‘After delivering my message to him, he [La Perouse] returned his thanks to Governor Phillip, and made similar offers to those he had received’. Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, First Fleet Journal, February 1788

Arthur Phillip and Jean-Francois La Perouse never met. On opposing sides in peace and war yet as seafarers they shared a strong bond.

Phillip knew a great deal about La Perouse and it is impossible to believe he did not admire the gallant Frenchman who had a deserved reputation for compassion.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The ‘First Fleet’, a large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships with a complement upwards of 1500 souls commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from Portsmouth England at first light on May 13th 1787.

An expeditionary force fully funded by government all males, marine and convict, ‘fed as troops serving in the West Indies’ sailed under guise of a ‘convict transportation fleet’, bound for Botany Bay to invade the island continent of New Holland, now Australia.

1788 – 18 to 20 January, Botany Bay: Within 36 hours between 18 and 20 January 1788 the English fleet found safe anchorage in Botany Bay.

Captain Phillip assessed there was insufficient water to support permanent settlement for such a large number and the bay’s wide open face bay would, if push came to shove, prove difficult to defend. See: A Riddle – When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When it’s the First Fleet  

1788 – 21/22 January: Port Jackson:  In three (3) small open cutters Phillip, in company with officers and men, set off to explore the surrounding country-side.

Nine (9) miles (14km) to the north of Botany Bay they came upon Pork Jackson and, in Phillip’s opinion ‘the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of line may ride in the most security’.

Importantly they found a stream of fresh running water in a cove deep with the port where; ‘ships can anchor so close to the shore, that at a very small expense, quays may be made at which the largest ships may unload’. Historical Records of New South Wales 

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: Phillip and the exploring party returned to Botany Bay with great news – the ‘First Fleet’ had found a home and, as it turned out, just in time.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay:  L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, two (2) French ships commanded by Captain Jean-Francois La Perouse, stood off the entrance to Botany Bay but strong winds and churning seas forced them south to shelter at Point Sutherland.

Phillip, knew these two (2) ships. He had in August 1785 watched from the shadows as La Perouse led his charges through huge rolling waves out of Brest Harbour into the open sea at the beginning of a ’round-the-world expedition’ that included the South Pacific and New Holland.

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Phillip, before he quit the initial invasion point in HMS Supply ; ‘ordered a party to be sent to Point Sutherland to hoist English colours. He also stipulated that the move to Port Jackson be kept secret, and that no one was to go on board the French ships.

Meanwhile the rest of the fleet remained at Botany Bay with Phillip’s order to [Captain] Hunter aboard Sirius to bring all to Port Jackson as soon as the seas permitted’. John Moore, First Fleet Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

1788 – January 25, Sydney Cove: Just on nightfall – 7 pm – HMS Supply anchored in the deep water cove Phillip had named  Sydney Cove.

1788 – January 26, Sydney Cove:  At daylight on the 26th Captain Phillip and those aboard disembarked from Supply‘a flagstaff was erected to its [Tank Stream’s] east from which the Union Jack was flown’. Moore. op.cit. 

1788 – 26 January,Sydney Cove:  All eleven (11) First Fleet vessels successfully negotiated a dangerous exit and, although three (3) ships came into collision suffering significant damage, all were safely at anchor in Sydney Cove by late evening – 6pm – on the 26th of January 1788.

1788 – 26 January, Botany Bay: Captain Hunter in HMS Sirius was last to leave. When seas abated sufficiently he aided La Perouse lead his ships to safe anchorage in an area of Botany Bay known now as Frenchmens Bay.

The supply position of the ‘First Fleet’, after eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’, was dire. Almost immediately Captain, now Governor Arthur Phillip, was forced to reduce the ration issue.

As Golden Grove, Fishburn and Borrowdale, the fleet’s stores-ships were unloaded, an inventory confirmed Phillip’s worst fears; reserves of food-stuffs were grossly inadequate both in quality and quantity and in no way sufficient to support such a large number for more than a short period. See: Abandoned – Left To Starve.

‘Before Phillip left Botany Bay he ordered messages painted on the rocks of Bare Island near where the Fleet had moored, to guide the ships which Phillip believed were following closely from England. This painted message was later replaced by a wooden notice erected on the island’. Bruce Mitchell, The Australian Story and Its Background, 1965. 

Phillip’s responsibility – survival of 1500 Englishmen – was absolute, leaving no room for generosity. But who can doubt Phillip’s concern for the welfare of La Perouse and his men?

1788 – 1 February, Botany Bay: Phillip sent his trusted friend Lieutenant Gidley King RN with marine Lieutenant William Dawes, the fleet’s senior scientific officer, around to Botany Bay with a wish-list of support for the French.

La Perouse, well aware of Phillip’s parlous supply position, reciprocated in like manner. King’s journal records a touching charade; ‘he [La Perouse] returned his thanks to Governor Phillip, and made similar offers to those he had received’ .

English and French honour satisfied, Dawes and King accepted ‘Mousieiur La Peyrouse’s invitation to pass the day with him’. Dawes and King dined aboard La Boussole and the next day were rowed back to Sydney.

…his [Arthur Phillip’s] failure to invite the French commander there [Port Jackson – Sydney] reflect some fear that he [Phillip] might be known as a spy’. Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip 1738-1814, His Voyaging, Melbourne University Press, 1987


France had dominated Arthur Phillip’s working life long before January 1788. Arthur Phillip was tailor-made for spying, son of an English mother and German father – a language teacher – Phillip was fluent in French, German, Dutch, later Spanish and Portuguese.

1769 – England:  Phillip married in 1763 and divorced in 1769. Soon afterwards he was recruited into Britain’s Secret Service. His appearance and linguistic skills made him the perfect ‘spook’.

1773 – France: Phillip spent 1773 spying in France reporting his observations to the Admiralty. See: Arthur Phillip -The Spy Who Never Came In From The Cold. 

1774 – Portugal: The Admiralty seconded Phillip to serve in the Portuguese Navy.

1775 -1778, Brazil: He spent from 1775 to 1778 in Brazil lending his naval expertise to the Portuguese Government, all the while he kept busy observing’ for his masters in London.

1775 – April, Lexington:  War of American Independence (1775-1783); England went to war with America’s Patriot rebel colonists in 1775. See: A Tale of Two Cities: Quebec 1759 – Sydney 1788

1779, England: Phillip’s many requests to rejoin the Royal Navy were finally met in 1779 and ended the American War as commander of HMS Europe

1783, September, Paris: The American War ended formally with signing of the Treaty of Versailles (Paris) in September 1783. Under its terms Britain lost her thirteen (13) colonies – North and South Carolina, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and her off-shore prison.

1783, England: Evan Nepean, protègè of arch intriguer William Petty, Marquis of Lansdowne, was permanent under-secretary to Lord Sydney, the then Home Secretary.

1784, May, England: Peace-time, Phillip found himself once again a naval reservist on half-pay and resumed working for the Secret Service in 1784.

His salary was paid through the office of Evan Nepean, a former naval officer turned politician and long-time friend of Arthur Phillip. See: Arthur – The Importance of Being Arthur (to Come)

1785 – January, France: Phillip spent the whole of 1785;  ‘on holiday…surveying, making observations of French ports’. His arrival in Toulon coincided with the appointment of  Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse to lead an ambitious French maritime expedition.

Instigated by King Louis XVI for the glory and advancement of France, the expedition had the support of Antoine de Bougainville the celebrated maritime explorer, the first Frenchmen to circumnavigate the globe.

A mathematician of note Bougainville was a member of Britain’s Royal Society. The La Perouse expedition, like those of Captain James Cook it sought to emulate, projected to take three (3) years had New Holland and the South Pacific in the mix.

1785, 1 August, Brest: Phillip may well have watched from the shadows as the expedition’s two (2) ships  L’Astrolabe and La Boussole worked a very difficult passage from Brest Harbour on what would prove to be a fateful voyage.

1788, 24 January, Botany Bay: L’ Astrolabe with Captain Clonard at the helm and La Perouse in La Boussole arrived off Botany Bay at dawn on 24th of January 1788. Botany Bay’s wide open mouth and, notorious cross-currents whipped up by strong winds, forced the French south to shelter at Sutherland.

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Leaving orders for the fleet to follow Phillip quit Botany Bay at dawn under cover of fog. He made for Sydney Cove situated deep within Port Jackson where a spring of fresh water found two (2) days previous, made it a more suitable site for permanent settlement. Supply made it just before dark – at 7 pm – she dropped anchor.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Despite conditions that nearly cost lives and ships, three (3) swung across each other shearing off jib-booms and causing other structural damage, nevertheless all fleet vessels were at anchor in Sydney Cove by 6 pm.

HMS Sirius was last to leave. The French were in poor physical shape and Captain John Hunter stayed to assist La Perouse bring his ships to anchor off Bare Island.   

The French were very wary of local Aborigines and, on one (1) occasion, fired on them. French apprehension stemmed from a fatal incident played out six (6) weeks earlier (11 December 1787) at Samoa part of the Navigator Islands.

About sixty (60) crew landed on the beach to fill the ships’ water barrels. They were set upon by a band of Samoans armed with clubs and stones Twelve (12) were killed among them Vicounte de Langle captain of Astrolabe. Several wounded died later among them Pere Laurent Receveur the expedition’s chaplain.

Father Recevuer, a noted naturalist, died at Botany Bay on 17 February 1788 where a monument marks his resting place. Each year a ceremony commemorates the French presence on the south eastern coast of mainland Australia.

In Daceyville a nearby Sydney suburb, spacious park lands and street names are permanent reminders of La Perouse and his men who suffered so much.

A year earlier (1786) at Lituya Bay La Perouse lost twenty-one (21) men to hypothermia. While hunting fur-seals, two (2)  landing craft overturned tipping them into icy Arctic waters.

At Botany Bay La Perouse erected a protective stockade and behind it torn sails, broken spars and masts were repaired and two (2) launches constructed to replace those lost at Lituya.

The French like the English were extremely short of food, similarly their health was compromised. A miracle would be needed to see these distressed sailors – weakened by dysentery and bloated with scurvy – home safely.

1788 – 10 March, Botany Bay: La Perouse sailed for France on 10 March 1788. There was no miracle LAstrolabe and La Boussole were not seen again.  


2018 – 18 February, Botany Bay: ‘The Annual Receveur Mass, hosted by St Andrews, Malabar, will be held outside the La Perouse Museum commencing at 11am, 18th February 2018’. httpd://laperouseheadland.com/2017/12/18/receveur-mass-18-feb

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