Voyages of La Perouse: Lost hero all the world honoured [chapter 6 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 6 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 22 July 1934.]

The story of Australia — VI

Voyages of La Perouse

Lost hero all the world honoured

On the shores of Botany Bay there is a patch of land belonging to the French nation. It is of no great extent, but it marks the spot where the gallant La Perouse and his intrepid men formed their camp during the early days of 1788. A monument stands to the memory of this great French navigator, and close by is a tomb built over the actual grave of Father Receveur, one of his most trusted comrades.

But no one knows the last resting place of La Perouse. History tells us that he sailed away from Botany Bay, and for nearly forty years all trace of him was lost. The long search for the lost explorer was one of the saddest of all romances of the sea.

Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse was born near Albi, in the part of France called Languedoc, on August 23, 1741. His desire for a naval career showed itself at an early age. His father supported his wish, and in 1756 he entered the French navy as a royal cadet, and at 18 he passed through the horrors of a great naval battle. Four years later he was aboard the French flagship “Formidable,” which was captured by the English, and was himself taken prisoner. He spent a short time in England, but on regaining his liberty he was engaged for many years in naval fighting in various parts of the world.

Inspired by Cook

It was during this period that Captain Cook’s marvellous voyages had been discussed throughout Europe. La Perouse was greatly influenced by them, and in his journal one of the most moving passages was an eulogy of Cook, prompted by a visit to the island where the great English sailor met his death. When shortly before he sailed on his last voyage, Sir Joseph Banks sent him from England two magnetic needles which Cook had used, he acknowledged that he received them with “feelings bordering on religious veneration for the memory of that great and incomparable navigator.”

In 1785, the King or France, who also had become interested in voyages of discovery, decided to fit out an expedition of exploration to the South Seas, Western Asia, and Eastern Asia. The King’s study of Cook’s voyages had convinced him that there was a large amount of original work still to be done in these regions.

La Perouse was the man chosen to go forth, and he was given the command of two fine ships, the “Boussole” and the “L’Astrolabe.”

He was instructed to sail round the world to hoist the French flag over all the new lands. He was to find and sail through the North-West Passage, he was to find and take the unknown continent supposed to exist in the icy seas stretching away towards the South Pole. He was to examine the Louisiade group of Eastern New Guinea, pass Endeavour Strait, investigate, if possible, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the coast of Australia. Then he must follow Tasman’s tracks to Cook Island in New Zealand, across the Pacific to the west coast of America and return to Europe, via the China Sea. It is interesting to mention that the Eastern Coast of Australia — the part investigated by Cook — was purposely omitted, as the King of France had no desire to annex any land discovered by the English navigator.

La Perouse sailed from Brest on August 1, 1785, on his great voyage. He sailed down the east coast of America, round the dreaded Cape Horn; and then crossing the Pacific he explored the north-eastcrn coast of Asia, where he left his name forever on the map. In the month of May, 1787, he reached Kamschatka, having travelled round the world.

Visit to Botany Bay

While there he completed his journal and sent one of his officers home with it. The messenger was J. B. de Lesseps, the only member of the expedition who ever returned to Europe, and he discharged his trust. This book, with the exception of one short letter, was in effect, his last will and testament, for nothing else from his hand reached the world.

While at Kamschatka, Perouse received letters from France, advising him that an English expedition had sailed to Botany Bay, and that it would be advisable to visit the new settlement. Having refitted his ships Perouse sailed for the Southern Pacific. On the way he called at the Samoan Islands. At Tutuila the first disaster overtook him. Of his two ships one, the “Astrolabe,” was commanded by Captain de Langle, who, going ashore met a fate similar to Captain Cook. He was attacked by natives and killed; 11 of the crew shared his fate, and 20 others were wounded.

Perouse now determined to sail for Botany Bay, to get wood and water, and to put together two new long boats to replace those destroyed at Tutuila. On January 26, 1788, two and a half years after his departure from France, he sailed into Botany Bay just as the first fleet was leaving for Port Jackson. His entry completed one of the strangest pictures in the history of the British Empire.

Unknown fate

La Perouse was given the most friendly reception, and during his stay his relations with the British were unexceptionally cordial. On March 10 the “Boussole” and “Astrolabe” sailed away to look for the Promised Land. He parted on the best terms with the colonists, and English voices were the last to cheer him on his way to his mysterious fate. What happened after he left will never be known. The one thing certain is that the brave explorer was never heard of again.

A search party sent from France in 1791 failed to solve the mystery. Then an English captain named Peter Dillan heard a story of two wrecked ships in the New Hebrides, the islands Captain Cook had discovered. He was sent to make a special investigation, and at last in 1826 the truth was known. The captain found the wreckage of two ships. The “Boussole” and “Astrolabe.” What had happened to the captains and crew no one could say. An old silver sword hilt was obtained from Vanikoro, in the New Hebrides, and is now exhibited in the Marine Museum at the Louvre in Paris.

In Australia his memory has been kept green by the maintenance of a monument erected by Bougainville in 1825-26 on the site of the French camp. On July 14, 1917, the New South Wales Government announced that the site had been given to the French nation in perpetuity.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 22 July1934

[Editor: Corrected “sight of” to “site of”]

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