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When Thomas Jefferson learns that ‘The French are Coming’

Thomas Jefferson

Anglo-French rivalry in the eighteenth century was world-wide and played out across several continents and oceans. Here, Margaret Cameron-Ash explains what was hitherto unrecognised: that it was also a crucial factor in Britain’s decision to claim and to people the continent of Australia. The British beat the French to Botany Bay by a matter of days.

History Reclaimed has published a review of my two books about the Anglo-French origins of modern Australia. https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/cooking-the-books-a-new-british-discovery-of-australia/  The first book, Lying for the Admiralty,[i] examines Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage between 1768 and 1771. My second, Beating France to Botany Bay,[ii] examines the dispatch of Britain’s First Fleet to Sydney following the departure of the Comte de Lapérouse’s French expedition to the Pacific in 1785.

Cooking the Books: a new British Discovery of Australia?

The reviewers label my works as ‘revisionist’ and they are correct. I do reject the traditionally held beliefs about the founding of modern Australia, mainly because they don’t bear close analysis.

Given the nature of the island-continent, plus the march of technology and globalisation, Australia was always going to be colonised. The question is, by whom? By the time shipbuilding and navigation were sufficiently advanced for reliable ocean voyaging, the remaining imperial contenders were France and Britain. Thus, Australia’s fate was determined by the key geopolitical tension of the age: Anglo-French rivalry. In the eighteenth century alone, these ancient enemies fought six wars. It is this historic context that explains Britain’s sudden, brazen dash to seize Australia, whatever the cost.

As Professor Larissa Behrendt, an indigenous Euahleyai-Gamillaroi woman, has written: “When Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove in 1788 he was not claiming the land away from the aboriginal people but to make sure the French did not make the claim first.” [iii]  This insight seems to be shared by the editors of History Reclaimed who have illustrated the review with Monsiau’s famous painting of Louis XVI giving instructions to Lapérouse. The King places his right hand over Australia, echoing the famous Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, where the Queen reveals her imperial ambitions by placing her right hand over North America.

Imperial campaigns are wrapped in secrecy. As Professor Ged Martin has written, ‘the problem facing the historian of the founding of Australia is that little more that the government’s laundry bills survive from 1786-88.’[iv] The snap decision to occupy Australia was made in that tiny six-year window between the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Little wonder that William Pitt’s cabinet chose not to advertise their plans.

Like most historians, I’m an ‘archive rat’, as Stalin put it, but I don’t subscribe to the school that says ‘if it’s not in the archives, it didn’t happen’. That poses a problem where documents are deliberately not created. Fortunately, where the archives are silent, assiduous forensic investigation can provide a picture of what really happened.

Why did Britain even want Australia? Both Captain Cook and young Joseph Banks described the place as barren in their journals and neither recommended the continent for colonisation. But what it lacked in riches and markets, Australia made up for in its strategic location at the southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean, still largely unexamined. More importantly, it contained Sydney Harbour, whose depth, size, safety, and defensibility made it a great naval prize, wherever it was located. Cook found the waterway by following an Aboriginal track over the ridge separating Botany Bay from Port Jackson. He sensibly omitted it from his journal, which would be published internationally, but he told the Admiralty on his return to London.

The documentary evidence of Cook’s discovery is a memo in which Arthur Phillip refers to ‘a Port a few Leagues to the Northward [of Botany Bay] where there appear’d to be a good Harbour, and several Islands.’[v] None of these islands can be seen from a passing ship outside Sydney Heads, but they can be seen from the shore deep inside Port Jackson. As Alan Frost has written, before leaving England ‘Phillip had access to this additional information’.[vi]

When it received this news in 1771, the British government was in no position to act on it, for two reasons. One was cost. The other was the East India Company’s monopoly. At the time, the government could not and did not administer one inch of land east of Suffolk. Everything beyond the Capes was owned and governed by trading associations, under charter.

26 January 1788 The French enter Botany Bay as the English leave and race for Port Jackson, the real prize, by Ian Hansen, 2020

26 January 1788 The French enter Botany Bay as the English leave and race for Port Jackson, the real prize, by Ian Hansen, 2020

Even so, Sir Joseph Banks knew that British settlement was the only effective bar to hostile occupation. He suggested sending convicts to Australia, but Parliament replied with the Penitentiary Act 1779, designed to keep the convicts at home in nicer prisons. Banks tried a second time with a plan to send American loyalist refugees to settle Botany Bay. Again, he was rebuffed. Any new government outpost had to be located inside the Atlantic, where it would not upset the East India Company.

Banks’s great breakthrough came in the summer of 1786, when he received a tip-off from the Americans in Paris. Thomas Jefferson had received a report that Lapérouse had orders to colonize Australia.

This information was brought across the Channel by John Ledyard of Connecticut, who had sailed as a marine on Cook’s third voyage. He had made his way to Paris in search of a backer for a fur-trading venture, where he became a close friend of the ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, who had received the report from John Paul Jones in October 1785. In August 1786, Ledyard was summoned to join a vessel in London where, on 17 August, he met fellow Cook alumnus, Sir Joseph Banks. Ledyard was happy to tell the famous President of the Royal Society all the news from Paris, including Jefferson’s report.

Right or wrong, Britain responded with the biggest single overseas migration the world had ever seen. Suddenly the money was found, and the chairmen of the East India Company received a letter from Lord Sydney informing them ‘that their Concurrence in the measure will not only be acceptable to His Majesty, but will be a means of preventing the emigration of Our European Neighbours to that Quarter, which might be attended with infinite prejudice to the Company’s Affairs’.[vii] The chairmen concurred.

Captain Arthur Phillip beat Lapérouse to Botany Bay by five days, thereby achieving one of the most historically significant British naval victories of the whole era of Anglo-French rivalry. Arthur Phillip planted a settlement on the far side of the globe which became a free, unified, stable, flourishing, English-speaking democracy. As such, it holds a strategic importance in a world where, in geopolitical terms, the centre of gravity is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific.

After their almost simultaneous arrival, the British and French groups became neighbours on opposite sides of the peninsula bounded by Port Jackson and Botany Bay. Fortunately, good manners, professionalism and common sense prevailed. Lapérouse himself declared, ‘Des Européens sont tous compatriotes à cette distance de leurs pays’. During the Frenchmen’s six-week visit, there were eleven recorded meetings between the encampments.

As soon as Phillip’s vice-regal tent was erected, he sent two horses over the ridge to Botany Bay to collect Lapérouse and his party. As the naval surgeon, Arthur Bowes Smyth, recorded: ‘Two horses were sent over to conduct the French commodore and suit[e] here’. [viii] In providing the horses, Phillip was acknowledging his guest’s rank and also his state of health.

The historic meeting between Arthur Phillip and the Comte de Lapérouse occurred at Sydney Cove on Wednesday 20 February 1788. The entente cordiale was also recorded by Lieutenants Ralph Clark and William Bradley, the latter observing: ‘Some of the Officers of the Boussole came from Botany Bay to visit the Governor’.[ix]  The French party stayed in Sydney for two nights, returning to their ship on Friday 22 February.

The Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, had opted for the colony to be run according to civil rather than military law. The English government prepared documentation for the usual courts: Civil, Criminal and Vice-Admiralty, plus a Commission for the Trial of Pirates on the coast of New South Wales. These documents were read out at Sydney Cove on Proclamation Day, 7 February 1788.

George III, the last king of America, was now the first king of Australia.

Proclamation Day, 7 February 1788.



[i] Margaret Cameron-Ash, Lying for the Admiralty. Captain Cook’s Endeavour Voyage (Sydney, 2018)

[ii] Margaret Cameron-Ash, Beating France to Botany Bay. The Race to Found Australia (Sydney, 2021)

[iii] ‘Settlement or Invasion? The Coloniser’s Quandary’ in  The Honest History Book (eds. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski) (Sydney, 2017).

[iv] Ged Martin (ed.), The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s origins (Sydney, 1978), p. 5.

[v]  Arthur Phillip, Comments on a draft of his instructions, c.11 April 1787, Colonial Office Records, The National Archives, Kew, U.K., TNA CO 201/2, f.128–129

[vi] Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip, 1738–1814: His Voyaging (Oxford,1987), p 296, n. 3.

[vii] Sydney to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman, 15 September 1786, IOR E/1/79/187-188, reproduced in Alan Frost, ‘The East India Company and the choice of Botany Bay’, in Martin (ed.), The Founding of Australia, pp 229-30.

[viii] 19 February 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales (1892-1901), vol.2, p. 394; Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal, Original MS 4568, National Library of Australia.

[ix] A voyage to New South Wales. The journal of Lieutenant William Bradley RN of HMS Sirius, 1786-1792, (Sydney, Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, 1969)

About the author


Margaret Cameron-Ash