‘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

The race for New Holland was on and Britain had missed the jump.

1785 – August, Brest: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

A Band of Brothers: Captain Arthur Phillip RN and Comte Jean-Francois La Pèrouse never met. On opposing sides in war and peace yet as men of the sea they shared a strong bond. Phillip knew a great deal about La Pèrouse and it is impossible to believe he did not admire the gallant Frenchman who had a deserved reputation for compassion.

1787 – 13 May, England: 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 Portsmouth, England on 13th May 1787 to invade the island continent of New Holland.

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

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: After eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ the English fleet found safe anchorage in Botany Bay between 18 to 20 January 1788.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: Four (4) days later – 24 January – La Perouse’s ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, stood off the entrance to Botany Bay but contrary winds and churning seas forced them south to seek shelter at Point Sutherland.

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Captain Phillip aboard HMS Supply quit Botany Bay and sailed north nine (9) miles (14 km) north to Sydney Cove; situated deep – estimated ‘four (4) miles – within Port Jackson where ‘a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security’.

‘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 

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Treacherous weather held up the English fleet’s departure until the afternoon of the 26th when the fleet managed a dramatic exit.

Cross-currents and sudden wind shifts very nearly cost lives and ships as Charlotte, Friendship, Prince of Wales swung across each other and the ships came close to crashing onto the rocks.

1788 – 26 January, Botany Bay: HMS Sirius was last of the fleet to leave. Captain John Hunter RN guided L’Astrolabe and La Boussole to safe anchorage in Botany Bay at a spot known now as Frenchmens Bay.

‘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

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: At 6 pm that evening the English ships anchored alongside HMS Supply. Ashore Captain Phillip, having himself landed earlier that same day, raised ‘English Colours’ the Union Jack of Queen Anne and proclaimed Britain’s victory over France.

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

La Perouse, via Captain Hunter, was well aware 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 engaged in hunting fur-seal at Lituya Bay La Perouse lost twenty-one (21) crew to hypothermia when, two (2) long boats caught in a strong current, 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 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 all did not go 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:  In great need of fresh water, some sixty (60) French crew had gone ashore at Tutuila, Samoa part of the Navigator group  of islands.

But all went wrong. 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 noted naturalist and the expedition’s chaplain died on the 17th of February 1788. A monument marks his resting place at La Perouse and 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: La Pèrouse’s ‘box of letters’, despite tensions and difficulties existing between Britain and France, 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.

Mortal Enemies: If, when the ‘First Fleet’ reached Botany Bay they had found the French flag flying and nailed to a tree; ‘copper plates engraved with the royal arms [as] permanent notification of French ownership’ 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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