La Pérouse's Story
Lapérouse or la pérouse ?
Many people have chosen to write this name as a single word, Lapérouse. However, when referring to the naval officer chosen by Louis XVI, it is more accurate to write La Pérouse, as also recommended by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the French Ministry of Culture, the French Navy and dictionaries. When signing documents, the renowned explorer would join the two parts of his name, as was customary, a practice which no doubt explains subsequent transformations.
In July 2007, the Association Salomon, based on the hundreds of archives consulted for its research and publications, decided to adopt the two word form. The association did not however impose any particular form on the many external writers who contributed to the construction of this website. The outlandish spellings, found in the press or in various old accounts, have been left as they were originally written when cited. Hence visitors will come across not only the two most common competing forms, but also spellings such as « La Peyrouse », « Lapeyrouse », « la Pérouse »…
As an open-minded man, with a penchant for modernity, this great mariner would no doubt have been amused by these variations, in a way the price to pay for his fame.
The La Pérouse collection: a national treasure
Sharing. Such is the aim of this website which provides captioned photos, in order to make them publicly available, of some three hundred and sixty artefacts, the most significant of those discovered on land, in Vanikoro, and at the sites where the vessels under the orders of the Comte de La Pérouse were shipwrecked and vanished, one day in 1788, into the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. This website is a gateway for all researchers and historians interested in the greatest French expedition of the 18th century. An expedition steeped in history.
The La Pérouse collection is composed of over four thousand six hundred record cards each representing a single object, whether whole or fragmented, all of which now belong to French national collections. The remains of the La Pérouse expedition, discovered in Vanikoro, are no ordinary relics that the Pacific Ocean had jealously guarded within its coral reefs. These objects have their own story: they tell us of the men who owned and used them; they provide their contribution to our understanding of the tragedy which occurred in Vanikoro, they are cornerstones in this extraordinary investigation which has been in progress for over two centuries. Exhibited in museums, fuelling dreams and triggering emotions, they are and will continue to be, for generations to come, evidence of the sacrifice of these two hundred and twenty sailors and scientists who set sail from Brest, one day in 1785, to attempt to understand and explain the world.
An expedition steeped in history
On 1st August 1785, the last great discovery expedition in France's history left the port of Brest for a round-the-world trip scheduled to last four years. Aboard the two frigates, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, commanded respectively by Jean-François Galaup de La Pérouse and Paul-Antoine Fleuriot de Langle, the two hundred and twenty sailors, craftsmen, artists and scientists embarked upon an extraordinary adventure before meeting with a tragic end in the Pacific Ocean.
The aim, at the time, was to compete with English achievements, in particular those of Captain James Cook, of whom King Louis XVI and La Pérouse were fervent admirers. Indeed the three great voyages led by Cook had bestowed England with immense prestige and offered all sorts of territorial, maritime, military and scientific prospects. King Louis XVI went as far as marking out the ideal route and annotating by his own hand the instructions given to the French navigator, demonstrating his commitment to this expedition.
After three years of exploration, the vessels vanished with all hands.
It is hard, looking back, not to draw a parallel between the woeful end to the expedition and the fate of its royal instigator. Louis XVI was so involved in this project that as he climbed up to the gallows he is said to have asked: « Have we any news of Mr La Pérouse? »
Two great naval officers around the world
Born in 1741 near Albi, Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, was 44 when he set off on the expedition. He climbed the ranks of the French Navy (Garde de la Marine, Capitaine de vaisseau then Chef d’escadre) during a career marked by his military feats, but also, and above all, by his intelligence as to situations and the goodwill he showed towards the enemies and people he encountered. The benevolence he demonstrated towards the English together with his experience in the fur trade – one of the expedition's secret purposes – made him the ideal candidate to lead this very ambitious round-the-world voyage. Before departing, La Pérouse mainly worked on fine-tuning the details of the assignment with the King and the Ministry, between Versailles and Paris, while his peer and friend Fleuriot de Langle supervised the fitting out of the vessels in Brest.
Born in 1744 in Quemper-Guézennec, Brittany, Paul-Antoine Fleuriot, Vicomte de Langle, formed a friendship with La Pérouse during the American War of Independence. His passion for the science of modern navigation led to him being elected as a member, then president, of the French Naval Academy. The condition laid down by La Pérouse for taking on this voyage was that this pragmatic and devoted man of character take command of the second frigate, the Astrolabe.
Neither of these men with their intertwined fates and careers were to return from this voyage. La Pérouse was devastated by the death of his friend in the Samoa Islands, which weighed on him throughout the remainder of the expedition.
A voyage across the globe
The preparations for this voyage are comparable to those for an exceptional space mission today. 18th century high-tech equipment was onboard: the period's most sophisticated marine chronometers, navigational instruments, medical and scientific observation equipment. As for the crew, the best mariners, craftsmen, doctors and scholars were recruited.
The expedition's planned route, covering all latitudes and all the continents, including the most recently discovered continent, Australia, and travelling across all the world's oceans, was roughly equivalent to three of Cook's great voyages of discovery! The two hundred and twenty men were perfectly aware that they were setting sail on a journey from which they were not certain to return.
According to the last news received from the expedition, sent on 10th March 1788, the ships had already covered around 40,000 nautical miles, in six hundred and ninety days at sea interspersed with two hundred and sixty six days of stopovers. By the same date, thirty nine members of the expedition had already lost their lives in accidents and clashes or due to injuries or illness. Despite advanced medical knowledge, reports from the Englishmen encountered in Botany Bay, Australia, indicated that several Frenchmen were suffering from scurvy.
Two solid vessels for a very long journey
To endure such a long journey, the vessels had to be very sturdy, be able to carry food and supplies for a four-year expedition, accommodate over one hundred men and also carry civil personnel.
Two cargo ships were chosen, over faster and more easily manoeuvred vessels: two five-hundred-tonne scows (or fluyts), around 42 m long, 8.80 m wide and 5.8 m deep. Their draught, when laden, was around 4.5 m.
The Autruche, later to become the Astrolabe, was built in Le Havre in 1782, and the Portefaix, later to become the Boussole, was built in Bayonne in 1783, designed by Jean-Joseph Ginoux.
Work was performed on the poop deck, in the port of Brest, to accommodate the captains, and the hull of each ship was sheathed with scupper nails. The masts were replaced or revised, half ports were fitted to all the gun ports to prevent against rough seas and rather high portholes were made in the steerage to aerate the crew's accommodation. New galleys were fitted and twelve 6-pounder cannons were placed onboard each vessel.
In early June 1785, the fluyts Portefaix and Autruche officially became the frigates Boussole and Astrolabe.
Staff and crews
The Comte d’Hector and the Vicomte de Langle personally supervised the recruitment of the crews for the frigates. They primarily chose hardy, experienced sailors with additional skills: carpenters, tailors, cobblers... The contracts offered were very attractive for their time: setting off on this prestigious expedition was both an honour and a promise of substantial revenue. Almost all the sailors selected – a larger number than necessary were chosen to allow the captains to make the final selection – were Breton. This ensured crew cohesion, but also had other motives revealed by this letter from Comte d’Hector to the minister Castries: « The Bretons are the most suitable for campaigns such as this: their strength, character and their lack of concern for the future make them the preferential choice. »
La Pérouse and De Langle had lieutenants. Clonard and d’Escures on the Boussole, Monti on the Astrolabe. D’Escures drowned in Kamchatka. Following the death of De Langle in Samoa, Clonard, recently promoted to the rank of Captain, took command of the Astrolabe, and Monti changed to the Boussole.
For this expedition, so dear to Louis XVI, the pick of the crop of French scholars boarded the frigates. Nineteen astronomers, engineers, surgeons, botanists, naturalists, physicians and draughtsmen accompanied the sailors. The Academy of Sciences and the Society of Medicine were called upon to establish the scientific programme following the guidelines determined by the king and his ministers. According to the report, La Pérouse and his team were being invited by the king to perform astounding astronomical, ethnological, botanical, archaeological, geographical and nautical inventories. The surveys were to be systematic, even when previous explorers had already made investigations. A plethora of fields of knowledge were covered and the instruments provided were state-of-the-art. They had, for instance, aerostatic balloons used to determine the wind direction.
Never, before this expedition, had such attention been given to scientific matters, whether for the collection and conservation of species, or surveys and collection of information.
Despite the conditions in these damp ships, almost no lives were lost due to illness, after three years at sea, indicating that the officers and scholars had worked to the best of their abilities. Among the academics aboard, only three survived the adventure: Monge, who disembarked on the Canary Islands in 1785 because of his sea sickness; Dufresne, who left the expedition in Macao to deliver documents and sea otter skins to Paris and Lesseps who disembarked in Kamchatka to take news of La Pérouse to Paris. Most of the scientific work, which was ordered to be kept secret until their return, was lost when the ships sank.
Engineers, scholars, and artists
Aboard the Boussole :
- Monneron, captain of the corps of engineers and engineer in chief
- Bernizet, geographical engineer
- Lepaute Dagelet, astronomer and engineer at the military school
- Lamanon, physician, minerologist and meteorologist
- Abbé Mongez, physician, and acting as chaplain
- Rollin, surgeon major
- Le Corre, assistant surgeon
- Duché de Vancy, draughtsman of figures and landscapes
- Prévost le Jeune, botanical draughtsman
- Collignon, gardener-botanist
- Guéry, chronometer-maker
Aboard the Astrolabe :
- Monge, professor at the military school, mathematician, astronomer
- La Martinière, doctor, botanist
- Lavaux, surgeon in ordinary of the Navy
- Guillou, assistant surgeon
- Dufresne, naturalist
- Father Receveur, Cordelier friar, naturalist and acting as chaplain
- Prévost, (uncle of Prévost le Jeune), botanical draughtsman
- Lesseps, vice-consul in Russia, interpreter
The journey from Brest to Hawaii
After sixteen days at sea, the Boussole and Astrolabe stopped off at Madeira and Tenerife. La Pérouse loaded supplies of wine, water and fresh food.
After sixty-eight days at sea (via Trinity Island), the two frigates stopped over for twelve days on Santa Catarina Island, Brazil (twenty thousand inhabitants), dubbed the « island of orange trees ». Here they obtained supplies of beef cattle, pigs and poultry, water and wood, as well as fruit and vegetables, to feed the crew at sea for over a month.
After seventy-nine days at sea (via Cape Horn), skipping the stopover planned in the Bay of Good Success in Tierra del Fuego, La Pérouse arrived in Talcahuano, in the Bay of Concepción, Chile, for a twenty-day stopover. Here they were very well received and satiated their appetite. The vessels were caulked and repaired, and supplies were taken aboard for four months at sea.
The two ships set sail once again on 15th March 1786 and, after seventy-two days at sea (via Easter Island where they only stayed for one day), they reached the island of Maui, Hawaii, for a three day stopover to replenish supplies.
As soon as the frigates approached the archipelago, Maoris in canoes raced the sailing ships to sell, at their own risk, pigs and fruit. On the morning of 31st May, the two vessels furled their sails and four jolly boats made trips to land all morning.
Hawaii to California
After thirty-three more days at sea, the vessels anchored off Port des Français (today Lituya Bay, in Alaska). On 13th July 1786, La Pérouse sent two Biscayan longboats and a jolly boat to survey the bay of Port des Français. His instructions to Mr d’Escures, the young lieutenant in command of the Boussole's Biscayan longboat, were strict: he ordered him only to enter the passage at the stand of the tide and recommended taking « extreme care ».
At 10 am, La Pérouse saw the boat commanded by Mr Boutin return and was told of the tragedy. Driven by the current, the Boussole's longboat became positioned across the passage and capsized with the first wave. The other Biscayan longboat, commanded by Laborde de Marchainville, was out of danger by then. Yet as the second crew attempted to rescue their comrades, they suffered the same fate as the first. As for the small jolly boat, it made a safe escape thanks to the experienced Boutin, who faced his sternpost into the current and was pushed out of the bay on the crest of a wave.
As the expedition was all set to lift anchor, La Pérouse decided to extend their stay at the entrance to the bay so as not to neglect any chance of finding survivors. Alas this was in vain.
La Pérouse was particularly distraught by this tragic incident as it led to the loss of the two sons of Marquis Jean-Joseph de Laborde, court banker and friend of La Pérouse. This disaster at the beginning of the voyage no doubt influenced the decisions that La Pérouse made in other circumstances. It marked a clear turning point in what had been hoped to be, according to the wishes of King Louis XVI, a successful voyage if it could be completed « without costing the life of a single man ».
Twenty-one sailors were lost in this tragic incident.
Sea otter skins were easily obtained in the region considered by La Pérouse as the ideal location for setting up a future fur factory. In the name of the King of France, he took possession of the bay. Many American Indian objects collected during this stopover, including stone mallets, parts of harpoons and hooks, a pierced bear tooth and a pestle in the shape of a manatee were found in Vanikoro.
On 30th July, the expedition set off once again, this time headed towards Monterey, in California, where it arrived on 15th September 1786. Nature generously offered the expedition's naturalists the opportunity to deploy all their sampling gear: drawings, transport crates, jars and tubes, pestles, scalpels and tongs.
Revolted by the Indians' working conditions in the Franciscan convent of San Carlos, Lamanon and De Langle agreed to donate one of the two grain mills onboard the Astrolabe to them.
California to Macao
The expedition left Monterey on 24th September 1786 to cross the Pacific Ocean from east to west, a leg which lasted over 3 months. During this journey, the sailors discovered Necker Island and a reef, « French Frigate Shoals », where the vessels almost grounded. On 3rd January 1787, Macao was in sight. The stopover there lasted a month, until 5th February 1787. The city had around twenty thousand inhabitants and was enjoying renewed activity after a period of around a century of decline. Furs were sold here and Dufresne left to return to France with all the documents relating to the sea otter fur trade, the first part of the journal of La Pérouse and furs for the queen. While Duché de Vancy was painting views of the city, other members of the expedition purchased porcelain, some items of which were later to be found during underwater excavations, in particular a full service engraved with coats of arms ordered by Abbé Mongez for his congregation of Génovéfains.
Macao to Kamchatka
After their stay in Macao, the vessels stopped off in the Philippines, in Cavite (now Manila), where the scientists set up an on-land observatory. As they sailed through the China Sea, the Sea of Japan and along the coasts of Tartary (today Siberia), the mapping skills of the geographical engineers Monneron, Bernizet and Blondéla were called upon. Unable to find a navigable passage at the end of the Channel of Tartary, La Pérouse returned in the direction of Japan and discovered the strait which now bears his name, between Sakhaline and Hokkaido.
In Petropavlovsk, in Avatcha Bay, the French explorers were treated with a great deal of consideration by the Russian authorities. In a letter from France which reached the sailors during their stay here, they learnt that La Pérouse had been promoted to the rank of chef d’escadre.
Before leaving, the expedition leader, with regret, let Barthélemy de Lesseps go, tasking him with taking the reports and documents compiled so far overland to the king. After an extraordinary year-long journey, De Lesseps arrived in Paris where he was welcomed as a hero.
Kamchatka to Australia
This part of the voyage was marked by the second tragedy which plunged the expedition into mourning. From 9th to 14th December 1787, the Boussole and the Astrolabe were taking a break in the Samoa Islands, off the island known as Maouna (or Tutuila). Islanders approached the frigates aboard canoes to offer merchandise to be traded. De Langle, captain of the Astrolabe, ventured into some small bays in search of a source of drinking water. Suffering from the heat and lack of wind during this part of the journey, many sailors, as well as officers and scientists, volunteered to go in search of water. Not to mention the fact that the Polynesian women had proven to be very sensual and enticing that morning... Even the captains joined in with the chore of getting water. This started out well until the followers of a local chief, apparently offended, became very aggressive. La Pérouse decided to have all the crew return to the ships although all the barrels had not been filled.
In the afternoon, alluding to the threat of scurvy, De Langle convinced La Pérouse, with difficulty, that they should make the trip the following day to the second water source he had found.
When they arrived there, with sixty other people, hundreds of islanders flocked towards the shore. The captain had glass beads handed out to calm the most aggressive of them, but this was in vain and, when the signal was given to depart, men began to grab on to the longboats and stones began to fly. The sailors hit who fell into the water were clubbed to death. De Langle was the first victim. There were eleven others, including the famous physician Lamanon, and many others were injured.
On the evening of 23rd January 1788, anchored in Botany Bay, on the east coast of the island later to be named Australia, the English ship First Fleet was set to move to Cove Bay (today known as Sydney Cove), identified as an excellent mooring place by the commodore Phillip. Suddenly, to their great amazement, there at the end of the earth, a white sail appeared on the horizon, immediately followed by a second.
It was La Pérouse's frigates. However the poor weather prevented the French ships from entering the bay, which was not in fact an ideal shelter as the great ocean swell entered it. On 24th, the English fleet, which had set out to establish a penal colony in Australia, emigrated towards the immense bay further north of Port Jackson. On 26th January 1788, a six week stopover began, during which the officers of the two countries visited each other, travelling both by sea and over land.
The French sailors, exhausted both physically and mentally, had been travelling for two and a half years. The ships were missing three large longboats following the expedition's two tragedies. La Pérouse decided to remedy this, letting the sailors rest and having new Biscayan longboats built. Father Receveur died on 17th February following injuries sustained in Maouna.
While Lepaute Dagelet and William Dawes compared their astronomical surveys, and the sailors assembled the parts of the new longboats, they ate plenty of kangaroo and created a vegetable garden.
Relations were courteous and respectful between the two fleets. Yet, on 19th February, the commodore prohibited anyone from travelling to Botany Bay, although not without sending two horses to conduct the French captain to Sydney Bay. La Pérouse refused the offer. However, he authorised certain of his officers and scholars to visit the English. The two commanders in chief did not meet in person. Before the French ships sailed north on 10th March, Captain Clonard – captain of the Astrolabe – met Phillip to give him letters and documents to take to the King of France via the French ambassador in London. Letters, reports, plans and drawings arrived safely thanks to the English.
By 1789, the scheduled date set by La Pérouse for the expedition's arrival in Isle de France (Mauritius) had been and gone and rumours were rife. The king and people of France were concerned about the sailors' fate.
Triggered by a petition addressed by the Natural History Society of Paris, the National Assembly, troubled by the fate of the French seamen, adopted a decree, on 9th February 1791, calling for the king to « fit out one or more ships aboard which shall be found scholars, naturalists and draughtsmen and to charge the commanders of the expedition with the two-fold mission of searching for Mr de La Pérouse (…) and conducting research in the fields of science and trade ».
Bruny d’Entrecasteaux was charged with leading the expedition and the Recherche and the Espérance left Brest on 28th September 1791. Like La Pérouse's vessels, these were two four hundred tonne scows transformed into frigates. The expedition, divided like France at the time, was plagued with misfortune and ended in disaster in Java, not long after the death of its commander in chief. Despite his obstinacy, D’Entrecasteaux failed to land on the island where La Pérouse's ships had gone down, Vanikoro, which he nevertheless came across in the passing and baptised it Ile de La Recherche, where a few survivors may still have been waiting.
The island shrunk back into its oceanic solitude for thirty-three years.
Marine and submarine searches, for over two hundred years, have enabled the most probable scenario for the sinking of the two ships to be established.
One day or one night in May or June 1788, at the end of this austral summer, in unstable sea and weather conditions, the ships were coming dangerously close to an island, no doubt pushed by what are known as the « Westerlies » in the South Pacific Ocean. The faster of the two frigates, the Astrolabe, noticed breaking waves and managed to sail upwind while firing cannon shots to warn the Boussole of the danger. However the Boussole, less easy to manoeuvre, was unable to flee the danger. Despite desperate attempts, she veered, steered clear of then violently struck her stern on a fault in the reef, where breaking waves swept over the remains of the ship.
The Astrolabe was not out of danger either. While attempting to keep heading north, she grounded on the reef several times, damaging her hull, which began to take on water. The steersman then indicated what looked like a passage to enter and shelter in the lagoon, their last chance. However it was a false passage, far too narrow for this large ship which became definitively stranded. It is nevertheless likely that the grounding of the Astrolabe left more survivors than the sinking of the Boussole, which was far more violent.
The main collectors in the 19ᵗʰ century
It was not the French who were to discover the wrecks, but an Irish globetrotter, a bold giant born in 1788 in Martinique: Peter Dillon. He had already visited Tikopia, between the Santa Cruz Islands and the Solomon Islands, to drop off friends, thirteen years earlier, but did not question the islanders on the lost French ships. He knew however that France had promised to reward any person who gathered information on the fate of the ships and its crew. When he returned to Tikopia in 1826, he gained information which enabled him to organise a new expedition, this time to Vanikoro, from which he returned to France with incontestable evidence. He was appointed Knight of the Legion of Honour, and granted an indemnity of 10,000 francs and a pension of 4,000 francs.
In 1826, Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville, a naval officer and scholar with a passion for great expeditions, obtained the resources required to organise a research expedition in Melanesia. Yet his quest for information, as he trawled Oceania, proved very difficult. He learned of Dillon's discovery and reached Vanikoro in early 1828, where he also collected remains from the wrecks and precious information.
In January 1828, the commander of the Bayonnaise, Legoarant de Tromelin, during a stopover in Callao (Chile), received the order to travel to an island named Mallicollo (Malakula) in the Santa Cruz Islands or New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). En route, he stopped to rest in the Fiji islands where he learned of a letter from Dillon to Dumont d’Urville advising him to first stop in Tikopia. From there he travelled to Vanikoro where he collected a few relics from the wrecks as well as an oral account. According to this tale, « on a dark night in very bad weather », a ship broke on the reef and sank with all hands, while the other grounded at a break in the reef. « The shipwrecked men must have been caught by the natives, as one of them, at the time of the event, told us that they were battling with White men, that the White men were killing many people, that they were launching shots as large as coconuts; that the White men, of which there were around twenty, with a chief among them, had escaped from the vessel which had been shattered into pieces by the waves; that the White men had settled in the village of Ignama, around four hundred miles north of Païou, that they stayed there for around six moons and built a large canoe in which they all left. »
Vanikoro is the southernmost of the Santa Cruz Islands, part of the Solomon Islands archipelago. It is the second largest island of the Santa Cruz group, with a surface area of 190 km² and an altitude of around 900 m. The closest island, Utupua, is located 30 km north-west. Tikopia is the furthest island in the group, some 230 km to the south-east.
Vanikoro is a volcanic island composed of three cones and surrounded by a barrier reef protecting a particularly deep lagoon around 1.5 km wide. Vanikoro has a mean annual rainfall at seawater level of between 5.6 and 7.9 m!
The inhabitants of Vanikoro are Melanesian. Settled in a few scattered villages, they use the south coast for fishing and gardening, but do not occupy it as it is too humid. At the time of the shipwrecking, Tikopians regularly visited Vanikoro, and it even appears that some had already settled on this island. These people, of Polynesian origin, were constantly seeking new lands to colonise and the shipwrecking may have given them the chance to settle long term.
The inner part of the island is composed of basalt soils covered with a tropical rainforest. The majority of the coastline is lined with high mangrove trees growing in marshy ground. Vanikoro is surrounded by a nearly uninterrupted belt of coral reef. To the north, west and south, the fringing reef extends across 1 to 2 miles, quite a short distance from the coast.
Passes reaching out in front of wide rivers open the lagoon up to visitors coming from the sea.
The main collectors in the late 19ᵗʰ and 20ᵗʰ centuries
In 1883, Pallu de La Barrière, Governor of New Caledonia, sent the sloop Bruat to Vanikoro. The aim of this voyage was to collect objects from the wrecks. The Bruat only stayed in Vanikoro for four days. The captain feared for the health of his crew and the islanders were hostile at this time when forced recruitment was rife. The ship nevertheless returned with anchors, cannons, stone-throwing mortars...
At the initiative of Pierre Anthonioz, French Resident Commissioner in the New Hebrides, on 15th March 1958, the yacht Don Quijote left Port-Vila bound for Vanikoro. The French authorities were alerted by Reece Discombe, a New Zealander living in Port-Vila, himself a keen diver. Discombe had obtained information from the employees of the timber company based in Vanikoro. He thus took part in this exploration campaign. The search began on the site dubbed « Fausse Passe ». The methods employed, sometimes rather hasty, nevertheless resulted in the discovery of several objects, mainly made of metal. On 19th March, the divers came across four large anchors lying « top to tail » and brought one back to Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides).
These discoveries refreshed the Navy's memory. Captain de Brossard, then a Navy Commander in New Caledonia, requested to his superiors that a French ship be officially sent out to continue to search the site where the wreck of the Astrolabe lay and search that of the Boussole. De Brossard also recommended sending Haroun Tazieff on site, whose qualities he appreciated. On 17th June 1959, the Tiaré and the Rocinante set off once again towards the island. Over six tonnes of objects were brought to the surface including anchors, cannons and pigs of lead.
In 1964, alerted by Reece Discombe of the discovery of relics in a fault in the barrier reef, the Minister of the Armies called for an expedition to be organised under the leadership of the Resident Commissioner in the New Hebrides, Maurice Delauney. The Aquitaine reached Vanikoro on 6th February. On the new site, dubbed « La Faille » (the fault), the French found objects which enabled Delauney to establish a credible scenario of the shipwrecking. This site indeed appeared to be that of the Boussole, but doubt lingered on for a few more years to come. This short mission, which ended on 9th March 1964, brought back essential new elements which encouraged the French Navy to launch further expeditions.
Under the orders of the mission leader – Captain de Brossard – the Dunkerquoise moored off Païou on the morning of 20th March. A ship's bell, a pulley and two bronze stone-throwing mortars, as well as a limb of a quadrant, were brought to the surface. The Dunkerquoise returned to Vanikoro on 26th November for a one-month mission. The harvest was proportional to the extensive resources deployed, both in terms of personnel and equipment.
However, due to the geopolitical turmoil prevailing in the Pacific in the late 20th century, the searches continued to be pursued by an association composed of volunteers (Association Salomon), in memory of the lost expedition, until the French Navy returned to the area in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2008.
The archaeology of underwater sites
Thanks to the many underwater excavations, from the most rudimentary, carried out by individuals, to the most advanced, performed by archaeologists, including those of the DRASSM (French Department for Underwater and Undersea Archeological Research) during the latest expeditions, the fate of the La Pérouse frigates has been revealed. From fragments of ship to the most intimate belongings, navigational instruments to objects collected during the frigates' round-the-world trip, many have « recounted », through a veil of mystery, the life of these men during their three-year voyage and the fatal accident which ended their journey.
These excavations also gave rise to strong emotions among those brave enough to venture into the sometimes hostile environment of a reef fault.
The discovery of a well preserved, over two-hundred-year-old skeleton in the wreck of the Boussole, in 2003, was an exceptionally rare event in underwater archaeology. The remains of this man, nicknamed « The unknown mariner of Vanikoro », as his identity has not yet been established with certainty, have been examined by French research laboratories and have even led to a striking attempt at facial reconstruction.
« The unknown mariner of Vanikoro »
On 22nd November 2003, divers brought a full skeleton to the surface from the ruins of the quarters at the stern of the Boussole, where the officers and scholars on the expedition were housed. After initial analysis on site, the bones were transported to France and examined by the Arc’Antique laboratory, the Institut de recherche criminelle de la Gendarmerie nationale (IRCGN) and the CNRS Laboratoire d’anthropologie des populations du passé (LAPP). These investigations indicated that the victim was between 33 and 35 years old when the coral reef and time closed in on him. He had excellent dental hygiene, was slightly prognathous, and his worn teeth suggested a habit of chewing. It could therefore not be La Pérouse himself, as he was 47 years old at the time. The draughtsman Duché de Vancy initially came to mind, but a letter from Fleuriot de Langle indicating that he had changed to the Astrolabe contradicted this theory. Research then focused on Abbé Mongez, whose descendants had come forward. However the DNA from the beard hair of a descendant from the maternal branch of the family could not be exploited by the Montpellier laboratory of molecular genetics.
It could have been the astronomer Lepaute Dagelet, given that all the objects found in the fault point to either Abbé Mongez (crucifix, small box of holy oils, Mongez porcelain, altar stone) or Lepaute Dagelet (astronomical telescope, quadrant and other observation instruments). Yet further analysis, revising the age of the unknown mariner to between 30 and 32 years old, could lead the investigation in the direction of the assistant surgeon of the Boussole, Jacques-Joseph Le Corre. The investigation continues...
Terrestrial archaeology - The French camp
According to accounts published by Dillon and Dumont d’Urville, some members of the French expedition were believed to have survived and built a makeshift camp as well as a boat with which they left the island. Two Frenchmen, a chief and his servant, are said to have lived on the island until they died.
On land searches by Association Salomon began in 1986, continued in 1990 and culminated, thanks to the resources deployed, in 1999, with the discovery of the settling place where the survivors had lived. The searches continued in 2000, 2003, 2005 then in 2008.
Drawing upon the results of the first three campaigns, in 1999, after twenty days of prospection, the team at the French Research and Development Institute (Institut de recherche et de développement, IRD) discovered the first significant remains of what became known as the « French Camp »: a proportional compass or « King's foot », a small sundial cannon and a copper candlestick were lying a metre below the ground's surface. The 70 m2 excavated that year revealed a collection of fragments of furniture which were scattered in such as way as to suggest their layout.
In 2000, the extended excavation campaign confirmed that the site had been partially overturned (by looters?) and the clues left by the shipwrecked seamen had disappeared. The theory that part of the camp may have been destroyed by the sea or river was also established as a possibility.
In the best case scenario, the Frenchmen may have constructed the equivalent of what they had built in Australia, a wall made of logs to protect them from the islanders, surrounding the tents or temporary buildings they set up on land whenever they anticipated staying for a sufficient amount of time. They probably did not intend to stay for a long period but rather preferred to work on a makeshift boat with which to leave this gloomy island rather than on improving their camp.
La Pérouse in New Caledonia
While no news was received of the expedition after its departure from Australia, it has now been proven that the ships sailed to New Caledonia before sinking further north, in the Santa Cruz Islands. After Cook in 1774, and before Entrecasteaux in 1793, La Pérouse was one of the first Europeans to travel to New Caledonia. He discovered the Loyalty Islands (in particular the islands of Maré and probably Lifou), he visited the Isle of Pines, was the first to enter the roadstead of Nouméa and explored the west coast where he recorded its specific mineralogy with minerals containing the future nickel ore.
These affirmations are supported by samples of Caledonian minerals (dolerite) collected from the wreckage site, as well as a graphometer dated 1781 found near Nouméa. These material elements were confirmed by several accounts told by natives and recorded by various collectors, including Jules Garnier, after whom garnierite, a mineral with a high nickel content, was named. This same Garnier collected additional evidence in New Caledonia: an 18th century French sword.
The mystery of La Pérouse
The sudden and complete disappearance of the ships and their crew in 1788 formed a veil of mystery around this great expedition. If the frigates had not grounded on this chunk of volcano surrounded by coral, who would have heard of the island of Vanikoro today? If there had been survivors, what had been their fate, so far from their homeland, in the immensity of the South Pacific?
These questions, and many others, capture our imagination and mould all these searches into something resembling a police investigation, a fabulous story in which reverie and passion join forces to foster the magic of La Pérouse.
Created in 1981 in Nouméa, New Caledonia, Association Salomon, which has organised and led eight excavation campaigns in Vanikoro, comprises individuals with a wide variety of skills, united by a shared passion for the sea and maritime history. By launching several expeditions using limited means at the beginning of this research, at a difficult time when nuclear testing was being carried out in the Pacific, the association nevertheless managed to build trusting relationships with the Solomon Islands authorities and with the population of Vanikoro, a forgotten island marked by the sinking of these two vessels which contributed to its subsequent fame.
Since then, its searches to understand why and how the vessels met their end have been modernised and amplified. While the rudimentary conditions of the first expeditions did not prevent the volunteers from carrying out painstaking work. The scientific approach of the excavations has since been fine-tuned: the world's top experts have provided their approbation or support, the French Navy its technical expertise and its resources. The latest expeditions, carried out in 2003, 2005 and 2008, are undeniable evidence of this. As is the involvement of the French Department for Underwater and Undersea Archeological Research (DRASSM) from the 2003 expedition onwards.
Following each excavation campaign, Association Salomon has naturally devoted itself to disseminating the information gathered. The opening of the New Caledonia Maritime Museum, exhibitions and debates, the first books published by the association and finally an exhibition at the French National Navy Museum in Paris in 2008 were just some of the milestones along the journey of these New Caledonians who have evolved from being discoverers to informants for the public and future generations. This website, the association's latest creation, furthers this effort to share our findings with a wide audience.
The New Caledonia Maritime Museum
Following the first excavations in the 1980s, Association Salomon and the association Fortunes de mer calédoniennes – devoted more widely to shipwrecks in New Caledonia – became aware that they required a facility capable of processing and storing their discoveries, in order to share them with the public.
The New Caledonia Maritime History Museum, created in 1994, aimed to provide « a living museum for historical, scientific, tourism-related, educational and thematic purposes ». The museum opened in 1999 in the building of the former marine passenger terminal located near the small roadstead of Nouméa. From the onset, it included a laboratory, an essential requirement given its remote location in relation to the main laboratories for the processing of underwater archaeological objects.
The museum contains 1000 m2 of floor space, excluding the thematic exhibitions, and offers a permanent exhibition presenting the maritime history of New Caledonia, from the first navigators in the Pacific to the American presence during the Second World War, not forgetting the major European expeditions of the late 18th century, the adventurers, sandalwood traders, whalers, penal colonisation... The objects excavated by Association Salomon from the wrecks of the La Pérouse vessels hold a predominant place.
Today, the museum manages a collection of which 95% is from excavation expeditions led by Fortunes de mer and Association Salomon. Several thousand artefacts and documents are held in the museum. In addition to its role in processing, storing, inventorying and exhibiting these objects, it is increasingly required to develop its research skills, in collaboration with specialists.
Entirely renovated in 2012, what is now known as the New Caledonia Maritime Museum has become a must for all sea lovers. Its vocation is not restricted to the conservation of the country's heritage, but is perpetually growing thanks to the men and women who are making contemporary maritime history. The work carried out on the story of La Pérouse clearly illustrates this relationship between research, associations and museums.