‘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

Captain Arthur Phillip RN and Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse never met. On opposing sides in peace and war yet as seafarers they shared a bond like no other.

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.

‘The Way of War is A Way of Deception. When Able, Feign inability; When deploying troops, Appear not to be’. Sun-Tzu, c.551-496 BC, Penguin, 2009

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

All ‘First Fleet’ males, marine and convict alike were, ‘fed as troops serving in the West Indies’. An expeditionary force fully funded by government it sailed under the guise of a ‘convict transportation fleet’.

The squadron’s true intent was to invade and claim British sovereignty over the island continent of New Holland (Australia) before France with two (2) ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe already on the high seas. See: A Riddle – When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When it’s the First Fleet  

1788 – 18 to 20 January, Botany Bay: Within 36 hours between 18 and 20 January 1788 the ‘First Fleet’ found safe anchorage in Botany Bay.

Captain Phillip assessed there was insufficient water to support permanent settlement for such a large number. In addition the bay’s wide open face bay would, if push came to shove, be difficult to defend.

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. Phillip wrote ‘here the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of line may ride in the most security’.

Importantly a stream of fresh running water ran into a deep cove 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: 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, under command of Captain Jean-Francois La Perouse, stood off the entrance to Botany Bay. The sight of Sirius’s cannon at the ready and strong winds forced them back out to sea. La Perouse sailed south and found safety and shelter at Point Sutherland.

‘Phillip 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. John Moore, First Fleet Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

Captain Phillip landed at Port Jackson but had not raised ‘English Colours’. La Perouse could leave Sutherland at any time and enter Port Jackson before the English, raise French Colours and establish a ‘prior claim’.

‘Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land’.  Larrisa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, The Honest History Book, ed. David STephens & Alison Broinowski, Newsouth, Sydney, 2017

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Phillip, to stymie such an eventuality despite deteriorating weather, quit Botany Bay in HMS Supply and made a dash for Sydney Cove arriving just on dark.

‘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’. Moore. ibid.

26 January, Sydney Cove: At first light Phillip landed with a company of marines. ‘A flagstaff was erected from which the Union Jack was flown.

At sunset and apparently before the main fleet from Botany Bay had anchored, the whole party who had arrived in the Supply, including the Governor, the principal officers, and the marines, assembled where the Union Jack now flew.

A firing party fired a feu de joie…between volleys toasts were drunk to His Majesty King George III, the royal family and success to the new colony’. Moore. ibid. See: Britain By A Short Half-Head.

In an instant Phillip had recognised the two (2) French ships. In August 1785 he watched from the shadows as La Perouse led them through rolling waves out of Brest Harbour into the open sea at the beginning of a wide-ranging ’round-the-world expedition’ that was to include the South Pacific and New Holland.

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


1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove:  The remaining English vessels negotiated a dangerous exit from Botany Bay.  Despite shifting winds that caused three (3) to collide shearing off jib-booms and other structural damage by 8 pm that night all were at anchor alongside Supply.

1788 – 26 January, Botany Bay: Captain John Hunter in HMS Sirius was last to leave Botany Bay. The French were in poor physical shape and Hunter stayed to assist La Perouse bring his ships to anchor off Bare Island in the area known now as Frenchmens Bay.

At Sydney Cove the following ten (10) days were filled with intense activity.  As Golden Grove, Fishburn and Borrowdale, the fleet’s stores-ships were unloaded, an inventory confirmed Phillip’s worst fears. The supply position after eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ was dire.

‘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. 

Reserves of food-stuffs were grossly inadequate both in quality and quantity. Almost immediately Phillip, was forced to reduce the ration issue. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

1788 – 1 February, Botany Bay: Phillip’s responsibility – survival of 1500 Englishmen – was absolute, it left no room for generosity. But who can doubt Phillip’s concern for the welfare of La Perouse and his men?

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.

Captain Hunter had made La Perouse aware of the fleet’s parlous supply position. Gidley King’s journal  records a touching charade. La Perouse reciprocated in like manner; ‘he 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’. They dined aboard La Boussole and next day rowed back to Sydney.


Long before January 1788 France had dominated Arthur Phillip’s working life. Son of an English mother and German father, a language teacher, Phillip was tailor-made for spying. Fluent in French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese his appearance and linguistic skills made him the perfect ‘spook’

1769 – England:  Phillip married in 1763, divorced in 1769 soon afterwards he was recruited into Britain’s Secret Service.

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 in particular the Admiralty’s Lord Sandwich a skilled linguist.

1775 – April, Lexington: In 1775 England went to war with her American Patriot rebel colonists. The revolution morphed into the War of American Independence (1775-1783).

1779 – England: Phillip made many requests to rejoin the Royal Navy and did so in 1779. At the end of hostilities he was 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 thirteen colonies, her ‘mighty empire in the west’ – North and South Carolina, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

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

Phillip found himself once again a peace-time 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 Phillip’s long-time friend. See: Arthur Phillip – The Importance of Being Arthur

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.

Projected to take three (3) years, like the voyages of Captain Cook it sought to emulate, New Holland and the South Pacific were in the mix.

Instigated by King Louis XVI for the glory and advancement of France it seems highly likely the choice of La Perouse was due in no small part to the influence of Charles Pierre de Fleurieu who knew La Perouse well.

The La Perouse expedition also had the support of Antoine de Bougainville. A mathematician of note and a member of Britain’s Royal Society Bougainville was the first Frenchmen to circumnavigate the globe during which voyage he had charted the Great Barrier Reef but did not land.  See: A Tale of Two Cities: Quebec 1759 – Sydney 1788

It is also likely the French and English ventures were voyages of duelling chronometers. Charles Pierre de Fleurieu’s obsession with time-keeping at sea was similar to that of England’s John Harrison whose sea-going ‘pocket watch’ – the H-4 – had in 1759 ‘solved the problem of longitude’. See: Captain Cook Caught Short

At Botany Bay 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 at Samoa part of the Navigator Islands, just six (6) weeks earlier on11 December 1787.

About sixty (60) crew had gone ashore to fill the ships’ water barrels. Welcomed initially they were later set upon by a band of Samoans armed with clubs and stones. Twelve (12) crew were killed among them Vicounte de Langle captain of L’Astrolabe.

Several of the wounded died later among them Pere Laurent Receveur the expedition’s chaplain. A noted naturalist he died at Botany Bay on 17 February 1788 where a monument marks his resting place.

Each year a ceremony commemorates La Perouse and his men who suffered so much. In Daceyville a nearby Sydney suburb, spacious park lands and street names are permanent reminders of the fleeting French presence on the south eastern coast of mainland Australia.

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

At Botany Bay a wary La Perouse erected a protective stockade. 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 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. See: Asleep In the Deep – Merchantmen of the First Fleet.


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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