Barthélémy de Lesseps, Lapérouse’s messenger

Jean-Baptiste Barthélemy de Lesseps was born in Sète on 27 January 1766

He spent his childhood in Hamburg and then St. Petersburg where his father was a consul. At the age of 12, he already spoke Russian, German, Spanish and French. After 5 years of study at the Jesuit College in Versailles, he returned to St Petersburg in 1783.

He was appointed vice-consul of France in Kronstadt and was charged by the French ambassador to Russia, Count de Segur, to bring important dispatches to Versailles. His linguistic skills were appreciated by Fleuriot de Langle and Lapérouse who asked that Barthélemy de Lesseps be taken on board as a French-Russian interpreter.

He kept the rank of vice-consul and embarked on the Astrolabe commanded by Paul Fleuriot de Langle.

On August 1st 1785, La Boussole and Astrolabe left Brest.

After a long journey (South America, Cape Horn, Pacific Ocean, Korea, Japan), the two ships arrived in Kamchatka.

Lapérouse then decided to entrust his documents: journals, maps, notes… to Barthélémy de Lesseps with the mission to bring them to Versailles, 16 000 km away. To entrust his documents was also to part with a colossal work realized in 2 years of navigation and exploration. This shows Lapérouse’s confidence in this young vice-consul, barely 21 years old. The two ships left on October 7, 1787 in the direction of Botany Bay. Barthélémy, for his part, had to spend the winter in Kamchatka, blocked by bad weather. He could not undertake his journey until the spring of the following year.

We learn from the account of his journey that when he arrived in Irkutsk it took him forty days to reach St. Petersburg. He travels by sled pulled by dogs or reindeer, or by boat. His journey lasted thirteen months: he arrived in Versailles on October 17, 1788.

Barthélémy handed over the bundles of documents to the Count of Segur in St. Petersburg on September 29, 1788. He continues to Versailles, via Riga, Königsberg and Berlin. He arrived at the Court on October 17, 1788 and was presented to King Louis XVI the same day. He was treated as a hero.

The long journey of Barthélémy de Lesseps

He tells this adventure in a work Journal historique du voyage de M. de Lesseps taken up in “Le messager de Lapérouse”.

During this time, the trace of Lapérouse and his companions was lost until Peter Dillon made a discovery.

Peter Dillon, born on June 15, 1788 in Martinique and died on February 9, 1847 in Paris, was a navigator, sandalwood trader and French-Irish explorer. After many adventures, he met the rascal Peter Dillon and Martin Bushart, a Prussian sailor, who told of having bought objects from the natives in Vanikoro.

Peter Dillon
Martin Dushart

These objects came from two large ships that ran aground on the shores of the island. Among these objects is a sword guard that Dillon sent to Paris. Some time later, he acquired the handle of this same sword.

Charles X welcomed him and named him Knight of the Legion of Honor. He grants him an indemnity of 10,000 francs promised by Louis XVI and a life annuity of 4,000 francs, half of which is reversible to his family.

During the reception at the Ministry of the Navy, all the relics are exposed in the big lounge and admired by the audience. An old man approached in his turn, and people moved aside as he passed, his tall stature inspiring respect. He was Barthélémy de Lesseps, 63 years old. It was March 1829. Forty-one years have passed since his return from Kamchatka. He examines the hilt of the sword as a heavy silence descends. “I believe,” he says, “that this hilt was the hilt of my sword,” and tears well up in his eyes. (Source: Peter Dillon, Voyage aux Iles de la Mer du Sud, Paris, Pillet Ainé, 1830, Notes du Mont Royal)… The engraved numbers had let us imagine, at first, that they were the initials of Lapérouse’s name.

Pieces of sword brought back by Dillon

The sword must have looked like this:

City sword in silver.

Guard with step of ass, with broad openwork plate. Triangular blade

Anne-Marie GUILLOT
Member of l’ALAF

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