Manitoba History: Review: Russell C. Shelton, From Hudson Bay to Botany Bay: The Lost Frigates of Laperouse

by Gary Adams
Canadian Parks Service, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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From Hudson Bay to Botany Bay: the Lost Frigates of Laperouse, Russell C. Shelton. NC Press Ltd., Toronto, 1987, 228 pp., ill. ISBN 1-155021-010-6.

As an archaeologist excavating at York Factory and Prince of Wales’ Fort, I have always been aware of the exploits of Count Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Laperouse in Hudson Bay. While on a holiday to Hawaii, however, I was astounded to find a “Laperouse Bay.” Was this the same man and what was he doing in Hawaii? That question sparked an interest in Laperouse that has continued to this day and was all the incentive needed to agree to review this latest work on the intrepid Frenchman. From the introduction to Shelton’s work, I got the distinct impression that he was bitten by much the same bug as myself and has systematically set out to do something about it.

From Hudson Bay to Botany Bay is divided into quite a number of small chapters that seem to group into four larger thematic segments. The first four chapters establish who Laperouse was, his family life and his early career in the French Navy. It includes his exploits in the North American Maritimes and in Hudson Bay. The account of the capture of Prince of Wales’ Fort without a shot being fired is well covered and of interest to anyone who studies Manitoba history, but it is not by any means the sum total of Laperouse’s exploits.

The next ten chapters chronicle his attempted circumnavigation of the world. Shelton’s narrative follows the two ships, la Boussole and l’Astrolabe with their compliment of 221 men as they venture out from Brest in 1785 and proceed west in a voyage of discovery that includes Cape Horn, Chile, Easter Island, Maui, Alaska, the west coast of Canada, Monterey, Macao, Manila, Formosa, Japan, Kamchatka Peninsula, Samoa, Tonga and Australia. The biography is complete with many interesting stories of Laperouse’s stops that include an accident in Alaska, the acquisition of 12 Chinese crewmen, a massacre in Samoa and the landing of both the French explorer and the first colonists in Botany Bay.

While on his expedition, Laperouse twice dropped off his logs and navigational notes, as well as the journals, drawings and specimens of the scientists who accompanied him. Laperouse’s diligence in not trusting to the fate of his vessels has given Shelton excellent source material from which to trace the voyage all the way, to Australia. However, when Laperouse left Botany Bay in March of 1788, he sailed off into oblivion. At this point the book starts its third section, the search for the remains of the expedition. It follows the exploits of two South Sea captains, Peter Dillon and Dumont d’Urville as they search for and find the remains of the two ships, lost on the reefs of Vanikoro Island.

The last section of the book concentrates on subsequent events and in particular, the diving exploits of Reece Discombe in the period from 1958 to 1963. It shows how Discombe’s passion for knowledge of Laperouse led him to some interesting adventures and the rediscovery of the two wrecks.

Shelton does two things very well in this book. First, he presents a direct, well researched history of the man, Laperouse. There is an excellent biography of his naval career with enough sidelights into his personal life, his family and his writing to flesh out the character behind the voyager. This alone makes this book worthwhile for anyone who has a non-academic interest in the man or in that period of exploration of the Pacific. The second attraction of this book is that it ties the subsequent searches for the fate of Laperouse to the biography. How often has a reader followed the exploits of an individual through their years of historical contribution then found the last line of the story ends with something like “he lived on with his wife for another 23 years and died of chicken pox.” It is so refreshing to find a biography that ties up all the loose ends.

On the other hand, this is not the definitive work on Laperouse and any serious scholar would have a number of problems with it. It is apparent, even in this small work, that Jean Galaup was a complicated man with many interests and influences. He was a product of pre-revolutionary France and used his experiences in the South Seas to argue against the philosophy of Rousseau. He was an admirer of James Cook, a military tactician of note and an incredibly humane sea captain. These aspects of his character are certainly mentioned, or alluded to, but never developed.

This reviewer was also disappointed in two other aspects of the book that may be minor points to most readers. First, Laperouse passed through some very interesting places and often had some profound comments on specific cultures. These could have been better explained. Second, no archaeologist can condone the indiscriminate diving for relics by Discombe that resulted in the loss of much scientific information.

On the whole, I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in Laperouse, his voyage of discovery, or in a good tale of the sea. Serious researchers would probably find far better information in the original journals of Jean Galaup but they might still find much of interest in Shelton’s final sections.