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Australia v Australie: a photo finish

By Bob Ryan - posted Friday, 25 January 2013


Here we are, 225 years on, celebrating the day that Governor Arthur Phillip selected Sydney Cove in preference to Botany Bay as the birthplace of colonial Australia. We call this day, January 26th, Australia Day and sing our national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair", to mark the occasion. But I wonder how many of us realise we might, instead, be singing "La Marsellaise" to mark Jour d'Australie?

If Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse had not been delayed by some unfavourable weather, the French navigator could have reached Botany Bay ahead of Phillip. Had that been so, France could have dispossessed England of Captain Cook's 1770 discovery of New South Wales and called it, instead, Nouvelles-Galles-du-Sud. In the event, La Perouse was sighted off Botany Bay on January 22nd barely four days after Phillip's arrival, which in terms of 18th century world-voyaging, was an uncomfortably close photo finish.

Two questions arise from this. Was the French visit a coincidence? If not, were the English aware of France's possible ambitions to dispossess them? The answer to the first question is straightforward enough (although the motive might be questioned). La Perouse's instructions from King Louis XVI included the navigator visiting Botany Bay to see how the English were getting along - that's the questionable motive, which I'll come to later.

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The answer to the second question depends on how the researcher interprets the records and available facts of the time. For my part, the long-standing Anglo-French animosity is of prime importance, especially as the French had helped the American colonists defeat England in the War of Independence (1776-1783).

One result of that war (in which La Perouse captured two British forts) was the loss of America as a convict depository. And even before peace was agreed at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, England's penal law reformers started looking to New South Wales as the alternative destination for convicts.

In that year, also, (1783) the French government decided to equip an expedition that would complete the work started by Captain Cook earlier in the decade. La Perouse was appointed commander of the two-ship expedition, La Boussole and L'Astrolabe, which sailed from Brest on August 1st 1785.

Meanwhile, the English authorities were poring over a plan submitted to Lord Sydney on January 13th that year (1785). The essentials of the plan are pretty much what is generally known of Australia's colonial founding, but it took some 14 months before Lord Sydney wrote a letter to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury which began: "The several gaols and places for the confinement of felons in this kingdom being in so crowded a state that the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may be hourly to break out amongst them . . ." The letter then set out a plan that eventually led to more than 168,000 convicts being transported to Australia.

By the time that letter was written (August 18th 1786), La Perouse had been to Rio de Janeiro, rounded Cape Horn, coasted northward up Chile (where he re-fitted), explored around Alaska and the Bering Strait, and was heading south towards the Philippines, where he once again refitted and sailed from Manila on April 10th 1787.

At that time, April 1787, the First Fleet organisers in London were haggling about stores such as caps for the convicts, more clothing for the women and a hogshead of porter, while, various informers kept the war department and the admiralty abreast of La Perouse's mission and whereabouts.

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Important intelligence

We now arrive at a crucial point in Anglo-Australian history. I suggest that sometime at the end of April, or very early in May 1787, intelligence was received in London that La Perouse was getting too close to Australia for England's comfort. I'll return to this point shortly, but first, we must remember that, although Cook had claimed about half of Australia and nearby islands for England, the right of discovery (de jure) did not mean the land could remain unoccupied and any prior right unchallenged; occupation (de facto) was necessary to retaining that sovereign right. In this case, while Phillip and the First Fleet were anchored at Cape Town, and La Perouse was on his way to see how the English colony was getting along in Botany Bay, New South Wales had remained unoccupied for 17 years.

A wake-up call

Now back to the possibility of French occupation. The evidence is gleaned from an unsigned letter, dated May 5th1787, a week before Phillip was due to sail for Botany Bay. I would suggest the letter followed from a wake-up call that England was not in possession of New South Wales. The letter was unsigned but historians have attributed it to Lord Sydney. In the letter, Phillip is permitted to transship from the command vessel, HMS Sirius, to HMS Supply (eight guns and 50 crew) "if he thinks fit". The official reason was given thus: "it may be expedient for Capt. Phillip to arrive upon the coast of New South Wales previous to the convoy under his protection, in order to fix upon an eligible spot for their settlement, and to make proper arrangements for the landing of the marines and convicts". All of which seems reasonable enough and, indeed, that is what the records tell us Phillip did.

However, apart from its being unsigned, the letter was not addressed to Phillip but to the Lords of the Admiralty. Nor was the possibility of transshipment mentioned in the several pages of instructions previously given to Phillip. Hence we must presume there had been private and confidential conversations between Sydney and Phillip, and the Admiralty. The letter being merely confirmation of what had been agreed - and available for any spying and prying eyes to read. What was left unwritten was probably something along these lines: If our people in Cape Town confirm our suspicions, you (Phillip) must somehow get to Botany Bay before La Perouse, even if it means leaving some of the Fleet under Hunter's command. And be prepared for a fight if you're too late.

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About the Author

Bob Ryan is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University; his thesis is on Censorship.

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