The Samoa sub text to Australia Day 1788

In the race between Britain and France to settle Australia in the late 18th century, Samoa unwittingly played a hand in delaying the French from claiming the prize. 

Two French ships arrived in Botany Bay on 24 January that year, only to see the eleven ships of the First Fleet already anchored in the bay. 

French explorer and expedition leader Comte de La Perouse was six days too late.

 The French late arrival could have something to do with the loss of twelve French sailors in Samoa a month earlier. It was December, 1787 and La Perouse’s expedition had arrived in Samoa on their way to Botany Bay. On the 11th of the month, twelve of La Perouse’s men including the captain of one of the two French ships were killed in a skirmish with the Samoans at A’asu on Tutuila Island.

 The race to settle Australia had its roots in the power struggles between Britain, France and the United States in North America. In the 1760’s Britain and France suffered substantial land losses as a result of two conflicts on the continent.

The first conflict was the struggle for Canada in the 7 Years’ War that ended with France ceding territory to Britain in 1763.

In revenge, the French helped the United States win the War of Independence that ended with Britain losing colonies in the American South.

That was the prelude to the race for Botany Bay and British settlement of New South Wales on 26 January, 1788, the official day for Australia Day commemorations.

There was something bigger going on, the American Declaration of Independence on 4 July, 1776 at the outset of the American Revolution accelerated the colonisation of the South Pacific, New Zealand and New Holland (as Australia was then known) as Britain and France looked for replacement territory.

For Britain, she could no longer offload convicts to the colonies – that was one of the facilitators in the revolt to rid America of Britain’s interference in local affairs. The other was unfair taxation imposed on the Americans.

With the loss of her American territories, Britain then sought a new country to receive convicts from England’s overcrowded jails – Botany Bay, claimed by Captain James Cook for the Crown in April, 1770 was identified as the place and they had to get there in a hurry before the French arrived.

The French had a head start. King Louis XVI sent out two ships on 1 August 1785 headed for the South Pacific. The First Fleet did not leave England for NSW until May 1787.

The French expedition was led by well-respected scientist and explorer Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse. His ships were L’Astrolabe and La Boussole.

History would define La Perouse as a tragic figure with bad luck. He missed beating the British to Botany Bay by a matter of days. Then when La Perouse and his remaining crew left Botany Bay in March 1788 after a six-week stay, they were never to be seen again. The two ships simply vanished and did not return to France.  

La Perouse arrived at Fagasa Bay on the north coast of Tutuila on 9 December, 1787. He noted in his journal that the maps he was using were inaccurate and he made a scathing attack on fellow French explorer Antoine de Bougainville who surveyed the islands and drew the maps ten years earlier.

 It was Bougainville who gave Samoa the name Navigator Islands in 1768, a name La Perouse used in his journal for the Samoa group of islands.

La Perouse recorded the interchange with locals started off friendly and there was a healthy exchange of goods between the French and the Samoans.

He wrote in his journal that in one day the two ships purchased “more than 500 pigs, chickens, and pigeons, immense quantities of fruit and two dogs which were found to be very good”.

The ships filled their water casks at the two streams named Le’ele and Fagasili at either end of Fagasa Bay. The streams are still flowing today.

Then something happened on 11 December, his captain de Langle took twelve sailors ashore at nearby A’asu Bay, again for the purpose of procuring water.

The exchange between the two parties was lost in translation and a struggle ensued with de Langle and his men all killed. Their remains were discovered by the French Navy in 1882 and a memorial stone was erected on the site of the massacre.

La Perouse and the remaining crew departed Fagasa Bay in a hurry minus a captain and some of his sailing men, and leaving behind survivors.

The expedition limped south to Tonga, and on to Norfolk Island before arriving at Botany Bay.

Early on the morning of 24 January, La Perouse’s two ships arrived only to find the 11 ships of the First Fleet anchored inside the bay. The first boat of the Fleet sailed into Botany Bay six days earlier on 18 January and the last arrived only four days earlier on 20 January.

Still contained on the ships was the entire population of the fleet some 1,000 men, women and children made up of 753 convicts and the rest marines, officers and sailors.

The figures differ between sources. The population of the first Australians at the same time was estimated at around 750,000 to 1 million, again differing between sources and scientific methods of historical data analysis. That figure has been quoted as high as 1.5 million.    

By the time La Perouse arrived at Botany Bay, Arthur Phillip had already decided against Botany Bay for the settlement of his people. A few days earlier on 21 January Phillip let a party in three small boats toward the north to explore the area known as Broken Bay, and also have a look at the headlands Cook noted in 1770 as Port Jackson.

Captain Cook did not sail through the headlands. He has in haste to depart after a long stay at Botany Bay and merely noted and named Port Jackson from a distance as he sailed north toward Cape York.

Had Cook sent a rowboat to investigate, he would have discovered one of the finest harbours in the entire world. That was Arthur Philip’s reward, and two days after entering Port Jackson and exploring Sydney Cove he was back at Botany Bay on January 23rd, the evening before La Perouse arrived.

La Perouse and his two ships arrived at Botany Bay during the night. It caused much alarm to the Fleet to see the ships anchored outside the Bay in the first light of January 24th.

Preparations were in earnest, and in secret to relocate the entire First Fleet to Sydney Cove. Arthur Phillip did not want La Perouse to know about Sydney Cove. On the 26th of January the fleet weighed anchor and sailed the short distance to Port Jackson in full view of La Perouse and his men.

That evening, the entire First Fleet was safely at anchor in Sydney Cove. The rest is history as the saying goes, and the founding of modern Australia was achieved.

La Perouse and his men stayed put in Botany Bay for six weeks. In that time the French set up an Observatory, a chapel, gardens and geological observations in keeping with the scientific nature of the expedition.

Whilst La Perouse was not once invited by Phillip for a formal diplomatic meeting and the two never met, there was one thing they both agreed upon – Botany Bay was not suitable for a settlement.

The Bay offered no protection to the elements, and there was no adequate water supply to be found.

La Perouse wrote in his journal of Botany Bay and the country as the most god-forsaken place on earth. He might have changed his view had he discovered Sydney Cove first, if only they arrived a week or so earlier.

Before the French departed Botany Bay on the 10th of March La Perouse sent over to Arthur Phillip a despatch of writings and journals to be forwarded to the French ambassador in London on the first outward boat to England.

That was the last recorded sighting of La Perouse and his men. They were not seen again.

 Another sad footnote, a few weeks before the French departed Botany Bay, the chaplain from L’Astrolabe, Father Louis Receveur, died of injuries he sustained in the massacre in Samoa.

La Perouse’s journals were later published in Paris in 1797 under the title “The voyage of La Perouse around the World”. The French Navy spent a considerable amount of effort to find out what happened to the expedition without success.

It is recorded that King Louis XVI before he was executed in 1793 was to enquire if there was any word on La Perouse. The death of the monarch ushered in the French Revolution and it had no small connection to the financial losses heaped on France as a result of the conflicts in North America.  

The mystery of what happened to La Perouse was finally answered in 1964 when the L’Astrolabe and La Boussole were found wrecked outside a reef in Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands.

Related Stories

Bg pattern top

Sign in for free to read more stories

Bg pattern light


Subscribe to Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy access to over a thousand articles per month, on any device as well as feature-length investigative articles.

Ready to signup?