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The voyage into a Pacific tragedy made by Jean de la Perouse

Posted in Exploration, Historical articles, History, Mystery on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about exploration first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Death of La Perouse,  picture, image, illustration

La Perouse and his expedition disappeared in Oceania in 1788; it is believed that some of the party were killed by inhabitants of the island of Vanikoro, Solomon Islands

June 26th, 1785. Despite the warmth of the day outside there were innumerable fires blazing in the hearths of the great palace of Versailles and in the anteroom to the King’s study it had become intolerably hot. Jean de La Perouse suddenly realised that he was making matters worse by pacing nervously up and down and with a rueful grin he sat in the large window seat and tried to contain his excitement and impatience.

He was 44 years old and had already acquired an enviable reputation as a seaman of distinction. The British, more than most, knew and feared him as a Captain to be avoided when the two countries were at war. But despite the excitement of a very active career Jean knew he was on the threshold of something much more important. He had been chosen to command a French expedition to the Pacific Ocean and so important was it that the King himself had decided to issue him with his instructions. It was to be a voyage which would rival that of Captain Cook and a great sweep of the Pacific to be made by La Perouse could hardly be bettered. New lands, new discoveries; death in huge breakers and at the hand of warlike savages; all these lay ahead. And at the end a mystery so complete that it took 40 years to solve it.

Of all this he could know nothing, although perhaps he half-guessed. In his day dreaming he had not noticed the door open and the servant had to stand by him, coughing discreetly, until his startled glance took him in. “The King will see you now, Monsieur le Comte.”

King Louis XVI had done more than take an interest in the expedition. His instructions were hand-written and so detailed that they covered 36 pages. But La Perouse had four main tasks. First, he was to look in the southern ocean for land sighted by Bouvet but which Cook had failed to find. Second, to explore the Pacific islands lying towards Australia and New Guinea. Third, to chart some of the coastline of Australia and last to explore along the mysterious Far Eastern coasts of China, Manchuria and Japan. He was to go as far north as possible and – inevitably – try and seek the fabled North-West passage.

It was a well-nigh impossible task but La Perouse was to complete an astonishingly large part of it. In the meantime, he worked quickly. Two ships were chosen and an old friend, Paul de Langle agreed to command the second one. By July 12th they were ready, but contrary westerly winds kept them in port until August 1st. Then, with a salute from the fort at Brest and a large crowd to wave them off, La Perouse and his expedition were away at last. A stiffening breeze soon had them out of sight and on the first, long leg of the journey.

By the beginning of the following year they were ready to round Cape Horn and enter the Pacific. They had searched the south Atlantic for the supposed Isle Grande and La Perouse had concluded, quite incorrectly, that it did not exist. Now they were to enter a greater ocean which, despite the exploration of Magellan and Cook was still largely unvisited, still less understood. Meanwhile, spirits were high and the health of the sailors was good. Rations had been supplemented by albatross and petrel, shot and then cooked in a rich wine sauce. After one of the easiest journeys round Cape Horn on record they were ready for anything.

Soon afterwards, however, occurred the first of the three tragic episodes which struck this expedition and which seemed destined to make it become one of the most unfortunate of its time. They had worked their way steadily northwards through the Pacific and now, nearly a year after the start, had anchored near the spectacular Mount St. Elias, in Southern Alaska. The silence of this lonely place was so profound that a human voice sounded for nearly two miles. Perouse christened the harbour ‘Port de Francais’ and sent three small boats to carry out soundings.

Four hours later one boat returned with the dreadful news that the others had been driven by an unseen current on to rocks, swamped by massive breakers, and their occupants drowned. Perouse erected a monument which read:

“At the entrance of this port 21 brave mariners perished. Reader, weep with us.”

He then set off, sadly, to the San Francisco area, where they would recuperate and take on supplies before crossing the Pacific to Asia.

The beginning of 1787 saw them off the Chinese coast, and some detailed exploration of an area hardly visited by Europeans, let alone charted. This really was the mysterious east where suspicion and hostility were the natural reaction of the inhabitants and where – despite an ancient civilisation – the people seemed to be centuries behind the west. La Perouse was not impressed “The Chinese” he wrote, “are perhaps the most miserable, the most oppressed and the most arbitrarily governed people on the face of the earth.”

Through the China Seas, the Yellow Sea, and the Sea of Japan the expedition worked methodically and accurately. La Perouse scattered French names liberally on the map and gave his own to the strait which separates Hokkaido, the northern Japanese Island, and Sakhalin. By September the expedition – now two years away from France – was on Russia’s eastern coast at Petropavlovsk.

Here Russian hospitality was at its best. Entertainments and salutes were exchanged, oxen and other provisions taken on and hunting and sightseeing trips arranged. But La Perouse little knew that here he also made the most important decision of the voyage. A colleague, Baron de Lesseps was sent overland to Paris with despatches, La Perouse’s Journal to date and other important documents. Even this, the “short” route home took de Lesseps a year over the immense tracts of Siberia before he safely accomplished his mission.

Meanwhile La Perouse had gone to the Samoan Islands. Here was paradise indeed! Within the Island group the sailors traded beads and red cloth for fruit and hogs to eat. Soon they were at Tutuila. The tranquil beauty of the island impressed everyone. “The manners of the women were soft, lively and engaging and the men were very handsome . . . turtle doves and beautiful parrots were likewise plentiful.”

Unfortunately nothing could have been more deceptive than these southern graces. De Langle, second-in-command of the expedition, went ashore for a last supply of fresh water and while La Perouse and his crew watched horrified from the ships, he and eleven of his men were clubbed to death. The other 49 escaped by swimming out to the ships but 20 of these were severely wounded. Shocked and now dangerously shorthanded La Perouse christened the place Massacre Island.

By the beginning of 1788 La Perouse was at Botany Bay where a chance meeting with the first convict ships gave an opportunity for more letters and despatches to be sent back to Europe. These were the last letters he was to send. Total silence followed and in an area renowned for its mysteries this one was complete.

As so often happens, the solution came to light by accident. Captain Peter Dillon, an English trader in Melanesia, stumbled upon articles which he deduced must have belonged to La Perouse. Further inquiries revealed that two survivors of the tragedy were living on the little island of Vanikoro. Efforts to land were foiled by winds and tides but Dillon, with government backing, returned the next year.

It was too late to rescue the two men – one had died, the other disappeared – and it was left to an obscure native named Owallie to describe the expedition’s end.

“A long time ago,” he said, “we saw part of a ship on the reef opposite one morning. It held together to the middle of the day when it was broken by the sea, fell to pieces and large parts floated along the coast. The ship got on the reef in the night, when it blew a tremendous hurricane . . . Only four men were saved from her; they lived with us a short time, then joined the men from another ship at Piaow.”

From that party, the French had built a ship and sailed off for help. They, too, were never seen again and only the two lone survivors were left, to live out a long imprisonment in a remote island. It was a sad end to one of the greatest voyages of exploration and apart from the La Perouse Strait, only a tiny uninhabited stretch of rock – La Perouse Pinnacle – in the vast expanse of the Pacific remains as a monument to his courage.

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