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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more reading on the expedition:
- John Dunmore. Where Fate Beckons: the Life of Jean-Francois de La Perouse. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 2007.
- La Pérouse, Jean-François de Galaup. Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse. Paris: L’Imprimerie de la République, 1797.