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Exploration & Discovery

La Pérouse

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.

Edouard NUEL
French active 1780s
Louis XVI giving final instructions to the Comte de la Perouse 1785 c.1875
oil on canvas
175.0 x 238.0 cm
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (ML 39)
  • J. M. MOREAU le Jeune
    French 1741-1814
    Philippe TRIÈRE (engraver)
    French 1756- (c. 1815)
    Title page in Atlas accompanying La Pérouse’s voyage around the world (Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse autour du monde) 1797
    published by L’Imprimerie de la République, Paris
    60.0 x 44.4 cm (page)
    Rare Books Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne
    (RARELTEF 910.41 L31VE, Atlas)
    Photo: State Library of Victoria

The French were able to provide vital support for the needy settlers in their new colony with enough supplies for a further three years’ travel and the intention to be back in France within fifteen months. They left Botany Bay in mid March. The two commanders, La Pérouse and Phillip, never met.

Prior to their departure, the captain of L’Astrolabe delivered dispatches from La Pérouse to be forwarded to the French ambassador in London via the first transports that sailed for England. Sadly, the French never arrived back in Paris. Wrecks of both ships were discovered many years later off the island of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands, but to the country that had launched them, their disappearance was a mystery. The dispatches and journals reached London in June 1789, as Revolution fomented in France. 


In 1791, with vessels La Recherche and L’Espérance (Hope), Joseph-Antoine Bruny d’Entrecasteaux set sail in search of the missing La Pérouse. In 1792 he reached the western Australian coast and also undertook hydrographic work in Van Diemen’s Land, charting and naming the Huon River, Port Esperance and Bruny Island. On 21 January 1793, as d’Entrecasteaux was anchored in Recherche Bay, French King Louis XVI was executed in Paris. He is said to have asked of his captors on the morning of his execution, ‘Is there news of La Pérouse?’

On return to a France suffering under the Reign of Terror, d’Entrecasteaux’s ships were seized by Dutch royalist forces. It was only with the support of Sir Joseph Banks that the tens of thousands of specimens collected by the d’Entrecasteaux voyage were returned to Paris. 

Think, Investigate, Create

VELS The Humanities – History – Level 4 & 5

Suppose that the French had claimed Australia first instead of the British and Australia had become a French colony. How would things be different? Write a chapter on an alternative history of Australia.

Look at a world map and find out which places were colonies of France. Which places were English, Dutch, Portuguese or Spanish colonies?

Educator's Guide