La Perouse left the French port of Brest in August 1785 and headed south. In the next 2 and a half years, La Boussole and L'Astrolabe would sail many thousands of kilometres and cross the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans several times.
The map of the route taken by La Perouse was first published in Voyage de La Perouse autour du monde [La perouse's journey around the world] in 1791. It shows the route taken by the expedition until 1788 when the French were last seen in Botany Bay.
The map to the right is from a 1798 French edition of Voyage de La Perouse.
Last contact in Botany Bay
The French expedition stayed in Botany Bay for six weeks, recuperating from an attack in Samoa. The expedition's priest, Pere Receveur, was wounded in the attack and died in Botany Bay. Receveur's funeral was probably the first Catholic service conducted in Australia.
A letter, written by French astronomer Joseph Lepaute Dagelet (1751-1788?) to his counterpart in Sydney, is a rare survival from this early cross-cultural encounter on Australian soil, and provides documentary evidence of French language skills in the colony.
The journal extract below describes the encounter with the French expedition as seen through the eyes of Philip Gidley King, Second Lieutenant with the First Fleet and third Governor of New South Wales from 1800. The extract below is from his private journal. The State Library also holds a 'fair copy' of the same journal which Gidley King later edited and rewrote.
…the 24 in the morning two Strange Ships were discover'd to ye Southward of Cape Solander & we soon after discover'd that they were French one of which wore a Chef d'escadres pennant from which we conclude them to be La Boussole & 1'Astrolabe under ye orders of Monsieur De la perouse on discoveries, but the Wind blowing strong from NNE prevented their getting in, or our going out at four in ye Afternoon they were out of sight & at day light on ye 25 we weighed in the Supply having received a Company of Marines & 40 Convicts onboard, The wind blew so strong from ye SSE that we were obliged to anchor & wait for the Ebb tide & at Noon we weighed & turned out of the harbour In running a long shore we observed a number of steep Rocky clifts & after having run about 3 Leagues we were abreast of some high sand Clifts at the Northern extremity of which the Land of ye Entrance of Port Jackson commences & the entrance is soon discoverd lying between two steep bluff heads, there is no danger in entering the harbour but what is vislble, & when within the heads a rock lies in the
Mid channel ye shoal of which extends a cables length round, this rock is just covered at high Water, when in ye inside of the harbour ye Larboard arm leads to the place where the Settlement is formed which lies about 6 miles from ye entrance of the harbour, we anchored there, ye same evening at about 7 o'clock, being obliged to turn up — The next day at Day light the English colours were displayed on shore & possesion was taken for His Majety whose health, with the Queens, Prince of Wales & Success to the Colony was drank, a feu de joie was fired by the party of Marines & ye whole gave 3 Cheers which was returned by the Supply, at Sun sett The Sirius & all the Convoy anchored here. Capt. Hunter informed the Governor that the French Ships had entered the bay just before he left it, & that they were la Boussole & 1'Astrolabe commanded by Monsieur De La Perouse on discoveries The next Morning JanY 27th A great part of the Troops & Convicts were landed, & the latter was immediately sett to work clearing away the ground, ready for ye encampment
…Feby 1st This day His Excellency Governor Phillip signified his intention of sending me to Norfolk Island with a few people & stock to settle it. Lieut Ball of ye Supply was ordered to receive the Stores onboard necessary for that purpose & the following day at 2 in ye Morning Lieut Dawes of ye Marines & myself sett off in a Cutter for Botany Bay, to visit Monsieur De La perouse on the part of Governor Phillip & to offer him whatever he might have occassion for, we got down to ye harbours mouth at day light, finding a light air from ye Southward, we were obliged to row all ye way & arrived onboard ye Boussole at 10 o'clock in ye Morning where we were received with the greatest politeness & attention by Monsieur de la perouse & his Officers, after delivering
my Message to him, he returned his thanks to ye Governor for his attention to him, & made ye same offers which he had received, & added that as he should be in France in 15 Months & having Stores &c enough onboard for three Years he should be happy to oblige Mr Phillip with any that he might want — Monsieur De La perouse informed me that a number of ye Convicts had been to him & offered to enter but he had dismissed them with threats; & gave them a days provisions to carry them back to ye settlement. As ye Wind came on to blow fresh from ye Northward I yielded to the sollicitations of ye French Commodore & consented to dine with him & stay the remainder of ye day & return to Port Jackson next morning. In ye course of my conversation I found that he had touched at & been off ye following places viz. Madeira, Teneriffe, Sta Catherina, he had run down ye Coasts of Chili & California, been at Kamschatka, where he replaced the wooden Inscription near Capt. Clerke's Grave, with a Copper one for which I thanked him in ye name of the Corps, from Kamschatka he went to Macao
ye Phillipines, Sandwich Islands, Isles des Navigateurs discovered by Bougainville, Friendly Islands & Norfolk Island from which last place he came on this coast. At the Island of Maouna (one of ye Isles des Navigateurs in Lattitude 14°.19' S° Longitude 173°.23'.20" East of Paris) he was so very unfortunate as to lose Monsieur De langle, Captain of L'Astrolabe 8 Officers, 4 Men & 1 Boy who were massaccred by the natives, besides a great number wounded — he relates the Story as follows. The two Ships had been some days at this Island, & had been on very good terms with the natives, who had furnished him with every article of Stock in ye greatest profusion, for barter, but he found it very necessary to be on his guard, against a treacherous disposition which he discovered in them, when every thing was ready for their departure, & ye Ships were under weigh, De Langle, requested Perouse Would permit him to get another turn of water, which he De La perouse, consented to with as much reluctance as De langle seemed sollicitous to obtain his request. As the Long boats were not hoisted in
They were ordered on this service, with 2 other boats to attend them, under ye orders of ye un- fortunate De Langle. The Ships were lying too, & a strong Current sett them round a point out of sight of ye place where the boats landed, On landing they were surrounded as usual by the inhabitants who did not immediately discover any hostile intentions. The people in the Long boats had let them take the ground, & in using means to get them afloat again, the Natives were very troublesome & pressed close in upon them, De langle gave orders to the rowing boats to be ready to fire, but not to do it without his orders, some little altercation happening in consequence of their pressing so very close on ye French, which might have produced a blow from one of ye Natives, which was taken as a signal by the rest & ye Massacre began The natives were armed with short heavy Clubs by which means they rendered the Fire arms useless, orders were given to fire the Swivels but it was too late altho' the Natives fled the instant they were fired on dragging the bodies after them it was supposed that 30 of ye Natives were killed. Those belonging to the long boats, which
had escaped, swam off to ye rowing boats & were carried onboard ye Ship, many of whom had received violent contusions on their heads as all their blows were aimed at that part, de La Perouse thought proper to quit the Islands immediately, after endeavoring to regain his long-boats which he found the Natives had destroyed. He represents the Inhabitants of these Islands as a very strong, & handsome race of Men scarce one among them less than 6 Feet high, & well sett, The Women have a certain delicacy of features not common among the inhabitants of the Islands in those Seas. Their Canoes houses &c are all well constructed, & they are much more advanced in internal order & policy than any of the Islands in the Pacific Ocean, but like the rest of them they are surrounded by a coral reef, but Boats may land with great ease. In a Letter to Mr Phillip, which he charged me with he recommends these Islands to his attention, for the great quantity of Stock with which they abound — Excepting the above unfortunate disastre, they have not lost a single man since they left France, when he leaves this place it is his intention to go round New Ireland [con’td after next 2 pages]
The Astrolabe & Boussole were fitted out with the greatest llberality, Monsieur de la perouse told me, that ye King told him to get whatever he wanted & he added that if he was now at Brest & had to equip his Ships for ye remainder of his voyage, that he could not think of any article that he stood in need of. Besides ye Astronomer Monsieur Dagelet. he is provided with a very capital Botanist from ye Jardin du roi called de la Martinniere also a draughtsman, in every line, I saw his collection of Natural History which is very compleat. An Abbe who is also on the expedition as a collector of Natural Curiosities appears a Man of Letters & Geniality
This Abbe + has under his care a great number of Philosophic instruments & the Astronomer has also every instrument necessary, each Ship has 3 Time keepers, which are hung on gimbals made by Berthand & goes with a short pendulum, they are rather complicated as an allowance is to be made for ye degree of heat, for which purpose a small Thermo- meter is kept in each of ye boxes. They have also a dipping needle which was with Capt. Cook, lent them by ye board of Longitude. They had not been more attentive to their Time keeper than we were to ours as they had been let down three times on bd both ships
+ He died at Botany Bay soon after we left port Jackson to go to Norfolk Island, & was buried near where the French had their observatory, an inscription carved in Wood was put near his grave which the Natives tore down on wh occasion Govr Phillip repaid the Kamschatka
to ye Moluccas, & Batavia from thence to ye Isle of France, Cape of Good Hope, & Europe where he hopes to arrive in about 18 Months
After dinner I attended ye Commodore &c other Officers onshore where I found him quite established, having thrown round his Tents a Stoccade, guarded by two small guns in which he is setting up two Long boats which he had in frame, An observatory tent was also fixed here, in which was an Astronomical Quadrant. Clockes &c under the Manage- ment of Monsieur Dagelet Astronomer, & one of ye Acadamie des Sciences at Paris he has fixed the Lattitude to be 33°.59".1' & Longitude 1 East of Greenwich — Monsieur De La perouse informed me that at every place where he has touched at or been near that he has found all ye Astronomical & Nautical works' of Capt. Cook to be very exact & true & concluded by saying . . . "Enfin, Monsieur Cook a tout fait qu'il n'a me rien laisse a faire, que d'admirer ses oeuvres" In the evening I returned onboard ye Boussole & was shown all ye Drawings made on ye Voyage & ye next Morning at 5 I took leave of them…
This letter was written by Joseph Lepaute Dagelet (1751-1788?), astronomer with the La Perouse expedition, to William Dawes (1762-1836), astronomer with the First Fleet at Port Jackson, shortly before the French expedition's departure from Botany Bay in March 1788.
William Dawes volunteered for service with the First Fleet and sailed on the Sirius. From February 1788, he was employed on shore to build an observatory at Dawes Point. As a member of the party sent to welcome the French in January 1788, Dawes may have met Dagelet at Botany Bay.
In his letter, Dagelet writes to Dawes of his regret at not being able to visit the site of the observatory before he leaves, and comments extensively on Dawes' plans for his observatory.
Joseph Dagelet probably perished when the entire La Perouse expedition disappeared off Vanikoro Island (Melanesia) later that year.
It is with much regret that I see myself on the point of leaving you without any hope of going to visit your observatory. Mr de La Perouse claims that I am too weak to undertake such a long expedition, and the zeal he shows for my health makes it my duty to agree with him. M. Boutin [Charles Fantin de Boutin, a senior officer on La Boussole] has easily explained to me the plan you have chosen and that you are currently having carried out. I find that your q.c.[quart de cercle, i.e. quadrant] is perfectly well placed and leaves nothing to be desired from any point of view. Will you cover it with a little cone-shaped dome which turns on itself? This is something very handy for the observer, and would also protect you from the humidity of the air at night, which I would strongly recommend to you for the sake of your health. You could have it constructed in tin or iron sheeting if you have a shortage of carpenters.
I would also like your clock to be located in a such a way that you can see the face and the second hand when you stand on the platform of the q.c. As far as possible you should avoid comparisons or the need to make comparisons on machines of this order ? this will mean less discussion about your reductions and greater simplicity in your journals. Never forget to note the slightest verifications, the slightest changes and any improvements to your instruments, as such a circumstance will add confidence in those who like to argue, it will save you all those "ifs" and "buts" of disputatious people. This, Sir, is advice you doubtless do not need, and I am only offering it to you because of the absolute certainty I have that you will see it as a proof of my sincerest friendship for you and my concern for all your interests.
Permit me now to offer you a picture of the research topics which your enthusiasm and insights would make interesting and useful to science. Your integrity would bring a very special quality and true certainty. You are aware that scientists are still divided on the question: are the tides at the Equinox more powerful than the tides at the Solstice? Are they equal, or what is their force? Theory would seem to render them stronger at the solstice of Capricorn, but as far as I know nothing definitive has been observed on this question. You know that a well graduated rule [= tide pole] on a headland which does not dry out etc. the winds, and thermometers are necessary to follow in this sort of research. The strength or violence of the winds in this hemisphere would be of interest
TRANSLATED BY PROFESSOR IVAN BARKO, 2005
to Physics. You can easily imagine a means, Sir, to oppose to its action a perfect surface of a clearly determined size, whose force would press a spring or would move a weight which would give the relationships in all circumstances. It would be necessary to ensure carefully that this surface moves only on a horizontal plane and that it be perpendicular to the lie of the wind. These sorts of observations have never been made properly nor have they been followed up. It is possible that great benefits to naval design would result from such research. I have no doubt that you could find much simpler things than the ones I would put on paper ? your very construction will provide you with some.
If at some future stage in the development of your establishment it were possible for you to procure a sector with a radius of 6 to 8 feet, a grander enterprise, and one more worthy of your merit, would be to attempt to measure a degree of the meridian under this hemisphere. That was the greatest wish of the Academy and also my own at the outset of this campaign ? I did not despair of completing this task within 4 months, provided that the position was favourable. You know that there is a host of good books on this topic, Bouguer's for an Astronomer seems to me the best. [Pierre Bouguer, 1698-1758, author of La Figure de la terre, déterminée par les observations de Messieurs Bouguer et de La Condamine, [...] envoyés par ordre du Roy au Pérou pour observer aux environs de l'équateur [...], Paris: C.-A. Jombert, 1749]
If in your purely astronomical inquiries you would devote time to the comparative research of the right ascension of the Sun and some of the stars which provide the setting of cœlum Australis, that would be of particular interest to me, and if you judged it appropriate, I would offer it on your behalf to the Academy of Sciences. If you were to observe some of Venus's conjunctions, either superior or inferior, you know perhaps that I have studied its movements and intend to return to this research one day.
The daily variations of the magnetic needle preoccupies many minds in Europe. I have had the honour of telling you what this research amounted to. An 8 or 10 inch needle in a wooden box safely placed on one of the blocks which follow your observatory would provide a stable point to fix it firmly.
I have always wished to meet with you again to clarify these questions but I fear that I have been too lengthy already and I therefore conclude by sending you the longitude and latitude at Botany Bay:
latit. 33o 59´ 10' long. 149o 6´ 30' This is the position of our observatory.
Please present my compliments to all your gentlemen and to Cpt Hunter. I profit from the presence of your seamen to send you my farewells and my very sincere offers of service in France for everything you would find me capable of.
I take advantage of the offer you made to me and I would be obliged to you if you would forward or have sent to England the packet which I addressed to M. de la Lande [Director, Paris Observatory] and a letter to the Royal Military School. The latter can be entrusted to the Post but I would ask you to be so kind as to forward that of M. de la Lande to Mr de Maskeline [Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal] for him to pass it on to him, or, if you would prefer, to Doctor Sepherd, [probably Anthony Shepherd, Professor of Astronomy, Cambridge] putting a second envelope over the other, and addressing it either to the Minister in Paris or to the Minister of War.
You see, Sir, that I somewhat abuse your kindness. I have presented your compliments to Mr de la Perouse and to our gentlemen, and I am charged with expressing their general gratitude.
P.S. This morning we sent back a seaman who was almost the victim of the natives. Without the help of our chasseurs who went to his rescue it is probable that he would have been overcome by numbers. Please be so kind, Sir, in your travels to think that they, these natives, merit only a very limited measure of trust, their good faith is suspect, and I urge you not to venture too far without your weapons.
Dagelet sends his regards to Mr Donis [Dawes]. He would be flattered to go and get his errands for him in Europe, and he will do it if he can be relieved of some of his duties before his departure; he has not forgotten which topics of research hold the greatest interest for scientists at the present time. He also intends to send him the results of his observations on longitude and latitude at Botany Bay. Latitude will diverge little from 33o 59´0' and longitude from 149o 2 or. Paris, but he will send them to him and will take the liberty of sending a dispatch for his journal before his departure ? In any eventuality he presents his compliments to Mr Donis and is jealous that he will go without having the honour of presenting his respects and without admiring the foundations of the Maskeline Observatory. We have drunk your collective health.