In Search of the Lapérouse Expedition

The excessive delay in the return of the expedition, which was expected in France in July 1789, causes an agonizing period of uncertainty regarding a possible disappearance.

Bruni d’Entrecasteaux

In September 1791, a search mission, commanded by Admiral d’Entrecasteaux, is dispatched to the South Pacific. The mission consists of two converted store ships of the same nature than Lapérouse’s ships, but smaller , La Recherche and L’Espérance. This mission will fail, mainly because of false information received at Cape Town that situated the shipwrecks to the north of New Guinea, outside the planned route. At the time of a second rounding of Australia, illness decimates the crews. At Batavia, in Indonesia, the ships are seized by the Dutch because of French revolution and European conflicts. It should be noted, however, that the expedition obtains good scientific results, but they will not be published for some time.

Much later, Peter Dillon, an Irish captain of the British East India Company (at the time when England is at war with France) discovers a French sword handle from an island near Vanikoro. When he returns to Calcutta, he persuades his superiors that it is indeed from the Lapérouse expedition. In 1827, he returns to the island and obtains proof, as much from oral tradition as from the objects themselves, that these are indeed from the Lapérouse expedition. He will receive in Paris a substantial reward for this precious information.

Several months later, Dumont d’Urville, on the way to the Pacific, is informed of Dillon’s discovery. He goes to Vanikoro, draws up a good map of the island, and convinces himself that this is indeed the site of the shipwreck of the Boussole and the Astrolabe. The fact that Dumont d’Urville’s ship also bears the name Astrolabe is a source of confusion. The wreckage of only one ship in a treacherous pass of the coral reef can be located, whereas the local people speak of “two large canoes.”

Monument of Dumont d’Urville

A whole series of expeditions that follow, sponsored by both the Marine Nationale out of Noumea and by individuals, together with research onshore, result in the collection of articles from the shipwreck.

The main new development will be, from 1962 to 1964, locating the second wreckage—that of La Boussole, Lapérouse’s ship; this research is led notably by Reece Discombe. then Admiral Brossard shall confirm. From 1981 to 2008, the Association Salomon de Nouméa, headed by Alain Conan, will carry out eight increasingly important expeditions.

Important questions remain unanswered: Which and how many men survived? Was there a land-based camp and, if so, where was it located? Did a rescue vessel leave Vanikoro and, if so, where was it lost? Who were the two Frenchmen who might have lived for some years at Vanikoro?