16 May 2005

Avez-vous des nouvelles de M le comte de La Pérouse?

Sea hero’s fate revealed after 217 years
A breakthrough came last weekend, when the 2005 expedition discovered an 18th-century brass sextant in 40 ft of water off Vanikoro, which had been aboard La Boussole. This identified la Pérouse's vessel as the one that smashed to pieces on the reef, presumably in a tropical cyclone, leaving no chance of survival. The survivors are assumed to have come from the other wreck, L'Astrolabe, which beached less violently in a coral inlet.

"We are virtually certain that it was La Boussole that broke up on the reef and L'Astrolabe was the one that ran aground," said Alain Conan, a businessman and president of the Solomon Association, who has spent the past 24 years trying to solve the mystery of la Pérouse.

Much of the enigma remains, M Conan acknowledged, but the fate of la Pérouse, an aristocratic captain who was a hero for winning battles against the British Navy in the Hudson Bay in Canada, now seems to have been established. M Conan said that it was also possible that la Perouse could have died before the ships reached the island because of the diseases that ravaged crews in the equatorial area.

Although France and England were competing for the Pacific, relations between the sailors were friendly. La Pérouse dined with Commodore Arthur Philip in Botany Bay, near what is now Sydney, in January 1788. The French ships had sailed in a few days after the British First Fleet landed to settle what was then New Holland. Philip sent la Pérouse's logs back to France for him and Sydney named a suburb after the French navigator.

The 2005 expedition, which ends this week, has failed to find la Pérouse's famed scientific treasures, but it has recovered dozens of artefacts, including a cannon, a wine glass and the foot from a skeleton believed to be that of a young French officer.

Now most Sydneysiders have heard of La Pérouse, if only as the eponymous hero of La Perouse. (There's an acute distinction between the two referents). La Perouse is probably the best place on the planet to sit n your car, eating fish and chips while a southerly buster turns the sea white before your eyes. La Perouse also has Bare Island, a fort built in 1885 to repeal the Russians. What I didn't know until a little intensive googling was at the same time Sydney was building defences to keep out the Russians, the Russians in Kamchatka were keenly aware of the imminent threat of a British descent on their shores.

In the late 17th century, Vladimir Atlasov played a decisive role in the exploration of the central part of the peninsula.

The city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky has its origins in Vitus Bering's second Kamchatka expedition to investigate Avachinskaya Inlet and select a suitable winter berth for the expedition's ships. Expedition member assistant navigator Ivan Fomich Elagin chose a small convenient bay on the east side of the inlet. Shoreline topography that turned the harbor into a natural fortress and nearness to the mouth of the Avacha River, where there was already a known Russian route to Bolsheretsk, the administrative center of Kamchatka, were the key factors in determining the site of the future port.

By the late 18th century, as a result of the Pacific Ocean expeditions of James Cook and Jean-Francois de la Perouse, the Russian government was well aware of the strategic and political importance of the port at Petropavlovsk and attempted to turn the small port settlement into a fortress. It was during this period that the city's boundaries were laid out, which determined its development right up to the 1920s. Major changes in the life of the city occurred in the early 19th century as a result of the expansion of the Russian-American Company and the organization of Russian circumnavigation expeditions, which left their mark in Petropavlovsk's history. A famous Russian "round-the-worlder" gave Russia and the world great geographic discoveries and great names. Even in the early 19th century Avachinskaya Inlet had a reputation as one of the world's finest harbors.

And, why, an astonished world wants to know, did Louis XVI, even passionate about geography as he was, spend the last minutes before his execution asking about La Pérouse?

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