Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, was born near Albi, France. He entered the Navy when he was fifteen, and fought the British off North America in the Seven Years' War. Later he served in North America, India and China. In August 1782 he made fame by capturing two English forts on the coast of the Hudson Bay. The next year his family finally consented in his marriage to Louise-Eléonore Broudou, a young creole from modest origins he had met on Île de France (present-day Mauritius). He was appointed in 1785 to lead an expedition to the Pacific. His ships were the Astrolabe and the Boussole, both 500 tons. They were storeships, reclassified as frigates for the occasion.
La Pérouse was a great admirer of James Cook, tried to get on well with the Pacific islanders, and was well-liked by his men. Among his 114 man of crew there was a large staff of scientists: An astronomer, a physicist, three naturalists, a mathematician, three draftsmen, and even both chaplains were scientifically schooled.
He left Brest on August 1785, rounded Cape Horn, investigated the Spanish colonial government in Chile, and, by way of Easter Island and Hawaii, sailed on to Alaska, where he landed near Mount St. Elias in late June 1786 and explored the environs. A barge and two longboats, carrying 21 men, were lost in the heavy currents of the bay called Port des Français by La Pérouse, but now known as Lituya Bay. Next he visited Monterey, where he examined the Spanish settlements and made critical notes on the treatment of the Indians in the Franciscan missions.
He again crossed the Pacific Ocean to Macao, where he sold the furs acquired in Alaska, dividing the profits among his men. The next year, after a visit to Manila, he set out for the northeast Asian coasts. He saw Quelquepart Island (Cheju), only once before visited by Europeans, when a group of Dutchmen shipwrecked there in 1635. He visited the mainland coast of Korea, then crossed over to Oku-Yeso (Sakhalin).
The inhabitants had drawn him a map, showing their country, Yeso (also Yezo, now called Hokkaido) and the coasts of Tartary (mainland Asia). La Pérouse wanted to sail through the channel between Sakhalin and Asia, but failed, so he turned south, and sailed through La Pérouse Strait (between Sakhalin and Hokkaido), where he met the Ainu, explored the Kuriles, and reached Petropavlovsk (on Kamchatka peninsula) in September 1787. Here they rested from their trip, and enjoyed the hospitality of the Russianss and Kamchatkans. In letters received from Paris he was ordered to investigate the settlement the British were to erect in New South Wales. Barthélemy de Lesseps, the French vice consul at Kronstadt, who had joined the expedition as an interpreter, disembarked to bring the expedition's letters and documents to France, which he reached after a one year lasting, epic journey across Siberia and Russia.
His next stops were in the Navigator Islands (Samoa). Just before he left, the Samoans attacked a group of his men, killing twelve of them, among which de Langle, commander of the Astrolabe. He then sailed to Botany Bay, arriving on 26 January 1788, just as Captain Arthur Phillip moved the colony from Botany Bay to Port Jackson. The British received him courteously, but were unable to help him with food as they had none to spare. La Pérouse sent his journals and letters to Europe with a British ship, obtained wood and fresh water, and left for New Caledonia, Santa Cruz, the Solomons, the Louisiades, and the western and southern coasts of Australia. He nor any of his men was seen again. Fortunately, before he set sail, de Galaup had sent the valuable written details of his expedition to Paris where it was published posthumously.
In 1791-1793 Antoine de Bruni, chevalier d'Entrecasteaux looked for La Pérouse, but found no trace of him, and it was not until 1826 that an English captain, Peter Dillon, found evidence of the tragedy. In Tikopia (one of the islands of Santa Cruz), he bought some swords he had reason to believe had belonged to La Pérouse. He made enquiries, and found that they came from nearby Vanikoro, where two big ships had broken up. Dillon managed to obtain a ship in Bengal, and sailed for Vanikoro where he found cannon balls, anchors and other evidence of the remains of ships in water between coral reefs. He brought several of these artifacts back to Europe, as did D'Urville in 1828. De Lesseps, the only member of the expedition still alive at the time, identified them, as all belonging to the Astrolabe. From the information Dillon received from the people on Vanikoro, a rough reconstruction could be made of the disaster that struck La Pérouse, which was confirmed by the find and search of the shipwreck of the Boussole in 1964.
Both ships had been wrecked on the reefs, the Boussole first. The Astrolabe was unloaded and taken apart. A group of men, probably the survivors of the Boussole, were massacred by the local inhabitants. Others built a small boat from the wreckage of the Astrolabe, and left westward about 9 months later. Apparently this boat shipwrecked somewhere, possibly in the Solomon Islands.