Thursday, September 11, 2008


The voyage to Botany Bay.

The L’Astrolabe and the La Boussole disappearing into the mists…

Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, led an expedition consisting of two ships and many scientists on an extensive journey through the Pacific Ocean that began in 1785 and disappeared in 1788.

By 1785, Louis XVI was intent on restoring the fortunes of France, both economically and culturally. Its revenues from the North American fur trade were dwindling as trappers depleted the beaver populations of Canada and Louisiana. French colonies in the Caribbean experienced spasms of violence as slaves fought to achieve emancipation. French science remained a point of pride. The Institut National and the Société d’Histoire Naturelle encouraged research and publication in botany, zoology, mathematics, astronomy, and physics. Science and commerce joined together to support France’s effort to reassert itself as a colonial power and propelled the expeditions that followed Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

In 1785 the French navy fitted two frigates, the L’Astrolabe and the La Boussole, for a voyage to the Pacific. Under the command of Jean- François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, the expedition brought to the Pacific the largest yet contingent of scientists. La Pérouse’s scientific staff included several botanists to study plants, physicists and astronomers to observe the motions of the Earth and heavens, a hyrodrographer to survey coastlines, a mineralologist to examine rock and soil samples, and a natural philosopher to make sense of it all. Attached to the scientific team were draughtsmen to draw maps, an artist charged by La Pérouse with “painting dresses and landscapes of the different countries we might visit,” a watchmaker to maintain the six chronometers, and a gardener to care for plant specimens.

The L’Astrolabe and the La Boussole left Brest, in northwest France, on August 1, 1785. Rounding Cape Horn, the ships visited Easter Island and Hawaii. In late June 1786, La Pérouse brought the ships into an Alaskan harbor he christened Port des Français, now called Lituya Bay. The French traded for furs with Inuit trappers who had, one of La Pérouse’s officers wrote, “manners which were in general more gentle and grave—and who perhaps had greater intelligence than that to be found in any European nation.” La Pérouse left Alaska and sailed down the western coast of North America to the Spanish port at Monterey, California. From California the expedition sailed west across the Pacific, touching land in the Hawaiian Islands and in the Marianas. The L’Astrolabe and the La Boussole entered the Portuguese trading port at Macao, China. The furs from Alaska were sold to brokers in Macao, and one of the scientists returned to France to deliver the journals and charts generated in the first phase of the expedition.

The expedition left Macao to survey the coasts of China, Korea, and Japan. Returning north in September 1787, La Pérouse arrived at the Russian harbor of Petropavlovsk, where Charles Clerke had died eight years before. Another package of letters, journals, and maps was sent to Paris, and orders from France were waiting for La Pérouse. French officials were concerned about reports that Great Britain was planning a colony at Botany Bay in New Holland. The expedition was to go there at once to determine the scope of the rivals’ new colonial enterprise. Sailing as quickly as possible, stopping only briefly in Samoa and Tonga, the L’Astrolabe and the La Boussole reached Botany Bay on January 26, 1788. Despite tensions back in Europe, the governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillips, received La Pérouse and his officers warmly and offered to convey a shipment of the expedition’s documents to France.

In this shipment was a letter from La Pérouse informing the French government of his plans for the next leg of the voyage. He would take his ships to Tonga, then to the Solomons and New Guinea, and return to New Holland to survey its coasts. The French should expect to see the L’Astrolabe and the La Boussole in Brest in early December. The ships never returned.

L’Astrolabe was one of two ships chosen for Jean-François de Galoup, Comte de La Pérouse’s expedition to the Pacific. After seeing Captain James Cook’s success with a former collier, the French decided a large supply ship would better afford the room needed to carry five years worth of supplies as well as house scientific experiments. In addition to supplies, L’Astrolabe was fitted with guns. The expedition set sail from Brest, France, on August 1, 1785. Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot de Langle was in command.

La Boussole, was originally used as a supply ship for the fishing industry, but was converted to be the flag ship of the expedition. The ships cruised the Pacific from the modern-day Alaskan coast to Russia and Japan.

In December 1787, the expedition landed in the Samoan Islands. When a party went ashore, they were attacked and de Langle was among those killed. La Pérouse then appointed Robert Sutton de Clonard to command the L’Astrolabe as they sailed to their last known stop of Botany Bay. They were never heard from again. Historians believe that the L’Astrolabe and La Boussole wrecked on a coral reef off the island of Vanikoro. Their ships were lost in a storm in the Solomon Islands and not until 1981 were the wrecks discovered.

The French Revolution began in 1789. Even in its midst, Louis XVI sent an expedition to find La Pérouse and his ships. The 1791–95 expedition led by Antoine-Raymond-Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux was equipped as a scientific voyage as well as a rescue effort. The names of d’Entrecasteaux’s two ships, Recherche (research) and Espérance (hope), reflect the two purposes of the voyage. Searching widely in the southern Pacific—from Australia, to Van Diemen’s Land, to New Zealand, to New Caledonia, and through the Solomons— d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition more than fulfilled the scientific aspects of its assignment. But no sign of La Pérouse was found. The aftermath of the revolution and the wars of Napoleon Bonaparte would draw French attention away from the Pacific. Between 1800 and 1803, the Géographe and the Naturaliste, under the command of Nicholas-Thomas Baudin, collected 100,000 botanic and zoological specimens from New Zealand and Van Diemen’s Land. This was the last French expedition sent to the Pacific until 1817.

Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon

Wreckage of Jean-François de Galaup, count de La Pérouse

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