A cannon… and some questions !

In February of this year 2023, Mr Jim Brennan came to see ALAF (Association Lapérouse Albi France) and, especially, Jean-Marie in Albi. What was the reason? 

From the left to the right : Jean-Marie Pestel, Mme Brennan, Jim Brennan – © Jean-Marie Pestel

Jim is born in Alaska, but, the story that I am going to tell begins with his father. It all starts during his childhood, when Jim was on a family boating trip with him. One day, in Southeast Alaska, more precisely in the Tlingit Native village of Klawock, a local family offered to sell to his father a cannon in their possession.  The family was uncertain as to how a French cannon came into Alaska Native possession. Jim was only 7 years old at the time, so does not know the price.  He knows that the sale resulted from 2 or 3 years of negotiation, partly because the family needed the permission of their clan to make the sale. 

After that, time passed, Jim kept sealing, he became a lawyer and member of the sealing club of Seattle

What all of this has to do with Lapérouse’s expedition ?

The Astrolabe and the Compass at anchor, probably in Alaska, in 1786. Drawing made during the Lapérouse expedition – Public domain

As you may know, Lapérouse anchors in Lituya Bay in July 1786. It was the place of living and transit for different clans such as “the Ravens and the Eagles among others”. During History, have passed, for trades (animal skins,…), Russians, English, Spanish at this place. It must also be noted that during his time there, Lapérouse had cordial relations with the locals. 

Before leaving his anchorage, Lapérouse sent there two ships in order to check the channel. Unfortunately, this test was the first tragedy of the expedition. Both vessels sank killing 21 seamen. The dangerousness of the bay must be reminded with its tight channel, violent current, imposing glaciers in plumb, and extremely cold water. 

Those seamen were buried on an island in the bay called “Ile du Cénotaphe” (Island of the Cenotaph). A name that found its origin in the french word for empty graves illustrating the tragic destiny of those seamen and the tragic use of this island. Lapérouse made it write this message “Here, …”. 

What about the cannon ?

First of all, there are inscriptions in french on the cannon: “Fait par Dupont à Rochefort 1762” (Made by Dupont in Rochefort 1762) 

Jim Brennan in front of the cannon – © Jean-Marie Pestel

Secondly, this cannon seems to correspond to the type of armament needed for an expedition like Lapérouse’s. 

Thirdly, at that time and that place, it is hard to imagine which other french ships could have been there, if not Lapérouse’s ones. Moreover, when he was in Alaska, Lapérouse anchored only in Lituya Bay. 

So, this supposition is not verified, but highly relevant. 

And what are the other possibilities ?

The other possibilities we can considered would be a “theft” from the locals, an exchange during good relations with those same locals, or that this cannon has been brought after the passage of the Lapérouse’s expedition. It could have been either by a later other french expedition, either by an expedition other than french which would have “acquired” this cannon. 

What happens next with this cannon?

Today, Jim meet a lot of experts all around France, among other places, in order to support the theory of the belonging of this cannon to the expedition of Lapérouse. He went to Paris, Brest (the starting point of the expedition where he met Jacques Bodin, another historical member of the association), to Rochefort, and to other places.   

The difficulty to verify this supposition is even bigger that, the traces of the Lapérouse’s expedition have been deeply affected by the gigantic tsunami which occurred at Lituya Bay in 1958. According to Jim, who went multiple times there, the tsunami has made the channel even more dangerous and deep. But, this will not stop him to pursue his investigation. Indeed, he will go back there this summer in order to find new evidence. 

Finally, it is important to precise that this initiative follows no commercial spirit, and that it is an historical research that Jim is leading : “I wanted to know its story by putting my ear on it, as others do it with shellfish, to ask the cannon: “what is your story, I want to know it”. It has not answered to me.” 

The ALAF thanks Jim for his availability, and is honored and proud to count him among its members. The text that you read has been approved by him. 

Jim Brennan to Lapérouse’s Museum, Albi – © Jean-Marie Pestel

To find out more :

Le voyage de Lapérouse, written according to his original manuscripts, followed by an appendix containing what has been discovered since the shipwreck and enriched with notes by M. DE LESSEPS, Consul General of France in Lisbon, and the only living member of the expedition for which he was interpreter; accompanied by a general map of the voyage, decorated with a portrait and facsimile of Lapérouse. (FRENCH VERSION : https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k9614376z/f13.item.texteImage / sell by ALAF)

Mega Tsunami : Vague de 523 Metres !, by National Geographic (FRENCH VERSION : https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=video+lituya+bay)

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