An ANU anthropologist may have stumbled upon a significant clue to the fate of famous 18th century French navigator La Pérouse, Aaron Walker writes.

When Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse departed the French port of Brest in 1785, the renowned naval officer’s voyage was planned to emulate the feats of British counterpart Captain James Cook – discovering and mapping unexplored lands, building trade networks and expanding French knowledge of the Pacific. 

Equipped with two ships, L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, and a complement of 225 men, La Pérouse, a highly respected seaman, set sail on a mission deemed so important that King Louis XVI himself took a hand in drafting the plan and itinerary. 

After exploring Samoa and Tonga in the South Pacific, La Pérouse and his men arrived in Australia in January 1788, where he established camp at a peninsula on the northern headland of Botany Bay – now a suburb of Sydney’s southeast named in his honour. While well received by the early British settlers, the voyagers’ time in Australia was brief. 

Just weeks after arriving, the French explorer and his crew departed Australia on 10 March 1788, never to be seen again. In France there was increasing concern after the two frigates failed to arrive home as expected, by June 1789. 

Louis XVI giving final instructions to the Comte de la Perouse, 1785. Painted by Edouard Nuel. Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

It is even said that King Louis XVI, who had by then been sentenced to death for conspiring with foreign powers, asked – on the morning of his execution in 1793 – if there was any news of La Pérouse. 

In 1791 a search party had been arranged – the French National Assembly commissioned Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux to find the overdue navigator, but his expedition returned to France without success. 

It was not until much later – in 1826 – the mystery began to unravel. During a stop at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands en route to India, Irish captain Peter Dillon heard a story that two ships had been wrecked years earlier off the neighbouring island of Vanikoro. 

Dillon suspected the ships might have belonged to La Pérouse. When Dillon reached Calcutta, he persuaded the government of Bengal to send an expedition under his command to Vanikoro. 

The expedition confirmed his suspicions – he collected numerous artefacts which were taken to Paris and positively identified as coming from the La Pérouse expedition. 

But the story didn’t end there. On Vanikoro, islanders related how survivors from La Pérouse’s expedition had built a stockade, and spent several months constructing a small two-masted vessel using timber salvaged from the wreck and cut from the island’s dense forest. Once the vessel was completed, the survivors launched it and sailed away. 

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Comté Jean-Francois Galaup de Lapérouse c1778. Painted by Geneviève Brossard de Beaulieu. Image: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

European history expert Dr Alexander Cook, of the ANU School of History, says La Pérouse has a special legacy in French history, albeit probably not the one he had hoped for.

“The French certainly remember the expedition, and his vanishing is a significant national mystery,” Cook says.

“Because of the mystery around his disappearance, he’s one of the great romantic figures of 18th century European exploration.

“He’s someone who has been marked in French history as a symbol of early French achievement in the Pacific.”

But now another ANU academic believes he has stumbled upon a significant clue about La Pérouse’s fate.

While researching a project on the history of Torres Strait, Dr Garrick Hitchcock, an Honorary Senior Lecturer with the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, came across an article published in 1818 in an Indian newspaper, The Madras Courier.

The article tells the story of Shaik Jumaul, a castaway Indian seaman who survived the sinking of the merchant ship Morning Star which was wrecked off the coast of north Queensland in 1814. 

Jumaul made it to Murray Island, the most easterly inhabited island in Torres Strait, near the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. 

He lived there for four years, learning the language and culture of the Islanders and was finally rescued by two merchant ships that passed through the area in 1818. 

Hitchcock is confident the article reveals what became of the survivors from La Pérouse’s expedition, who had departed Vanikoro in the makeshift vessel. 

“Jumaul informed his rescuers that he had seen cutlasses and muskets on the islands, as well as a compass and a gold watch,” Hitchcock says. 

“When he asked the Murray Islanders where they obtained these things, they related how approximately 30 years earlier, a ship had been wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef to the east, in sight of the island. 

“Boats with crew had come ashore, but in the fighting that followed, all were eventually killed except a boy, who was saved and brought up as one of their own, later marrying a local woman.” 

The La Pérouse expeditionary crew included a ship’s boy, François Mordelle, from the port town of Tréguier in Brittany, northwestern France. 

Hitchcock wonders if Mordelle could be the last survivor of the La Pérouse expedition. 

“The Indian newspaper article featuring the castaway’s account was later reproduced in several other newspapers and periodicals of the day in Australia, Britain, France and other countries, and observers noted that this might refer to the La Pérouse expedition,” Hitchcock says. 

“Somehow Shaik Jumaul’s story was subsequently largely forgotten.” 

While a French book published in 2012 refers briefly to this newspaper article and discounts it as unreliable account, Hitchcock believes otherwise. 

“The chronology is spot on, for it was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors left Vanikoro in their small vessel,” he says. 

“An additional clue is found in a letter written by the man who interviewed Shaik Jumaul immediately after his rescue from Murray Island, which was passed onto French Captain Hyacinthe de Bougainville during a visit to Sydney in 1825. In that letter, he recalled the castaway had mentioned the muskets and swords he saw were not of English make. 

“Furthermore, historians and maritime archaeologists are not aware of any other European ship being in that region at that time. 

“This means this is the earliest known shipwreck in Torres Strait and indeed, eastern Australia. 

“It could well be that the final phase of the La Pérouse expedition ended in tragedy in northern Australia.” 

Hitchcock hopes future archaeological work will be able to recover artefacts from the wreck of the makeshift vessel or from Murray Island that will confirm his suspicions. 

The Torres Strait region, which includes the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars, and has been described as a ‘graveyard of ships’. More than 120 vessels are known to have sunk in the treacherous waters. 

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