August 2011

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Captain Arthur Phillip & Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

On 24 January 1788 Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, explorer and navigator, beheld a sight as startling as any he had witnessed since sailing from France in August 1785. It was an English fleet at anchor in Botany Bay, “of which we could distinguish the colours and pendants”.

Under orders from Louis XVI, La Pérouse had crisscrossed the Pacific from Maui to Alaska, made landfall at Easter Island and mapped the coast of California. After Samoans killed 12 of his crew, he steered his ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe for New Holland. There, he could tend the wounded and make repairs. By happenstance, he arrived just five days after Captain Arthur Phillip and his convoy of convicts.

For 30 years Phillip had fought England’s traditional enemy on land and sea, overtly and covertly. He spent 1785 on ‘private affairs’ in France, spying on ports and naval installations. Aware of La Pérouse’s expedition, he may even have witnessed its departure. When strange sails were sighted off Botany Bay, he sent the HMS Supply to confirm his suspicions. Realising the French would immediately see there was no established settlement to support Britain’s claims to New South Wales, he had promptly removed himself and his 11 ships to Port Jackson, an infinitely better harbour.

“Europeans are all fellow-countrymen at such a distance from home,” wrote La Pérouse, but his impatience to enter the bay was thwarted by countervailing winds and tides. It was not until the morning of the 26th that he finally dropped anchor.

As honour required, officers were sent to extend Phillip’s compliments to the French and offer any needed assistance. They were received aboard La Pérouse’s flagship with great courtesy and invited to dine. At pains not to let anything slip, they made such a mystery of British intentions that the comte refrained from pursuing the subject. By then, Phillip had pitched camp at Sydney Cove.

The French remained in Botany Bay for six weeks, refitting their ships, building a stockade, planting a garden, socialising with Watkin Tench and fending off scavenging convicts. Phillip, having successfully planted the British flag, maintained polite contact with La Pérouse but never showed his face, or hand, to the Frenchman.

On his way to the guillotine in 1793, Louis XVI asked, “What news of La Pérouse?” Phillip, by then on his way back to England, could have provided none. Observed by lookouts on South Head, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe had sailed into the blue immensity of the Pacific, never to be seen again.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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