Sentis, Louis (1802–1884)

Louis Sentis was Consul for France in Sydney from 1852 to 1872, a record term for any French consular or diplomatic representative in Australia. He succeeded Jean Faramond (Consul in Sydney from 1842 to 1852), the first appointee to a post created by King Louis-Philippe in 1839. Sentis was appointed under the Second Republic, served the Second Empire for most of his stay in Sydney and represented the Third Republic towards the end of his term, three different regimes, another record.

Louis François Sentis was born in Paris, on 22 February 1802, the son of François Sentis and Angélique Maillot. The Sentis family originally came from the Département du Gers in the South West of France. From at least the early 18th century the Sentis were tailors and belonged to the appropriate corporations, with Toulouse as their main area of trade. In 1806 Louis’s father opened a tailoring establishment in Paris at 5 rue Vivienne. He and his wife Angélique also acquired a small house in Rue Singer, Passy, then a village on the outskirts of Paris. Their other base was Briançon, in the Alps, where Louis’s brother Eugène, an engineer, married into the Bouchié (or Bouchier) family.

Having entrusted the business to two of his sons, Louis and Alphonse, François Sentis died in 1841. However, before the end of the decade Louis had switched to diplomacy and Alphonse’s interest moved to the cognate commerce of fabrics.

According to family legend (Michael J. Sentis, Nom : Sentis — Profession : Tailleur, Paris, 2008) Adolphe Thiers, one of the Sentis establishment’s most loyal clients, had a large unpaid account with them, and in lieu of payment he offered a consular appointment to Louis in the Australian colonies. This is how Louis Sentis is said to have been appointed French Consul in Sydney in 1851.

Although not without piquancy, this legend does not survive the test of historical truth. As early as 23 April 1848 Louis Sentis was appointed Agent vice-consulaire at the Cape of Good Hope, at a time when Thiers was neither in power nor even in an elected position. Louis was then made Consul 2ème classe in Valencia in Spain, and in 1849 he was appointed to Pernambuco in Brazil, his last posting before Sydney.

The Pernambuco appointment had tragic consequences for the Sentis family. Louis lost his wife Adélaïde (née Dupré, married 1830) to an attack of yellow fever. He would not remarry, and in Australia his eldest daughter Ernestine often acted for him as his hostess.

Louis and Adélaïde had four children: Louis Jules (1835–1857) who died of heart failure at the age of twenty-two, as a consequence of a horse carriage accident while visiting friends at a country property near Goulburn in New South Wales, Ernestine Désirée (1832–1913), Marie Caroline (18411920), a talented amateur singer, and Philippe Louis Paul (1843–1925), naval officer, who does not seem to have accompanied his father to Australia.

The Sydney appointment as Consul 1ère classe was confirmed on 13 August 1851, a few months before the coup d’État of 2 December 1851 that led to the proclamation of the Second Empire. Sydney had been Louis Sentis’ own choice from the outset and throughout his term he re-asserted his wish to stay in a posting where, thanks to his excellent knowledge of Australian affairs and his good relationships and friendship with locals, he was able to serve the interests of his country better than anywhere else. However, much to his chagrin, promotion to Consul General escaped him while in Sydney, and was only granted to him on his appointment to Calcutta in 1872. Short of promotion to Consul General, Louis Sentis was appointed Chevalier in the order of the Légion d’honneur in August 1859, and promoted Officier in August 1870.

India does not seem to have agreed with him. After less than two years as Consul General in Calcutta, Louis Sentis, then aged seventy-two, retired from the consular service and returned to France. Another two years later, in February 1876, he was a candidate (although unsuccessful) in the legislative elections in the Briançon district. He died in 1884 and was buried in the Passy cemetery.

Louis Sentis’ twenty-year term in Sydney had many different and often conflicting highlights:  three such major events include the takeover of New Caledonia by the French in 1853 which produced a great deal of continuing hostility in Australia, the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856 which brought France and the Australian colonies together, and the Franco-Prussian war followed by the Commune in 1870–1871, a tragedy which mostly attracted pro-French sympathies in Australia.

However, it could be argued that Louis Sentis’ term in Sydney was dominated by the economy and the growth of modern capitalism. Trade and industry, which played a crucial part in the development of New South Wales, occupied a great deal of the Consul’s time and attention. Simultaneously money matters were a constant personal preoccupation during his years in Sydney.

The major event in Australian life at the time of Sentis’ arrival was the beginning of the gold rush, following the discovery of massive deposits of gold in 1851. The gold rush had a direct effect on exchange rates, and the Consul promptly discovered that his remuneration no longer had the purchasing power it was meant to provide. As early as 6 September 1852 he wrote to Théodore de Lesseps, his supervisor at the Quay d’Orsay, to explain his predicament and express the hope that his emolument would be adjusted. He added, prophetically, that he had no head for business in order to supplement his income and, in any case, business was forbidden (‘Je n’ai pas la ressource des affaires : d’abord elles nous sont interdites, et puis je n’y suis pas propre.’ Letter to Théodore de Lesseps, Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, 6 September 1852.) As it happens, his whole career in Sydney was devoted to demonstrating the opposite.

Very early in his term he associated with the French businessman Didier Joubert, a developer, who, with his brother Jules, founded the new suburb of Hunters Hill. With Louis Sentis’ help Hunters Hill soon became known as the French quarter of Sydney: located on a narrow peninsula between the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers, it prided itself on offering waterside allotments at a reasonable distance by ferry from Sydney Town. Didier Joubert and Louis Sentis anticipated Sydneysiders’ obsession with water views.

Early during Sentis’ term in Sydney they conceived the idea of building a grand residence for the Consul on the highest point of the peninsula. Sentis named it ‘Passy‘, after the location of his parents’ much more modest home in the Paris suburb by that name, and the Hunters Hill street which it graced was baptised ‘Passy Street’, a name it still carries. ‘Passy’ has remained to this day one of the best known heritage mansions in Australia, and whenever it is put on the market or is featured in the press for whatever reason (such as the legal difficulties of its current owner, former politician Eddie Obeid), it is associated with the French Consul, often quoted by name, even though he was in occupation for only a little over three years. The first press reference to the finished mansion occurred in July 1855, but in the second half of 1858 he was already foreshadowing his intention of letting ‘Passy’. It was eventually sold in April 1860 —for £4,100.

The prestige of the French Consul and his ‘splendid residence’ was used by Didier Joubert not only to build up the value of ‘Passy’ itself but also, referring to its proximity, to promote the sale of two neighbouring villas in 1855 and twenty building sites in 1858, after which it could be vacated. The developer’s masterly campaign also featured a fashionable Hunters Hill Regatta on the Parramatta River on New Year’s Day1858, associated with ‘the dwellings of several French residents, the mansion of the French Consul M. Sentis being conspicuous on the top, with the tricolour flag waving from a staff high above the roof‘. (Sydney Morning Herald, 2.1.1858.)

The Consul also invented another original means of supplementing his income, namely auctioning the contents of his residence each time he went on leave. Contents included imported furniture, works of art, musical instruments, books, cutlery, glassware, French wines, as well as carriages, horses, etc. Such auctions of contents were held from ‘Passy‘ in Hunters Hill in 1859, from Princes Street in 1862, from Woodstock Hall in Paddington in 1867 and from Victoria Street in 1872, the year he actually left the colony. The lists of items for sale, including the book lists, are valuable social documents in their own right.

Louis Sentis also established close links with the Knox family, becoming a shareholder in their ‘Colonial Sugar Refining Company’, as well as a shareholder and a Provisional Director in the ‘Consumers’ Gas and Oil Company’. He did not divest himself of these investments when he left Australia, and his daughters, residents of Passy in France, inherited his Australian assets. On the eve of the First World War, at the time of Ernestine’s death, these (mostly shares in CSR) were worth £26,421 in 1913 currency.

Louis Sentis’ early integration in the Australian scene was also expressed in his active, and dramatic, participation in the affairs of the local Catholic church. In March 1859, as a result of his initiating and then supporting a revolt of Catholic laymen against the hierarchy, in opposition to the Right Rev. Abbot Gregory’s decision to appoint a Protestant medical man to the Board of the Parramatta Roman Catholic Orphan School, the Consul was served a notice of excommunication. Eventually the revolt petered out and the threat was not realised.

The official duties of the Consul were onerous. Sydney was an exceptionally busy port during his term, not the least because of its strategic position in relation to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, especially New Caledonia, annexed by France soon after Louis Sentis’ arrival in Australia. Most of these duties were mundane and uncontroversial, such as attending to the needs of French naval and commercial vessels passing through Sydney, but they occasionally led to disputes. In 1854, local French merchant Henri Noufflard lodged a strongly worded complaint against the Consul, accusing him of giving unfair preference to Didier Joubert over his interests, when recommending contracts for the purchase of provisions and supplies.

A more serious incident in 1857 only indirectly involved the Consul, but it was a source of acute embarrassment for the French colonial authorities. Sutton, a ship owned by Sydney-based French interests, recruited sixty-five to sixty-seven South Sea islanders and delivered them as labourers to the French Indian Ocean colony of Reunion Island, previously known as Bourbon, possibly without their fully understanding the implications or the duration of their contract (five years). Bourbon had experienced a severe labour shortage as a consequence of the 1848 emancipation of slaves. Sutton’s agents claimed that the arrangement was consistent with French legislation but the Consul was not prepared to intervene or commit himself in the matter. However, his name was constantly quoted in Australian press reports of the Sutton Affair, even though he carried no responsibility for it. Rightly or wrongly, probably rightly, public opinion saw the incident as an instance of kidnapping of unsuspecting ‘natives’. (Karin Speedy, ‘The Sutton Case: The First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding’, The Journal of Pacific History, vol. 50, no 3, pp. 344–364.)

Louis Sentis handled these sensitive matters with some skill. He often had to protect the interests of visiting French nationals whose behaviour was less than impeccable, and such situations sorely tested his diplomacy. One such instance was the 1856 ‘Balloon Affair’ when a travelling adventurer by the name of Maigre claimed he would ascend in a balloon in Sydney’s Domain, an entertainment for which he charged good money, even though it took place on public land. When the ascent failed, the crowd became enraged, and in the ensuing tussle a boy lost his life (The Empire, 23 December 1856), a challenging situation to manage for the Consul representing the unscrupulous visitor.

Increasingly Louis Sentis saw himself as a mediator between his home country and the host country. This was particularly noticeable when commercial tariffs were negotiated: the Consul tended to favour free trade, and he argued for concessions in French tariffs on Australian wool and Australian tariffs on French wines and luxury items.

During the second half of his term he occasionally identified himself with an Australian view of the world. At a banquet given on 28 December 1864 in honour of James Macarthur on the occasion of his return from England, in an improvised speech the Consul was reported as saying: ‘with reference to the French colonies in the Pacific […] he [M. Sentis] must say that the French were far behind the English in regard to colonisation, and ought to take a lesson from them. He hopes before long to see the scales of justice take the place of the sword in the Government of France’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 30.12.1872). The next day the paper published an erratum, replacing ‘the Government of France’ with ‘the Government of all the French colonies’). The Consul’s daughters, Ernestine and Marie, acting as his political advisers, immediately sounded the alarm: they suggested that without delay he write to the Emperor and apologise for what was an unforgivable political error. A few weeks later the Governor of New Caledonia, having gained access to the Consul’s speech, sent to Paris a strongly argued attack on Louis Sentis. We will never know whether Sentis used his Paris contacts, such as his brother Eugène, to mount his defence, but the fact is that contrary to his daughters’ fears he was not recalled.

The Consul made many friends in Sydney society. When after twenty years in Australia the time came for the Sentis family to go, he was fêted at an impressive farewell function held on 5 February 1872, most appropriately held in the Merchants’ Dining Room adjacent to the Great Hall of the Exchange Buildings. If Louis Sentis was to depart physically, he would leave his investments behind.

According to the chairman of the Testimonial Meeting, ‘whilst he had always most ably discharged his official duties, he had so completely identified himself with the interests of this colony, that if any blame could possibly be attached to him, it would be that he had been more Australian than French’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 6.2.1872). Three weeks later, on 27 February, the ‘P&O Company’s steamer left her moorings precisely at 11 a.m. […], and on her passage down the harbour she was accompanied by the steam yacht Depeche, having on board a number of the friends of Mons. Sentis, the late French Consul’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 28.2.1872).

Image: Photograph by Freeman late Oswald Allen Studio, Sydney
Author: Ivan Barko, Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney, December 2019
Note: Special thanks are due to Sibylle Duhautois, French historian who, acting as a research assistant to ISFAR, produced most of the French sources used for this entry.

Sentis,Louis, Personal File, La Courneuve, Archives du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 1852­–1872.
Keywords: Louis Sentis, Second Empire, goldrush, Hunters Hill, auctions of contents, investment in shares.