Researcher Accidentally Solves 250-Year-Old Mystery Of Pacific Expedition Gone Wrong

A scene showing 'Louis XVI Giving Final Instructions to the Comte de la Pérouse', painted in 1817 by Nicolas-André Monsiau. State Library of NSW

One of the most enduring mysteries of the Age of Enlightenment, when European explorers were traversing the world in search of riches and fame, is the fate of the French naval officer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. The case may now finally be solved.

After being instructed by King Louis XVI of France to voyage the Pacific Ocean akin to the exploits of the British explorer Captain James Cook, La Pérouse set sail from France in 1785. Over the following years, he traversed the high seas sailing two frigates called the Astrolabe and Boussole crewed by 225 men, making it to the tip of Argentina, Hawaii, Alaska, China, and Russia, before stopping off in Botany Bay, Australia.

It was at this point that things started to go somewhat awry. All that is known is that in 1788, the Astrolabe and the Boussole shipwrecked on the island of Vanikoro, which is part of the Solomon Islands. The surviving crew managed to cobble together a ship from the flotsam that washed ashore, and set sail again in the hope of finding help, before all traces of the men were lost to the Pacific. Or so many thought.

“La Pérouse's voyage of discovery in the Pacific is recognised as one of the most important of its era, rivalled only by the work of Cook,” explains Dr Garrick Hitchcock, who authored the new paper published in the Journal of Pacific History, in a statement. “He remains a very well-known and respected figure in eighteenth century scientific exploration.”

The cracking of the case all revolved around a newspaper article published in India, of all places. Dr Hitchcock was actually researching the history of the Torres Strait, when he found a reference in an 1818 edition of The Madras Courier to an unrelated Indian sailor, known as Shaik Jumaul, who was a castaway off the northern coast of Queensland, Australia, in 1814.

The full route of La Pérouse's voyage of discovery across the Pacific. ANU
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