‘Whatever professional advantages this expedition may have brought me, you can be certain that few would want them at such cost, and the fatigues of such a voyage cannot be put into words. When I return you will take me for a centenarian, I have no teeth and no hair left and I think it will not be long before I become senile…Farewell until June 1789’

(Letter from Lapérouse to his friend Lecoulteux de La Noraye, 7 February 1788, Bibliothèque nationale de France, NAF9424).

King Louis XVI selected Jean-François de Galaup, Compte de Lapérouse to lead a major expedition due to his high standard of seamanship and his humanitarian qualities. Two stout storeships of 450 tonnes, Boussole and Astrolabe were commissioned for the voyage.

De Lapérouse left France in 1785 with special orders to survey the north and south Pacific and the Indian Ocean. He was ordered to study climates, native peoples, plants and animals, collect specimens and artefacts and to observe the activities of other European powers. With an impressive team of officers, seamen and scientists, de Lapérouse was the first to explore the North American coast of Alaska and California, survey the remote seas near Korea, and venture to the isolated coast of Siberia.

At Kamchatka, de Lapérouse received news that the British were planning a settlement in New South Wales and promptly headed for Botany Bay to investigate. On 26 January 1788 the French expedition sighted Botany Bay, but Governor Phillip’s ‘First Fleet’ had already arrived. Phillip allowed de Lapérouse to send reports and letters to France. The expedition left Botany Bay on 10 March 1788 and was never seen again.

Letter signed by de Lapérouse with notes by the Maréchal de Castries and the Chevalier de Fleurieu. (Lapérouse refers to returning to Boston — where he was sent to escort a convoy of transport ships to the West Indies during the North American campaign.)

Reproduced courtesy of National Library of Australia Rex Nan Kivell collection.

What happened to de Lapérouse?

After Botany Bay, the broad itinerary for de Lapérouse was known from the letters and documents taken to Europe by Lieutenant John Shortland in the Alexander. He planned to visit New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, the Louisades, the Solomons, and ‘the Gulf of Carpentaria and the entire west coast of New Holland as far as Diemen’s Land’, expecting to arrive at the Île de France (Mauritius) by December 1788.

By the end of 1789 there was still no news of de Lapérouse and concern grew into anxiety. Eléonore, wife of the commander, moved from Albi to Paris to be on the spot should the ministry receive news of the expedition and to press for government action.

In spite of the French Revolution de Lapérouse was not forgotten. The Société d’Histoire Naturelle (Society of Natural History) successfully petitioned the National Assembly in 1791 for a rescue expedition. Commanded by Antoine-Raymond-Joseph Bruny d’Entrecasteaux, two gabares (storeships) named Recherche (Search) and Espérance (Hope) set out from France on 28 September 1791. They found no sign of the ships or de Lapérouse.

In May 1826, an Irish Pacific trader named Peter Dillon discovered French relics among the Polynesian inhabitants of Tikopia. He learned they had been retrieved from an island called Mannicolo (now Vanikoro). Dillon’s expedition to the island in 1827 brought back testimony from the islanders and relics identified as belonging to the expedition. Captain Dumont d’Urville, confirmed the find in 1828 on this journey through the Pacific.

The Currency of Trade — Relics of the Lapérouse Expedition

The concept of trade was well known to many of the native peoples encountered by Cook, de Lapérouse and other European explorers on their voyages. The objects brought for trade were very new and wondrous. The Europeans were keen to acquire indigenous artefacts, tools, ornaments, ceremonial trappings and examples of native animals and plants. These ‘curiosities’ were highly prized by collectors for their ‘cabinets’ which were the first types of museums.

The usual trade goods were made from metals, glass, and bright colours in the form of weapons, tools and articles of amusement and adornment. ‘Iron bars’, ‘wrought iron plates’ and ‘iron nails’ head the list of goods supplied to de Lapérouse at the port of Brest. The remainder of the list has a staggering assortment and quantity of trade goods, including ‘special silver and bronze medals, with the effigy of the king’.

The excavation of the Boussole and Astrolabe wreck sites at Vanikoro, has uncovered some of the European trade goods on board the ships. There are also artefacts received in exchange from indigenous communities, or collected as ‘curiosities’; and natural science specimens.