‘In this sea, the area to which M. de Bougainville must pay particular attention is that lying between 40° of southern latitude towards the north, and what lies between the two tropics’

(Mémoire du Roy pour servir d’instructions au Sieur de Bougainville, 26 Oct. 1766, Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Enlightenment expeditions are typified by the first French circumnavigation of the globe accomplished in 1766 to 1769 by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. He was gifted in navigation, seamanship, soldiering, mathematics, longitude and latitude, and the arts. A protégé of Madame de Pompadour he was a regular visitor to the aristocratic Paris salons in his youth.

In 1763 de Bougainville distinguished himself by founding a French outpost, on the Îles Malouines, now the Falkland Islands, that would be a ‘half-way house’ for French shipping to the Pacific.

In 1766, he received permission from King Louis XV to circumnavigate the globe, sailing to China by way of the Straits of Magellan. He commanded a French navy frigate Boudeuse, and a former merchant ship Étoile. The expedition visited and surveyed Tahiti, Samoa, the New Hebrides, avoided the Solomons, found other islands and named Bougainville Island after himself. He almost found the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Southern Land but turned away due to heavy seas.

De Bougainville had the option of taking possession of any empty or new land he came across, ‘being careful to erect poles bearing the arms of France’ and ‘draw up Acts of Possession in the name of His Majesty’. The expedition returned to France in March 1769 loosing only seven men out of a complement of two hundred. Although he made few important discoveries and did not collect much scientific material, he painted a vivid picture of life in the South Seas.

Portrait of Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Portrait of Louis Antoine de Bougainville. François-Seraphin, 1778–1825.

Reproduced courtesy of National Library of Australia