France was interested in acquiring colonies in the Pacific Ocean from the late 18th century. The first French expedition to the area was undertaken by Jean Francois de la Perouse with two ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe.

The ships sailed from Brest harbour in August 1785 and made their first port of call at Madeira. The British governor of the island welcomed the expedition and showered La Perouse with gifts: “a prodigious quantity of fruits of all description, a hundred bottles of Malmsey wine, half a barrel of rum and some candied lemons.”

The next landing was at Tenerife where the expedition’s scientists climbed the highest peak to collect rock specimens for study. La Perouse crossed the Atlantic to Trinidad and then sailed down the South American coast, around Cape Horn, into the Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Concepcion, Chile [subject to recent (2010) earthquake]. The ships stayed for three weeks so the crew could take on food supplies and build their stamina to continue their voyage to Easter Island, Hawaii and Alaska.

Disaster struck the expedition in July 1786, almost a year after leaving France, when a survey party misread the tides and were swept on to rocks and drowned in Lituya Bay, Alaska. The two ships with flags flying at half mast and a crew with heavy hearts sailed down the Californian coast then west across the Pacific to Macao, the Sea of Japan and north to Kamchatka.

Another year had passed and it was in September 1787 when La Perouse received news of a British settlement being established in New South Wales. He immediately set sail southwards to investigate, arriving in Botany Bay just six days after the First Fleet.

He anchored in what is now called Frenchmans Bay for less than two months. After leaving Botany Bay the expedition was never heard from again.

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