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La Perouse medal

Date: 1785
Overall: 60 mm (Diam) x 4 mm, 0.1 kg
Medium: Bronze
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Coins and medals
Object Name: Medal
Object No: 00005676

User Terms

    The departure of important expeditions to the South Seas was frequently commemorated by issuing medals and medallions. Here smiling beneficently and wearing the Order of St Louis, the French King is seen in classical profile. This medal represents the last great expedition of the 'ancient regime', and the French Revolution that swept away its sponsoring monarch, Louis XVI. It was issued to commemorate the departure of the French scientific expedition to the Pacific led by Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse. The reverse contains an inscription of the expedition leaving Brest.

    Shortly before he was beheaded, Louis XVI is alleged to have enquired whether there was, finally, any news of the lost ships!
    SignificanceThis medal reflects the national pride and excitement associated with the La Perouse expedition, a significant voyage that was substantially financed by King Louis XVI in the hope of enhancing prestige and increasing French scientific knowledge, territory and power. The La Perouse expedition is particularly relevant to Australia as it visited Botany Bay in 1788 several days after the First Fleet's arrival. It tragically disappeared soon afterwards; its fate a mystery to the world at large until 1827.
    HistoryThe French tradition of issuing medals upon the departure of important national expeditions was well-established and was continued well into the 19th century. Medals were usually given to supporters of the voyage or to local administrators and also to dignitaries encountered en route. The La Perouse expedition had generated particularly high expectations in France; consequently its disappearance was felt as a great shock.

    Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse, was born in Albi, south-west France in 1741; he joined the French Navy in 1756. He served in North America, the West Indies and in the Indian Ocean during the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763) and in the American War Of Independence. By 1783 La Perouse was a post-captain ("capitaine de vaisseau"), a Knight of the Order of St. Louis and had become an adviser to the senior naval administrator, Count Claret de Fleurieu.

    In the period of peace following the Treaty of Paris (1783), Fleurieu and La Perouse began planning for a major French scientific expedition to the Pacific. King Louis XVI took a personal interest in the planning; and consequently the expedition was extremely well-equipped and manned.

    Commanding the expedition ships LA BOUSSOLE and L'ASTROLABE, La Perouse left Brest in August 1785 and sailed for the Pacific by way of Cape Horn. The expedition arrived in Chile in February 1786 and then sailed to Easter Island and the Hawaiian islands before carrying out a detailed survey of the north-west coast of North America. It was during this survey that 21 men were lost when their boat capsized in Lituya Bay.

    In September 1786 the expedition left the Spanish settlement at Monterey (California) and sailed west across the North Pacific ocean to Macao where they arrived in January 1787. The expedition then sailed to the Philippines and continued north-eastward to survey the seas around Japan and Korea. In early September 1787 the ships reached the Russian settlement of Petropavlovsk (Southern Kamchatka) where La Perouse received revised orders from France to sail to Botany Bay where a new English colony was about to be settled. At Petropavlovsk La Perouse took the opportunity to send an account of his voyage overland back to Paris with one of his officers, Jean Baptiste Barthelemy de Lesseps.

    De Lesseps took a year to make the journey to Paris but successfully presented La Perouse's account of the expedition to French government officials. It proved to be the last correspondence received from La Perouse and was later published in 1797 as 'Voyage de La Perouse Autour du Monde', edited by General Milet-Mureau.

    From Petropavlovsk the expedition sailed for Botany Bay in New Holland (Australia) by way of Samoa, Tonga and Norfolk Island. At Tutuila in Samoa the expedition suffered a serious setback when Paul-Antoine Fleuriot de Langle (La Perouse's second-in-command) and 11 others were killed by natives while attempting to obtain fresh water. Despite this tragedy, La Perouse sailed on to Botany Bay, arriving there just as the fleet of British ships carrying the first European settlers departed for the recently-discovered and superior harbour of Port Jackson a few miles to the north. The French ships remained at Botany Bay until 10 March 1788 when La Perouse sailed north-east into the (South-West) Pacific to complete his ambitious exploration journey. It was thought that La Perouse would pass through Torres Strait before crossing the Arafura Sea to the Indian Ocean and finally return to France. But when, by 1791, no further news of the expedition had reached France, authorities hurriedly directed Admiral Bruny d'Entrecasteaux to lead an expedition in search of La Perouse's missing ships.

    D'Entrecasteaux's ships LA RECHERCHE and L'ESPERANCE left France in late September 1791. However, despite extensive searching in the western Pacific, the expedition found no evidence that would explain the disappearance of La Perouse.

    The mystery of what had happened to the expedition remained unsolved until wreckage of the BOUSSOLE and ASTROLABE was discovered at Vanikoro Island in the Solomon islands by the Franco- Irish sandalwood trader Peter Dillon in 1827.

    A year later, the French commander Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d'Urville visited Vanikoro to confirm the identity of the wreckage and erected a monument to La Perouse. Dumont d'Urville also recovered anchors and cannon from the wreck site on the south-western side of the island which he took back to France. These were used to erect a memorial to La Perouse at his birthplace of Albi.

    Since the 1980s a number of Franco-Australian maritime archaeological expeditions visited Vanikoro and, with the consent of the Solomon Islands' government, recovered material from underwater and on land. It is now believed that the La Perouse expedition encountered a cyclone which forced the BOUSSOLE and ASTROLABE onto the reefs at Vanikoro. Archaeological evidence indicates some of the crew survived the wrecking, but their ultimate fate remains unclear. At the time of Dillon's first visit in 1827, islanders related that the last of the survivors had only died a few years before Dillon's arrival.

    The site of LA BOUSSOLE was not discovered until 1986 when a Franco-Australian archaeological team working with the Solomon Islands National Museum found more wreckage at a site called 'la Faille', approximately half a mile to the east of La Perouse's ASTROLABE wrecksite that had been investigated by the crews of several French naval vessels in the course of 19th century.

    A collection of archaeological material from Vanikoro is now held in the Musee National de la Marine in Paris and at the Musee d'Histoire Maritime de Nouvelle Caledonie in Noumea.

    The inscriptions on this medal read 'LOUIS XVI. ROI DE FRANCE ET DE NAVARRE' and 'B. DUVIVIER 1778'. Reverse: Inscription enclosed in floral border reads 'LES FRIGATES DU ROI DE FRANCE LA BOUSSOLE ET L'ASTROLABE COMMANDEES PAR M.M. DE LA PEROUSE ET DE LANGLE PARTIS DU PORT DE BREST EN JUIN 1785'. (The Royal French frigates La Boussole and L'Astrolabe commanded by Mssrs. de la Perouse and de Langle departing from Brest in June 1785)
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