The North Pacific Voyages of the Comte de La Pérouse

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The North Pacific Voyages of the Comte de La Pérouse


Between 1785 and 1788 Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse (1741-1788?), sailed on a mission of exploration to discover islands and lands not yet found by France's European rivals. With two ships, La Boussole and Astrolabe, La Pérouse traveled to many parts of the Pacific, although he is best-known for his explorations in the North. In particular, he discovered the strait named for him that separates the islands of Sakhalin and Hokkaido, connecting the Sea of Okhotsk with the Sea of Japan. These and other discoveries helped complete this phase of Pacific Ocean exploration and established a French presence in the region.


European exploration of the Pacific Ocean began with Vasco Núñez de Balboa's (1475-1519) first view of the ocean from the Isthmus of Panama in 1513. Six years later, when Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) set out to circumnavigate the globe, he became the first European to sail the largest ocean on Earth. One of Magellan's goals, like Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) before him, was to find a new route to the Orient, to open it for further trade with Europe.

Over the next two centuries, exploration in the Pacific was sporadic at best. While its periphery was visited and mapped to some extent, there were no real systematic efforts to document what lay beyond those areas thought to be commercially valuable or that held riches such as gold or spices. Even midway through the eighteenth century much of the Pacific and many of its shores were unknown.

The exploration that was done, and the few trading posts and colonies that were established in the Pacific were almost exclusively English, Dutch, or Spanish. Although the French boasted the largest nation in Europe, a strong navy, and a vigorous economy, France's concentration on European affairs blinded her to the possibilities that existed overseas. Finally, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, France awoke to the possibilities that existed in the Pacific.

During this time, voyages of exploration were dispatched to all parts of the Pacific, charged with finding lands not already claimed or visited by France's European rivals. Three of the best-known explorers were Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni, chevalier d'Entrecasteaux, (1739-1793), who visited Australia and neighboring regions; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811), who explored the islands around Indonesia and New Guinea; and La Pérouse.

Setting out from France in August 1785 for the Pacific, La Pérouse rounded Cape Horn on his way to Easter Island, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), and up the coast of North America. His first goal, to find the long-sought Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, was futile, and he stopped his search when he reached the southern shore of Alaska. From there, he headed south, reaching as far as San Francisco before crossing the Pacific. He arrived in southern China in early 1787 and proceeded on to Manila, then owned by the Spanish. Stocked with water and food, he headed north along the Asian coast, reaching Japan in early summer.

La Pérouse reprovisioned in Japan, then headed north through the Sea of Japan. He first passed through the Tatar Strait, a long and narrow channel separating the island of Sakhalin from the Asian mainland, and also sailed through what is now known as the Straits of La Pérouse, which separate Sakhalin and Hokkaido. He stopped briefly in Petropavlosk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, where he dispatched his notes and journals back to France before heading for Botany Bay in New Holland (now Australia). When the ships stopped at the Navigators' Islands (now Samoa) en route, a dozen of La Pérouse's crew were killed by the natives. The expedition reached Botany Bay, from which they set forth again on March 10, 1788. Neither La Pérouse's nor his crew were seen again and, until 1826, nothing more was known of them.

Later explorers, both English and French, found that his ships had apparently been wrecked in the Solomon Islands, not far from New Guinea. Some crew members were killed by natives; others escaped and apparently perished at sea. Only a few artifacts from the ship and its crew were found.


The most obvious impact of La Pérouse's voyages was the return of scientific and geographic knowledge from a part of the world not yet visited by Europeans. Animal, plant, and geologic specimens were returned to France, along with detailed notes and journals about weather and sea conditions, maps of the coasts visited, and information about much of the Pacific Ocean, gathered over the better part of two years. By themselves, these records could only give a snapshot of, for example, climate and seas, but when combined with the discoveries of other expeditions, a much more complete and detailed picture was gradually assembled. Some of these observations were of scientific interest only. Others were more general, and of use to French commerce and the military, which began moving into the area in later decades.

La Pérouse's voyages also presaged, to some extent, later voyages to Japan aimed at opening trade with the isolated nation. Although La Pérouse did not attempt to force trade issues, his journals provided valuable information for later visits, including Matthew Perry's (1794-1858) 1852 visit that forced Japan to open trade with the West. In addition, the Straits of La Pérouse are a frequently used transit path for ships traveling to Japan, forming the conduit from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Sea of Japan. These straits are also militarily significant; American submarines used them during the Second World War in their attack on the Japanese Empire, and they are currently thought to be equally important for Russian ships and submarines.

Of more importance was La Pérouse's role in helping France gain a foothold in the Pacific. As mentioned above, despite having the strongest navy in Europe, France had previously concentrated on Continental European affairs, almost to the exclusion of overseas explorations. Had France given the same resources to exploration as did Britain, Holland, and Spain, she may well have emerged as the strongest colonial power by the end of the eighteenth century. Instead, as that century drew to a close, France had only her North American colonies in Canada and Louisiana, small outposts in South America and the Caribbean, and some scattered islands in the Indian Ocean. This changed in 1785, when King Louis XVI sent La Pérouse to the Pacific, to visit "all the lands that had escaped the vigilance of Cook (the great English explorer)."

With this charge, La Pérouse's voyages began an era of French efforts to gain a stake in the Pacific. Over the following decades, they ended up with outposts of limited commercial value, but of strategic importance. Scattered throughout the Pacific, French territories still exist, including the atolls where France performed atomic bomb testing as recently as the 1990s. Although her Pacific possessions never returned the same wealth as those of the Dutch or the British, France's islands spanned the ocean, giving her ships bases of operation and places to provision, shelter, and make repairs as they crossed the Pacific on voyages of exploration, commerce, and war.

Shortly after La Pérouse's death, however, events in France prevented follow-up on his and other explorers' successes. With the onset of the French Revolution in 1791, France descended into turmoil that was to last for several years. Shortly thereafter, Napoleon's military successes kept France's attention focused on matters close to home, and her overseas possessions were an afterthought. This helped ensure that France, despite her military and economic prowess, would never enjoy the same economic advantage from her overseas colonies as the English and Dutch.

La Pérouse set out to make scientific discoveries, to open trade routes, and to help France establish a presence in the Pacific Ocean. Although he failed to open any new trade routes, he met his other objectives, which helped bolster France's status as a great power. In addition, the Straits of La Pérouse are a frequently used waterway when not frozen, navigated by both military and commercial ships of many nations.

La Pérouse accomplished a great deal for France, although he died before being recognized for his achievements. As one of the first French explorers in the Pacific, he helped set high standards for those who followed. He helped France to establish herself as a player in the global game of territorial dominance, and helped France establish outposts of military (if not commercial) significance that are retained to this day.


Further Reading


Bohlander, Richard, ed. World Discoverers and Explorers. New York: MacMillan Books, 1992.

Great Voyages of Discovery: Circumnavigators and Scientists. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1983.

Internet Sites

"Discoverers Web."

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The North Pacific Voyages of the Comte de La Pérouse

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