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La Perouse & before

La Perouse and before

The first recorded French observation of Australia is that of Captain (later Admiral) Abraham Duquesne-Guitton in 1687 aboard L’Oiseau when transporting a French Ambassador to the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand) where it was intended to establish a French Embassy. Eendracht Land on the West Australian coast was sighted, the ship sailing close inshore near the Swan River on 4 August, the captain noting that it looked attractively green.[10]
Baron von Mueller
Louis XVI giving instructions to La Pérouse on 29 June 1785
Painted by Nicolas-André Monsiau
(Chateau de Versailles)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
In 1756 Frenchman Charles de Brosses in his Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes synthesized what was then known about the Pacific region and concluded that French exploration should continue, both as a challenge to any British aspirations for the region and to secure any possible trade benefits for France.[1] Even after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 that ended the Seven Years War between England and France it was clear that France still fostered colonial ambitions and with the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 which recognised American independence from Britain and also weakened the British hold on the high seas there was an opportunity for France to take the initiative. Certainly the accounts of Cook’s three voyages published in 1772, 1778, and 1782 were eagerly read by the French and threw out a challenge to Britain’s traditional political rival, the first major scientific exploration being that of La Pérouse who, with the encouragement of Louis XVI, established a French presence in the Pacific.

Several French voyages had previously touched on Nouvelle Hollande including those of Louis de Bougainville (1768), Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (1772), and Louis de Saint Aloüarn (1772) but France’s major contribution to the natural history of the region was the result of three later scientific voyages of exploration that occurred between 1785 and 1804 – by Jean-François de la Pérouse (1785–1788), Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1791–1794), and Nicolas Baudin (1800–1804). This occurred at the height of the Enlightenment when botanophilia was at its heighte and France was in the turmoil of the Revolution that reached its climax in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille in Paris, followed by the Reign of Terror and the guillotining of Louis XVI in 1793 leading to the Napoleonic era – 15 years when France was constantly at war with other European powers before the restoration of the monarchy in 1814. A high price was also paid in French lives at sea which included expedition leaders Dufresne, St Aloüarn, La Pérouse, D’Entrecasteaux, Kermadec, and Baudin who all, after seeing Nouvelle Hollande for themselves (Baudin naming it Terre Napoleon), would die before their ships returned home.

From the French expeditions carried out in this period Europe received a rich legacy of natural history specimens. Their influence can be seen today in the many French names that dot the map of Australia’s western and southern coastlines although many others have been ignored.

Louis de Bougainville – 1766-1779

The call for France to join the scientific and commercial exploration of the Pacific was taken up by Louis de Bougainville (1729-1811) who, after handing over the disputed Falkland Islands to Spain, was sent by Louis XV to the South Seas where he encountered the uncharted east coast of New Holland but, on observing the surf of the Great Barrier Reef and being short of supplies, decided to head north to New Guinea, missing an opportunity to claim the land for France. This voyage of 1766-1769 in La Boudeuse and Étoile was a substantial Enlightenment scientific expedition and the first French circumnavigation of the world.

Philibert Commerçon (who corresponded with Linnaeus, was a friend of Voltaire, and the first naturalist paid by a sovereign) was the botanist on the expedition and achieved notoriety through his valet Jeanne Baré (1740-1807), probably Commerçon’s mistress, smuggled aboard as a man and the first woman known to circumnavigate the world. She ‘bound her breasts in tight linen, wore baggy clothes, changed her name to Jean and joined Commerçon as his botanical assistant’.[14] Baré was a keen botanist, often collected alone, curating Commerçon’s herbarium and collections of insects and shells. She was the discoverer of Bougainvillea spectabilis in the forests of Brazil during the stay at Rio de Janeiro between 13 and 15 June 1767. The pair accumulated 1735 plant specimens for the Natural History Museum in Paris (234 Madagascar, 144 Mauritius, 84 Brazil, 50 Java), many of these being new to science.[15]

Commerçon later named the flower Bougainvillea in honour of his leader. Jean-François de Galaup de la Pérouse (captain of a later expedition) was in the crew of this expedition.[2] It was de Bougainville who, with Banks, after spending time on Tahiti, passed to Europe the idea of the Pacific as a sexually innocent island paradise.

Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne – 1772

De Bougainville brought back to France a native Tahitian, Ahu-Toru, and Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (1724-1772) was to return him to Tahiti in the ships Mascarin and Marquis de Castries. Ahu-Toru died on the island of Mauritius and Dufresne continued into the Pacific, briefly touching on the south-west coast of Van Diemen’s Land, the first European to do so since Abel Tasman 130 years before. Dufresne’s party were probably the first French explorers to land on any part of Australia and the first Europeans to encounter the Aborigines of this island when they set foot on Van Diemen’s Land on 3 March 1772, claiming the island for France. A sighting of the coast had been made near High Rocky Point, the ship anchoring off Cape Frederick Hendrick in present-day Marion Bay (now named after the French captain) and North Bay close to Abel Tasman’s former anchorage.[3] Dufresne sailed on to New Zealand where he was killed by the Maoris of the Bay of Islands where a substantial vegetable garden had been created on Moturua Island.[12] While Dufresne was in the Southern Ocean another Frenchman, Louis de Saint Aloüarn, was sailing along the west coast of Nouvelle Hollande.

Louis de Saint Aloüarn – 1772

In 1771 Lieutenant Louis de Saint Aloüarn (1738-1772) in the storeship Gros Ventre set out on an official expedition led by Captain Yves de Kerguelen (1734-1797) in the flute Fortune with the intention of consolidating French interests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, arriving in April 1772 at today’s Kerguelen Island assuming it to be Nouvelle Hollande. In bad weather the two ships became separated. Kerguelen returned to France claiming to have discovered the mysterious southern continent on which it would be possible to ‘form establishments situated so as to command the routes to Asia and America’.[4]

St Aloüarn continued to Cape Leeuwin where the ships had arranged to meet. Without Kerguelen he decided to proceed northward as far as Shark Bay and at Baie de Prise de Possession (now Turtle Bay) on Dirk Hartog Island on 30 March 1772, and within sight of the place where Willem de Vlamingh had left a commemorative plate in 1616, neither the British nor Dutch had claimed the west coast, St Aloüarn making a formal claim to French sovereignty on behalf of King Louis XV, leaving silver coins and a bottle containing documents describing the event (a coin in a lead container was recovered in 1998 along with another coin associated with a bottle (full of sand)). St Aloüarn died at Port Louis, Mauritius, on the way home, as so many others a victim of tropical disease contracted in Batavia. France did not proceed with settlement, the unofficially accepted way of confirming land claims. Indeed a second expensive expedition under Kerguelen set out in 1773 with two ships, the Roland and Oiseau and 700 personnel to challenge Cook’s achievements but this turned out to be a trading expedition, Kerguelen returning to France to disgrace and dismissal.

Jean-François La Pérouse expedition – 1788

The La Pérouse and D’Entrecasteaux expeditions were sponsored by the pre-Revolutionary royal regime. In 1783, before the French Revolution, Jean-François de Galaup, Compte De La Pérouse (1741-1788) was appointed by Louis XVI to extend Cook’s achievements in the Pacific including exploration of the northern Pacific and a possible North-West Passage through the Bering Sea, the completion of a coastal chart of Nouvelle Hollande, the opening up of new trade (especially whaling and furs), trading centres, and trade routes, and showcasing French scientific expertise. Expedition leaders and scientists were presented with extensive and meticulous instructions from both government and the Paris academies, largely under the guidance of scientist, navigator, and Director-General of Ports and Arsenals Charles-Pierre Fleurieu. In spite of potential competition with the British the expedition engineer Manneron travelled to London to discuss Cooks treatment of the scurvy that had plagued previous expeditions and to purchase scientific instruments, and meeting Banks who securing for him two of Cook’s compasses.

Louis XVI provided La Pérouse with the frigates La Boussole (flagship) and Astrolabe. Emphasis was given to the scientific aspects of the voyage. Boussole had a crew of 114 and included an astronomer-mathematician, a gardener-botanist (Jean-Nicolas Collignon), a physicist, geologist, a landscape artist (Duché de Vancy) and botanical artist (Prévost the younger). L’Astrolabe, under Fleuriot de Langle, had two naturalists, a botanist (La Martiniere), an astronomer, a botanical illustrator (Prévost oncle), and a Russian interpreter. The 16-year-old Corsican military student Napoleon Bonaparte had submitted an unsuccessful application to join the expedition.

For botanical instructions on plant collection and storage the notes of botanist Philibert Commercon were used. Commercon had travelled with Bougainville in 1766 staying to work in Mauritius and Madagascar where he succumbed to illness, dying at the age 46 in 1773 but still leaving some 30,000 specimens to the Jardin du Roi representing about 5,000 species of which about 3,000 were new to science.[5] Though rather reticent and loath to publish his work, Commercon was an avid plant collector, even being barred from the botanic gardens at Montpellier where he had raided the gardens and hothouses for specimens to add to his personal herbarium. Experiences from the British expeditions were not ignored. Louis XVI had read Cooks Voyages and encouraged the dispersal of useful plants and seed from Europe. Also the notes of William Anderson, surgeon on Cooks second voyage, were among the preparatory literature for the voyage.[6]

André Thouin was a botanist who occupied the chair of horticulture at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and whose main work was in agronomy. Like Banks in London he appointment gardeners to scientific expeditions and drew up lengthy instructions on how they should care for the live plants aboard ship and how to transport the seed and plants to other parts of the world. Instructions included lists of the tools needed, the particular plants to be collected, and recommendations for books to study on the ship – which including Linnaeus’s key works. The live plants for the trip, mostly fruit and nut trees, were bought in pots from traders in Paris.[7] For La Pérouse in Boussole Thouin had chosen the gardener-botanist Jean-Nicolas Collignon aged 24 one of his students, Thouin expressing the view that he not be supervised by botanists and that he should plant vegetables wherever the expedition landed, whether or not they would be of immediate use. Collignon and L’Astrolabe botanist La Martiniere (educated at the medical faculty of the University of Montpelier) had the support of two botanical illustrators Prévost the younger and his uncle, also the landscape artist Duché de Vancy. L’Astrolabe‘s naturalist Dufresne left the voyage at Macao in Jan. 1787.[8] The ships holds were packed with trinkets for the ‘natives’ and Louis had himself written that they should ‘… zealously and interestedly employ all means capable of improving their condition by procuring for their countries useful European vegetables, fruits and trees, which will teach them to plant and cultivate …’.[13]

The ships left Brest on 1 August 1785 sailing to Madeira, the Canaries, Teneriffe, St Catherine, rounded Cape Horn, Conception Bay (Chile), Easter Island (the islanders given gifts of goats, lambs and pigs), Sandwich Islands, Alaska, California (Collignon ships seed of Monterey Pine, Pinus radiata, back to the Museum of Natural History in Paris), Macao (2 Jan. 1787), Philippine Islands, Port de Marivelle (21-24 Feb.) at Cavite, Manila (28 Feb-8/9 Apr.), coast of Siberia, Kamchatka, Samoa (some crew killed on Maouna Island (Collignon wounded on 11 Dec.), Fiji, Norfolk Island (1788), Botany Bay, New Caledonia, and Santa Cruz Islands. The expedition was shipwrecked on the reefs of Vanikuro some time in 1788.


After visiting Norfolk Island La Pérouse entered Botany Bay on 26 January 1788 just as the British First Fleet under Arthur Phillip were leaving, having decided that the site was unsuitable for settlement and that Port Jackson, a short distance up the coast, provided a much better location. Even so there was a cordial welcome with Lieutenant King invited to dine aboard the French flagship where he was impressed by the work of the French scientists who, in turn, acknowledged the scientific achievements of Cook’s pioneering voyage. It was procedure at this time to leave records and collections at ports of call as a precaution against mishap so dispatches and journals were entrusted to the British officers for delivery to the French ambassador in London, where they duly arrived in June 1789.[9]

The French Garden

La Pérouse remained in Botany Bay for six weeks, refitting the ships, his men planting a vegetable garden, later known as the ‘French Garden’[11] which served the British colonists for several years. The only description we have of the garden is by a Frenchmen aboard Coquille under captain Duperrey in 1824 when the reputation of the garden still remained along with some traces of the garden itself. The site had been respected by the British and they were told that Governor Macquarie intended to plant a beautiful garden on the site and to retain the name ‘French Garden’. The site still provided some vegetables for the soldiers quartered a short distance away.

La Pérouse left Botany Bay on March 10 heading for Nouvelle Caledonia, Santa cruz, the Solomons and Loiuisades noting in a copy of his journal (given to the British and later returned to Europe) that he expected to be back in France by June 1789. His brief stay in Sydney mark the tragic end to the expedition which was subsequently lost at sea. Only in 1826 was conclusive evidence found indicating that the ships had foundered on a coral reef at Vinikuro in the Solomon Islands.

Timeline & Key points

1687 – Abraham Duquesne-Guitton probably the first Frenchman to sight Australia near Swan River (today’s Perth) when on a mission to Siam

1756 – Charles de Brosses publishes Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes a summary of current knowledge of the Pacific Ocean recommending continued French interest to counter British interests and develop trade

1763Treaty of Paris ends Seven Years’ War with Britain 1768 – Louis de Bougainville completes first French circumnavigation of the world, observing the Great Barrier Reef but turning back

1772-1778-1782Cook publishes accounts of his three voyages to the Pacific

1772 – Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne returning a Tahitian taken on the de Bougainville expedition touches the south-west coast of Van Diemen’s Land on 3 March 1772, the first French to land on Australian soil and the first Europeans to land on Van Diemen’s Land since Abel Tasman 130 years before, claiming the land for France

1772 – On 30 March on Den Hartog Island Louis de Saint Aloüarn makes a formal claim to the French sovereignty of Western Australia on behalf of King Louis XV

1783Treaty of Versailles flags American Independence and threatens British maritime supremacy

1785–1788 – Jean-François de la Pérouse voyage of scientific exploration. Following the example of botanist Philibert Commerson who had collected seeral thousand specimens in Mauritius c. 1766, Andre Thouin Director of Horticulture at the Jardin du Roi in Paris drew up instructions for a young gardener-botanist Jean-Nicolas Collignon, a botanical illustrator Prévost the younger, and a landscape artist Duché de Vancy all travelling in the ship Boussole. On the Astrolable was the botanist La Martiniere with botanical illustrator Prévost ‘oncle’ together with a naturalist Dufresne who left the voyage at Macao in January 1787

1788 – La Pérouse enters Botany Bay on 26 January 1788 just as the British First Fleet under Arthur Phillip was leaving to settle in Port Jackson, Lieutenant King invited to dine aboard the French flagship. During the six-week stay a vegetable garden is planted, the first on mainland Australia, remaining for a while as the ‘French Garden’ and providing food for soldiers stationed nearby

1789 – Storming of the Bastille

1799-1815 – Napoleonic Era – final of four phases making up the French Revolution: National Assembly, Legislative Assembly, Directory and Napoleanic Era extending from the French Consulate (9 Nov 1799) to defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (28 June 4 1815)

1791–1794 – Bruni d’Entrecasteaux voyage of scientific exploration

1800-1804 – Nicolas Baudin voyage of scientific exploration

1814 – Restoration of the French monarchy

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