“Jean François Galaup De La Pérouse,” A Voyage Round the World: In the Years 1785-1788, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G420.L31.1798 rare.

Jean-Francois de Galaup de La Perouse

1741 CE - 1788 CE


Primary Goal:
After the explorations of Captain James Cook, the French hoped to “fill in the gaps” Cook left in charting and in the information gathered about the people and plants of the Pacific Rim.
La Pérouse went farther north than Cook, exploring Japan and the eastern coast of Russia.

Jean-François de Galoup was born near Albi, France on August 23, 1741. His family was of minor nobility in France and relatively wealthy. They purchased for him a piece of land known as La Pérouse and Jean-François de Galoup added it to his name. He joined the Navy as a marine at the age of fifteen in 1756 and saw action during the Seven Years War in North America where he was wounded and taken prisoner. He was paroled on November 28, 1759. During the American War for Independence, La Pérouse commanded the Astree. In 1782, he became famous when the British outposts Fort Prince of Wales and Fork York on the Hudson River surrendered to him after he planned to attack them.

“Shipwreck of the Two Shallops in Port Des François,” A Voyage Round the World: In the Years 1785-1788, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G420.L31.1798 rare.

The French, after seeing the success of Captain James Cook’s exploration of the Pacific, wanted to start a scientific expedition. In 1785, La Pérouse was chosen to lead the expedition of the Pacific. The expedition was fitted out in secrecy.

With Cook’s successful use of a large cargo ship instead of a naval warship, the French began looking for similar suitable vessels. Two transport ships; the Portefaix and Autruche, were chosen and re-fitted for the four-year voyage. They were then rechristened respectably the Boussole and the Astrolabe. The crews were hand picked and many of the officers and sailors had accompanied La Pérouse in other campaigns. Because it was a scientific expedition, some of France’s best scientists signed on including J. Lepaute d’Agelet, an astronomer and mathematician; Lamanon, a geologist; and La Martiniére, a botanist. Illustrators such as Duché de Vancy and the Prévosts also accompanied the voyage to make drawings of the land, fauna, and people.

The goals of the expedition were laid out in a multi-page letter, which was edited by the king, Louis XVI, and prominent scientists. The expedition was supposed to “fill in the gaps” that Cook left behind. They were to map the regions, learn about the flora and fauna, as well as the inhabitants. They even were on a set time schedule for their return to France. Trade goods for the local peoples as well as scientific experiments were loaded onboard, as were new scientific instruments including the best new chronometer from England.

The voyage set sail from Brest, France, on August 1, 1785. Their first major goal was Easter Island. The expedition stopped at various ports along the way and received a great amount of hospitality from English-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-held ports. The voyage to the Pacific was uneventful and they arrived at Easter Island on April 8, 1786. After just a few days on the island, La Pérouse had his hat stolen, and he decided to move on.

La Pérouse, after a stop in Hawaii, then proceeded towards the west coast of North America. The crew began to map the coast of modern day Alaska. On June 24, 1786, they spotted Mount St. Elias, but struggled through fog the next few days. They continued southeastward and mapped the coast, exploring a few inlets. La Pérouse traded with the local people for furs which he hoped to sell later.

“View of Macao in China,” A Voyage Round the World: In the Years 1785-1788, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G420.L31.1798 rare.

On July 2, 1786, they entered what La Pérouse named Port des Français and what is now called Lituya Bay. After trading, charting, and making astronomical observations, La Pérouse was ready to leave. But more information was needed for the charts, so three boats were sent to make soundings on July 13th. The officer d’Esures sailed his boat too close to the heavy currents at the entrance of the inlet, and his boat overturned. A second boat, captained by De Marchainville, went to rescue the men and also overturned. Twenty-one men had perished and one boat returned to the expedition. La Pérouse was shocked and they stayed for two weeks looking for survivors; none was found.

The expedition continued south to California and then crossed the Pacific Ocean, landing in Macao in 100 days. La Pérouse attempted to sell the furs he purchased in North America with the Pacific Islanders, but the furs did not sell well and La Pérouse decided it was not a worthwhile venture. From Macao, La Pérouse headed north and explored south China, what is now called Japan, and up to Kamchatka, Russia. While in Russia, La Pérouse ordered one of his officers to take the existing maps, drawings and documents across the continent to France. This officer, having a difficult journey, arrived in Paris a year and a half later. La Pérouse also explored parts of the Korean Peninsula and finally headed south to Samoa.

“Masacre of De Langle, Lamanon and Ten Others of the Two Crews,” A Voyage Round the World: In the Years 1785-1788, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G420.L31.1798 rare.

In December 1787, a landing party on Samoa was attacked and many, including some of the scientists, were killed. La Pérouse, however, did not retaliate as did many other European explorers; his orders were to keep good relations with the native peoples. On January 23, 1788, the expedition arrived in Australia. When they sailed into Botany Bay, the English fleet was already anchored there. After taking on wood, water, and building two small boats, the expedition set sail again. La Pérouse wrote letters detailing the expedition up until their arrival in Australia. He then asked that the English return the documents to France. In the letters, La Pérouse wrote that they themselves would return to France around June 1789.

The expedition continued onto New Caledonia and was never heard from again. Rear Admiral Joseph Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux set sail on September 25, 1791, to find La Pérouse. D’Entrecasteaux sailed around Tasmania and to New Caledonia, but there was no sign of the expedition. D’Entrecasteaux died on July 20, 1793, and the rescue fleet returned to France.

“Inhabitants & Monuments of Easter Island,” A Voyage Round the World: In the Years 1785-1788, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G420.L31.1798 rare.

Captain Peter Dillon called on the island of Tikopia in May 1826. In 1813, Dillon had dropped three people off on the island and he returned to check on them. They reported to Dillon that they had found European tools and weapons on the island of Vanikoro. He went to Calcutta to solicit backing for another expedition. When he returned to Vanikoro, the expedition found cannons, copper sheeting and a brass candlestick, but Dillon ran out of money and had to abandon the search.

Later searches took place and historians can only theorize about La Pérouse’s last days. It is believed that the Astrolabe and Boussole wrecked on a reef off the island of Vanikoro. The survivors took items from the ship on shore and due to the less than friendly local inhabitants, they built a small fort near Paeu. Information from the local people also pointed to the fact that the expedition built a small boat and sailed away, never to be seen by the islanders again.