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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

La Pérouse

La Pérouse

1785 to 1788

John Francis Galaup de la Pérouse, to give him his name in full, commanded an expedition with two frigates, the Bonssole and the Astrolabe, which was commanded by M. de Langle. The object was to check previous discoveries.

The ships sailed from Brest on August 1, 1785, and after calls on the way, made the Strait of Le Maire on January 25, 1786. Easter Island was reached on April 8, and a good description of the people was recorded. After two days, La Pérouse sailed for the Sandwich Islands, where he saw the snow-capped mountains of the island of Hawaii on May 28. On June 1 he sailed for California, where he spent about four months surveying the coast, including Monterey Bay. In October he sailed for Macao and, on the way (on November 4), discovered a rocky island which he named Isle Necker. Necker, uninhabited but with interesting archaeological remains, lies northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The next day the two frigates almost ran onto an uncharted shoal at 1:30 A.M. La Pérouse named it Basse des Frégates Françaises (French Frigate Shoal). The ships called at the Marianas and the "Bashee" Islands before reaching Macao on January 3, 1787.

La Pérouse sailed for Cavite in the Philippines on January 25, arriving after twenty-three days. He spent some time at Cavite, repairing the ships and getting supplies. On April 10 he sailed north to explore Formosa, the coast of Japan, Tartary, Sakhalin, and the Aleutian Islands. In September he sighted the coast of Kamchatka and on September 6, sailed into Awatscka (Awatscha) Bay to the port of St. Peter and St. Paul, where he entrusted his papers to an interpreter to convey to France.

From the north, La Pérouse sailed to the Navigator Islands (Samoa) and traded with the people of the island of Maouna (Tutuila) on December 9, While a watering party was getting a supply of fresh water on shore, the Samoans attacked it and de Langle, commander of the Astrolabe, and twelve men were killed and many others wounded. La Pérouse then steered for two other islands of the Samoan group which bore west by northwest. He recorded them as Oyolava and Pola [Savaii and Upolu ?].

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La Pèrouse sailed south from Samoa on December 23, and four days later arrived at Vavao (Vavau), the north Tongan group which had been discovered by Maurelle. No canoes came out, as the weather was bad. He saw Late, and in a squall, he bore up to the islands of Kao and Toofoa (Tofua) which had been described by Cook. He continued to the uninhabited Haapai group which he termed Hoonga-tonga and Hoonga-hapaee (Honga Tonga and Honga Hapai). On December 31 he reached Tongatabu, where canoes came out, and he managed a description of them and the people and bought several weapons. On January 1, 1788, he bore west-southwest for Botany Bay in Australia, but the wind forced him south and he saw Pylstaart and Norfolk Islands. La Pèrouse mentioned that the wind had blown steadily from the west since December 17 and did not change to the east until January 6. On January 26, 1788, the ships anchored in Botany Bay, where an English fleet under Commodore Phillip was weighing anchor to proceed to Port Jackson.

This ends La Pèrouse's Journal, which was evidently sent back from Botany Bay or Port Jackson. This portion of it, with the papers sent back from the port of St. Peter and St. Paul, enabled the National Assembly of France to order the printing of the account of the voyage up to La Pèrouse's arrival at Botany Bay. Among the material published is an excellent "Dissertation on the inhabitants of Easter Island and Mowee [Maui]" by M. Rollin, M.D., surgeon to the Boussole. La Pérouse, in a letter to a friend, wrote that if his journal should be published before his return, he did not want it done by a man of letters as he wished to avoid "sacrificing sense for sound." La Pèrouse and his ships never returned to France. His fate remained a mystery until 1827, when the wrecked ships were found on a reef at Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Islands by Peter Dillon.