The Mystery of La Perouse

La Perouse being given instructions for his voyage of discovery by king Louis XVI.

By David Jones – Queensland Maritime Museum

On the morning of 24 January 1788, officers of the First Fleet anchored in Botany Bay were astonished to see two mysterious vessels appear out to sea.  The fleet had only just arrived after an eight month voyage from Great Britain and the last thing they expected to see in this remote and unexplored land was strange sailing ships.  These vessels were revealed as the French frigates Boussole and Astrolabe commanded by Jean-Francoise de La Perouse, known to be on a scientific voyage of discovery which had departed Europe almost two years before the First Fleet.  They entered Botany Bay two days later just as the British ships were transferring to Port Jackson.

Although Britain and France had a long history of conflict the two countries were now at peace and La Perouse’s expedition had been guaranteed safe passage by the British Government.  Nevertheless Governor Phillip was suspicious of the French dropping anchor on the very day the new colony of New South Wales was born, and he kept discretely aloof from the new arrivals.  And it was no random chance that saw La Perouse arrive in Botany Bay.  Four months earlier orders had been delivered to him in northern Russia to investigate the new British settlement at Botany Bay.

La Perouse established a shore camp with a protective stockade inside Botany Bay’s northern headland in the locality which now bears his name.  It was a place to rest and effect repairs after a long voyage.  Relations with the British in Port Jackson were cordial but limited.  Apart from Governor Phillip’s reserve, there was little the First Fleet could do to help the Frenchmen as they were low on food and supplies themselves. 

Since leaving France in August 1785 La Perouse had criss-crossed the Pacific, reaching its four corners to chart coasts, collect scientific data and meet local peoples.  Entering the Pacific via Chile, he visited Easter Island, Hawaii and then charted the shores of Alaska, following the coast south to California.  He crossed the Pacific to Macao and Manila where he sent a progress report home to France. 

Boussole and Astrolabe then sailed to north-eastern Asia studying the coasts of Korea and northern China, the Seas of Japan and Okhotsk, investigating northern Japan and the Asian seaboard of Russia.  He charted the strait between Hokkaido and Sakhalin which is now named after him before calling at the Russian port of Petropavlovsk where another parcel of despatches was sent home.  It was here that he received instructions to visit Botany Bay.

La Perouse headed south for his new destination, calling en route at the Samoan Islands.  After initially friendly trading relations with the Samoans, a shore party was suddenly surrounded and attacked.  Twelve men were killed, including the captain of Astrolabe, and many more were wounded.  This tragedy weighed heavily on La Perouse and it followed them to Australia where one of the wounded, Father Receveur, died on 17 February 1788.  His grave at their camp site is the earliest marked grave of any European in Australia.

After a stay of seven weeks Boussole and Astrolabe moved on, departing Botany Bay on 10 March 1788.  Before leaving, La Perouse passed papers and letters from the latest stage of his voyage to Governor Phillip to be despatched to France on the next available ship.  The fact that La Perouse entrusted these valuable documents to the British, and that Lieutenant Thomas Shortland on the transport Alexander delivered them safely to their destination after a perilous voyage, speaks volumes for the goodwill built between the two lonely outposts far away from home.

A portrait of Jean-Francois de la Perouse.

British watchers saw La Perouse’s ships pass Sydney Heads sailing north, but it was the last any European eyes ever saw of them.   La Perouse had indicated he planned to visit Tonga, the south and western seaboard of New Caledonia, the Santa Cruz Islands and beyond before returning to France in the middle of 1789.  Months turned into years without any news.  Late in 1791 Bruni d’Entrecasteaux was sent from France with two ships to try to find the overdue mariners, but without success.

The veil of mystery continued over the fate of La Perouse as dramatic changes took place in his homeland.  The French Revolution in 1793 saw the monarchy overthrown and a French Republic proclaimed.  King Louis XVI, who had taken a close interest in the plans for La Perouse’s expedition as well as its progress, is said to have gone to the scaffold asking “At least, is there any news of M. de La Perouse?”  The revolution descended into the reign of terror, then Napoleon’s star rose to its zenith and fell with still no news of La Perouse.

Then in 1826, after almost four decades of silence, a clue emerged.  Peter Dillon, an Irish trader, bought a tarnished silver sword guard from a native in a remote island in the Santa Cruz island group at the eastern extremity of the Solomons.  Suspecting this came from one of La Perouse’s men he reported the find and returned to make more detailed investigations.  He was told that two ships had been wrecked long ago in a fierce storm at Vanikoro.  One of the ships was totally destroyed with the loss of all its men, either drowned in the wreck or murdered on shore.  The other had been broken up by its survivors who had built a two masted boat out of its timbers and sailed away months later.  They were never seen again.

The grave of Father Receveur at Botany Bay with the La Perouse Museum (left) and the 1825 La Perouse memorial column in the distance. La Perouse's frigates Boussole and Astrolabe off Hawaii.

Another expedition was sent from France to investigate Dillon’s discovery in the Santa Cruz Islands.  The French party led by Dumont d’Urville arrived at Vanikoro in February 1828, and there in shallow waters on the reef they saw an anchor, cannon and the wreckage of Astrolabe.  It was now clear that La Perouse’s ships had perished in a tropical storm at Vanikoro.  If La Perouse had followed his plans to visit Tonga and New Caledonia before the Santa Cruz group, it is likely his ships were wrecked some time around June 1788.

Meanwhile many questions remained.  The wreck of La Perouse’s own ship, Boussole, was not discovered until 1964 in the same area as Astrolabe.  Apparently it was Boussole that was totally wrecked on the reef and Astrolabe was driven ashore and its timbers salvaged to build another boat.  Nevertheless the mystery continues about what happened to their crews and whether any could have survived long enough to be rescued by any of the subsequent searches.

Dumont d’Urville built a small memorial to the lost sailors on shore overlooking the wreck site.  Three years earlier, in 1825, another memorial to La Perouse had been erected on the site of the French camp at Botany Bay.  In the form of a tall column, it has long been a place of pilgrimage for visiting French sailors who have left an increasing array of plaques on its base.  The monument also stands as a powerful symbol of the friendship between Australia and France that La Perouse embodied, and has prevailed ever since the memorial was built. 

In Australia’s bi-centenary year, also the bi-centenary of La Perouse’s stay in Botany Bay, a museum was opened on the French camp site at La Perouse.  The La Perouse Museum is located in the restored Cable Station building which dates from 1882 and overlooks the La Perouse Memorial and Frenchman’s Bay.  The museum is a fitting tribute to the memory and accomplishments of La Perouse and other French navigators in the Pacific, keeping their story alive for future generations of Australians.

Wendy Elliston
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