La Pérouse and the Pacific Coast

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At the beginning of the 18th century, Europeans had little to no knowledge of the Pacific coast from Mexico to the Arctic Circle. There was a double uncertainty in the North Pacific: Was North America connected to Asia? Did a passage exist that would facilitate travel between the Atlantic and Pacific?

On both counts, of course, the answer was no. Initial explorations by Russians Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov between 1726 and 1742 began to clarify the issue, but knowledge spread slowly: even in the 1750s, eminent geographers like Philippe Buache of the Académie Royale des Sciences professed their belief in a vast Western Sea and a navigable Northwest Passage. Spanish expeditions explored the California coast from 1760 to 1770, but their findings were kept secret.
Then Britain sent one of the era’s best navigators, James Cook, to find the Northwest Passage by way of the Pacific coast (1776-1779). Thanks to progress in navigation techniques, such as naval clocks and better provisions to prevent scurvy, the findings of this expedition, published in 1784, proved remarkable and had a powerful impact in European scientific circles.
In response, King Louis XVI (r.1774-1793) decided to launch a voyage around the world to fill the gaps in Cook’s discoveries. He bestowed its command on Jean-François de Galaup, Count of La Pérouse (1741-1788), an experienced sailor from a noble family in the region of Albi. La Pérouse had entered the Navy at a young age and acquired navigation experience on a wide variety of seascapes: The North American coast (1756, 1781-82), the Caribbean Sea (1771, 1779), and the Indian Ocean (1773-77).
Departing from Brest on August 1, 1785, with two fully equipped frigates, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, La Pérouse rounded Cape Horn and arrived in Chile in February 1786. After passing Easter Island and the Hawaiian Islands, he returned to the north and, in June 1786, sighted Alaska. For three months, he busied himself with one of the principal objectives of the expedition: to survey the North American coast from Mount St. Elias on Alaska’s southwestern coast to the port of Monterey in California. In doing so, he conclusively dispelled the myth of a deep Western Sea opening onto the Pacific. From Monterey, the two frigates continued the planned voyage toward Kamchatka (September 1787) before disappearing in the South Pacific – shipwrecked on the reefs of Vanikoro Island in the Solomon Islands, as was discovered in 1826.
Nevertheless, news of the voyage’s results reached France by January 1788, allowing for the formulation of a preliminary map of the voyage, a copy of which was drawn up for Louis XVI. An account of the voyage by Louis-Antoine Milet-Mureau, based on La Pérouse’s journal, was published in 1797.


Published in may 2021

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