28.1.08

Louis - Antoine de Bougainville

If you have ever watched the "Last of the Mohicans" with Daniel Day Lewis there is a scene where Col Munro and The Marquis de Montcalm discuss the terms of surrender for Fort William Henry. Montcalm requires a certain Captain de Bouganville to read out a letter from the English General Webb to Munro. That Captain de Bouganville, is a real character in American history, and while he may be a footnote in the French and Indian war his legacy lived on into World War II.

In 1754 he had joined the Army, and he now went off to Canada in 1756 as Aide - de - Camp to General Louis - Joseph Montcalm, where he gave distinguished service against the British in the French and Indian War there.

In 1763, we find Bougainville back home in France, and he now left the Army to join the Navy, to sail in 1764 into the Atlantic, down the coast of South America to establish a French Colony in the Falkland Islands.

He must have impressed his Government back in France, at this stage no Frenchman had ever sailed around the world, but in 1766, Bougainville was commissioned to do just that.

Dampier had found New Britain and New Ireland , the Dutch had pushed out into the Pacific in 1722, found Easter Island, the Gilbert Islands had been found by the Englishman John Byron in 1765, and the French did not want to be left out of this rush to seek out a continent, that was believed to be out there somewhere south of the equator.

Although Bougainville maintained an open mind on this subject, he had declared on the one hand:

... that it is difficult to conceive such a number of low islands and almost drowned islands without a continent near them

... But on the other hand he found it hard to believe that a southern continent existed for surely it would have been discovered by the earlier explorers:-

... If any considerable land existed hereabouts we could not fail meeting with it.

Now in December of 1766, with naturalists and other scientists, Bougainville sailed out of Nantes in the frigate La Boudese, taking much the same route as he had done in 1764, calling in to Rio de Janiro where he met up with his supply ship Etoile.

Commerson, a botanist, in Etoile, had found a climbing decidious shrub which in honour of his leader he had named Bougainvillia.

Both vessels now sailed for the Falklands, leaving there in July 1767 to sail through the Straits of Magellan into the South Pacific, on to find the Archipelago of Tuamoto, which these days is French Polynesia. They sailed on to Tahiti, only to learn it was discovered some eight years earlier by the Englishman Samuel Wallis.

Bougainville now sailed westwards reaching just east of the Great Barrier Reef to a point now named Bougainville Reef, he now turned north, coming close to, but not actually sighting the Australian mainland. Some 200 kilometers south east of Papua/New Guinea, he reached the Louisiade Archipelago, named after Louis XV of France.

They sailed onwards to the north, along the west coast of Choisuel Island, in the Western Solomons, south east of the now named Bougainville Island, through the now called Bougainville Strait to coast his named island of which he noted:-

... a new coast which is of astonishing height.

The ships sailed on to New Britain, and stopped at Buru in the Moluccas in September of 1768, his ships needed a refit, and many of the crew were suffering from scurvy, a disease that claimed the lives of some early explorers and many of their crew members.

It was at Buru, Bougainville found:-

... a species of wild cat that carries her young in a pocket below her belly.

A further sojourn was made at Batavia in Java, and now a course was set for home, arriving at Saint - Marlo in Brittany in March of 1769.

Bougainville thus became the first Frenchman to sail round the world, he rightly received great acclaim after his return, he was promoted in both the Navy and the Army. In 1772 he was appointed Secretary to his King Louis XV, he married in 1780, and fathered four children.

As a Commodore, he served in operations with the French Fleet off North America over 1779 to 1782, supporting the American Revolution.

Back in France, despite being a Royalist, Bougainville survived the Paris massacres, to settle on his estates in Normandy.

Napoleon honoured him by making him a Senator, a Count, and a member of the Legion of
Honour.

Bougainville died in Paris on the 31st. of August 1811, having lived in interesting times, and achieving much in many different facets of his life. He deserves recognition for it all.


from "The Early explorers of Australia".

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