Lapérouse, explorer extraordinaire, at the Musée de la Marine


Many thanks to Sheramy at Van Gogh’s Chair for an excellent list of this summer’s exhibitions in the United States and France. By the way, if you wish to see Marie-Antoinette or Babylon, you should hurry, because both will be closing in early June.

Sheramy did not mention another exhibition, more historical than artistic in its focus, titled Le mystère Laperouse, The Lapérouse Mystery, at the Musée National de la Marine in Paris.

I love the colorful poster of the exhibition, the title is great (who doesn’t like a mystery?) and Lapérouse is a fascinating character.

Jean-François de Lapérouse (1741- probably
1788) was a French naval officer who fought on the American side during the Independence War. A few years later, a successful expedition in Hudson Bay established his reputation as a maritime explorer.

Louis XVI, as I have noted earlier in this blog, was far from the imbecile he is sometimes made to appear. The King was what we would call an intellectual, and had a passion for geography and cartography. He wished to launch a major maritime expedition whose goal would no be not military conquest, but scientific discovery, the correction of existing maps and the establishment of new trade routes, in particular across the Pacific.

Louis XVI chose Lapérouse to head the expedition (both men are represented in this painting, the King seated, and Lapérouse in his uniform.) The navigator sailed from France in 1785, only four years before the start of the Revolution. He had been entrusted with two merchant ships and a crew of 220 men, including an astronomer, a physician, three biologists, a mathematician and three draftsmen. Even the Catholic priests who were part of the expedition as chaplains were trained as scientists (the two being perfectly compatible.)

The expedition crossed the Atlantic and reached Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, in January 1786. It later explored Chile, Easter Island, Hawaii (there is still a place in Maui called Lapérouse Bay,) Alaska, California, where Lapérouse found much to criticize in the treatment of Native Americans, Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Tonga, Samoa, Australia…

The expedition seems to have floundered off the coast of Vanikoro, in the modern-day Solomon Islands, in 1788. The disappearance of Lapérouse, his crew and his ships caused much speculation at the time.

Louis XVI himself allegedly asked, on the morning of his execution, on January 21, 1793: “Is there any news of Monsieur de Lapérouse?” I make no guarantees as to the accuracy of this quote, but it is emblematic of the deposed King’s personal sympathy for the explorer, and the level of public interest in the fate of the expedition. The shipwreck was not traced until decades later and many questions remain about the circumstances of the disaster.

Does this exhibition throw any light on the Lapérouse mystery? I cannot tell, because I have not yet seen it. But I plan to visit it very soon, and will not fail to report on it.

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18 Comments to “Lapérouse, explorer extraordinaire, at the Musée de la Marine”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

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  17. Seems like from what I remember of the disapperance story, one of Lapérouse’s frigates grounded on a reef — and the other ran around trying to help pull the first off. The survivors mostly perished from disease and massacre at the hands of hostile inhabitants. I think the story was pieced together much later (in the 1820’s) from mostly native accounts. Turned out that a search expedition passed close to the wreck site — saw smoke signals on shore — but, as I recall,they avoided investigating because the expedition leader decided there was danger from the same reefs that destroyed Commodore Lapérouse!

    I can’t think of a worse fate for the survivors, being marooned so far from home in such a manner.

    As for Hawai’i, in addition to Lapérouse Bay, far out in the Hawai’ian Island chain, about halfway between the State of Hawai’i and the Midway Islands is a place called French Frigate Shoals. The commodore passed this way earlier in his voyage, and apparently very nearly lost his ships on the reefs there.

    As an aside, the French Navy’s pivotal contribution to American independence isn’t written about or appreciated nearly enough. It was absolutely decisive. Commodore Lapérouse’s boss, Admiral DeGrasse, had perhaps the finest strategic brain of any naval commander in that war.

  18. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Jefe! I didn’t know about French Frigate Shoals. You remind me of how remiss I have been in reporting on this – fascinating – exhibition and the light it throws on the fate of the Laperouse exhibition. I will post on it this coming week. Stay tuned…