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French in Australia

Discover the history of French in Australia dating from the arrival of the La Perouse expedition at Botany Bay in January 1788.

The journey

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.

Mappemonde... [The voyage map] from Atlas du Voyage de La Pérouse autour du monde, 1798, A Paris: Chez Plassan, Imprimeur-Libraire
Printed volume  DSM/ X980/ 3

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.


Astronomer's letter

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.


French in Australia is made possible through a partnership with Sofitel.