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“Pérouse”-ing the Pacific

This is a guest post by Carissa Pastuch, a reference librarian in the Geography and Map Division. 

Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse (1741–88) was a French naval officer and explorer, known for his discoveries in the Pacific, particularly off the northern coasts of America and Asia, and for his tragic demise near Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Islands (present-day Solomon Islands) in 1788. Born in Albi, France, La Pérouse joined the French Navy at 15 and saw action by the age of 16. Before he was 40, he navigated the North American coast, the Caribbean Sea, and the Indian Ocean. He distinguished himself as a naval officer in many campaigns, including the American Revolution. In the fall of 1782, he caught the attention of  King Louis XVI (reigned April 1774–93) when he captured Forts Prince of Wales and York at Hudson Bay and took Samuel Hearne prisoner.

Engraving of La Perouse, half length facing front. He is wearing an 18th century style jacket, cravat, and curled wig.

Jean-Franc̜ois de Galup, comte de La Perouse. Engraving by Joseph Baker. Date unknown. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Title page, Atlas Du Voyage De La Pérouse. Published by Louis-Antoine Millet de Mureau, 1797. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the North Pacific remained largely undiscovered by Europeans. However, by the late 18th century, navigation techniques had been perfected, the findings of Captain James Cook’s (1728–79) third expedition in the Pacific were published, and much progress had been made to prevent scurvy among crewmen. These factors facilitated exploration in the northern Pacific and the potential establishment of alternate commercial trade routes. After the American Revolution concluded, a French expedition would be commissioned to continue where Captain James Cook left off. The ultimate prize would have been in finding a navigable passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the top of America.

Map that shows North America, the Pacific Ocean, and Asia outlined in green. Routes of explorers are traced in red.

Louis XVI ordered this map be drawn. It would be used from the comfort of  Versailles to follow La Pérouse’s progress as logs and reports made it back to France. Carte de l’Océan où sont tracées les différentes routes des navigateurs au tour du monde (Map of the ocean showing the different routes of the navigators around the world). Jean-Nicolas Buache de Neuville, 1785. World Digital Library. Original resource held at the National Library of France.

This exchange in Louis XVI’s library at Versailles was later captured in a painting. While the painting has historically been inaccessible because it hangs in the Queen’s Guards Room in Versailles, it has recently been made available online. Louis XVI giving his instructions to La  Pérouse on 29 June 1785. Painting by Nicolas-André Monsiau. 1816. Musée de l’Histoire de France.

In the winter of 1785, Louis XVI, who had always taken an interest in cartography and geography, appointed La Pérouse to lead a four-year scientific expedition in the Pacific. In his library at Versailles, Louis XVI directed the expedition to concentrate on five areas: geography; politics and commerce; natural sciences; interactions with indigenous people; and measures to preserve the health of the crewmen. Louis XVI ordered French hydrographer and geographer Jean-Nicolas Buanche de Neuville (1741–1825) to draw the map seen above for the expedition.

This map of the Pacific Ocean, of which five copies were made, includes the courses of other major voyages in the Pacific to date. Louis XVI kept this copy and directed his Navy Minister to update it with La Pérouse’s progress until 1788. Look closely at image one to see the loose-leaf survey of La Pérouse’s course along the American Pacific Coast laid on top of the map. The flyleaf charts the expedition’s survey between Mount Saint Elias (present-day Alaska) and Monterey (present-day California) and was likely used as a comparison against the prior findings of the Spanish and British. Two of the major discoveries of La Pérouse’s expedition are included on this loose-leaf chart: the survey of the coast of Mount Saint Elias and the first non-Spaniard European visit to Monterey. Another major discovery was charting the strait between Sakhalin Island and Ezo (present-day Hokkaido), which now bears his name—La Pérouse Strait.

Joseph Leparte Dagelet (1751–88) was an astronomer on the expedition. He explored and climbed the mountains in Alaska and worked with others on the expédition to correct the coordinates of the major coastline features of Port des Français (present-day Lituya Bay). “Vues de la Côte du Nord-ouest de l’Amérique reconnue par les Frégates Françaises la Boussole et l’Astrolabe en 1786.” Plate number 18 in Atlas Du Voyage De La Pérouse. 1797. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

“Plan du Port des Français sur la Côte du Nord-Ouest de l’Amérique, par 58°37′ de Latitude Nord et 139°50′ de Longitude Occidentale, Découverte le 2 Juillet 1786, par les Frégates Française la Boussole et l’Astrolabe.” Plate number 19 in Atlas Du Voyage De La Pérouse. 1797. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

La Pérouse, his crew, and team of scientists and artists sailed from Brest, France on August 1, 1785, on the frigates Astrolabe and Boussole. La Pérouse was in charge of Boussole and Paul-Antoine Fleuriot de Langle (1744–87) was second in command on Astrolabe. The expedition made calls in the Atlantic Ocean to be fêted before setting off for the Pacific. Once around Cape Horn, they stopped in present-day Chile, Hawaii, Alaska, California, China, Japan, Russia, and Australia. On December 11, 1787, while leading 60 men ashore to retrieve fresh water on the Navigator Islands (present-day Samoa Islands), de Langle was attacked and killed along with 11 other men. (A chaplain would later succumb to his wounds as well). The remainder of the expeditionary force would meet their fate in the spring of 1788 near Vanikoro. Fortunately, many could still learn from the scientific, commercial, ethnological, and geographic findings made by the expedition through dispatches sent to France.

“Massacre de MM. de Langle, Lamanon et de dix autres individus des deux équipages.” Plate number 66 in Atlas Du Voyage De La Pérouse, 1797. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Between 1785 and 1788, La Pérouse forwarded maps, journals, drawings, reports, and correspondence to the Navy Minister at three locations: Macau, Kamchatka, and Botany Bay (present-day Australia). The first dispatch in Macau was carried by naturalist Jean-Nicolas Dufrense (1747–1812) on January 3, 1787, and included all charts and findings made since the expeditionary force departed Brest. The second dispatch was carried by diplomat and Russian translator, Jean-Baptiste-Barthélémy de Lesseps (1766–1834), at Kamchatka. De Lesseps carried the charts and findings made from Macau through Siberia to St. Petersburg. The third and final dispatch of letters and journals made since leaving Kamchatka, to include reports on the killing of de Langle and crew, was carried by British Naval Lieutenant John Shortland (1769–1810). The French frigates set sail again in March 1788, and, according to their letters, the sailors expected to arrive back in Europe in June 1789. However, the captain and his crew would never be seen again. It was not until almost four decades later when Peter Dillon (1785–1847), an Irish explorer, learned both French frigates were reefed off Vanikoro during a storm.

View of a harbor with mountains in the background and people walking around in foreground.

“Vue de Macao en Chine.” Drawing by Gaspard Duché de Vancy. Plate number 40 in Atlas Du Voyage De La Pérouse, 1797. Geography and Division, Library of Congress.

Due to political turmoil from the French Revolution, it would take almost a decade—until 1797—for the expedition’s findings to be consolidated and published by French politician Louis-Antoine Millet de Mureau (1756–1825). The original edition of Voyage de La Pérouse autour du Monde (Voyage of La Pérouse around the world) comprised four text volumes, an atlas of 69 engraved plates, and a foldout world map. Join La Pérouse and his crew, making discoveries along with them, by viewing this fascinating atlas in the Geography and Map Reading Room.

“Carte du Grand Océan ou Mer du Sud dressée pour la relation du voyage de découvertes faites par le frégates françaises la Boussole et l’Astrolabe dans les années 1785, 86, 87 et 88.” Foldout plate number 3 in Atlas Du Voyage De La Pérouse. 1797. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

For more reading on the expedition:

 

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