Napoleon in the Pacific

Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse led a French scientific expedition around the Pacific; in 1788 it disappeared without a trace. A young Napoléon Bonaparte almost went with him.

Louis XIV and Lapérouse
Nicolas-André Monsiau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-late 18th century, the British explorer Captain James Cook romped around the Pacific Ocean. His expeditions were scientific, although this being the 18th century they also became the front line of future waves of colonisation. The last king of France, Louis XVI, was especially keen on furthering Cook’s discoveries and extending some French influence into the Pacific.

To achieve these lofty goals, the king appointed Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse. In August, 1785, his two ships sailed south from France. Packed full of scientists and sailors, the ships Astrolabe and Boussole rounded Cape Horn in early 1786. For the next two years, they would cover vast swathes of the world’s largest ocean.

Easter Island, Hawai’i (the first Europeans on Maui), Alaska, California (they stopped in San Francisco), Macao, Manila, Taiwan, Japan, and then up to Russia’s eastern coast. From there, they went back down through the Pacific islands to Australia.

Literally as far away from Europe as it was possible to get, Lapérouse’s expedition encountered the British “First Fleet.” This collection of ships brought the first European settlers and convicts to Australia. It was Australia’s Mayflower; the day that the First Fleet landed in Sydney Cove is today celebrated as Australia Day. The British and the French hung out together for a while, and then Lapérouse set sail again. The expedition was never heard from again.

In France, the fate of the Lapérouse expedition was an intense topic of interest for the next forty years. Four years after the disappearance, on the morning he went to the guillotine, Louis XVI asked “any news of La Pérouse?” But the two ships’ fate was not confirmed until 1826. Both the Astrolabe and Boussole had shipwrecked on Vanikoro, now part of the Solomon Islands. Some people probably survived the wreck, but they never got back to Europe and their fate remains a mystery.

And this is where we get to the kick in this particular story. Napoléon Bonaparte, who would go on to be one of the most influential figures of 19th century Europe, applied to join this expedition. He was just a scrawny 16-year-old from Corsica, fresh out of the École Militaire (military school) in Paris. Bonaparte apparently made the short-list, but was not selected as part of the final crew. He instead joined an artillery regiment… and the rest is history.

I am not a big reader of alternative histories, but you cannot help but wonder how the world would be different if Napoléon had died an unknown sailor in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But for a small twist of fate, that could have happened.

[Thanks to Michael W.]

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