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.
When the merchant ship that Jumaul was sailing sank, he made it to the island of Murray, where he lived for a further four years, learning their language and culture. But while there he also noticed that there were “cutlasses and muskets on the islands which he recognised as not being of English make, as well as a compass and a gold watch,” says Dr Hitchcock.
Jumaul asked the islanders where these wares may have come from, and they recounted an astonishing story in which, some 30 years earlier, a ship wrecked within sight of the island. Some of the crew made it ashore and fierce fighting ensued, in which only a boy survived and was brought up by the original islanders as one of their own, before living a successful life and marrying a local woman.
The time lines fit perfectly, and there is even a record of the La Pérouse expedition having a ship’s boy on board called François Mordelle. It seems that Mordelle was the last surviving member of the fateful trip, which resulted in the first known shipwreck in the Torres Strait, and a mystery that lasted for 250 years.