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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