Leaving Brest in September 1791 the two ships put in first to Tenerife but by the time the ships had reached the Cape of Good Hope crew morale was at a low ebb; frustration had set in with the organization of the voyage, and tensions between royalists and republicans had already surfaced, leading to defections which included several of the scientists although botanist Labillardiere remained along with Riche and the artist Jean Piron. Before leaving the Cape on 16 Feb. 1792 D’Entrecasteaux certainly met Bligh who was en route on his second breadfruit expedition in the Providence and Assistance. but we do not know if he also met the 18-year-old Matthew Flinders who was in Bligh’s crew.
Ships food was very basic consisting of salted beef or bacon, cheese, rice, dried peas and beans, and hardtack biscuit with wine and brandy.To allay scurvy there was malt, lemon, sauerkraut, sorrel conserve and a powder made from root vegetables.
From 1792–1793 the two ships circumnavigated New Holland, charting the south coast from Cape Leeuwin to the head of the Bight, and the south-east shores of Van Diemen’s Land which was visited twice, both before and after the circumnavigation. First port of call was Esperance with good collections by Labillardière, Riche, and Delahaye, then to Van Diemen’s Land and the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, eventually arriving at Recherche Bay (named after one of the vessels) in Van Diemen’s Land on 23 April 1792 where the ships with their 221 passengers and crew remained for about three weeks making repairs and replenishing supplies of wood and water, the naturalists mapping the area, making observations, collecting specimens and befriending the local Aboriginal people, the Lyluequonny. This was an ideal sheltered haven with good supplies of water and a rich flora, a Van Diemen’s Land Botany Bay that fulfilled d’Entrecasteaux’s hopes for the expedition:
‘It will be difficult to describe my feelings at the sight of this solitary harbour situated at the extremities of the globe, so perfectly enclosed that one feels separated from the rest of the universe. Everything is influenced by the wilderness of the rugged landscape. With each step, one encounters the beauties of unspoilt nature, with signs of decrepitude, trees reaching a very great height, and of corresponding diameter, are devoid of branches along the trunk, but crowned with an everlasting green foliage. Some of these trees seem as ancient as the world, and are so tightly interlaced that they are impenetrable.’
Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Recherche Bay, January 1793 
Here Delahaye set up a vegetable garden (see horticulture). Labillardière was especially taken by the eucalypts especially the Blue Gum (a fascination later taken up by Ferdinand Mueller which earned him the sobriquet Blue Gum Mueller) and its straight trunk, wondering if it could be used for masts and if there was any commercial value of its highly aromatic bark, leaves and fruit. He had one cut down and with all the necessary parts he later, in 1800, named, described and illustrated the species Eucalyptus globulus which was to become Tasmania’s floral emblem. It was also found that Blue Gum planks were suitable for raising the gunwales of oared boats and he recommended its importation to France. With a small party he spent several days exploring a little inland with finds of special note including Exocarpos cupressiforme, species of Epacris (including Epacris impressa, later to become Victoria’s floral emblem), the spectacular Blandfordia, and Diplarrhena moraea. These collections included type specimens (specimens from which the original description was made) of Blue Gum and Native Heath and also among the earliest and most detailed accounts of the Aboriginals. With such an abyssmal diet aboard ship, Labillardière’s recommended Apium prostratum, Sea Celery, be gathered in quantity and taken back to the ship as fresh ‘greens’, and later a plantain, possibly Plantago muelleri, was also eaten with ‘relish’.</sup
After the first visit the ship had sailed north past New Caledonia where Delahaye exchanged seed with the Dutch Governor of Ambon. From the Dutch East Indies the expedition headed for south-west New Holland landing at (now) Esperance Bay in December 1792 and then, with water running low, returned to the security of Recherche Bay (a haven later used for coal-mining, whaling and timber-milling for ship-building and even oysters for Hobart, and even London in the late 19th century) in Van Diemen’s Land on 20 January 1793 and, in their haste, missed the opportunity to discover the passage between Van Diemen’s land and the mainland.
Further collecting was done including an inland foray towards Mt La Pérouse and a few days in Adventure Bay, the ship eventually leaving for Tonga on 27 February 1793. The time of this and the earlier visit totaled about 7 weeks. The voyage then proceeded to Tongatapu (breadfruit) and New Caledonia.
In Storm Bay (Adventure Bay) Labillardiere noted that Bligh, who had been there more than a year before, had planted fruit and vegetables.
‘Bligh had with him two botanists, who at a small distance from the shore sowed cresses, some acorns, celery etc. We saw three young fig trees, two pomegranataes, and a quince planted by them, which had thriven very well [and an] inscription, which we found on a large neighbouring trunk …: ‘Near this tree, Captain William Bligh plnted seven fruit trees, 1792, Messrs S&W, botanists.’
Unfortunately the voyage was to end dismally when, after the death from tuberculosis in May of his second in command, Jean-Michel Kermadec, in New Caledonia, D’Entrecasteaux himself died of scurvy and dysentery in July on the way to Surabaya, the capital of eastern Java, which left Alexandre-Hermivy d’Auribeau in charge of the two vessels and Rossel second in command.
On arrival in the Dutch East Indies, with many of the crew suffering from scurvy, it was learned that France was now at war with not only Holland and Britain, but also Austria, Spain and Russia, the monarchy had been overthrown and a republic declared. Louis XVI had been guillotined on the day the expedition arrived at Recherche Bay for the second time, allegedly enquiring after the expedition as he was lead to the scaffold.
Ships’ crews were divided along Royalist and Republican lines, the officers mostly Royalists and the savants and crew Republicans and the news from home had brought the bickering to a head. Royalist d’Auribeau handed over the ships to the Dutch in Surabaya partly to keep them out of Republican hands but also in return for a passage to Europe and is payment for accrued debt. d’Auribeau himself died a month later. Here in Java the official record of the voyage ceased, the ships were handed over to Dutch authorities, and the mission was disbanded the Republicans, led by Labillardière, being taken prisoner by the Dutch authorities
Rossel, a Royalist, was later allowed to return to France with Labillardière’s collections from New Holland but the ship transporting them was captured by the English. So, when the French ships returned to France in 1794 it was without the botanical collections.
It was left to Rossel to produce an ‘official’ account of the voyage this being published in 1808 much later than that of Labillardière’s 1800 journal. Following a plea from Labillardière Banks graciously ensured the specimens, consisting of 36 trunks unloaded in England in November 1795, were returned to France unopened in 1796 with Banks writing ‘although the politics of the two nations are at war, science is at peace’, this being one of several examples of scientific cooperation at a time of political tension between the two countries.
The expedition had landed in Esperance Bay via the Canary Iss, Cape of Good Hope, Tasmania, New Guinea and the East Indies, plans to chart the west coast being abandoned.