|From Brest to Concepción (Chile)|
It would appear that the route Brest to Concepción (nine months), with some intermediary ports of call-at Madeira, the Canary Islands, and Brazil, is chosen as the most practical for accomplishing the real objectives of the voyage. Several weeks are lost in searching for a “large-perhaps imaginary-island” in the South Atlantic. However, because the trip also has some economic goals, the observation of a large number of whales in this area could be of interest.
Lapérouse modifies the original trip plan after passing Cape Horn, thinking it preferable to spend two successive summers in the North Pacific—the first in Alaska and the second at Kamchatka, thereby giving up the visit to the Aleutians, which were already occupied by the Russians.
|From Concepción to Alaska |
The expedition follows an unusual route that should have led to the discovery of new territory-if the Pacific Ocean had not been so empty, a fact not known at the time.
After a very short stop to observe the famous statues at Easter Island, discovered in 1722 by the Dutch and well known by the Spanish and Cook, the expedition heads toward the Hawaiian Islands, whose Polynesian inhabitants have had a bad reputation since the assassination of Cook in 1778. Lapérouse makes a rapid and successful stop there—at Mowee (Maui)— he maps the area, pinpointing the position of several islands seen by the Spanish. During the crossing from Hawaii to Alaska, de Langle puts the finishing touches on a windmill to grind grain, an important logistical problem. Lapérouse’s objectives in Alaska are to find a sea passage to the Great Lakes or Hudson Bay and to try to find a site that could become a fur-collection center-on territory not claimed by the Russians, who had already explored these coasts beginning in 1741, or by the Spanish, who occupied the region as far south as San Francisco.
The Spanish had explored more to the north, notably at Vancouver Island (Nootka). As for the English, they had made their presence known as early as 1580, when Francis Drake landed near San Francisco and when Cook, on his third voyage, reached the Behring Strait. Lapérouse had accounts and maps of Cook’s voyage. After sighting Mount St. Elias, visible from a great distance, and trying different sheltered areas, he thinks he has found in the very beautiful natural harbor of Port aux Français (now Lituya Bay) a most suitable spot.
With the tide, the narrow entrance to the bay will prove to be very dangerous. Also, the bay is surrounded by high mountains and is poorly connected to the back country. One encounters here native peoples who, though thieving, are disposed to trading furs and otters.
The naturalist Dufresne is charged with buying some to resell on an experimental basis in China for the profit of the crew.
|From Port aux Français to Macao
After the loss of 21 sailors at the entrance to the bay during hydrographic operation-a very dramatic event for those onboard-Lapérouse decides, as he moves toward the south, to put into port at Monterey. At the same time, the mapping of the coasts from Alaska to California is being completed . But so numerous are the islands and channels along the way that it is difficult in the time available to conduct a continuous survey. To make things worse, the area is subject to frequent and unrelenting fog. Thus, Lapérouse will not see the main entrances that afford access to Juneau, the Fuca Strait, or San Francisco (through the Golden Gate passage), even though he had a map.
He receives a warm welcome at Monterey, a rather important Spanish colonial post that hosts the Commander of California and a military force, as well as San Carlos monastery charged with converting the very peaceful native people, all the while using them as forced labor. Lapérouse takes on board provisions for a long crossing of the Pacific, following a route not very different from that of the galleons.
It will take him 80 days to reach the Mariana Islands and two more weeks to get to Macao. He will see nothing on his journey except Necker Island, simply a big rock for seabirds, and the “French frigate shoal” a little farther along. A serious accident is narrowly avoided on an atoll in the Hawaiian Islands chain. The most northerly island of the Marianas will provide no more than a few coconuts. Then it is on to China and the Portuguese colony of Macao, where he recognizes the governor he had met earlier at Goa. He also has the pleasure of encountering a French military vessel belonging to the fleet stationed in the Indian Ocean but which unfortunately is not carrying mail. D’Entrecasteaux, himself, is not far away, readying to enter the Canton River under delicate administrative circumstances. The sale of furs to the Chinese proves more difficult and less profitable than expected.
After the purchase of Chinese porcelain, Lapérouse leaves again, disappointed by a despotic country where Europeans are not well received. He heads toward Manila where he hopes to repair his ships in the Spanish arsenals.
It is a long and good port call, where he is able to complete his crews, provided by d’Entrecasteaux, and to repair his ships almost a well as he could in Europe, with the cooperation of competent and obliging Spanish construction workers. On the other hand, he has problems with the way Spain is handling both the human and the economic administration of the Philippines.
|From Macao to Petropavlovsk |
Warned by the ship Marquis de Castries, of Entrecasteaux’s squadron, that secessional troubles have broken out on Formosa, Lapérouse heads north toward unknown waters forbidden to foreigners by the Japanese and Koreans; but this does not prevent him from pursuing his survey of the coastlines.
When he arrives in the north of Japan, he can now set foot on land that had “escaped Cook’s eye.”
The exploration of the Tartar Strait constitutes one of the most interesting and novel aspects of the voyage, with the charting of the Siberian coast and of the western part of Sakhalin Island. Lapérouse will discover between Sakhalin and the northern point of the Japanese archipelago a passage that now bears his name: “La Pérouse Strait.” Stretching along the Kuriles Islands, it reaches Petropavlovsk at Kamchatka.
This port of call benefits from the full cooperation of the Russians, who allow the young Barthélémy de Lesseps to disembark and who facilitate his mission to take back to Versailles, by land, some of the documentation that has been gathered. Shortly before leaving this port, Lapérouse finally receives both personal and professional mail, which includes notification of his nomination for the rank of Rear Admiral. However, the minister of the Navy asks him to modify his itinerary in order to confirm that the British are indeed a presence in Nouvelle-Galles du Sud (New South Wales, Australia) and to map the essential parts of the Australian coast and neighboring islands.
|From Petropavlovsk to Botany Bay|
The route toward the south, into a little-known region, produces no new land discoveries for the expedition. However, a serious accident occurs in the Samoan Islands, on the island of Tutuila (today Maouna), due to an imprudence at low tide on the part of Fleuriot de Langle during a reprovisioning of fresh water that Lapérouse did not consider absolutely necessary.
After a short stop in the Tonga Islands (Cook’s favorite port of call), Lapérouse, distrustful of the natives, heads toward New South Wales. By an extraordinary concordance of dates, Lapérouse witnesses the first settling of this country by the English. New South Wales will become the heart of Australia. Nature, in all its glory, has created two large neighboring bays. Lapérouse will occupy Botany Bay in order to construct some dinghys to replace those lost in the Samoan Islands. The English will settle at Port Jackson, a bay situated about 10 kilometers north from Botany Bay. During Lapérouse’s stay of a month and a half at this location, the English and the French will exchange courtesy visits. Mail is given to the English who then send it on to its destination.
That explains why Lapérouse is known so well by the Australians as a witness to the birth of their country.
|After Botany Bay |
The next part of the voyage is thought to have conformed to the instructions Lapérouse had received and to his own intentions, which were confirmed when he left Botany Bay. He was to come back to the Îles des Amis (Tonga Islands), which he had visited only briefly. It would seem that he stopped at the central island of the archipelago, where several inhabited islands were found. It is then almost certain that he went back to Île des Pins to the south of New Caledonia, then sailed along the west coast of the latter, where today the city of Noumea is located. Objects from the ships found ashore and mineral samples found at Vanikoro reinforce this assertion. It would then have been normal to pass near Vanikoro, an island that was still unknown and did not appear on maps. Probably seized by a very strong wind, and experiencing zero-visibility conditions, the boats were diverted onto the coral reef. When leaving Australia, Lapérouse complained about his bad health-the humid tropical climate of the region is very hard on a European’s constitution—so there is still a lingering doubt as to whether Lapérouse was still alive at the time of the shipwreck.