Botany Bay, January 1788
On the 24th we beheld an English fleet at anchor inside Botany Bay, of which we could see the flags and pennants. Europeans are all compatriots at such a great distance and we were most impatient to reach the anchorage, but the weather was so foggy the next day that we were unable to see the land, and we only reached the anchorage on the 26th at nine o’clock in the morning.
– Journal of La Pérouse, 1788
Inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook, King Louis XVI appointed Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse (1741–1788), an experienced naval officer and skilled navigator, to lead an expedition around the world and to explore the Pacific.
The King provided La Pérouse’s expedition with every possible requirement. The ships, L’Astrolabe
and La Boussole,
carried botanists, astronomers, hydrographers, artists and natural historians and were well equipped with an impressive array of scientific tools, timepieces and navigational equipment. British botanist Joseph Banks even petitioned on behalf of La Pérouse and acquired for the expedition two of the compasses used by Captain Cook on his voyages.
La Pérouse set sail in 1785 with the goals of exploring the north and south of the Pacific, completing the maps begun by Captain Cook, establishing new trade contacts and discovering new maritime routes, but also of discerning the activities of the other European powers in the region. The British were rumoured to be establishing a colony in New Zealand and the French sought similarly to establish new territories.
The British were indeed thinking of colonising the new lands. An overcrowded penal system, the desire to build an outpost in the southern hemisphere and the positive reports from Cook’s voyages led to the official announcement early in 1787 of the intention to transport convicts to the territory of New South Wales. Preparations were already underway. The First Fleet of eleven ships carrying more than 1400 people left Portsmouth in May 1787.
La Pérouse’s ships arrived off the coast on 24 January 1788, but were unable to enter Botany Bay until 26 January, the same day that Governor Phillip began to move the entire First Fleet to the more hospitable Sydney Cove in the harbour of Port Jackson. Early in the morning of 26 January, Governor Phillip planted a flag and took possession of the land for His Majesty the King of England.
On 1 February 1788, a week after landing at Port Jackson, Phillip asked his Lieutenant to visit the French ships, still moored in Botany Bay, and offer hospitality. They were not the first visitors – some of the convicts had made the twelve-kilometre trip back to the French ships hoping to gain the opportunity of escape.
The British visitors learned of the French ships’ voyage around Cape Horn, from Chile to California, from the Russian Kamchatka peninsula (where they received orders to investigate the activities of the British at Botany Bay) to Easter Island, Macau, Manila in the Philippines, the Friendly Islands, the Sandwich Islands and Norfolk Island.