a mariner and cartographer. His maps of New Zealand lasted for generations. I expect that New Zealand looks much now as it did when he came here three times between 1769 and 1777. I can’t wait.

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Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and writer. His new book, Domina, on the empresses of Rome, is published by Yale University Press in September