In the wake of Bougainville and La Boudeuse

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22 October 2017

Bougainville. The explorer’s name echoes in our heads while Tara is clocking up nautical miles. Throughout the Tara Pacific expedition, except in the Strait of Magellan, we are following the sailing routes of La Boudeuse and L’Étoile, thanks to the discoveries made and maps drawn up during Bougainville’s incredible adventure, more than 2 centuries ago, long before GPS was invented!

 

In 1768, during his major exploration journey in the Pacific Ocean, the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville discovered the largest reef in the world. When we say that the greatest discoveries are sometimes made by chance, this adventure story is a perfect example.

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Louis Antoine de Bougainville

 

In December 1766, Bougainville departed from Brest aboard La Boudeuse. Accompanied by naturalists, a cartographer and an astronomer, his role as Captain was to add to knowledge and increase French presence in this part of the world.

In Rio de Janeiro, he received the support of another French vessel, L’Étoile, which under his command, acted as a cargo ship. After a laborious crossing of the Strait of Magellan, winds and the Humboldt current pushing the vessels northwards, Bougainville finally entered the Pacific Ocean.

In Rio de Janeiro, he received the support of another French vessel, L’Étoile, which under his command, acted as a cargo ship. After a laborious crossing of the Strait of Magellan, winds and the Humboldt current pushing the vessels northwards, Bougainville finally entered the Pacific Ocean.

It took him and his 400 men, weakened by scurvy, more than a year of navigation to finally sight the first islands – the immense Tuamotu Archipelago – in February 1768. He baptized it “the dangerous archipelago” because of the many coral atolls that made the progress of the 2 ships very perilous.

 

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The expedition reached Tahiti on April 6, 1768. Unfortunately for Bougainville, Tahiti had already been discovered in the previous year by an English navigator, Samuel Wallis.

As soon as La Boudeuse and L’Étoile anchored, a charming problem arose. “In spite of all our precautions,” he wrote, “a young woman nonchalantly dropped the loincloth covering her and appeared for all to see, like Venus in front of the Phrygian shepherd. She had a heavenly shape. Sailors and soldiers were eagerly reaching for the hatch and the capstan has never been operated with such zeal. We actually succeeded in restraining these bewitched men”. Bougainville later wondered: “How do we make 400 French young sailors who haven’t seen a woman in 6 months remain at their work stations in front of such a sight?”

After an exquisite stay among “noble savages” according to his accepted expression, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville resumed his voyage heading west, and discovered the New Hebrides Condominium (now the nation of Vanuatu).

From there he continued further west, trying to find Terra Australis which, on his nautical chart, was located northeast, towards New Guinea. Provisions ran out once again and Bougainville observed: “Spoiled meat was in great quantity, but it was becoming infected. Instead, we preferred to eat rats we could capture”. He nonetheless continued his journey.

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In the spring of 1768, the 2 vessels reached the eastern waters of Australia where reefs prevented them from approaching the coast.

Bougainville had just discovered the Great Barrier Reef: “Lookouts saw new shoals from atop the masts.” he wrote, “We couldn’t see where they ended.”

After careful consideration, Bougainville set a northward course and decided not to seek a passage among all these pitfalls.

The first European to explore the Great Barrier Reef was the British captain, James Cook. He discovered the reef when his vessel ran aground on it on June 11, 1770.

Bougainville then visited the western part of the Solomon Islands and discovered a new island on June 30, 1768, on his way to Papua. To this day, the island bears his name.

 

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The most difficult part of the trip was the return journey along the coast of New Guinea. The sailors were plagued by hunger and scurvy. The expedition then joined the Moluccas and busier sea routes before sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.

On his return to France, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville resumed his military career, participated in the American War of Independence, then was appointed wing commander in 1779. During the Age of Enlightenment, the account of this journey, published in 1771, fed philosophical controversies and particularly inspired Diderot.

Famous, covered with honors and supported by Napoleon, Bougainville devoted the rest of his life to scientific studies and research projects.

He died at the age of 82 in 1811, and was buried in the Pantheon in Paris.

Vincent Hilaire

 

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