Loss of La Astrolabe and La Boussole: a 40 Year Mystery

19th Century lithograph of the sinking of La Astrolabe at Vanikoro by Louis Le Breton. Courtesy Public domain, Wikimedia commons.

One of the great maritime mysteries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the disappearance of the French ships La Astrolabe and La Boussole under the command of La Perouse.   They were last sighted leaving Botany Bay in 1788 but it would be another 40 years before the world discovered what became of them.

In 1875 Louis XVI appointed Jean Francois Comte de La Perouse to lead an expedition of discovery to the far reaches of the world.    The objectives were primarily scientific, but La Perouse was also to look out for economic opportunities that might benefit France.    He was given two ships, La Astrolabe and La Boussole with a total complement of some 220 men.  The expedition included a botanist, geologist, physicist, astronomer, and several naturalists and illustrators – ten men of science in all.   Even the ships’ two chaplains had received scientific training.    Rarely had such a body of learned men been assembled for such a voyage.    

Louis XVI giving La Pérouse his instructions on 29 June 1785, by Nicolas-André Monsiau – Chateau de Versailles, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The La Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed from Brest on 1 August 1785 and bore south into the Atlantic Ocean to round Cape Horn. They stopped briefly in Chile and then went on to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).   From there they continued north to Alaska and then traced the North American coast south as far as Monterey in California.   From there they crossed the Pacific Ocean to the Portuguese colony of Macau and then headed north again.   La Perouse arrived at the Russian outpost of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula in September 1787 to find orders for him to investigate the new British settlement being established at Botany Bay.   

La Perouse made it to Botany Bay on 24 January 1788, only days after the first fleet under Governor Phillip had arrived from England.    The French mariners spent six weeks there resting and taking on food and water.   Before sailing, La Perouse left a package of letters, journals and charts with the captain of a returning British convict transport to be forwarded to Paris.   In his correspondence, La Perouse wrote that he intended to make for New Caledonia and the Santa Cruz Islands before turning for home.   He hoped to be back in France by June the following year.   On 10 March 1788, the two French ships set sail and were never seen again, at least not by any Europeans.

French frigates La Astrolabe and La Boussole in Hawaii. Image courtesy State Library of NSW.

Then, in 1826 an Irish mariner, Peter Dillon made a startling discovery.   While at Vanikoro he came into possession of some artifacts clearly of French origin.   He learned that relics from the French ships had been circulating among the inhabitants of Santa Cruz and neighbouring islands for years.   On inquiring about the origin of the pieces he was told that they had come from two large ships that had been wrecked there many years earlier.   

Dillon was sure the artifacts, one of which was a sword guard of French design, had come from La Perouse’s expedition.   On returning to India he reported his discoveries to the East India Company which provided him with a ship so he could return to explore the waters around Vanikoro more closely.   

In 1827 Dillon found the wreck site and retrieved a ship’s bell of French manufacture along with several other artefacts.   He also learned from the older villagers on Vanikoro that the two French ships had run aground on a coral reef during a violent storm with great loss of life.   The survivors had built a new vessel from timbers salvaged from the wrecks and sailed away. They had probably tried making for Kupang in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).   That would have been the closest port where they might find passage back home.   It would, however, require them to cross the Great Barrier Reef and pass through Torres Strait.   Most of the French seamen left in the new ship but a few men opted to remain on Vanikoro where they lived out their days.   By the time Dillon visited the island they had all since passed away.

Map showing Vanikoro and Murray Island. Courtesy Google Maps.

There is a final clue as to what may have happened to La Perouse’s men who left Vanikoro by sea.   In 1818 an Indian seaman was found living among the inhabitants of Murray Island (Mer).   Shaik Jumaul had been shipwrecked on the Morning Star in Torres Strait four years earlier, on a voyage from Sydney to Batavia.

He said that he had come across many items of European manufacture including muskets, cutlasses, a compass, and even a gold watch while visiting nearby islands.   When he asked where they had come from, he was told that about 30 years earlier a large ship had been wrecked near Murray Island.   Several boat-loads of men came ashore but a fight ensued, and most were killed.   Some fled to other islands where they met the same fate, all except one young boy whose life was spared.   He lived for many years with the Islanders and rose to be held in high esteem in his adopted community.  

Jean Francois Comte de La Perouse. Image: public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org.

More recently ANU academic Dr Garrick Hitchcock came across the original newspaper article published in the Madras Courier in 1818.    Jumaul’s story was later republished in the Sydney Gazette in July 1819.    The Sydney Gazette article even speculated that the ship might have been one of La Perouse’s, but it appears that possibility was never seriously followed up.

Hitchcock thinks the vessel might have been the one constructed from salvage on Vanikoro.   The timing certainly fits.   After a bit of detective work, Hitchcock found that a boy named Francois Mordelle had accompanied the expedition and it might have been he who lived with the Torres Strait Islanders for all those years.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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