Inspired by the success and popularity of James Cook’s three voyages, the French planned their own expedition of Pacific discovery in 1785. The commander chosen by Louis XVI to lead the voyage was Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse (1741-ca. 1788). At fifteen, La Perouse had joined the French Navy as a marine and he enjoyed promotion during the actions of the Seven Years’ War. In the 1770s he served in the Indian Ocean and, in the early 1780s, in Hudson’s Bay during the American Revolution.
La Perouse was to carry on where Cook left off, exploring the western Pacific and continuing to look for a Northwest Passage. He set off from Brest in August of 1785 in command of the Boussole, with Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot de Langle accompanying in the Astrolabe. They headed across the Atlantic, round Cape Horn, with stops at Easter Island and Hawaii. From there, La Perouse navigated to the coast of what is now Alaska, where La Perouse agreed with Cook that there was no Northwest Passage entrance along that coastline.
La Perouse returned south, to Monterey Bay, California, before heading across the Pacific to Macao, then a Portuguese colony. From there, they sailed to Manila, Formosa (Taiwan), the Ryukyu Islands, and between Korea and Japan. Then, La Perouse ventured farther north to Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Having received word of a new British colony in southeast Australia, La Perouse sailed south, searching for the long misplaced Solomon Islands on the way. At Tutuila, in what is now American Samoa, twelve of the crew were killed in an altercation with indigenous peoples. This was not the last misfortune to befall the voyage.
La Perouse arrived at Botany Bay, now Sydney, in January of 1788. He observed the nascent penal colony and then returned to the western Pacific, near the Gulf of Carpentaria. En route he and his ships disappeared without a trace.
Two years later, in 1791, Antoine-Raymond-Joseph de Bruni, chevalier d’Entrecasteaux, was sent to find out what had happened to La Perouse and his men. He made several discoveries but not anything related to La Perouse’s ships or crew. In 1826, an Irish captain, Peter Dillon, was in the Santa Cruz group and came across several French swords which locals told him came from two large ships that had broken up on reefs.
Only in 1828 did another French expedition, commanded by Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont D’Urville, locate traces of the Astrolabe near the island of Vanikoro. It seems La Perouse and his ships wrecked on the island; survivors may have tried to sail in a small craft to Australia, but none were ever found. In 1964, archaeologists located the wreck of the Boussole in the waters off Vanikoro.
Partially because of the scope of the voyage and the popularity of Pacific exploration, and partially because of his mysterious disappearance, La Perouse was the most famous French explorer then and continues to be to this day.
His voyage’s story was told based on materials he managed to send back from Macao, Petropavlovsk, and Botany Bay. These journals and manuscripts, including many charts in an accompanying atlas, made up the source material for an account of the voyage published in Paris in 1797.