Jean-François de Galaup was born in Albi on August 23, 1741. Raised far from the sea in the inland areas of the Tarn, it was his family’s maritime connections that prompted him to set sail. Taking the name of Lapérouse, he was hired at the age of 15 in the Marine Guards in Brest and soon experienced the fire during the 7 years war. Despite his young age, he took part in the battles, including the Battle of the Cardinals in 1759 where, wounded, he was temporarily taken prisoner.
During the period of peace that followed, Lapérouse sailed mainly along the French coast. Then in 1773 he sailed in the Indian Ocean to the Island of France, today Mauritius. There, between several missions and some fights to protect the French trading posts, especially in India, he met his future wife Eléonore Broudou, daughter of a merchant from Nantes, who was stationed in the Ile de France. He finally married her in 1783. They will have no descendants.
After a brief return to France, he was assigned in 1779 to the French squadron in the West Indies fighting against the English. He quickly took part in the battles in which France was on the side of the American insurgents. He then distinguished himself during a risky mission for which he was responsible in 1782: the attack and destruction of the forts where the English held the fur trade in Hudson Bay, a territory in the far north that was almost unknown at the time.
The success of this operation, his great maritime experience and the unfailing humanism that he demonstrated in all circumstances during his missions, led Louis XVI to choose him to lead a large-scale project, this time with a peaceful aim: scientific, commercial and humanistic. Conceived in the straight line of the philosophical ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, the expedition wanted by the King was intended to continue the exploration of the world, to contribute to the progress of knowledge.
During three years of sailing around the world, and despite its tragic final disappearance in Vanikoro in the spring of 1788, without any known survivor, this expedition left us precious pieces of information, thanks to the regular sending of mails intended for the King at the time of the stopovers, in particular in Macao, Manila and Botany Bay. An important shipment of documents was organized from Petropavlovsk: Barthélémy de Lesseps, who was initially on board as an interpreter of Russian, accomplished an exceptional expedition that took a whole year through Siberia, Russia and Europe, to bring the documents back to Versailles.
The explorer and the humanist
In spite of the final shipwreck, the name and memory of Lapérouse remain very much alive in the countries he visited, where his peaceful and respectful role is still honored. Witness the numerous memorials erected for him all over the world. As for the geographical locations he named, many of them have kept on maps the original name given by the expedition.
It is only in 1826 that remains of the expedition will be found on an island of the South Pacific: Vanikoro. In 1828, Dumont d’Urville found the first of the two wrecks there. The second one was only discovered in 1962 thanks to the Salomon Association created by Alain Conan in Noumea.
From 1981 onwards, and finally with the help of the French Navy, the latter organized several search campaigns which allowed the definitive identification of the two vessels. In 2003, a whole skeleton was discovered in the debris of La Boussole. This “unknown man from Vanikoro”, who is still not identified with certainty to this day, rests since June 2011 in the military enclosure of the castle of Brest, the port from which the frigates of Lapérouse left in 1785. Buried under a funerary slab carved in local stone, which draws a vast compass rose in homage to all the sailors of the scientific explorations, the unknown sailor now has universal value, echoing the generous humanist principles of the expedition.
The mystery of the Lapérouse expedition continues to unfold little by little!
To go further…
On the site :
A series of articles entitled “Did you know” tells the life of Lapérouse and some of the highlights of his expedition around the world. This series sometimes focuses on “companions” of the navigator in this adventure.
On the Web
Several very complete websites are available to readers who wish to know more about Lapérouse. Among them, we can mention :
- The site of the Salomon Association, dedicated to the Lapérouse expedition,
- The Wikipedia article on Lapérouse.