La Perouse’s Journey Around the World

The Journey Begins

On August 1, 1785 two ships the La Boussole and the L’Astrolabe accompanied by two sloops headed out to sea. La Perouse’s journey around the world had begun. King Louis XVI was informed that the ships were leaving the French port of Brest to sail across the Atlantic and into the Great South Sea as the Pacific was known at that time. Nearly 300 years earlier the Spanish explorer Balboa had discovered the Great South Sea but only now it was being extensively explored and charted. Britain’s Captain James Cook had also done some exploring between 1768 and 1779 and now it was France’s turn. When La Perouse sailed out of Brest he was almost 44 years old. Aboard the two 500-ton frigates were provisions for a four-year voyage. The two ships were well named La Boussole meant “compass” and L’Astrolabe (a device to measure the distance of the stars above the horizon). Among the gifts and barter items for natives were 600 mirrors, 2,600 combs, 1,260 pounds of glass beads and 50,000 sewing needles.

Entering the Pacific

On January 25, 1786 the two ships rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific. They put up at Valparaiso, Chile and on April 8 reached Easter Island. The next stop being Maui in the Hawaiian Islands which Captain Cook had discovered eight years earlier. The first sighting of the North American coastline was at Mount St. Elias at the north tip of Alaska’s panhandle. Disaster struck as they were charting the coast to the south. Two reconnaissance boats taking soundings off the entrance to a bay were overturned by waves with the loss of 21 men including 6 officers. Finally throughout the summer they got as far south as Monterey, California.

From California the French expedition headed west across the Pacific. On January 3rd, 1787 they reached the Portuguese colony of Macao at the mouth of China’s Pearl River. After repairing his ships and taking on supplies La Perouse headed north in April to chart the Asian coastline. They skirted Taiwan, passed between Korea and Japan and into the Sea of Japan sailing through the strait that separated Japan from Russia’s Sakhalin Island. At the end of their second summer of exploration they reached Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. It was here that La Perouse gave a Russian speaking officer named de Lesseps the mission to cross Siberia to Europe bearing the reports of the expedition’s accomplishments so far.

Attacked By Natives

In September of 1787 they stopped to take on fresh water at Tutuila which today is the chief island of American Samoa. Armed only with clubs and stones the natives attacked the longboats and killed 12 men including Fleuriot de Langle the captain of L’Astrolabe and La Perouse’s second in command. Forty-three men were injured but managed to swim to safety. The French made a hasty retreat and headed for Australia’s east coast. At the end of January 1788 they sailed into Botany Bay and were surprised to find a British squadron. This was the famous First Fleet of seven vessels carrying some 750 British convicts — men, women, and children — who were the founders of Australia’s first colony. With them La Perouse sent more reports and letters promising to be home by June 1789.

Vanished and Gone

La Perouse’s two ships left Australia on March 10, 1788 heading northeast. They simply vanished into the blue never to be seen or heard from again. Two years later on September 25, 1791 Rear Admiral Joseph Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux left Brest with two ships to search for La Perouse’s missing expedition. Searching the Pacific d’ Entrecasteaux made a number of scientific and geographic discoveries. By May 1793 he had reached Vanikoro, an island in the Santa Cruz group northeast of Australia. The crew noticed smoke rising from several elevated places on the heavily wooded, mountainous island. D’ Entrecasteaux was convinced that he had finally found La Perouse or at least survivors of his expedition. Because of Vanikoro’s treacherous reefs d’ Entrecasteaux was forced to leave without sending a search party ashore. The admiral took ill and died two months later and that autumn his vessels were seized by the Dutch in Java. This was due to the fact that by then revolutionary France was at war with Holland and most of the rest of Europe. No further rescue missions were sent out.

Seeking the Truth

An Irishman named Peter Dillon was cruising about the South Pacific in May of 1826 when he put up at the tiny island of Tikopia in the Santa Cruz group. There they discovered that the natives had glass beads and other articles of European manufacture including a silver sword guard with the initials J.F.G.P. which they had obtained in trade with natives of Vanikoro which was a two day sail away. Dillon guessed that the initial stood for Jean Galaup de La Perouse. But attempting to get to Vanikoro his ship started taking on water and he retreated to Java. By the end of the summer he had backing for a search to find the survivors of La Perouse’s expedition. However it took another year before he reached Vanikoro.

An old native told him that many years ago two ships had run aground on the island’s reefs during a storm. One ship had sunk immediately with most of the crew drowning or being eaten by sharks. The second ship hung on the reefs and the survivors managed to make a small boat from timbers of the wrecked Boussole and sailed away. Two of the survivors according to the native one a “chief”’ and one a “servant” had stayed behind surviving until only a few year earlier. All about the island Dillon’s party found evidence of the French occupation, including an engraved ship’s bell and a plank carved with the French fleur-de-lis.

Dillon reached Paris in February of 1829 with the relics of La Perouse’s ill-fated expedition. Rumors of Dillon’s discoveries had already reached Paris long before he did and an official search mission under the command of Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville had been sent to the South Pacific. When Dumont d’Urville reached Vanikoro the natives showed him a channel through the reef which they still called “False” or “Wreck Passage”. This was where La Perouse’s flagship La Boussole had been shipwrecked and coming to her rescue L.Astrolabe had been stranded. D’Urville wrote that lying at the bottom of the sea they could see anchors, cannons, shot and a huge quantity of lead plates. They managed to salvage relics which provided solid proof of the shipwreck. Before departing D’Urvill set up a monument on Vanikoro to La Perouse and his 400 men. La Perouse is remembered in the name that he gave to geographic features from Easter Island to Hawaii, Japan and Australia.