As Ancient as the World: the French at Recherche Bay

It will be difficult to describe my feelings at the sight of this solitary harbour situated at the extremities of the globe, so perfectly enclosed that one feels separated from the rest of the universe.

— Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Recherche Bay, January 1793.

France and Britain

During the late 18th century, Britain and France were competing to chart and explore new worlds. In 1803, Tasmania was  settled by the British at Risdon Cove, but the legacy of French explorers is evident today in many Tasmanian place names: Freycinet Peninsula, Huon River, Bruny Island, d’Entrecasteaux Channel, Forestier Peninsula.

In fact, an important French landing pre-dates British settlement. In 1792 a party of French explorers camped for a total of nine weeks in the far south of Tasmania, at Recherche Bay.

map Tasmania travel
Recherche Bay, Tasmania

The primary purpose of this expedition was to search for a lost maritime hero.

La Pérouse

In 1785, Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, with a 114-man crew, had embarked from Brest in Brittany, sponsored by Louis XVI. His aim was to explore the Pacific regions of North and South America, Asia and Australasia.


La Pérouse sent regular reports to France, but in 1788 his ships sailed out of Botany Bay and were not seen or heard of again by Europeans.


In 1791, Rear Admiral Joseph Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux began an expedition to search for La Pérouse. He had two ships: Recherche, under his own command, and Espérance, under Commander Huon de Kermadec.

As well as searching for the lost expedition, D’Entrecasteaux planned to conduct his own exploration, mapping, hydrographical charting and scientific observation.

Recherche Bay

In April 1792 the two ships came ashore in the area now named Recherche Bay.


Recherche Bay Tasmania travel
Recherche Bay

The aim was to rest the crew, collect water and supplies and complete maintenance on the ships.

Scientific Research

The D’Entrecasteaux expedition stayed at Recherche Bay for 26 days, and returned in January 1793, staying for another 24 days.

Everything is influenced by the wilderness of the rugged landscape. With each step, one encounters the beauties of unspoilt nature, with signs of decrepitude, trees reaching a very great height, and of corresponding diameter, are devoid of branches along the trunk, but crowned with an everlasting green foliage. Some of these trees seem as ancient as the world, and are so tightly interlaced that they are impenetrable.

— Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Recherche Bay, January 1793.

D’Entrecasteaux’s party included botanist Jacques Labillardière,

Jacques Labillardière (Boilly)

There were also botanists Claude Riche and Étienne Pierre Ventenat and Félix Delahaye,  hydrographical engineer, Beautemps-Beaupré, and astronomer Elisabeth Paul Edouard de Rossel.

They were equipped with state-of-the-art compasses and chronometers as well as astronomical instruments. The camp included a tent used as an astrological observatory.

The botanists collected and catalogued almost 5000 specimens. Labillardière identified about 100 new plant species, including the Tasmanian blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus).


This later became Tasmania’s floral emblem.

They also collected specimens of native heath (Epacris impressa),


now the state floral emblem of Victoria.

Rossel conducted a series of measurements of the Earth’s geomagnetic field that proved geomagnetism varied with latitude.

Beautemps-Beaupré, in company with other officers, surveyed the northern reaches of Storm Bay, discovering the mouth of the river now known as the Derwent.

The expedition also made friendly contact with the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The journals of Labillardière remain the best accounts of Tasmanian Aboriginal society prior to European settlement.  

A Garden

Gardener-botanist Felix Delahaye created a garden to establish European plants. According to his journal, he planted celery, chervil, chicory, cabbages, grey romaine lettuce, different kinds of turnip, white onion, radishes, sorrel, peas, black salsify and potatoes.

On 4 February 2003,  environmental activists found a rectangle of  moss-covered stones in the north-eastern peninsula of Recherche Bay and suggested this was the ruins of Delahaye’s garden. The site was placed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register. More recently, after geophysical and archaeological study and soil sampling, it was concluded that this site did not correspond with descriptions of the garden by the French botanists.


The Recherche mission failed to find La Pérouse. Neither D’Entrecasteaux nor his ships ever returned to France.

In 1793 Kermadec died of tuberculosis in Balade in New Caledonia, and d’Entrecasteaux died of scurvy, off the Hermit Islands.


Recherche and Espérance, were captured by the Dutch at Surabaya in 1793, returned to French ownership in 1794, then sold back to Holland and scrapped.

After the Peace of Amiens brought a temporary cessation of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1802, all the papers of the expedition were returned to Rossel, who published an account of the voyage.

Labillardière’s scientific collections were seized by the British as spoils of war, but were returned to him in 1796.  Home in France, he published a popular account of his voyage, Relation du Voyage à la Recherche de la Pérouse. Between 1804 and 1807 he published the first general description of the flora of Australia, much of it as a result of the work conducted at  Recherche Bay.


Labillardiere, Jacques (1800), Voyage In Search Of La Perouse, London: John Stockdale. Available through Project Gutenberg Australia eBook No.: 1203851h.html , first posted October 2012.

Landsdown, Richard (2009), ‘Romantic aftermaths’ in Pierce, Peter, ed. The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. p. 118

Mulvaney, J D (2007), The Axe Had Never Sounded: Place, People and Heritage of Recherche Bay, Tasmania, Canberra, A.C.T.: ANU E Press.

Mulvaney, J and Tyndale-Biscoe, H (eds) (2007), Rediscovering Recherche Bay,  Canberra: Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia [on behalf of the National Academies Forum], 2007.

Click to access national-heritage-recherche.pdf

Thanks to these people for the images

“Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse (Milet de Mureau, 1797)” by Louis-Antoine Destouff Milet-Mureau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Jacques Labillardière (Boilly)” sketch by Julien Leopold Boilly, lithographer unknown. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Recherche Bay” by Tirin aka Takver – – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

“Eucalyptus Globulus” by Rezergua – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

“Epacris Impressa, Pink Flowering Form” by Ways – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Recherche and Espérance” by François Geoffroy Roux – Scanned from L’Empire des Mers, Martine Acerra & Jean MeyerMarines editorISBN 2826401009, Public Domain,

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