Sunday, October 14, 2012



Captain Arthur Phillips   First Fleet arriving at Botany Bay 17th January 1788
Drawing by 1st Lieutenant William Bradley of the Sirius.

History often throws up some unexpected parallels, curious coincidences that centuries later warm the heart and remind us that we are all indeed members of the same universal family. 

Now if that sounds awfully pompous I do apologise.  But it is true, we all belong to the one family, one that was once known simply as ‘mankind’.  A word curious in its make up... a kind man... and given the opportunity to meet each other quietly and without fanfare, most of us on this planet would behave in that way.  With kindness and consideration to each other.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read about a brief event that took place in the very early days of Australia’s attempt to establish a penal settlement in Botany Bay.   An event that involved ships of the then often opposing world powers, France and England, and of the brave men who sailed in them.

You will remember the stories of my convict ancestors,  Bryan Spalding, Mary Welch and Samuel Marshall.  Ancestors who owed their survival in those early days of  convict settlement to the careful management and supervision of Governor Arthur Phillip.  A man who most unusually for those times of political appointment turned out to be the right man for a difficult and inhumane task. 

 ( see the ...The Irish Born Convict )

BOTANY BAY 24TH Janury 1788.
 The First Fleet of Convict ships have already arrived at their destination, Botany Bay, and despite favourable description made by Captain Cook on an earlier voyage of discovery some few years before was now found to be unsuitable for settlement.  With food stocks dwindling at an alarming rate Governor Phillip decides to remove the entire fleet north to Port Jackson where it is hoped conditions will be best suited for the colony.

But now prevailing winds are wreaking havoc on the 11 ships of  the fleet  as they attempt to make sail.  Governor Phillip decides to leave the fleet behind in the care of  Captain Hunter on the Sirius to await calmer weather while he takes the smaller vessel the Supply to secure a new landing site in the larger harbour to the north.


In the midst of these efforts English sailors are astonished to sight  two French ships holding to off the coast.  They will be identified as the La Boussole and L’Astrolabe  under the command of  the Navigator, Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse.  

The French ships in the Antarctic  
 It happens the prevailing winds are proving equally unfavourable for the French ships attempting entry into Botany Bay and it will be a few days before La Perouse can actually enter  the safe haven.

At the same time Governor Phillip aboard the Supply suffering the same problem leaving the Bay, finally  succeeds and neither party make contact.

Left behind to await a change in the weather the Governor’s deputy John Hunter helps La Perouse anchor their ships and for the next few days  the two groups maintain good relations each with the other.  With winds abating the remainder of the First Fleet departs to  rejoin Governor Phillips and the Supply in the vast seaway we now call Sydney Harbour.

The French commander has a sad duty to perform.  The expeditions naturalist and chaplain Father Receveur dies from injuries received in a skirmish the previous December in Samoa, in which Langle, commander of the Astrolabe and 12 other crew members were killed.  The chaplain is buried at Frenchmans Cove just below the headland that is now called La Perouse.

For the remainder of the French sailors stay,  just a few miles south of the convict settlement at Sydney Cove, visits are made by Phillips deputies, both overland a matter of a few miles, and by small row boat:  Friendships are established and indeed La Perouse hands over a satchel of letters and correspondence requesting the next vessel returning to England deposits them with the French Ambassador in London.

Governor Arthur Phillips, faced with famine and the desperate need to establish shelter for the 1,044 captive souls in his care is otherwise occupied and makes no personal contact with the Navigator Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse.

Eventually, On March 10, 1788, just six weeks after making initial contact with the English First Fleet, the French ships quietly make sail and leave Botany Bay.

They will never be heard of again.

This 1788 meeting of sailors and nations in the middle of a vast unknown part of the globe was astonishing, but when you understand the remarkable navigation skills of both Phillips and La Perouse, and the reason for the Frenchman’s voyage you become filled with admiration that such men of honour once existed.

Captain Arthur Phillips was brought out of retirement to command the First Fleet.  He had been both a ships captain and a farmer and his skills were ideal for the task ahead of him.  His expertise in navigation was evident as he kept the 11 ships of the fleet on course during the long dangerous voyage south.

Albi – the pink city.

Jean-Francoise La Perouse was born in 1741 to a distinguished and prominent family in the vicinity of  the medieval town of Albi on the Tarn River in the south of France.    He entered the navy at the age of 15, saw battle against the English in 1759, was wounded and taken captive.  Repatriated to France he was promoted to lieutenant in 1775  and to captain in 1780 and saw service with the French in the American war of revolution.

In 1783 the French Government and King Louis the 16th, an admirer of the voyages and discoveries of England’s Captain Cook sent an expedition to the Pacific to complete Cook’s scientific work and in particular to explore the passages in the Bering Sea.  La Perouse was put in charge of the expedition in 1785, and for the next three years he sailed the oceans of the world, across the Atlantic to Brazil, round Cape Horn, onto Chile, north to the Sandwich Islands and from there to Alaska before swinging south to the new country documented by Cook.

The French navigators orders were to survey the north and south Pacific and the Indian Ocean studying climate, native peoples, flora and fauna.  He took with him a number of scientists and botanists.

The Australian author David Hill in his book 1788, quoting from actual journals refers to another of Governor Phillip’s emissaries, Lieutenant King visiting the French ships and being impressed with the array of scientists on the French expedition...including botanists, astronomers and natural historians and their impressive range of astrological and navigational equipment...

King particularly envied the French the three timepieces they carried on both of their ships considering only the one was provided for the entire English fleet.

Both Hunter and King made further visits to the French men and ...stayed two days on the Boussole and were most hospitably and politely entertained and very much pressed to pass a longer time with them...

             Three year voyage of the French Expedition.

Jean-Francoise was not only a navigator of note and confidante of a King, he was also a great romantic.  Most of his life had been spent at sea. During a time he spent in the East Indies, La Perouse often visited Ile-de-France, now the British possession of  Mauritius. On an early voyage he fell in love with the daughter of a minor official in Port Louis, Louise Eleanore Broudon and advised his parents he wished to marry her.

Alas, in those days a young man of La Perouse’s station did not marry beneath his rank and his father forbade the union.  Apparently it didn’t matter that he was 33 years of age, Jean- Francoise had no say in the matter.   His father was adamant,  La Perouse had a brilliant future to consider and his parents would set about finding a more suitable match.  An engagement was arranged with a woman he would never set eyes on. But Jean-Francoise’s heart lay with another.   For ten years Eleanor waited and her lover pleaded with his family.

His perseverance was finally rewarded, and he and the fair Eleanor finally wed in 1783.   Their married life together however was short.  Within two years La Perouse had sailed away on his momentous voyage of discovery and for the next three years the couple’s only contact was by letters sent from distant ports.

One such letter would eventually arrive in Albi by way of England, from the pouch of documents entrusted to the First Fleet for transport on the first ship returning to England.

In the official documents La Perouse advised his itinerary after the brief visit to Botany Bay would take in New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, the Louisades, the Solomons and the Gulf of Carpentaria expecting to arrive at  Ile de France by December of 1788.

By the end of 1789 nothing had been heard of the French ships and Eleanore moved from Albi to Paris to press the French Government for further action.

Years slipped by.   Sydney Cove had seen an influx of even more convicts with the arrival of the Second and Third Fleets. The tiny colony was well on the way to becoming a nation. On the other side of the world in 1789 the French Revolution erupted and King Louis 16th was executed three years later.


Despite the unrest in France, La Perouse’s plight remained a priority and in 1791 the French Society of Natural History petitioned the new National Assembly to assemble a rescue expedition.  The Commander of the two ships comprising the expedition was Antoine-Raymond Joseph Bruny d’Entrecasteaux.   They found no sign of the missing ships nor of La Perouse and his men.  

 (Tasmania though would benefit from the new expedition’s search as its leader left behind his name on various parts of the island.)

Nothing more would be heard of the missing Frenchmen until in May 1826 an Irish Pacific trader, Peter Dillon uncovered French relics among the Polynesian inhabitants of Tikopia that they claimed had been taken from an island known as Vanikoro.   Dillon proceeded to the island and brought back testimony that two ships had been driven onto the beach in a storm, and that the crew had been either drowned in the surf or massacred as they reached the beach.

Dillon was also able to purchase from the island relics of the two French ships, an old sword blade, a rusted razor, a silver sauce-boat with fleur-de-lis upon it, a brass mortar, a few small bells, a silver sword handle bearing a cipher, the crown of a small anchor and many other articles.   He also reported talking to a native who described the chief of the strangers who...was seen to be looking at the stars and the sun and beckoning to them. In much the way an astronomical observation of the heavens would be made.

As it transpired and in this tragic way, the story of two countries meeting for a brief moment in time on common ground in a virtually unexplored and distant part of the world,  ended.

The famous navigator La Perouse and his Frenchmen left their mark on Australia as memorably as they left it on all the other parts of the world they traversed.

  • ·      The heart broken Eleanor lived on in the family home at Albi  in the south of France and survived her husband by only 9 years. The couple were childless.
  • ·      The two most famous sons of Albi are today remembered  as La Perouse and the artist Toulouse-Lautrec.
  • ·      The recovered items from Vanikoro  are exhibited in the Marine Museum at the Louvre in Paris.
  • ·      Modern day descendents of Captain Dillon, who solved the mystery of the missing ships, continue to this day to live in Sydney.
  • ·      Two memorials have been erected to the memory of the French in Albi,  the other on the island of Vanikoro.
  • ·      And on a headland overlooking Botany Bay stands an impressive memorial to both La Perouse and the Expedition, and to the French chaplain Father Receveur who died in Botany Bay following injuries he received the previous year in Samoa.


Robyn Mortimer ©2012