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The French Captain Cook

Captain James Cook’s three voyages of exploration in the Pacific where widely admired throughout Enlightenment Europe. The southern Pacific Ocean was almost completely unknown to Europeans, and there were high hopes that he would discover a lost continent there. The results of Cook’s voyages were awaited with excitement comparable to that surrounding the moon landings of our own recent past. In France, Louis XVI demanded to know why his nation was not engaging in such voyages of exploration, and a hasty search was made for a French Captain Cook. The man chosen for the role was Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse.

La Pérouse joined the French Navy at 15 in 1756, within a few years of Cook joining the Royal Navy, although the Englishman was in his 20s, and already an experienced seaman. This was just before the nations were about to embark on decades of global warfare, first with the Seven Years War and then the American War of Independence. Both men served in North American waters in their early career, with Cook gaining a reputation as a brilliant cartographer and La Pérouse being noticed as an able fighting officer. The Frenchman’s naval career involved tasting both defeat; at the Battles of Quiberon Bay and the Saintes; and considerable success. In the West Indies he defeated a Royal Navy frigate in a single ship action, while later he was responsible for capturing two forts in the Hudson Bay area. The young teenager developed into a man of considerable determination, spending eight years persuading his aristocratic family to let him marry the love of his life, a low born Creole girl named Louise-Eléonore Broudou.

Determination and proven leadership in battle made La Pérouse the ideal candidate to lead France’s Pacific expedition. He proved to be an inspired choice. A huge admirer of Cook, he followed his hero’s example by preparing thoroughly for the expedition. He visited London, where he met with Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Cook on his first voyage. From Bank’s he learnt how Cook had kept his crews healthy and acquired the latest scientific instruments, including two of Cook’s inclining compasses and some sextants of a new improved type. Like Cook, he took considerable care over the selection of the crew to go with him. The final 220 men included ten distinguished scientist from various fields and three illustrators to record the expedition’s findings. His desire for harmony on his ships led to La Pérouse wisely rejecting the application of a young Napoleon Bonaparte.

La Pérouse’s two ships, the L'Astrolabe and La Boussole, left Brest in August 1785, and over the next two and a half years travelled widely across the Pacific Ocean. They visited various islands, becoming the first Europeans to set foot on Maui in Hawai. They explored the Pacific coast of North America, including British Columbia and Alaska, and were the first non-Spanish visitors to California since Sir Francis Drake in 1579. Then they crossed the ocean to Asia, visiting Korea, China, Japan and Russia. In Russia La Pérouse’s disembarked a trusted member of the expedition called De Lesseps, tasking him with bringing the expedition's logs, charts and other materials back to France overland.

While De Lesseps embarked on his year-long journey across Siberia, La Pérouse headed south to investigate the new British colony in New South Wales. The expedition spent six weeks in Australia, where they were received well by the settlers. They were allowed to establish an observatory, were entertained by their hosts and provided with supplies. The two French ships left on the 10th of March 1788 and were never heard of again.

Their disappearance was greeted with dismay in France. In 1791 a further two French ships were sent to hunt for the vanished explorer, searching the islands to the north of Australia for news of the expedition but without success. Almost the last words uttered by Louis XVI on the day of his execution in 1793 are reported to have been "Is there any word of La Pérouse?" During the French Revolution, and the subsequent years of war between France and Britain, dark conspiracy theories circulated in Paris, pointing to the expedition’s last known contact being with the British. Had the expedition been ambushed and destroyed by the hated Royal Navy?

In 1826 an Irish sea captain called Peter Dillion, was trading in the Santa Cruz islands when he was offered some European swords. Puzzled at finding them in such a remote spot, he investigated further, and was told that they came from two ships wrecked decades earlier on a nearby coral atoll called Vanikoro. He subsequently visited the island and recovered anchors, cannon balls, and various artefacts. He believed that they might come from La Pérouse’s vanished ships, and he took them back to Europe, unsure how he could prove his theory in the absence of any known survivors. But there was a survivor – De Lesseps, the man who had been left in Russia to return to France overland was still alive, and he identified the items as coming from the L'Astrolabe.

Subsequent expeditions to the area, the latest in 2005 and 2008, have located the wrecks of the two ships, and solved much of the mystery using modern forensic techniques. Both ships were wrecked on Vanikoro's reefs, La Boussole first, followed by L'Astrolabe, probably coming to her consorts aid. Many of the sailors were then massacred in a fight with local inhabitants. Those that survived, according to local legend, built themselves a two-masted craft from the wreckage of L'Astrolabe and left sailing in a westward direction, about nine months later. What their fate was is still unknown.

NB - My thanks go to Dr David Campbell for suggesting La Pérouse as a good subject for a blog

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