• Back to Encyclopedia Arctica homepage

    Jean Francois Galoup Lapérouse

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0460                                                                                                                  

    (Edward W. Allen)


            Jean Francois Galoup, Comte de Lap e é rouse (1741- ? ), was born on a sub–

    stantial estate near Albi, province of Languedoc in the south of France, August

    23, 1741, of parents belonging to the minor nobility. The date of his death is

    uncertain. He sailed forth from Botany Bay, Australia, March 10, 1788, and for

    38 years his fate was a complete mystery.

            In 1836 one Peter Dillon discovered some relics in the possession of natives

    which, in the light of the stories told him, he was convinced had come from the

    ships of Lap e é rouse and that these ships had been wrecked on the island of Vani–

    koro, of the Santa Cruz group in the South Pacific. He was further told that men

    from only one ship reached shore, including an apparently important officer, that

    the survivors built a boat in which they, or most of them, put to sea, whereupon

    all trace of them ended. Late in the next year Dillon visited the island of

    Vanikoro and verified the stories he had been told. He was followed by a French

    expedition under Dumont d'Urville which recovered a considerable quantity of relics

    to take back to France. The most famous tragedy of the South Seas had been solved.

            Lap e é rouse, whose name is frequently but erroneously written La P e é rouse or

    La P e yrouse, was one of the greatest French naval officers and explorers of all

    time. He is less known to fame in English-speaking countries than Captain James

    Cook, whose three Pacific Ocean expeditions preceded that of Lap e é rouse, and his

    explorations were far less extensive, but they were important. He had a finer

    personality than Cook and for daring, navigational skill, ability to command,

    002      |      Vol_XV-0461                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

    fighting ability, and success in his undertakings, Lap e é rouse justly enjoys in

    French naval history a position analogous to that of Cook in British literature

    of that character. In fact, Cook was to Lap e é rouse the great marine h ero whom

    he constantly sought to emulate.

            Lap e é rouse was perhaps rather a subarctic than an arctic explorer, for his

    farthest north was Hudson Strait, but he did cruise in the northern parts of

    both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

            The family of Galoup for five centuries had been prominent in the valley

    of the Tarn. Victor Joseph de Galoup, the father of Lap e é rouse, a prosperous

    man in his community, married Marguerite de Resseguir who, as her correspondence

    discloses, was a high spirited and competent woman. The Galoups, among other

    tracts, owned the estate of Peyrouse from which their son took his name, though

    he changed it to suit his fancy.

            As a boy he was especially fond of books of voyages and as he grew up he

    read Anson, Byron, Carteret, Wallis, Louis de Bougainville, and, favorite of all,

    Cook. He was said to have been impetuous, affectionate, clever, and a bit stub–


            His parents yielded to the desire of Lap e é rouse to go to sea and in 1756 —

    he was then fifteen years old — he was appointed a midshipman. Thereafter his

    life was devoted to the French navy. He served aboard the C e é l e è bre , the Pomona.

    the Z e é phyr , and the Cerf . In 1759 he was on the Formidable in the squadron of

    Marshal de Conflans when it was defeated by the British fleet of Admiral Hawke

    off Belle Isle. His ship was captured and Lap e é rouse, severely wounded, taken

    prisoner. Subsequently he was returned to France and served on the Robuste and

    the Six-Corps . In 1764 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant ( enseigne de

    vaisseau) and served on the Adour , the Gave , the Doroth e é e , the Turquoise , the

    003      |      Vol_XV-0462                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

    Bugalet , and the Belle-Poule .

            From 1772 to 1777 Lap e é rouse was largely occupied in the Indian Ocean,

    where his principal rendezvous was the I Î le de France (Mauritius), first in

    command of the Belle-Poule and from 1773 the Seine and the Deux-Amis . He be–

    came first lieutenant April 4, 1777. This was during the period of contest

    between England and France for the control of India, at which epoch the I Î le

    de France was an important outfitting post for the French fleet. It is a

    common American concept, due largely to reading British versions of history,

    that the British were always superior to the French at sea, but the fact is

    that in this Indian Ocean warfare the French navy was as often on top as the

    British. It was incompetence and corruption in Paris rather than inferiority

    in the field that gave England the final victory.

            It was during this period that Lap e é rouse fell in love with the daughter

    of a minor French official on the I Î le de France, Louise Eleanore Broudon. She

    must have been an attractive girl, for even though the family of Lap e é rouse

    forced him to break off his engagement with this beautiful Creole and agree to

    marry a lady of his station, he eventually rebelled and married the girl of his


            In 1779 Lap e é rouse, as commander of the Amazone, was attached to the squadron

    of Vice-Admiral d'Estaing. Later he took the sloop Ariel to New England and

    contributed to the capture of the Exp e é riment .

            April 4, 1780, Lap e é rouse was promoted to captain and placed in command

    of the frigate Astrea. In conjunction with the Hermione he attacked six British

    war vessels and captured two, the others escaping in the night.

            Lap e é rouse had an enviable record as a part of the French fleet which assist–

    ed the colonies during the Revolutionary War. His most notable exploit was the

    004      |      Vol_XV-0463                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

    capture of the British forts on Hudson Bay together with the Hudson's Bay

    Company's Samuel Hearne, governor of the Company's Fort Prince of Wales.

            It was in 1782 that Lap e é rouse was assigned the 74-gun ship Scepter as his

    flagship, together with two frigates. One of them, the Astrea , was commanded

    by Captain de Langle who was later to accompany Laperouse on his final expedi–

    tion. The other was the Engagemente , commanded by Captain la Joille. On July

    17 they made Resolution Island and shortly thereafter became entangled in the

    ice. After great difficulty they reached Cape Walsingham on July 30. On

    August 8 the expedition approached Fort Prince of Wales, which capitulated.

    Lap e é rouse then proceeded to the Nelson River where he landed troops and cap–

    tured Fort York.

            It was in connection with this capture of Fort York that Lap e é rouse dis–

    closed exceptional greatness of character for a conqueror. Some of the British

    had fled to the woods. Lap e é rouse realized that one result of his obedience to

    orders to destroy the settlement might be to expose the refugees to the danger

    of starvation or capture by the natives. Accordingly he left them both pro–

    visions and arms.

            There is here an interesting connection with real arctic discovery. It

    will be remembered that Hearne had discovered the Coppermine River, which

    flows into the Arctic, in a notable expedition performed in the years 1769

    to 1772.

            Lap e é rouse, much to Hearne's distress, captured the manuscript account

    of the journey. In response to Hearne's pleading, Lap e é rouse returned to him

    the account upon Hearne's giving personal assurance that the account would be

    promptly published. Whether the fault lay with Hearne, or, as has been sug–

    gested, with the Hudson's Bay Company which was not at all anxious to spread

    005      |      Vol_XV-0464                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

    knowledge of its domain, the fact remains that the promise was not kept on

    the "promptly" side and that the account was not published until 1795.

            King Louis XVI of France, like the rest of the Bourbons after Louis XIV,

    was not too bright, but he had at least one commendable quality — he was fond

    of travel and geography, so much so that he even had a "History of the Explora–

    tion of the South Seas" prepared for the education of the Dauphin. Louis es–

    pecially admired Captain Cook. He wished that France might enter into maritime

    glory like that which England enjoyed because of Cook.

            Accordingly, Louis called in Charles Claret, Comte de Fleurieu, the great–

    est geographer then in France, later Minister of Marine. Together they planned

    a circumnavigation of the globe to the glory — and they also hoped to the profit —

    of France. La Boussule and l'Astrolabe , splendid ships of the French navy, were

    assigned for the purpose and, on recommendation of the Marquis de Castries, La–

    p e é rouse was selected for the command.

            Mos elaborate instructions were prepared in the name of the king (undoubted–

    ly by Fleurieu) under date of June 26, 1785, and personally presented by him to

    Lap e é rouse. Not only was the proposed voyage itself laid out in detail, but the

    instructions cover almost every field of human knowledge and themselves consti–

    tute a valuable summary of the knowledge of the day. For instance, they elabor–

    ately include politics, commerce, astronomy, geography, navigation, physics, the

    different branches of natural history, treatment of natives, health of the crews,

    history, mechanics, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, mineralogy, botany, hygiene,


            De Langle was selected by Lap e é rouse as his second in command. The expedition

    was exceedingly well equipped physically and with an accomplished staff. It set

    forth from Brest on August 1, 1785.

    006      |      Vol_XV-0465                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

            The expedition rounded the Horn, stopped at La Concepcion in Chile,

    touched at Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, and proceeded to the northwest coast

    of America, arriving in the neighborhood of Mount St. Elias in June 1776.

            Coasting southeasterly, Lap e é rouse found a bay "never seen by any navigator."

    He was so enthralled with this beautiful port, its narrow entrance between two

    low points, its rising wooded hills — paps he called them — backed by the snow–

    covered Fairweather Range, that he called it Port des Francçais.

            Here, thought he, France could establish headquarters for a company to

    rival the Hudson's Bay Company, and thus to share in the Northwest fur trade

    and found a French empire in the Pacific. There was, however, one serious

    handicap — the danger in getting in and out. Lap e é rouse almost lost his two

    fine vessels in the terrific bore at the treacherous dog-leg entrance to this

    otherwise enchanting bay. The bay is now called Lituya and is still but little

    frequented, due largely to the bad reputation of its entrance.

            The ships were surrounded with canoes of Indians (Tlingits) who, to the

    surprise of Lap e é rouse, appeared to be keen traders. Copper seemed to be abundant,

    iron more so. The French soon learned to their disgust that the natives were

    skillful and persistent thieves.

            Here occurred the first great tragedy of the expedition. Two of the three

    small boats sent out to survey the bay were drawn out through the entrance by the

    strong tidal run-out and were swamped in the breakers with the loss of all on


            In sorrow, Lap e é rouse left Lituya Bay to steer southerly along the coast. In

    September he touched at Monterey, California. There he encountered the Spaniards.

    His account of the Spaniards and their missions in California is the first to be

    given by anyone of a different race and is not as complimentary as the accounts

    007      |      Vol_XV-0466                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

    given by the Spaniards.

            Lap e é rouse then sailed almost due west — a trifle south — passed through

    the Ladrones (Marianas) and arrived at the Portuguese port of Macao near Canton

    on the Chinese coast. From there he visited Manila, then started northerly

    toward Korea.

            In May 1787, he reached the island of Quelpart (Quelpoert, he spelled it;

    now Saishu) known because of a Dutch ship, the Sparrowhawk, having been wrecked

    there in 1635. He passed through Korea Strait and shortly there- after steered for

    the Japanese coast, which he approached a little north of latitude 37°N.

            Without landing, Lap e é rouse struck out northwest for the Tartary shore where

    he entered a bay which he named Baie de Ternai, latitude 45° 15′ North. From

    there he continued north and entered the Gulf of Tartary. He is believed to be

    the first European to course these waters. He made landings on both sides of

    the gulf, the mainland, and the island of Sakhalin. Lap e é rouse called the island

    Tchoka and applied the name Saghaleen to the Amur region.

            It is certain that Russians had seen the island, for as early as the winter

    of 1644 Vasili Poyarkof had wintered at the mouth of the Amur, but it was long

    the belief of the Russians that it was impossible to travel to the south by reason

    of impassable obstructions. As early as 1689 a Russian map showed a queer little

    almost square island offshore east of the Amur mouth but it also showed the

    southerly bank of the river extending indefinitely eastward.

            Maerten Gerritsen Vries is believed to have touched the eastern side of

    Sakhalin in 1643. Three Jesuits who came near the mouth of the Amur in 1709

    spoke of a large island. In 1785 Mogami Takunai, a Japanese, probably penetrated

    the Gulf of Tartary. But Lap e é rouse appears to be the only European who definitely

    008      |      Vol_XV-0467                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen Lap e é rouse

    sailed up the bay, certainly the only one to make a survey of the region and

    he penetrated to the 52nd parallel, where he was stopped by the shallowness

    of the water and was unable to find any channel to the north. In fact, it was

    not until 1849 that Sakhal [ ?] i [ ?] n was proved to be an island.

            Lap e é rouse stated that the Japanese called their large northern island

    (Hokkaido) Jesso and this other island (Sakhalin) Oku-Jesso. The south point

    of Sakhalin he named Cape Carillon and sailed through the strait separating

    these two islands, which now justly bears his name, though called Soya Strait

    by the Japanese. He greatly rejoiced over having found a strait through which

    one could proceed easterly besides that of Sangaar (Tsugaru) which separated

    the two main Japanese islands. He comments that Vries had delineated a con–

    tinuation of the coast "in the very place through which we had sailed."

            The voyage was continued easterly, passing through the Kurile Islands

    "south of the island of Mareekan, and north of the Four Brothers."

            Turning northward the ships coasted up the west side of Kamchatka, enter–

    ing Avacha Bay August 6, 1787, to visit the Russian outpost of Petropavlovsk,

    thereby again tying in his voyage with that of Captain Cook.

            It was typical of Lap e é rouse and his staff that hardly had they accepted

    the hospitality with which the Russian officer in command received them, before

    the astronomers had set up their establishment ashore and the naturalists were

    off seeking the nearby volcano.

            Fortunately for posterity, Lap e é rouse took advantage of opportunities to

    send his reports to Paris. So at Petropavlovsk he arranged that J. B. B. de

    Lesseps (uncle of Ferdinand de Lesseps, famous in connection with the construc–

    tion of the Suez Canal) should take the artists' drawings, scientific and other

    records of the expedition up to that point, across Siberia and to France.

    009      |      Vol_XV-0468                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

            Lap e é rouse left Kamchatka to look for the nonexistent island, hinted at

    by the Spaniards as being rich in gold and searched for in vain by the Dutch.

    After giving up this search he next steered for the "Navigator" Islands (Samoa)

    where he arrived in early December. The expedition here experienced another

    tragedy. De Langle, who had landed at Mauna Island (Tutuila) with four boats

    to secure water, was set upon by the natives and with eleven of the crew massacred.

            Lap e é rouse passed on to Oyolava (Upolu) on December 14, Cocoa on Traitor's

    Island of Schouten on the 20th, then to the Friendly Islands December 27th. On

    January 13, 1788, he reached Norfolk Island. From here Lap e é rouse headed for

    Botany Bay, Australia.

            Captain Arthur Phillip had been sent to Australia by the British Government

    to found a penal colony at Botany Bay. He determined, however, to shi to a

    much better location at Port Jackson to the north and was about to remove his

    fleet from Botany Bay when two strange frigates appeared. They entered the bay

    on January 26, 1788.

            Friendly, though apparently not extended, intercourse ensued between the

    French and English while Lap e é rouse made a shore camp at Botany Bay and Phillip

    founded Sydney on Port Jackson. Again Lap e é rouse smartly took advantage of an

    opportunity to send his reports and records to Paris, this time through the

    courtesy of the British, so that the fascinating story of this great French

    expedition up to this point was saved, despite the sad fate which followed.

            On March 10, 1788, the Boussule and the Astrolabe sailed forth from Botany

    Bay, never again to be seen by European eyes, but to become the inspiration for

    numerous official and unofficial trips to the South Seas searching for the lost

    explorers, and resulting in innumerable discoveries in this vast portionof the

    globe. Even in death Lap e é rouse pe r formed a notable service to the world's geo-

    010      |      Vol_XV-0469                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biography. Allen: Lap e é rouse

    graphical knowledge.


    Bayly, George Sea-life sixty years ago . London, 1885.

    Dillon, Capt. B. Narrative and successful result of a voyage in the South

    Seas, performed by order of the government of British India

    to ascertain the actual fate of la P e é rouse's expedition.

    2 vols. London, 1829.

    Golder, F. A. Russian expansion on the Pacific 1641-1850 . Cleveland, 1914.

    Centenaire de la mort de Lap e é rouse . Societe de geographie,

    Paris, 1888.

    A voyage round the world performed in the years 1785, 1786,

    1787, and 1788 by the Boussule and Astrolabe, under the

    command of J. F. G. de la P e é rouse
    . 2 vols. & atlas. London,


    Voyage de la P e é rouse autour du Monde , public conformement au

    decrit du 22 avril 1791. 4 vols. & atlas, Paris, 1797.


    Edward W. Allen

    Back to top