The Lapérouse expedition: travels and mystery

Laperouse bustJean-François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse was a French naval officer who fought on the American side during the Independence War. He distinguished himself by his humane treatment of British prisoners of war. It is interesting to note that, already in the 18th century, the treatment of prisoners of war was considered a test of one’s moral standards. A few years later, Lapérouse led a successful expedition in Hudson Bay, which 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 had a passion for geography and cartography. He wished to launch a major maritime expedition whose goal would no be not colonial or military conquest, but scientific discovery, the correction of existing maps and the establishment of new trade routes, in particular across the Pacific. Lapérouse’s reputation as a experienced explorer and a kindly man secured his appointment to head the expedition.

The preparations began in earnest in 1784. The concept behind the venture was extremely ambitious: Lapérouse was to cover as much distance in one voyage as Captain Cook had done in three. The preparations entailed travel to England to purchase of the most sophisticated scientific equipment of the time (in addition of course to some espionage.)

Louis XVI, who personally supervised the planning of the voyage, specifically forbade the mistreatment of native peoples and stated that he would consider it “one of the highest accomplishments of the expedition that it be completed without costing a single human life.”

Louis XIV Laperouse

So Lapérouse sets sail in August 1785 with two frigates, L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, and 220 men. For the next three years they will explore the shores of the Pacific: Easter Island, Hawaii, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Chile, California, Siberia… Twice the expedition narrowly escapes disaster: the first time in Port des Français off the coast of Alaska, where one of the boats of L’Astrolabe is lost, with several men on board, and a second time in Samoa, where the islanders attack the expedition and kill twelve more men, including Lapérouse’s second in command.

During the spring of 1789, only a few months before the Revolution, Lapérouse writes his wife his last letter from Botany Bay, in Australia. He says he has now lost his hair and teeth, and looks forward to sailing back to France at long last. Then no one in Europe hears again from the expedition, and it is presumed lost. Even in the turmoil of the Revolution raging in Paris, the name of Lapérouse acquires a legendary aura. He becomes a folk hero, and the National Convention orders that the royalties of a book published about his fate be turned over to his the Countess de Lapérouse, who will never see her husband again.

We know now, thanks to maritime archeology, where and how it happened: off the coast of Vanikoro, part of the present day Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific. A tremendous storm, L’Astrolabe drops anchor in a desperate attempt to avoid crashing against the island’s coral reefs, then the hull of La Boussole splits open, its rudder detaching. In minutes it is all over. But dozens of the expedition’s men survived and managed to salvage much of the cargo. With the timbers of L’Astrolabe they build a fortified camp, the remains of which have been excavated since 1999. At the same time marine archeologists have brought to the surface, along with many long lost artifacts, the complete skeleton of one of the victims, presumably an officer in his twenties. Research on the site is ongoing. For updates (in French) see here.

Still more amazing: when an expedition, led by the French-Irish merchant captain Peter Dillon, arrives in Vanikoro in 1826, it learns from the islanders that the last survivors only died recently. Those men had been marooned almost 40 years! Was Lapérouse himself among them? That part of the mystery remains intact.

Turner shipwreck

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