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Louis-Antoine de Bougainville

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville

Born November 12, 1729 Paris, France

Died August 31, 1811 Paris, France

French military leader who served in Quebec and later sailed around the world

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was one of the most interesting characters to fight on the side of the French during the French and Indian War (1754-63; known in Europe as the Seven Years' War). A promising mathematician who published an award-winning academic paper, he chose to pursue a military career. He served as the top aide to Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint-Véran (1712-1759; see entry), the respected commander of French forces in North America. Bougainville took part in the important French victories at Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry, as well as in the French defense of Fort Carillon and Quebec. His lively journals of his wartime experiences provide one of the best sources of inside information about the French war effort. Once the war ended in a British victory, Bougainville sailed around the world in hopes of discovering new lands to help France regain its former empire.

Serves as assistant to Montcalm

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was born on November 12, 1729, in Paris, France. He was the youngest of three children born to Pierre-Yves de Bougainville and Marie-Françoise d'Arboulin. One of the major influences on Bougainville's young life was his older brother, Jean-Pierre, who was a prominent scholar with many connections in Paris society. Bougainville attended the College des Quatres-Nations and the University of Paris, where he studied law. After graduation, his brother arranged for him to study under several famous mathematicians. It soon became clear that the younger Bougainville had a great mathematical mind. In 1753, he published an important paper on calculus (a field of advanced mathematics), called Traité de calcul integral. Three years later, he was elected to the British Royal Society in recognition of his work.

But Bougainville was not content to stay in Paris and write mathematical papers. His strong sense of duty and need for adventure had led him to join the French Army in 1750. In 1756, he received the rank of captain and was sent to North America to fight in the French and Indian War. This war began in 1754 in North America, where both Great Britain and France had established colonies (permanent settlements of citizens who maintain ties to the mother country). The British colonies, known as America, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean from present-day Maine to Georgia. The French colonies, known as New France, included eastern Canada, parts of the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi River basin.

Both the British and the French hoped to expand their land holdings into the Ohio Country, a vast wilderness that lay between their colonies and offered access to valuable natural resources and important river travel routes. But the Ohio Country was controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of six Indian (Native American) nations whose members had lived on the land for generations. As Iroquois influence started to decline in the mid-1700s, however, the British and French began fighting to claim the Ohio Country and take control of North America. Once Great Britain and France officially declared war in 1756, the conflict spread to Europe and around the world.

Bougainville served as aide-de-camp (a top military assistant) to Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint-Véran, who was the new commander-in-chief of all French forces in North America. The two men traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada in the spring of 1756. Although their voyage was rough, it led Bougainville to develop a strong interest in ships and seamanship that he would pursue after the war.

Helps the French win several battles

Shortly after his arrival in North America, Bougainville participated in the French attack on Fort Oswego, located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Oswego River (near the site of modern-day Syracuse, New York). Montcalm and his three thousand-man army captured two hills that towered above the British fort and aimed their cannons down into it. When Fort Oswego surrendered a short time later, Bougainville served as the translator between Montcalm and the British leaders.

In 1757, Bougainville took part in the siege of Fort William Henry, a British stronghold located at the south end of Lake George in northern New York. This time, Montcalm led eight thousand troops, including two thousand Indian warriors. They crossed the lake in small boats, hauled their artillery on shore, and began bombarding the fort. The British forces surrendered Fort William Henry after it was battered for several days by enemy shells. Once again, Bougainville acted as a translator as the two sides negotiated honorable terms of surrender. But the Indians were left out of the settlement and refused to accept it. They wanted to collect trophies from the battle—such as captives, scalps, weapons, and supplies—as proof of their courage. Their demands were rejected, and what followed has been called "the massacre of Fort William Henry." The Indians attacked the British survivors, killing as many as 185 men and taking several hundred more as prisoners. Montcalm and Bougainville were horrified by the Indians' behavior. They ended up paying ransom to free some of the British prisoners, and were reluctant to use Indians in their future campaigns.

In 1758, Bougainville participated in the successful French defense of Fort Carillon (also known as Ticonderoga), located on Lake Champlain in northern New York. About four thousand French defenders held off fifteen thousand British troops under General James Abercromby (1706-1781). The French anticipated the location of the British attack and built a huge wall of logs and an abatis (a defensive barrier made from felled trees with sharpened branches) to block their approach. Abercromby sent wave after wave of British soldiers toward the fort, where they either became tangled in the abatis or were shot by the French. By the time Abercromby finally ordered a retreat, two thousand of his men were dead or wounded. Bougainville received a gunshot wound to the head during the battle, but he recovered quickly.

Following the French victory at Fort Carillon, Mont-calm sent Bougainville back to France. The general saw a number of problems in the French war effort and hoped that his aide could convince the French government to send more troops and supplies to Canada. But French leaders wanted to concentrate on fighting the war in Europe. In addition, the British had won several important naval battles and taken control of shipping on the Atlantic, which made it very difficult to send supplies from France to Canada. When Bougainville sailed back to North America in the spring of 1759, he arrived just ahead of the British fleet that was coming to attack Quebec, the capital of New France.

Quebec was a difficult target for the British to attack. It sat atop high cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River and was surrounded by a large stone wall. As Montcalm prepared to defend the city, he stretched his forces along the cliffs for several miles upstream and downstream of the city. The general put Bougainville in charge of troops that patrolled the shoreline watching for signs of a British attack. The British fleet arrived at Quebec in late June, carrying more than eight thousand troops under Major General James Wolfe (1727-1759; see entry). They set up a base camp on the Île d'Orléans, a large island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, just a few miles from the city. Over the next two months, the British forces made several unsuccessful attempts to break through the French defensive line.

Finally, on the night of September 12, Wolfe's forces used an overgrown footpath to climb the cliffs just upstream from Quebec. The five thousand British soldiers then arranged themselves in battle formation on the Plains of Abraham outside the walls of the city. Before the British could set up a siege, Montcalm led forty-five hundred French troops to face them on the field of battle. The highly trained British soldiers held their ground and soon forced the French to retreat back to the city. Both Montcalm and Wolfe suffered fatal wounds in the fighting. Bougainville, who had been patrolling some distance from Quebec, arrived too late to change the outcome of the battle. Quebec surrendered to the British on September 18. In 1760, Bougainville helped negotiate the French surrender at Montreal, which marked the end of the French and Indian War in North America.

Sails around the world

Once the British took control of Canada, Bougainville returned to France. He fought in Europe until the Treaty of Paris ended the war there in 1763. Under the terms of the treaty, France gave up most of its colonies around the world. Bougainville became determined to discover new lands and claim new territory in the name of France in order to help his country regain its empire. In 1764, he founded a French colony in the Falkland Islands, a group of islands in the South Atlantic that later became part of Argentina. He was forced to give up the colony a year later, however, when the islands were claimed by France's ally, Spain.

In exchange for giving up the colony, King Louis XV of France (1710-1774) offered Bougainville the opportunity to explore the Pacific Ocean. Bougainville set sail in November 1766 aboard a mid-sized French warship called the Boudeuse, accompanied by a supply ship called the Étoile. He hoped to become the first Frenchman to sail around the world. He also wanted to discover new lands and gather scientific information.

Bougainville and his crew sailed south across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, then circled around the tip of South America and entered the Pacific Ocean in January 1768. They landed in Tahiti in April of that year, and Bougainville described the tropical islands in his journal as "paradise on earth." While there, he unexpectedly discovered that one member of his crew was a woman. This woman, who called herself Bare, had disguised herself as a man to obtain work in Paris and kept up the disguise in order to have an adventure. She ended up becoming the first woman to sail around the world.

Bougainville sailed west across the South Pacific in hopes of finding the "great southern continent" (present-day Australia, which had not yet been discovered by Europeans) that many geographers thought existed. He came to the Great Barrier Reef, about one hundred miles off the coast of Australia, and almost wrecked his boat. Since he could not find a way around the dangerous reef and could not see land from there, he turned around. Bougainville went through the Solomon Islands and named one after himself, then continued on to the Moluccas Islands (or Spice Islands) and collected specimens of clove and nutmeg plants.

Bougainville returned to France in March 1769. Although he had made few notable discoveries, he had succeeded in becoming the first Frenchman to sail around the world. In addition, a young astronomer on his crew, Pierre Antoine Veron, had used new instruments to chart the correct longitude of many small islands for the first time. Bougainville published a famous account of his voyage in 1771.

Fights with the French Navy

In 1780, Bougainville married Flore-Josephe Long-champ de Montendre, a Frenchwoman from a noble background who was twenty years his junior. They eventually had three sons: Hyacinthe, Armond, and Alphonse. In 1781, France threw its support behind the American colonists in their revolution against Great Britain. Bougainville, who had remained in the French Navy after completing his voyage around the world, sailed to North America to take part in the war. He played a major role in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay in September of that year, which gave valuable support to the American cause. At the end of the American Revolution, Bougainville retired from the French Navy to write scientific papers.

Bougainville's long list of accomplishments led to a number of honors in his later years. In 1804, he received the French government's highest award, the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honor, along with the title of count. Bougainville was also elected to the Academy of Sciences and the Board of Longitude. Numerous islands, mountains, and bodies of water were named after him, as was a variety of rose and the flowering ornamental bougainvillea vine. Bougainville died in Paris on August 31, 1811.

For More Information

Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de. A Voyage Round the World. London, J.Nourse, 1772. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1967.

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Gale: Detroit, 1998.

Explorers and Discoverers of the World. Gale: Detroit, 1993.

Kimbrough, Mary. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, 1729-1811: A Study in French Naval History and Politics. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.

O'Connor, J. J., and E. F. Robertson. "Louis-Antoine de Bougainville."The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. http://wwwgroups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Bougainville.html (accessed January 27, 2003).

Ross, Michael. Bougainville. London: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1978.

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