How Australia didn’t become French – Part Two

Cécile Mazurier 28.06.13 2

This article is in English, click here to read it in French.

Louis de Saint-Aloüarn almost succeeded in claiming Australia in 1772… The second round of the Terra Australis expeditions started thirteen years later aboard La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, with Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, in command.

There’s no doubt that the world followed the voyage of James Cook. Louis XVI, confident in his knowledge of geography and determined to show what France was capable of, fancied organizing his own expedition around the world. He named La Pérouse as commander of the operation and appointed numerous astronomers, mathematicians, naturalists, doctors, and meteorologists to assist him in his journey.

The preparations were made with great attention to detail and even involved copying Cook’s navigation and mapping methods, in hope of outdoing him. The expedition turned into a true humanist and strategic operation.

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Tight timing for the French

On August the 1st, 1785, La Pérouse’s ships left Brest. The flotilla sailed at a brisk pace, mapping uncharted territories and navigating in unknown seas, reaching Kamtchakta in Russia in September 1787. There, he received information from France: England had put into motion its plans to colonise the Pacific.

In May, The First Fleet had left the country with an armada of eleven ships carrying its convicts to Botany Bay. Louis XVI asked La Pérouse to go there and send back a report of their activities. On January the 24th La Pérouse, ready to anchor on the shore of Australia, was delayed by winds and the ships of Captain Phillip, who was moving his colony to Port Jackson. Two days later, he landed in Botany Bay and Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack on the barren, rough ground of Australia.

Warmly welcomed by the English, the French crew stayed six weeks on land then sailed towards the East on March the tenth to disappear into the Pacific.

Did Australia almost become French?

Cécile Mazurier 28.06.13

A lot of people like to imagine that if La Pérouse’s fleet had succeeded in landing in Botany Bay before the English, Australia would be French.

However, Louis XVI’s campaign project was clear and claiming Australia for France had never figured in the plan. The main goals were trade (fur in the north-west of America and whaling in the south) and science (mapping the north-west coast of America, the Japan seas and the Solomon Islands especially).

Furthermore, in 1787, all of Europe knew what the English were planning. Claiming the territory instead of them would have been, first, extremely cheeky, but above all, a great diplomatic mistake. Also, it wasn’t Jean-François’ style, who was known for his humanitarian qualities (he had refused to claim Hawaii saying that the island rightly belonged to its inhabitants).

The gigantic expedition fomented by the King of France was a much more global project, uniting science, glory, diplomacy, and trade all around the world.

Tension between France and England

Etching of Laperouse Expedition vessels

In 1789, the French Revolution broke out and the mystery of La Boussole and L’Astrolabe’s disappearance was still unsolved. While the French-English relations were deteriorating, the frogs found nothing better to do than spread rumours holding the English responsible for the fate of their compatriots.

The d’Entrecasteaux research expedition, launched in 1791, provided some clues but it wasn’t until 1827 that the mystery was solved: caught in a storm, the two ships had sunk on the coast of Vanikoro (the Solomon Islands).

By then, Louis XVI had seen his head chopped off, and La Pérouse had become a legend.

And you, did you know about this story?

Images credits:
1. Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse, published in 1797, via Migration Heritage.
2. Louis XIV giving final instructions to the Comte de La Pérouse, via the State Library of NSW.
3. Full-length picture of the dashing Jean-François de Galaup, alias Comte de La Pérouse, via the Hunt Institute.
4. The Boussole and the Astrolabe at sea, via

About the Contributor

Cécile Mazurier

Three things about France I miss and how writing is (among other things) a way to sublimate the loss: 1. red wine 2. cornichons 3. sarcasm. I live in Sydney and I like demystifying clichés. You can contact me on LinkedIn or follow my non-adventures in my blog.

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