Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse

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Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse


French Navigator

Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, was a military hero and one of the greatest French explorers of the Pacific Ocean. While he made a number of significant discoveries, he is best known for his exploration of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands and his discovery of the Tatar and La Pérouse straits, on either side of the island of Sakhalin.

La Pérouse was born in 1741 near Albi, in France. Little is known of his childhood until age 15, when he joined the French Navy to fight the British in the Seven Years' War, later serving the French in North America, China, and India. He became famous in 1782 with his capture of two English forts along the Hudson Bay, and, shortly afterwards, married a woman he had met on the Ile de France (now known as Mauritius). In 1785, at the age of 44, he was placed in command of a two-ship expedition of discovery in the Pacific.

La Pérouse's ships, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, were supply ships, outfitted for exploration and classified as frigates for the expedition. At about 500 tons each, they were not large ships, but were considered adequate for the rigors of the upcoming expedition. A great admirer of English explorer James Cook (1728-1779), La Pérouse adopted many of Cook's practices, including several that were not common at the time: nearly 10% of his crew were trained as scientists, he treated his men well and was well-liked by them, and he made every effort to get along well with the Pacific Islanders with whom he came in contact. All of these traits helped to make him a successful commander, and helped make his expeditions unusually successful.

La Pérouse's voyage took him from Brest, around Cape Horn, and to Chile. From there, he sailed to Easter Island and Hawaii on his way to Alaska, where he explored and mapped for some time before turning south again for Monterey Bay, where he investigated Spanish settlements and missions with some disapproval for the treatment of Native Americans.

From Monterey, he set forth across the Pacific, making his way to Macao and Manila. After a short stay, he left to explore the coasts of northeast Asia, visiting Korea and Sakhalin (a large island between the northern Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk). Here, he made some of his most important discoveries, attempting to sail through the Tatar Straight (which separates Sakhalin from the Asian mainland) and then through the Straits of La Pérouse, which passes between Sakhalin and the Japanese island of Hokkaido. From there, he continued north to the Kamchatka Peninsula, reaching the port of Petropavlovsk in September 1787.

In Petropavlovsk, where he received further orders via letter from Paris, La Pérouse and his crew rested for a short time before packing their notes, logs, and specimens to be returned to France and traveling through Siberia and Russia (a monumental year-long trip in itself). New orders in hand, La Pérouse then left for New South Wales (in what is now Australia) to investigate activities of the British. On his way, he stopped at the Navigator Islands (now called Samoa) where a dozen of his crew were killed during an attack. He reached Botany Bay in January 1788, just as the British commander was moving the colony to Port Jackson. Although the British were unable to help supply him with food (being short of supplies themselves) they did transport his journals and letters to France and provided him with wood and fresh water for the next leg of his trip. La Pérouse left in early 1788, bound for more exploration of the islands and coasts of the southern Pacific, and was never seen again.

In 1791, A. R. J. de Bruni, chevalier d'Entrecasteaux (1739-1793) was sent to find and, if possible, rescue La Pérouse and his crew. He found that both ships had broken up on the reefs of Vanikoro Island. He was able to determine that the crew tried to salvage what they could, unloading the ships and making a small boat from the wreckage of the Astrolabe. Although most of the crew were killed by local inhabitants, some left on the boat, vanishing without a trace.


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Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse

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