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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

[French Explorers of the Eighteenth Century]

French Explorers of the Eighteenth Century

France had established a colony at the Falkland Islands (Malouines) in 1764. Spain, however, claimed that the islands belonged to the continent of South America, and France acknowledged Spain's right in 1776, when Louis de Bougainville was ordered to proceed to the Falklands to deliver them officially to the Spaniards. He was also ordered to proceed to the East Indies by crossing the south seas between the tropics. Bougainville's trip seemed to awaken France to the advisability of taking a share in the investigations and the profits that might accrue therefrom. However, the Government did not move until it sent La Pérouse out in 1785, though two minor voyages were made before that for business purposes. A chronological list of French explorers follows:

Date Commander Ships Islands Visited
1766-1769 Bougainville Boudeuse and Étoile Tuamotus, Society, Samoa
1769-1770 Surville St. Jean Baptiste New Zealand
1771-1773 Marion de Fresne, Crozet Mascarin and Marquis de Castries New Zealand
1785-1788 La Pérouse Boussole and Astrolabe Hawaii, Easter, Tonga, Samoa
1790-1792 Marchand Solide Marquesas, Hawaii
1791-1793 D'Entrecasteaux Recherche and Espérance New Zealand, Tonga

Louis De Bougainville

1766 to 1769

De Bougainville was given command of the frigate Boudeuse, in which he sailed from Nantes in November 1766 for the Falkland Islands, where he was to pick up the storeship Étoile to accompany the expedition across the Pacific. After some delay at South American ports, Bougain-page 50ville reached the Falklands and delivered them to Spain on April 1, 1767. Further delay was caused when the Étoile did not arrive, and Bougainville sailed back to Rio De Janeiro, where he found her awaiting him.

The Boudeuse and the Étoile finally passed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific on January 26, 1768. Contrary winds prevented them from calling at Juan Fernandez, so Bougainville sailed northwest to search for the elusive Davis Land. His failure to discover it he rightly attributed to the inaccuracy of the bearings given by Davis. He continued on a westerly course between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, a course more to the north than that of Wallis. Thus he found a different series of islands in the Tuamotus. On March 22, he saw four little islets, which he named Les quatre Facardins (Vahitahi). A little farther on he saw another island, which he named Isle de Lanciers (Akiaki), because the inhabitants came down to the shore with spears. Another atoll was discovered on the next day and named Harp Island (Hao). More islands were encountered, but afraid that he might be wrecked among them, Bougainville gave them the collective name of the Dangerous Archipelago and steered south to get clear of them.

On April 2 he perceived a peak standing up out of the sea and named it the Boudoir, or Pic de la Boudeuse. Farther on, he perceived a high island. The peak was Meetia and the high island was Tahiti, which he later named La Nouvelle Cythere, being unaware that it had already been discovered by Wallis. The customary hospitality was extended to Bougainville by chief Ereti and his people. Bougainville sailed from Tahiti on April 16 and, on the same day, sighted the island of Tapuae-manu (Tubuai Manu), for which a Tahitian whom they had on board gave the alternative native name of "Oumaitia" (Maiaiti). This was the island which Wallis had named Sir Charles Saunders Island. To Tahiti and neighboring islands Bougainville gave the name of the Bourbon Archipelago.

Sailing west, Bougainville encountered on May 3 a group of three high islands, the most easterly of which was the largest. Without doubt, the group was the Manua Archipelago—comprising Tau, Olosenga, arid Ofu—which Roggeveen had discovered and named the Bauman Islands. The next day, Tutuila was sighted, and they sailed on along the south coast of another large island which must have been Upolu. The sea was too rough to attempt a landing on any of the islands, but the people came out in their canoes and a limited trade was possible. Because of the way the canoes were able to sail round his ships, Bougainville named the group the Navigator Archipelago. On May 11 an island with two elevated parts and low land between was sighted, a description which could apply to Rotuma. It was given the name of the Enfant Perdu.

Bougainville sailed on through Melanesia, saw the Great Barrier Reef, passed through the Solomons, New Britain, and Batavia, and reached the Cape of Good Hope on January 9, 1769, three days after Carteret had sailed in the page 51Swallow. Bougainville concluded his voyage by anchoring at St. Malo on March 16, 1776. This first French expedition was also the most important, as far as French discoveries in Polynesia are concerned.

De Surville

1769 to 1770

Details of the circumstances leading to M. de Surville's voyage are not available. One source states that he was sent out from France on a secret mission which was supposed to produce extraordinary results. Another says that he was given permission to make a trading voyage to Peru, on condition that he attempt to make new discoveries. Whatever the circumstances, he sailed in 1791 from Pondicherry, India, in the St. Jean Baptiste to procure a cargo in the East Indies. He left the Philippines, passed south by New Britain, west of New Caledonia, and reached the northern part of New Zealand in December 1769. He was in Lauriston Bay, which he named, when Cook bore down on the two points which marked the bay; but the two failed to sight each other. Cook, without entering the bay, named it Doubtless Bay.

From the incomplete story which is available, it appears that the sick were sent ashore and that in a violent storm the boat with the sick members of the crew and the ship's surgeon were succored by a Maori chief named "Naginoui." The chief gave up his house to the sick, provided food, and did everything he could for them. Surville went ashore on December 17 and met a chief, who asked for his musket. Surville gave him his sword instead, and friendly relations were established. However, on December 31 one of the ship's boats was washed ashore and was towed away by the Maoris and hidden before Surville could recover it. Surville determined to punish the people. He beckoned to a group standing near their canoes; and when one of them came toward him, he arrested the Maori and sent him as a prisoner to the ship. The rest of the natives fled, and Surville, after burning their canoes and houses, sailed off with his prisoner. Though the surgeon recognized the prisoner as the chief "Naginoui" who had succored the wounded, this did not seem to affect Surville's conduct. Surville sailed east between the latitudes of 35° and 41′ S. without seeing any Polynesian islands, which was just as well. On March 12, 1770, when the ship was within sight of Juan Fernandez, "Naginoui" died as the direct or indirect result of confinement. Surville's conduct was not an elevating example of the higher tenets of civilization, and his death by drowning while attempting to land at Callao seems strangely appropriate.

Marion de Fresne and Crozet

1771 to 1773

The voyage of Nicholas Thomas Marion de Fresne was really initiated by an episode arising out of Bougainville's voyage. Bougainville had brought back to France in 1769 a Tahitian named "Aoutourou" as "a human curiosity." The Tahitian, who assumed the shorter name of page 52 New Zealand War Canoe, Reproduced From Sydney Parkinson. page 53 Mayoa, was well treated in Paris. However, the French Government, realizing its responsibility to a human being, sent him to Mauritius with instructions to the Governor of the French dependency to send him on to his own home. Marion de Fresne, who had been a captain in the French navy was a well-to-do resident at the Ile de France at the time, and he offered to take Mayoa to his home. The Governor, M. Poivre, saw an opportunity to combine exploration with duty, and two ships, the Mascarin and the Marquis de Castries, were equipped for the expedition. Marion de Fresne was appointed commander, and he sailed in the Mascarin with M. Crozet as his First Lieutenant. The command of the Marquis de Castries was given to Chevalier Duclesmeur.

The ships sailed from the Ile de France on October 18, 1771. Although when Mayoa developed small pox and died off Madagascar, the primary object of the voyage was gone, Marion de Fresne decided to go on. The ships sailed south to latitudes 45° and 46° S., then east. They saw land; and in making soundings, the two ships collided with the result that the Marquis de Castries lost its bowsprit and foresails and the Mascarin, its mizzenmast. After repairs, they continued along latitude 46° S. and on January 24, 1772, discovered two islands, now known as Crozets Islands. They took possession and named the larger island Prise de Possession. On March 3 they sighted Van Diemens Land, landed, and made observations on the inhabitants. They next sailed for New Zealand and, passing round the northern extremity, anchored in the Bay of Islands on May 12. Friendly relations were established with a local chief named "Tacouri," the sick were put ashore in tents, and a working party camped in huts to prepare suitable timber for masts and spars. On June 12, Marion de Fresne, with sixteen men, visited Tacouri's village and failed to return. When, the next morning, the Marquis de Castries' longboat went ashore for wood and water, all were killed except one who escaped by swimming. The sick and the working party were brought back on board, and several natives were killed by musket fire during the removal. A punitive expedition fired Tacouri's village and the neighboring village of the chief "Piquiore." In an attack on another village, fifty natives were killed and the village burned. Having thus avenged the death of Marion de Fresne and the others, the ships hurriedly completed their supply of wood and water and sailed from the bay on July 14. Captain Duclesmeur assumed command of the expedition. Crozet, however, took command of the Mascarin and, as the narrative was obtained in the first person from his journal, he seems to have played the more prominent part in the expedition after the death of Marion de Fresne.

The ships sailed northeast intending to seek refreshments at Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the Tongan islands, which they missed. They saw a chain of coral islands, which were not identified and later, on August 12, they saw an island in latitude 16° S. which they named Ile du Point du Jour (Daybreak Island). They crossed the equator on August 23, turned west, and anchored page 54at Guam on September 27. Thence, they sailed to the Philippines, where they anchored at Port Cavite on December 8. Repairs were completed with difficulty, as members of the crews of both ships deserted. The Marquis de Castries sailed for the Ile de France on February 15, 1773, with deserters replaced by twenty Indian sailors; and the Mascarin sailed on March 8, with their deserters replaced by thirty Indians.

From the French point of view, the attack at the Bay of Islands was unprovoked and treacherous. The Maori version can only be surmised, as no first hand evidence was available from Tacouri and his contemporaries.

La Pérouse

1785 to 1788

John Francis Galaup de la Pérouse, to give him his name in full, commanded an expedition with two frigates, the Bonssole and the Astrolabe, which was commanded by M. de Langle. The object was to check previous discoveries.

The ships sailed from Brest on August 1, 1785, and after calls on the way, made the Strait of Le Maire on January 25, 1786. Easter Island was reached on April 8, and a good description of the people was recorded. After two days, La Pérouse sailed for the Sandwich Islands, where he saw the snow-capped mountains of the island of Hawaii on May 28. On June 1 he sailed for California, where he spent about four months surveying the coast, including Monterey Bay. In October he sailed for Macao and, on the way (on November 4), discovered a rocky island which he named Isle Necker. Necker, uninhabited but with interesting archaeological remains, lies northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The next day the two frigates almost ran onto an uncharted shoal at 1:30 A.M. La Pérouse named it Basse des Frégates Françaises (French Frigate Shoal). The ships called at the Marianas and the "Bashee" Islands before reaching Macao on January 3, 1787.

La Pérouse sailed for Cavite in the Philippines on January 25, arriving after twenty-three days. He spent some time at Cavite, repairing the ships and getting supplies. On April 10 he sailed north to explore Formosa, the coast of Japan, Tartary, Sakhalin, and the Aleutian Islands. In September he sighted the coast of Kamchatka and on September 6, sailed into Awatscka (Awatscha) Bay to the port of St. Peter and St. Paul, where he entrusted his papers to an interpreter to convey to France.

From the north, La Pérouse sailed to the Navigator Islands (Samoa) and traded with the people of the island of Maouna (Tutuila) on December 9, While a watering party was getting a supply of fresh water on shore, the Samoans attacked it and de Langle, commander of the Astrolabe, and twelve men were killed and many others wounded. La Pérouse then steered for two other islands of the Samoan group which bore west by northwest. He recorded them as Oyolava and Pola [Savaii and Upolu ?].

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La Pèrouse sailed south from Samoa on December 23, and four days later arrived at Vavao (Vavau), the north Tongan group which had been discovered by Maurelle. No canoes came out, as the weather was bad. He saw Late, and in a squall, he bore up to the islands of Kao and Toofoa (Tofua) which had been described by Cook. He continued to the uninhabited Haapai group which he termed Hoonga-tonga and Hoonga-hapaee (Honga Tonga and Honga Hapai). On December 31 he reached Tongatabu, where canoes came out, and he managed a description of them and the people and bought several weapons. On January 1, 1788, he bore west-southwest for Botany Bay in Australia, but the wind forced him south and he saw Pylstaart and Norfolk Islands. La Pèrouse mentioned that the wind had blown steadily from the west since December 17 and did not change to the east until January 6. On January 26, 1788, the ships anchored in Botany Bay, where an English fleet under Commodore Phillip was weighing anchor to proceed to Port Jackson.

This ends La Pèrouse's Journal, which was evidently sent back from Botany Bay or Port Jackson. This portion of it, with the papers sent back from the port of St. Peter and St. Paul, enabled the National Assembly of France to order the printing of the account of the voyage up to La Pèrouse's arrival at Botany Bay. Among the material published is an excellent "Dissertation on the inhabitants of Easter Island and Mowee [Maui]" by M. Rollin, M.D., surgeon to the Boussole. La Pérouse, in a letter to a friend, wrote that if his journal should be published before his return, he did not want it done by a man of letters as he wished to avoid "sacrificing sense for sound." La Pèrouse and his ships never returned to France. His fate remained a mystery until 1827, when the wrecked ships were found on a reef at Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Islands by Peter Dillon.

Etienne Marchand

1790 to 1792

Marchand's voyage was a commercial venture financed by a business firm. Captain Etienne Marchand, on his return from Bengal in 1788, met Captain Portlock of the King George at St. Helena and learned from him of the profits to be made in the fur trade with the northwest coast of America. On his arrival at Marseilles, he communicated his information to the business house of Baux. The firm fitted out a copper-sheathed ship, the Solide; found all material and trade merchandise; and placed it under the command of Marchand. The ship was ready in June 1790, but trouble between England and Spain over Nootka Sound delayed the voyage until December. Marchand had with him two other captains, Pierre Masse and Prosper Chanal; the surgeon, Roblet; and fifty other persons.

The Solide sailed from Marseilles on December 14, 1790. She sighted Staten Land on April 1, 1791, rounded Cape Horn to the south, and steered page 56for Mendoza's Marquesas, which she sighted on June 12. She also sighted Magdalena (Fatuhiva), San Pedro (Motane), Santa Christina (Tahuata), and Dominica (Hivaoa), discovered by Mendaña in 1595; and Hoods Island (Fatuhuku), discovered by Cook in 1774. While the ship was anchored in Madre de Dios Bay in Dominica, a shadow was noticed on the northwestern horizon which suggested land. Hence on June 20 Marchand sailed to investigate. The next morning, a high island was discovered which he named Ile Marchand (Uapou), and a small island off its eastern extremity was named Ile Plate. During exploration of the coast of Uapou on June 22, a second island was seen, about nine leagues away. Marchand took possession of the first island and sailed for the second, which he named Ile Baux (Nukuhiva), after the Solide's owners. Some small islands to the west were named Les Deux Frères (Motuiti). Sailing north-northwest, Marchand discovered two more islands and named them after his two captains, Masses Island (Eiao) and Chanal Island (Hatutu).

Marchand sailed on to the northwest coast of America, where he obtained furs, and then sailed south to the Sandwich Islands, sighting Hawaii on October 4. He left the Sandwich Islands on October 7 and reached Tinian in the Marianas on November 4, Macao on November 27. He sailed for the Ile de France on December 6, and anchored there on January 30, 1792. He left there on April 18 and anchored at Toulon on August 14, 1792.

Bruni D'Entrecasteaux

1791 to 1793

An expedition sent to the Pacific to search for La Pérouse was commanded by Rear Admiral Bruni D'Entrecasteaux, who was given two ships of war, the Recherche and the Espérance. The Espèrance was under the command of Captain Huon Kermadec; the first and second lieutenants of the Recherche were M. Dauribeau and M. Rossel; and the naturalist for the expedition was Jacques Julian de Labillardière.

The ships went into the roads at Brest on September 25, 1791, sailed by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and cast anchor in Table Bay on January 17, 1792. In April the ships arrived at Tasmania. They sailed on May 16 and were at New Caledonia in June and among the islands off the east end of New Guinea in July. The D'Entrecasteaux Islands in this area were named after the leader of the expedition. In August they sailed along the north coast of New Guinea, reaching Ceram on September 1. On October 14 the ships sailed from Amboina; in November, they explored the west coast of Australia; and in December, the southwest coast. In January 1793, they stood for Tasmania and reached Storm Bay on that island on January 22. Friendly relations were established with the native Tasmanians, and interesting observations were made.

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On February 28, 1793, a course was shaped for Tonga via New Zealand. The Three Kings Islands, north of the North Cape of New Zealand, were sighted on March 10, and observations were made on the possessions of the Maoris who came off in three canoes. Proceeding north toward Tonga, the expedition encountered a group of islands on March 15. The most southerly was named l'Espérance (Hope) after the ship. The next two were recognized from the chart as Curtis and Macauley Islands discovered in 1788 and named by Sever, Captain of the Lady Penrhyn. The next day, the largest island in the group was sighted by M. Raoul, after whom it was named. The whole group was named the Kermadec Islands, after the commander of the Espérance.

Tongatabu was reached on March 24. Considerable intercourse with the Tongans took place, and King "Toubou" (Tubou) and the high chief "Feenou" gave presents and entertainment. Much useful information concerning the people was obtained by Labillardière. The ships, which sailed from Tongatabu on April 10, next visited Tanna and New Caledonia. On May 8 Dauribeau was appointed to command the Espérance, owing to the death of Captain Kermadec.

The ships were at the Santa Cruz Islands in May and the Louisiades off New Guinea in June. It was while they were off the north coast of New Guinea that Admiral D'Entrecasteaux died of a "dreadful cholic." On August 11 the ships passed the western extremity of New Guinea and worked through the eastern islands of the East Indies. On September 23 Dauribeau became ill and Rossel took command of the expedition. On October 19 the ships were at Madura, off the entrance to Surabaya, where they were informed that war had broken out between Holland and France. The ships, however, were permitted to enter Surabaya, and the officers and naturalists were allowed to live ashore. As Holland was at war with Republican France, Captain Dauribeau and the principal officers hoisted the white flag as a sign of allegiance to the French Monarchy and put themselves under the protection of the Dutch. Dauribeau then caused all officers, naturalists, and members of the crew thought to be Republicans to be imprisoned. He also seized all the collections and such manscripts as he could, but Labillardière and Legrand managed to save their personal journals. The prisoners were transferred to the prison in Batavia and afterwards exchanged and sent to the Ile de France in the Indian Ocean. Dauribeau died on August 22, 1794, and Rossel became the senior officer in command. Rossel gathered together Admiral D'Entrecasteaux's journal, charts, plans, drawings and natural history specimens and embarked with them early in 1795 in the Hoogly, a Dutch East Indiaman bound from Batavia to Amsterdam. On June 9, 1795, the Hoogly and seven other Dutch ships accompanying her were captured by H.M.S. Sceptre, commanded by Captain Essington. The Hoogly sprang a leak, so all the material, including the natural history specimens, of the D'Entrecasteaux expedition were transferred to another ship. On page 58 Canoes of the Friendly Isles (Tonga), Drawn by William Hodges, Artist With Cook on his Second Voyage. page 59 the ship's arrival in England, the material was transmitted by Captain Essington to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

Labillardière was freed from the Ile de France by the republican government of France, and he arrived in Paris on March 12, 1796. Learning that the collection of specimens was in the possession of the British Government, he urged the French Government to claim them. The application was warmly approved by Sir Joseph Banks, and the Admiralty Board ordered a lieutenant of the British Navy to deliver the twenty-one cases containing the collection to Havre, under a flag of truce. Thus, they were delivered up with the most scrupulous exactness "and in a manner that reflects the highest honour on the persons immediately concerned."

Though the expedition failed to gather any authentic information concerning the fate of La Pérouse, it was highly successful scientifically, and Labillardière's account of the Tongans is among the best contributions to the ethnology of that people.


After Bougainville, the only new discoveries made by French voyages were the two islands of l'Espérance and Raoul in the Kermadec Islands, discovered by the D'Entrecasteaux Expedition. However, both Bougainville and La Pérouse did add more definite knowledge to the information about the Samoan group. Bougainville passed along to the south of Upolu and, being driven off by the rough weather, saw only one island, which he did not name individually but included under the group name of the Navigator Islands. La Pérouse, on the other hand, saw two islands and gave his version of the native names as Oyolava and Pola. The name Pola seems an attempt to write Upolu, but it appears to have been applied to Savaii and the unconvincing name of Oyolava applied to Upolu. Hence if the credit of discovering Upolu be assigned to Bougainville, the discovery of Savaii should be credited to La Pérouse. Bougainville reached Tahiti nine and one-half months after Wallis, and Marchand arrived at the northwestern islands of the Marquesas two months after their discovery by the American, Joseph Ingraham. The French navigators, including Yves Joseph de Kerguelen Trémarec, made important discoveries in other areas and their contributions to geography must not be judged by their results in the Polynesian area.