It is no small coincidence that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were fascinated with Oceania, having each heard of the discoveries of Captain James Cook. Captain Cook was the first European to circumnavigate New Zealand. His explorations were acclaimed all over Europe; it is said that when news of his death came to Versailles in 1779, the Queen burst into tears. Later, in her cell in the Conciergerie, one of the few books provided for Marie-Antoinette was The Voyages of Captain Cook, which was said to have been her favorite.
In 1785 Louis XVI commissioned the naval hero La Pérouse to outfit two ships for an expedition to explore the unknown regions of the Pacific Ocean in the wake of Captain Cook. Louis did not want the British to outstrip the French in nautical explorations. The king, who was a skilled amateur cartographer and geographer, painstakingly mapped out the voyage which lasted for three years. The adventurers pinpointed the exact location of previously unknown Pacific Islands. As Catherine Delors has written:
Louis XVI, as I have noted earlier in this blog, was far from the imbecile he is sometimes made to appear. The King was what we would call an intellectual, and had a passion for geography and cartography. He wished to launch a major maritime expedition whose goal would no be not military conquest, but scientific discovery, the correction of existing maps and the establishment of new trade routes, in particular across the Pacific.It is interesting that even amid their misfortunes, the thoughts of the King and the Queen went to the mysterious lands on the other side of the world. Marie-Antoinette, other than journeying from Austria to France in 1770, never traveled (it would have cost too much money) and she never saw the ocean. Louis saw the Atlantic ocean once, but never crossed it; as a geographer he probably longed to explore the ends of the earth had it been compatible with his duties as king. His vicarious explorations of Oceania by means of La Pérouse meant a great deal to him. As mentioned above, it is telling that on the morning of his death he asked: "Is there any news of Monsieur de La Pérouse?" Share
Louis XVI chose Lapérouse to head the expedition (both men are represented in this painting, the King seated, and Lapérouse in his uniform.) The navigator sailed from France in 1785, only four years before the start of the Revolution. He had been entrusted with two merchant ships and a crew of 220 men, including an astronomer, a physician, three biologists, a mathematician and three draftsmen. Even the Catholic priests who were part of the expedition as chaplains were trained as scientists (the two being perfectly compatible.)
The expedition crossed the Atlantic and reached Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, in January 1786. It later explored Chile, Easter Island, Hawaii (there is still a place in Maui called Lapérouse Bay,) Alaska, California, where Lapérouse found much to criticize in the treatment of Native Americans, Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Tonga, Samoa, Australia...
The expedition seems to have floundered off the coast of Vanikoro, in the modern-day Solomon Islands, in 1788. The disappearance of Lapérouse, his crew and his ships caused much speculation at the time.
Louis XVI himself allegedly asked, on the morning of his execution, on January 21, 1793: "Is there any news of Monsieur de Lapérouse?" I make no guarantees as to the accuracy of this quote, but it is emblematic of the deposed King's personal sympathy for the explorer, and the level of public interest in the fate of the expedition. The shipwreck was not traced until decades later and many questions remain about the circumstances of the disaster.