The Voyage of La Perouse round the world in the years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788, 1798

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Our item of the month is is the two volume work The Voyage of La Perouse round the world in the years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788.

On a recent holiday in Albi in south-west France, I went to the Musée Lapérouse in Place Botany Bay. The museum is dedicated to the life of the explorer Jean-François de Galaup, Rear Admiral, Count of Lapérouse (1741-1788). Albi was Lapérouse’s home town and he was educated there – it is curious that so many explorers originate from places far inland. He entered the Naval College at Brest and took the name Lapérouse after that of a family property.

Canoe of Tchoka, from The Voyage of La Perouse round the world in the years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788, Ref.PBN1856.
Lapérouse began his naval career in 1757, fighting the Royal Navy off North America. He was promoted to the rank of commodore when he defeated the English frigate Ariel off the West Indies in 1781. In 1785, after Cook’s death (Lapérouse was a great admirer of Captain James Cook), Lapérouse was appointed by King Louis XVI to lead an expedition around the world, specifically to explore the north and south Pacific, the Far East and Australia. This was to try to augment Cook’s surveys and discoveries and to establish trading contacts. Lapérouse’s ships on this voyage were the Astrolabe (under Fleuriot de Langle) and the Boussole

Leaving Brest in August 1785, the range of places he visited was extensive – Chile and Hawaii (he was the first European on the island of Maui, the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands), Alaska, California, East Asia, Japan, Russia, the South Pacific and arriving off Botany Bay on 24 January 1788. From there he was able to send back to Europe his journals, charts and letters on board the Royal Navy ship the Sirius (a report about the expedition had been sent back earlier by M. de Lesseps, who left the group at Kamchatka, Russia). Lapérouse and his crew then vanished. They are believed to have died on the island of Vanikoro, one of the Santa Cruz Islands and part of the Soloman Islands in the south Pacific, where remains of the French ships were discovered in the 1820s. A recent expedition recovered artefacts from the wrecks, which are on display at Albi.

Lapérouse’s journals were edited by L.A. Milet-Mureau by order of the French National Assembly, and published posthumously. The main work that describes his journey is entitled A voyage round the world in the years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788. Some editions have additional accounts of other voyages by other explorers. The Caird Library holds several copies of this work published in 1798 and 1799. The complete texts are also available on ‘Eighteenth Century Collections Online’, an e-resource available in the Caird Library. 

One of the editions of Lapérouse’s journal in the Caird Library is the two volume work The Voyage of La Pérouse round the world in the years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788 with the nautical tables: to which is prefixed narrative of an interesting voyage from Manila to St Blaise and annexed, travels over the continent (PBN1856/1&2), acquired by the Library in 1979. Published by John Stockdale in London in 1798, the volumes contain several exquisite plates – please see illustrations. Together with the text, these record the indigenous people and boats with which Lapérouse, his crew and scientists came into contact, as well as the local flora and fauna. They depict the ‘exotic’ cultures that they encountered, which helped to spread wider knowledge about this part of the world. 

The Caird Library also holds the Hakluyt Society’s reprint of Lapérouse’s journal, published in 1994 and edited by John Dunmore (ref. PBP3382/1 and PBP3382/2). Dunmore describes how Lapérouse’s original journal was ‘lost’ in the Archives Nationales until a researcher accidentally came across it inside a volume entitled ‘scientific discoveries’.

In addition to the rare books that the Library holds, there is a portrait of Lapérouse in the Prints & Drawings Collection (PAD2978) engraved by Delpech, see – it shows a young gentleman with a round face in naval uniform, a contrast with the image portrayed in the bronze statue that stands near Place Lapérouse in Albi, in which he clutches a telescope in one hand, and his charts in the other.  

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Eleanor, Head of Archive and Library

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