Party: La Pérouse Expedition, 1785-1788

Alternative Names
  • La Pérouse, Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de (1741-1788)


Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, was born in France in 1741. He led an expedition sent from France to complete the work of James Cook in the Pacific. His two ships, L'Astrolabe and La Boussole, left France on 1 August 1785, and reached Botany Bay (Sydney) in Australia a few days after the first British settlement began there in January 1788. The French ships departed on 10 March and were never seen again. The French government in 1791 equipped another expedition under Bruny d'Entrecasteaux to search the Pacific for them, but no trace was ever found. Resident Commissioner Woodford (q.v.) suggested that large quantities of metal from the ships ended up on Vanikolo, Tikopia and in the Santa Cruz Islands (all q.v.). Peter Dillon first visited Tikopia in 1813 on the Hunter, when Martin Bushart, his native wife and a 'Lascar' (a sailor from south or west Asia) were dropped off there. Both Bushart and the Lascar were still alive in 1827 and provided Dillon with a silver sword guard, a ship's bell and other items brought there from Vanikolo. Dillon took Bushart to Vanikolo, but they were unable to land and the ship continued on to India. Dillon was supplied with another ship and returned to Vanikolo that September. He established that both ships had been wrecked, resulting in many deaths, that a camp was made on the coast, and that survivors had built a small vessel and sailed north, never to be seen again. Two men from the ships had lived on Vanikolo until their deaths in 1824. Rev. Charles Fox (q.v.) in his Story of the Solomons (1967) suggested that many more of the crew survived on Vanikolo until they finally died of illness and old age. Bishop Patteson recorded seeing sixty European skulls preserved in a Vanikolo skull-house.

After Dillon's discoveries, France, now certain of the La Pérouse expedition's fate, in 1828 sent an expedition led by Dumont d'Urville, which was guided to Vanikolo by a group from Tikopia. They found anchors and cannon in shallow waters, and erected a small cairn of stones on a coral patch in Manevai Bay. D'Urville visited Vanikolo again in the late 1830s. When Woodford was there in 1912, the 1828 cairn had almost disintegrated. Woodford was shown the site near Peou village where some of the survivors had lived, and retrieved some small pieces of metal. (C. M. Woodford Papers, reel 4, bundle 24, 2/119, 3/32/1, notes for a paper on the La Pérouse wreck, in PAMBU 1290.) Many other ships visited Vanikolo during the second half of the nineteenth century, attracted by the romance of the Le Pérouse expedition.

The establishment of the Vanikoro Kauri Timber Company (q.v.) in the 1920s brought Vanikolo into more regular contact with the rest of the Solomon Islands. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, a series of expeditions emanating from the New Hebrides and often involving Reece Discombe, along with the French Navy, attempted to find the wrecks. The Astrolabe was located first, which Discombe knew of from his diving in the 1950s, followed by the Boussole in the early 1960s. The Astrolabe, La Pérouse's main ship, was located near a false entrance to Peou Bay, and was officially identified by a French expedition led by M. Haroun Tazieff in 1959. The 1959 expedition found five heavy anchors, three cannons, ballast, ship's stores and a Russian coin dated 1734. In May 1959, Captain de Brossart presented acting High Commissioner M. D. Irving Gass with a cannon ball and other items from the La Pérouse expedition, presumably from the Astrolabe.

The Boussole was believed to have sunk in deep water. Discombe continued to search, interviewing Vanikolo inhabitants and employees of the Kauri Timber Company, who confirmed that many artefacts had been recovered and that the second ship was situated in a deep fault on the seaside of a reef. During these searches a memorial cross, previously placed on the reef at Peou village, was replaced. In 1962 a brass cannon was recovered from a wreck off Peou Bay; it was 25 inches long and tapered off from 5.5 inches in diameter at the base to 3.5 inches along the barrel, and widened to 4.25 inches at the mouth. However, this could have come from the Boussole, or from a nineteenth-century whaling or labour-recruiting vessel. A 1964 expedition finally located the Boussole. A Spanish silver piece dated 1781 was found in November 1967. (NS June 1959, Aug. 1959, Feb. 1960, Feb. 1962, Dec. 1967, 31 Aug. 1968; Vallet 2008)

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Published resources


  • British Solomon Islands Protectorate (ed.), British Solomon Islands Protectorate News Sheet (NS), 1955-1975. Details

Journal Articles

  • Vallet, Gabriel, 'Vale Reece Discombe (1919-2007)', Pambu: Pacific Manuscripts Bureau Newsletter, vol. Series 5, no. 25, 2008, pp. 10-11. Details