The story of La Pérouse is one of the great mysteries of the sea. Jean de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, was born on August 23, 1741, near Albi in France. He signed on to the French navy and saw action against the British in the Seven Years’ War.
La Pérouse signed on to the second exploration voyage of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who had made his first exploration in 1763. Bougainville had also fought in the Seven Years’ War. When his trip began in 1763, Bougainville sailed with two ships for exploration and discovery, not a naval expedition.
The main purpose of Bougainville’s travel was to establish the existence of the Malvinas Islands, the Falklands, off the coast of Argentina. He was successful in his mission.
Bougainville arrived back in France in 1764. The success of his trip encouraged King Louis XV to charter another mission to circumnavigate the globe. When the expedition left the port of Brest on December 6, 1766, Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse sailed with Bougainville.
Again Bougainville was careful to take with him both scientists and writers, so that the expedition would be carefully chronicled and any new species of flora or fauna be scientifically recorded.
On March 16, 1769, Bougainville returned to France to receive the acclaim of the scientific community and the king, who received him personally at the palace at Versailles.
After his voyage with Bougainville, Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse continued his career in the French navy. During the American Revolution—which many in France saw as a chance for revenge at France’s loss to Britain in the Seven Years’ War—La Pérouse undertook a daring attack on British forts on Hudson Bay in the north of Canada in August 1782. La Pérouse took two forts: Fort York and Fort Prince of Wales.
In 1785, after peace had been made in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, La Pérouse was chosen by King Louis XVI to follow in Bougainville’s footsteps and lead a voyage of exploration. Sailing across the North and
South Atlantic, La Pérouse succeeded in making the tumultuous passage of Cape Horn safely, to emerge into the calmer waters of the Pacific. He stopped off in Chile, which was an ally of France due to the Bourbon family compact.
Both Spain and France were ruled by different branches of the Bourbon family. Although the mission was largely exploratory, the Spanish contact showed its military side. La Pérouse then sailed northward, visiting Hawaii and Easter Island.
He most likely knew that Captain James Cook, sailing on HMS Resolution, had been killed on the Sandwich Islands in February 1779 in a skirmish with the natives, so it must be assumed that Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse treated them with great caution and, as a career navy officer, was ready for any sudden attack by them.
When Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse reached Alaska in late June, tragedy struck the expedition, as three boats were taken by strong currents, resulting in the loss of 21 men. After his voyage to Monterey, he made an amazing crossing to the Portuguese colony of Macao, off the coast of China.
France already had an interest in this region, from the trade of the Compagnie des Indes, which had fought a battle for supremacy in India but lost against the British in the Seven Years’ War. In 1787 Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse continued his exploration of the Pacific coast, stopping at the island of Cheju in Korea.
La Pérouse proceeded to Sakhalin Island, where he was impressed by the inhabitants. He wanted to sail his ships between Sakhalin and the Asian mainland but instead felt it more feasible to sail through the body of water between Sakhalin and the most northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
He reached Petropavlosk in September 1787 and began the most critical part of his voyage. He had received secret missions to explore the Botany Bay colony in what is now Australia.
While Botany Bay has become better known as a penal colony, it was also an excellent harbor from which the British could begin to explore and claim the islands of the South Pacific—something that the French wished to do.
His next landfall was Samoa, then known as the Navigator Islands. Tragically, his friend de Langle was killed by the Samoans. In Botany Bay, Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse was greeted by the British, who unfortunately had no supplies to spare.
He continued on his journey after forwarding his journals and some correspondence home via a British ship. He was headed for New Caledonia, the Solomons, and other areas along the western and southern coasts of Australia, but he was never seen again.
An expedition was sent to find him but returned to France without answers. Historians note that for the French government to utilize resources during the French Revolution to find Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, he was clearly an important man.
In 1826 English captain Peter Dillon purchased some swords in Santa Cruz that he thought might have belonged to La Pérouse. Locals told him about the wreckage of two ships nearby, and when Dillon investigated, he found what was left of the ships. He returned some identifiable remains of the ships, and the last surviving member of the original expedition was able to identify them as having come from one of Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse’s ships.
The story was reconstructed, and historians now believe that the two ships were wrecked on the coral reefs, and some of the men aboard were killed by natives. The others built a small boat in an attempt to find safety, but their boat wrecked probably near the Solomons.
Another theory holds that the two ships were struck by a tropical cyclone, but that the survivors had indeed managed to sail to the Solomon Islands. While archaeological findings are suggestive, they were not definite proof that the ships had belonged to La Pérouse. Thus, like Amelia Earhart after him, the ultimate fate of Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse will most likely remain one of the enduring mysteries of the South Pacific.