Laperouse, the voyage

Laperouse, discovery, co-incidence, tragedy, the voyage of and today …

see Further reading, Laperouse & Botany Bay.

Laperouse, 61 x 91 cm (24″ x 36″), 

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‘Laperouse and the First Fleet, Botany Bay’,

More correctly, Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse of Albi, a tribute to Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse of Albi, and his men.

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By one of life’s mysterious coincidences Laperouse arrived at Botany Bay the same day the First Fleet departed to settle at Sydney Cove.

A modern equivalent would be a similarly unlikely meeting on the Moon.

The voyage of Laperouse.

 Jean-François Galaup de Lapérouse,


with Astrolabe and Boussole was literally the French response to the discoveries of Captain James Cook, discoveries that were a major sensational in 18 th century Europe.

The brilliant and tragic voyage of Laperouse is still celebrated today on medallions, postage stamps and other commemorative artefacts, in many museums world wide and in the town of his birth in S W France, Albi, by the association Laperouse and with a small yet splendid museum.

The name ‘ Laperouse’ has been variously spelt however, in Albi it is spelt ‘Lapérouse’, sometimes without the accent thus I have taken those spellings as my guide.

The voyage of Laperouse

The ships of Laperouse Astrolabe and La Boisselle were on a voyage of scientific discovery at a time when very few Europeans had entered the vast Pacific Ocean.

The Laperouse voyage was literally the French political and scientific response to the voyages of the British Captain James Cook which at that time had astonished all Europe.

Later Laperouse was to complain and compliment James Cook by saying « Cook has discovered everything ».

Following James Cook’s directions Laperouse encountered the First Fleet at anchor in Botany Bay and about to sail as they prepare to move to Port Jackson to start in earnest a colony at a place they named Sydney Cove.

To quote an eye witness, Watkin Tench; “I flew upon deck, on which I had barely set my foot when the cry of `another sail’ struck on my astonished ear.

Confounded by a thousand ideas which arose in my mind in an instant, I sprang upon the barricado and plainly descried two ships of considerable size standing in for the mouth of the bay. By this time the alarm had become general and everyone appeared lost in conjecture. Now they were Dutchmen sent to dispossess us, and the moment after store ships from England with supplies for the settlement. The improbabilities which attended both these conclusions were sunk in the agitation of the moment. It was by Governor Phillip that this mystery was at length unravelled, and the cause of the alarm pronounced to be two French ships it was now recollected were on a voyage of discovery in the southern hemisphere. Thus were our doubts cleared up and our apprehensions banished. It was, ,however, judged expedient to postpone our removal to Port Jackson until a complete confirmation of our conjectures could be procured.

Had the sea breeze set in, the strange ships would have been

at anchor in the bay by eight o’clock in the morning but, the wind blowing out, they were driven by a strong lee current to the southward of the port. On the following day they re­appeared in their former situation and a boat was sent to them with a lieutenant of the navy in her to offer assistance and point

out the necessary marks for entering the harbour. In the course of the day the officer returned and brought intelligence that the ships were the Boussole and Astrolabe, sent out by order of the King of France and under the command of Monsieur La Perouse. The astonishment of the French at seeing us had not equalled that we had experienced, for it appeared that in the course of their voyage they had touched at Kamchatka and by that means learnt that our expedition was in contemplation. They dropped anchor the next morning, just as we had got under weigh to work out of the bay, so that for the present nothing more than salutations could pass between us”.

Laperouse departed Botany Bay on 10 March 1788 never to be seen again by Europeans.

French governments, despite being beset by revolutions and wars commissioned several voyages to find Laperouse and his men.

In 1827 Captain Peter Dillon of the British East India Company found possible evidence the men of Astrolabe and La Boussole at Vanikoro Island in the Solomon Islands group.

Local people said two ships had been wrecked in a storm.

The locals added, the survivors had constructed their own small boat and sailed, never to be heard from again.

Most of what we know of the voyage results from recent archaeology including dives at Vanikoro and because Laperouse gave much scientific information to the Russians and at Botany Bay to the British both of whom who faithfully conveyed the material to Paris.


My voyage had started in conversations with Stephen Best when we were both living at Castelnau de Montmiral in south west France.

Stephen had visited the Musée de Lapérouse in nearby Albi, a small beautiful, fascinating museum well worth a visit.

Stephen who has travelled extensively around ‘Polynesia’, the Pacific, became very interested in the voyage and mysterious fate of Laperouse.

Following a visit to the museum I too became ‘infected’ with his enthusiasm so I joined L’association Lapérouse to learn more.

The museum staff and members of L’association Lapérouse could not have been more helpful.

However I soon realised most of the splendid models and all the paintings of the ships Astrolabe and la Boisselle were historically incorrect as is some of the info on Wikipedia.

Meanwhile Stephen and I discussed possible subjects for a ‘Laperouse’ painting.

Easter Island featured high on our list.

I even came up with a plausible theory as to why all the bays on Easter Island have local names except one, Laperouse Bay.

Yet Laperouse never visited that bay; another mystery for which I am quietly confident I have the correct answer …

Stephen and I now think the bay is so named because given the course steered as Astrolabe and Boussel departed Easter Island, the cilffs of that bay were likely to have been the place from which the Easter Islanders had their last sight of the French expedition.

Astrolabe and Boussel.

Finding images of the ships of the First Fleet was easy, they are well documented, less so ‘Astrolabe’ and ‘la Boussel’.

We knew where the ships were acquired (both second hand merchant vessels), their dimensions and where they were prepared for their long voyage (Brest).

What no one knew was the true appearance of the ships, no plans or contemporary paintings are know to exist.

Burrowing more deeply I discovered at various times ships officers had included the ships in what looked like casual personal souvenir drawings of bays were the ships had anchored.

The drawings were small (I found a way round that problem), of poor quality (probably the officers were not very interested in the appearance of their ships which to them were very ordinary).

Some of the drawings clearly contained errors, other gave very useful information to anyone familiar with French merchant ships of the period.

I quickly made myself familiar with French merchant ships of the period.

It soon became clear one of the ships was note worthy for having a stern by then old fashioned.

A some what ‘galleon style’ stern, more note worthy because the design was clearly not an English or Dutch style.

I have made these sterns a feature in my painting Laperouse and the First Fleet.

Botany Bay.

The bay, Botany Bay, presented another challenge, what did it look like and more particularly in those far off days ?
Where were the ships in relation to each other ?

The British and French sailed for Botany Bay, why?

There were two main reasons for the choice.

European rivalry to trade with and colonise distant lands.

Captain James Cook’s charts suggested Botany Bay was the most suitable harbour on the East coast of Australia, cook having missed seeing the entrance to what is now Sydney Harbour.

By a huge co incidence and keep in mind at that period there were very, very few European ships in the pacific Ocean, in those days such a voyage was not unlike going to the Moon or Mars today.

Laperouse arrived at Botany Bay the same day the First Fleet were leaving to settle at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson so the ships and people actually met.

When after a three month stay which included very congenial relations with the British Laperouse ships sailed out into the wide Pacific Ocean never to be seen again.

The British abandoned Botany Bay in favour of Sydney cove, Port Jackson, for several reasons.

The principal reasons were, Botany Bay was not found to be very fertile so unsuitable for a first colony and to quote Watkin Tench “The bay is very open and greatly exposed to the south-east winds, which when they blow cause a dangerous swell”.

By great good fortune I found an ally at the UK Hydrographic Office, a secure government building meaning not open to the public, in Taunton, Somerset.

UK Hydrographic Office.

Guy Hannaford generously invited me to visit.

Now the title UKHO may seem rather dull… believe me it is not a dull place at all.

On the 6 th of November 2009 I drove to Taunton for what was to be an incredible day at the Admiralty Hydrographic Office research department.

Awesome… there I was in the UK Hydrographic Office, Taunton, I’d been passed by the armed guards, met by Guy Hannaford, I was holding not any chart, the original chart of Botany Bay drawn by Captain James Cook.

The same chart that drew the First Fleet of British settlers and the French voyage of scientific discovery commanded by Laperouse.

How many lives have been changed because of Cook’s discovery of Botany Bay and his charts ?

I was soon looking at period drawings of Botany Bay (Laperouse) and Gibraltar (Nelson)  for 2 marine paintings, charts and watercolours made by ship captains of the period, still preserved in pristine condition.

The British can thank the Dutch for their splendid ‘Admiralty Charts’ widely considered even today the best of the best.

The history of chart making is a long one.

Many of the earliest and best charts were made by Jewish people.

Many professions were at that time closed to the ever industrious Jews who were much discriminated against by the Roman Church, forbidden to own land or property, forbidden many activities.

Thus Jewish folk turned to other work, doctors, scientists, bankers, couriers, map makers and at sea Sir Francis Drake’s navigator is on his crew list as ‘Moses the Jew’ …

The Hydrographic Office traces it’s beginning to the late 18th century as a department and it’s origins I was told, to the Dutch raid on the Thames and Medway.

During that attack the Dutch navy successfully navigated the difficult Thames Estuary river Medway to destroyed or carried off an embarrassing amount of British naval property.

Later during the recriminations a very angry King Charles asked  how was it possible and the answer was  “charts”.

Did the English have charts?” was said to be King Charles next question and no was the answer.

Buy Dutch charts was the Royal command!

Incidentally, King Charles II introduced the Dutch marine artist  William van der Velde to London as his official marine artist thus establishing a tradition of British marine painting to which I am an hier.

The ‘Merry Monarch’ also introduced the sport of yachting, some thing else many of us love in common with King Charles II.

I found with Guy’s help most of what I needed including some amazing 19th century and even earlier, one dated 1770, drawings and charts.

I found myself allowed to handle original documents, awesome or what ?

To follow that using dairies and ships logs it was relatively easy to establish the composition you can enjoy in my painting which needs a home, « Laperouse and the First Fleet », enjoy.


Frickers worked from original source material including, special thanks to the UK Hydrographic Office including for access to the chart drawn on Cook’s voyage, to the staff of of the musée de Lapérouse in Albi and members of L’association Lapérouse , to Mr. Stephen Best and to Watkin Tench, an eyewitness who wrote a splendidn book describing the stoye of the First Fleet including the encounter with the ships pf Lapérouse.

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Email note, to foil spammers I’ve used ‘at’ in the address, : please substitute @ :

T : Mobile +33 (0) 6 10 66 19 26

or free via Whatsapp / Facebook Messenger ‘gordonfrickers’

Copyright 2021 :

Fees and our Terms  are among the most generous on the Internet.

Don’t hesitate to ask for details.

My painting is the choice of many distinguished individuals and famous companies.

Gordon Frickers © updated 18.04.2021

Gordon Frickers artist
This Gordon Frickers art signature is on all my more recent paintings.