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Book review - Beating France to Botany Bay: The Race to Found Australia

By Rex Drabik - posted Tuesday, 25 January 2022

The sudden appearance of two French frigates at the entrance of Botany Bay just days after the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788 is often relegated to a curious sidenote in the history of early European Australia. However, it shouldn't be – at least in the view of Margaret Cameron-Ash, who argues in her new book that the French arrival was part of a photo finish race for Australia, the "last great Anglo-French contest before the French Revolution."

In Beating France to Botany Bay: The Race to Found Australia, Cameron-Ash firmly places the long-running Anglo-French rivalry at the centre of the story of modern Australia's birth. Rivalry, she notes, can spur remarkable enterprise. Cameron-Ash draws a parallel with the space race and the Apollo lunar landings of the twentieth century. Before entering the White House, John Kennedy showed little interest in space. Yet, this swiftly changed when the Soviet Union put Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961. Facing the risk of being surpassed by the Soviets, President Kennedy in May 1961 committed the United States to putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Cameron-Ash concurs with historians like Geoffrey Blainey and Alan Frost who have challenged the once conventional view that Australia was settled merely to serve as a dumping ground for British convicts. In his classic book The Tyranny of Distance, Blainey observed that the settling of eastern Australia was a "startingly costly" and impractically slow solution to the problem of crowded British prisons. The decision to establish the New South Wales colony simply did not stack up unless wider strategic motives were considered, Blainey argued. As Frost put it in Botany Bay: The Real Story: "Rather than a simple 'dumping of convicts' scheme, the plan [to colonise New South Wales] bore on Britain's commercial and strategic endeavours in the vast oceanic world between the great capes."


Within this context, Cameron-Ash focuses on the catalyst for the British decision in August 1786 to establish a beachhead at Botany Bay. She notes that Sir Joseph Banks had been a persistent advocate for the colonisation of New South Wales following his visit in 1770 with Captain James Cook on the Endeavour. Banks testified before British parliamentary committees that Botany Bay would be an advantageous site for a penal colony. Yet, despite Banks' considerable standing and influence in England, the proposal found insufficient support within government circles.

Then, in August 1786 – sixteen years after Cook's visit – the British government suddenly decided to plant a settlement on the Australian east coast. What was behind this seemingly abrupt decision? Cameron-Ash contends that British officials received, via Banks, bombshell intelligence relating to the French expedition under the command of Jean-Francois de Galaup Laperouse, which was bound for the Pacific. This nugget of intelligence, Cameron-Ash argues, compelled the government of William Pitt the Younger to fire Britain's starting pistol on August 18, 1786, launching Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet on a voyage to eastern Australia.

Laperouse's expedition had caught the attention of the Americans. Despite being allies in the American Revolutionary War, the Americans had become wary of French intentions in the Pacific. Thomas Jefferson, then American ambassador to France, ordered naval commander John Paul Jones to secretly gather information about Laperouse's expedition, which departed from the French port of Brest in August 1785. After visiting Brest, Jones reported back to Jefferson that he suspected Laperouse had orders to find potential fur trading sites on the American west coast but also survey the coast of New Holland and lay the groundwork for potential French colonisation.

Cameron-Ash contends that this crucial bit of intelligence about the nature of Laperouse's mission was likely passed from the Americans to the British by the adventurer John Ledyard. A friend of Jefferson, Ledyard was active among the circle of American expatriates in Paris. The American voyager was also a veteran of Captain Cook's final voyage. The Cook connection undoubtedly helped open doors in London. Cameron-Ash points to correspondence indicating that Ledyard met with Banks in London on August 17, 1786. It was during this meeting, she speculates, that Ledyard told Banks about suspected French ambitions in the Pacific. Armed with this intelligence, it is argued that Banks then alerted his contacts in Whitehall. Shortly after, an official plan to colonise New South Wales was developed, aimed at forestalling any French moves in the region.

A lawyer-turned-historian, Cameron-Ash at times relies heavily on circumstantial evidence to build her case. Most conversations went unrecorded, leaving us only to speculate about the topics discussed between some of the key players in this story. Nevertheless, the lack of firm documentary evidence at certain junctures does not deter Cameron-Ash as she weaves together various strands to form her intriguing narrative. "Every historian," she writes, "who has sought the reason for the foundation of modern Australia has bemoaned the paucity of documents: 'little more than the government's laundry bills survive from 1786-88'." She maintains that some developments were deliberately left unrecorded for reasons of secrecy.

While some readers may be left longing for more documentary evidence, Cameron-Ash's account is a plausible, well-argued and valuable contribution to the debate surrounding the origins of modern Australia. She demonstrates a keen eye for detail, piecing together clues from a wide variety of sources. The prose is breezy and the chapters are concise. The final chapters deal with the meeting of the British and French at Botany Bay in early 1788. After an epic voyage through the Atlantic and the Pacific, Laperouse arrived to witness the foundation of the Sydney settlement and the beginnings of British Australia. Laperouse's ships, the Astrolabe and Boussole, sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788 and disappeared thereafter. His reports about the Australian east coast would never make it back to Paris.

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Beating France to Botany Bay: The Race to Found Australia, Margaret Cameron-Ash, Quadrant Books, 2021.

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About the Author

Rex Drabik is a former regional and rural journalist based in Western Australia.

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