‘All was set in the mid-eighteenth century scene, the contest between Great Britain and the Bourbon powers…different branches of the family of Louis XVI…for sea supremacy and oceanic empire, which was the background of the life of every sailor of Cook’s Age’. J.A Williamson, Cook and the Opening of the Pacific, Hodder & Stoughton , London 1946

1785 and the race for New Holland was on. Britain having just lost the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the thirteen (13) colonies that made up her ’empire in the west’ had missed the jump in the race to establish ‘sea supremacy’ in the Indian and Southern Oceans.

Brest – 1785, August 1:In 1785 Louis XVI quietly sent the  Comte de la Perouse with two ships La Boussole & L’Astrolabe to survey likely spots for French settlements. Aboard were copper plates engraved with the royal arms to be used as permanent notification of French ownership’. Michael Cannon, Australian Discovery and Exploration, 1987

Portsmouth – 1787, May 13: The ‘First Fleet, a large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships with a complement of upwards of 1500 souls, one-half convicted criminals ‘rationed as troops serving in the West Indies‘, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from England on 13th May 1787 to invade the island continent of New Holland, now Australia.

Fully funded by government the ‘First Fleet’ was an invasion fleet; ‘but not a hint of it shall ever transpire’. Anon, Historical Records of New South Wales

Botany Bay –  January 18/20:  Within thirty-six (36) hours, after eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’, the English convoy found safe anchorage in Botany Bay between 18 to 20 January 1788.

21 January: Next day Phillip with Captain  Hunter RN and other officers and marines set off in three (3) smalls ship’s boat to search for what in 1770 Captain Cook had named  ‘Port Jackson’.

Nine (9) miles (14 km) north of Botany Bay they found and entered its towering headlands into a magnificent harbour of it Phillip wrote ‘here a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security’.

Sydney Cove: ‘Four (4) miles’ within, from a myriad bays and inlets, Phillip settled on a ‘snug’ cove naming it after Lord Sydney.

23 January – Botany Bay: ‘The boats returned on the evening of the 23rd…it was determined the evacuation of Botany Bay should commence next morning’. Tench. ibid

24 January:  But ‘next morning ….suprize…at first I only laughed’ two (2) French ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe,  under command of Jean-Francois La Perouse stood off the entrance to Botany Bay.

Contrary winds,churning seas and the Sirius’ menacing cannon, forced the French ships to seek shelter at Point Sutherland.

‘Consternation’ Captain Phillip had not raised ‘English Colours’ at Port Jackson. He needed to return there but was hampered by the bad weather.

25 January:   Not until after mid-day on 25th was he able to quit Botany Bay aboard HMS Supply arriving just on nightfall.

26 January – Sydney Cove:   At first light Phillip, his officers and marines landed.  A flag-staff was erected, the Union Jack of Queen hoisted and Governor Phillip proclaimed Britain’s victory over France.  See Australia – Britain By a Short Half-Head

Treacherous weather held up the English fleet’s departure from Botany Bay until the afternoon of the 26th when the fleet managed a dramatic exit and made for Sydney Cove.

Sudden wind ships and cross-currents very nearly cost lives and ships. Three (3) Charlotte, Friendship, Prince of Wales swung across each other and  came near to crashing onto rocks.

HMS Sirius was last of the fleet to leave. Captain John Hunter RN stayed to guide L’Astrolabe and La Boussole to safe anchorage in Botany Bay at a spot known today as Frenchmens Bay.

 By 6 pm on the evening of the 26th all English ships lay at anchor alongside HMS Supply.

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

La Perouse and Captain Arthur Phillip RN never met. On opposing sides in war and peace yet as men of the sea they shared a strong bond.

However Phillip knew a great deal about Comte Jean Francois La Pèrouse. It is impossible to believe he did not admire the gallant Frenchman who had earned a reputation for compassion.

The supply position of the ‘First Fleet’ was dire. Almost immediately Phillip was forced to reduce the ration issue. His responsibility – survival of 1500 Englishmen – was absolute, it left no room for generosity, but who could doubt Phillip’s deep concern for La Pèrouse and his men?

1788 – 1 February, Botany Bay: Governor Phillip sent Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN his trusted friend together with Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, the fleet’s chief scientific officer, across to Botany Bay with a wish-list of support for the Frenchmen. See: William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame

‘They [English] offered…every assistance he [Hunter] could give, adding however that circumstances allowed them to give us neither food nor ammunition nor sail. And since they were on the point of weighing anchor to go further to [Sydney Cove] their kind remarks amounted merely to good wishes for the ultimate success of our voyage’. John Dunmore, The Life of Jean-Francois de La Perouse, Where Fate Beckons, 2006

La Perouse already knew via Captain Hunter of Phillip’s parlous supply position and reciprocated in like manner.

Lieutenant King’s journal of February 1788 records a touching charade; ‘After delivering my message to him, he [La Pèrouse] returned his thanks to Governor Phillip, and made similar offers to those he had received’. Cited, Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip 1738-1814 His Voyaging, Melbourne University Press

French and English honour satisfied King and Dawes stayed on Boussole. Over dinner and long into the night La Perouse related the highs and lows of a wide-ranging, exciting but difficult voyage.


In 1785 Louis XVI quietly sent the Comte de la Perouse with two ships La Boussole & L’Astrolabe to survey likely spots for French settlements. Cannon. ibid.

1785 – 1 August, France: Come Jean-Francois La Perouse in La Boussole and Paul-Antoine Fleuriot, Viscount de Langle at the helm of L’Astrolabe worked a difficult exit from Brest Harbour.

1786 – June, Alaska:  While hunting fur-seal at Lituya Bay La Perouse had lost twenty-one (21) crew to hypothermia. Caught in a strong current two (2) long boats rolled over tipping the men into freezing waters.

1787 – 6 September, Siberia: The Frenchmen after criss-crossing the world’s oceans fetched up at Petropavlovsk – St Peter and St Paul ‘edged onto the empty wastes of Siberia. The main town indeed only town of Kamchatka on the edge of Asia…was the furthest possession of the Russian Empire;

[its people] were extremely hospitable, even overwhelming in their welcome, but [were] distressed to find no mail awaited them; luckily their bitterness was short-lived [for] a courier rode in from Okhosk with the missing mail packets’. John Dunmore. ibid.

The courier delivered La Perouse instructions to ‘make for Botany Bay without delay’.

‘Among the dispatches was an important letter from the Minister of Marine [Castries]…The British were apparently planning a settlement in New South Wales in eastern Australia…He [La Perouse] advised Castries on the 28 [September 1787] he would make for Botany Bay without delay…All being well he should be there within three months’. Dumore. op. cit.

1787 – October: La Boussole and L’Astrolabe put to sea ‘bound for Botany Bay’ in October 1787. But not all went well. La Perouse was able to explain to Lieutenants King and Dawes why he ordered a defensive stockade be erected at Botany Bay and why the French were so very wary of local Bidgigal Aborigines.

1787 – 11 December, Samoa:  By mid December they were in great need of fresh water. Some sixty (60) French crew had gone ashore at Tutuila, Samoa part of the Navigator Island group to refill their barrels.

All went well at first. Later local tribesmen with heavy clubs and large stones rushed them smashing heads injuring many and leaving eleven (11) French crew and de Langle – L’Astrolabe’s captain – dead on the sand.

As for French retaliation accounts vary.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: The survivors made their escape. Lieutenant Clonard was given command of Astrolabe . The French sailed south arriving at Botany Bay on 24 January 1788.

1788 – 17 February, Botany Bay: Father Laurant Receveur a noted naturalist and the expedition’s Franciscan chaplain died on the 17th of February 1788.

A monument marks his resting place at La Perouse.  Each year a ceremony commemorates the French presence on the south eastern coast of mainland Australia.

1788 – 10 March: La Perouse and his men departed for France on 10th March 1788 and were never heard of again.

Although Governor Phillip could not give La Pèrouse supplies or ammunition he was able to render the French nation an invaluable service. See: Asleep In the Deep – Merchant Men of the First Fleet

‘By Alexander…Lieutenant Shortland is likewise charged with a box of letters from Monsieur La Perouse for the French Ambassador’. Governor Phillip to Under-Secretary Nepean, July 10th 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales.

1789 – 26 June, France:  Despite tensions and difficulties existing between Britain and France La Pèrouse’s ‘box of letters’  was faithfully delivered.  A report of the ‘tragic events…[appeared] in the Journal de Paris on 26 June 1789′.


1788 – 3 February, Sydney Cove: Lieutenants King and Dawes, on returning from their visit to La Perouse, reported immediately to Governor Phillip.

‘There would seem to be ‘some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Edward Jenks’, History of the Australian Colonies, cited in British Colonial Policy, Hugh E. Egerton, Metheun, 1928

La Perouse after leaving Samoa had set a southerly course but as he neared the coast of New Holland two (2) unsuccessful attempts were made to land on Norfolk Island.

xxxxxMortal Enemies: If, when the ‘First Fleet’ reached Botany Bay had found the French flag flying and ‘copper plates engraved with the royal arms [as] permanent notification of French ownership’ nailed to a tree; would Australia now be an English speaking nation? Yes it would.

2018 – 18 February, Botany Bay: Pere Receveur’s commemorative Mass in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church will be celebrated on the veranda of the La Perouse Museum on Sunday 18th February 2018




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