10 People In History Who Decided to Explore The Unknown (Part 2 of 3)


Following your enthusiastic response to our stories on Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, we’re here to continue our discovery of the greatest travelers of all time and follow their footsteps in history.

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Following in the footsteps of James Cook

The adventures of the Count of La Pérouse

Who was he?

Born in August 1741 in Albi, France, Jean-François de Galaup, Count of La Pérouse, was a naval officer who served in the American War of Independence in 1778. His bravery caught the attention of Louis XVI, who commissioned him in 1785 to lead a voyage of scientific discovery around the globe, following in the footsteps of British explorer James Cook. His expedition mysteriously disappeared in Vanuatu in 1788.

His time in the navy

Upon the recommendation of the Marquis de La Jonquière, a family member, Jean-François de Galaup moved from southern France to Brest at age 15. He joined the naval academy in 1756, at a time when the Seven Years’ War was just beginning. Like James Cook, the war took him to Canada, around Newfoundland, to defend France’s interests against the open hostilities of the British. In November 1759, La Pérouse was wounded in the Battle of Quiberon Bay, and he was captured and briefly imprisoned before being paroled back to France and formally exchanged. In 1764, he was again posted to sea duties, where he perfected his techniques as a navigator before leaving for the Isle de France, now Mauritius, in 1772. He stayed there for 5 years, accompanying Charles-Henri-Louis d’Arsac, chevalier de Ternay, who was appointed Governor. The American War of Independence put an end to his stay in the Indian Ocean and led him to the West Indies and North America, in a war where France sided with the American colonies against Great Britain. He was promoted to the rank of commodore when he defeated the English frigate Ariel in the Naval battle of Louisbourg in 1781, before making his name by capturing two English forts on the coast of Hudson Bay in 1782. This campaign led Louis XVI to commission him to lead a voyage around the globe just a few years later. 

 His voyage around the world

On the recommendation of the marquis de Castries, lieutenant du Roi, Louis XVI tasked La Pérouse to prepare an expedition to the Pacific and complete James Cook’s unfinished work, and in particular, establish French bases in Alaska and the Philippines. In command of two ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, La Pérouse left Brest on August 1, 1785, sailing west with a team of astronomers, cartographers, naturalists and other scientists. This voyage took the navigators to Brazil, then Chile before rounding Cape Horn in February 1786 and reaching Easter Island in April that year. The expedition then ascended towards Alaska and La Pérouse established numerous hydrographic surveys of the west coast of present-day United States. He modified the nautical charts of the time, removing non-existent land and changing the position of some islands, like the Marianas. He left the Monterey area in September 1786 and sailed across the Pacific, discovering uncharted islands, and visiting Macao and Manila. The expedition reached China in January 1787. He then began several months of discoveries of the Asian coast and updated nautical charts. He crossed the strait separating the islands of Sakhalin and Hokkaido, a waterway between Japan and Russia that now bears his name. On January 26, 1788, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe reached Botany Bay in Australia, the same place where James Cook landed some 10 years earlier. The expedition ended a few months later, in June 1788, when the two ships, with more than 200 men aboard, disappeared. With no news, the expedition was officially declared lost in February 1791. History records that Louis XVI asked, on the morning of his execution in January 1793, “Any news of La Pérouse?”.

Searching for La Pérouse

Many years later, during a stop on Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, Irish captain Peter Dillon heard a story of two ships that had been wrecked years earlier off the neighbouring island of Vanikoro. He collected numerous artefacts of French origin that could have come from the La Pérouse expedition, so research began under the command of explorer Dumont d’Urville, who set sail from the port of Toulon in 1826. Captain Dillon also returned to the area, and in September 1827, he discovered the wreck of L’Astrolabe at Vanikoro. As for the shipwreck of La Boussole, no trace of it was found. From the information Vanikoro inhabitants gave Dillon, a storm was at the root of the disaster that struck La Pérouse. The islanders also related how survivors from La Pérouse’s expedition had built a stockade, and spent several months constructing a small two-masted vessel using timber. Once the vessel was completed, the survivors launched it and sailed away. Numerous expeditions were organized in the second half of the 20th century, allowing a large number of objects from the expedition to be recovered: anchors, cannons, stones, bronze bells… A museum in Albi now houses many of these artefacts. In 2005, the shipwreck of La Boussole was identified. Étienne Taillemite, inspector general of the Archives of France sums up the character of the Count of La Pérouse in these few words: “La Pérouse is representative of the most accomplished of the 18th-century sailors. An excellent navigator, a brilliant combatant, a humane leader with a mind open to all the sciences of his time, he was always able to combine to advantage prudence and audacity, experience and theory. As resourceful as he was indefatigable, as amiable as he was firm, he had a talent for making everyone like him.”

Voyage to the South Pacific

The adventures of James Cook

Who was he?

Born in 1728 in Yorkshire, England, and son of a farm worker, James Cook showed a gift for math, cartography and the art of navigation from a very young age. He is credited as the first European to discover Australia and complete the first tour of Antarctica. He also mapped several detailed charts of the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, radically changing the perception of world geography. His expeditions took him across the globe, from the east coast of Australia to the west coast of North America, passing by several island groups along the way. 

A passion for the sea

When he was just 17 years old, James Cook moved to the coast, settling in Whitby and finding work at the maritime port. He took advantage of his time there to develop his navigational skills and continue his studies. Cook was quickly noticed for his attention to detail and talent. In 1755, he enlisted in the British Royal Navy, a move he was convinced would help him rise through the ranks faster and someday take command of a vessel, at a time when the Seven Years’ War was in full swing. He served in North America, taking part in the siege of Québec City where he mapped detailed charts of the St. Lawrence River and the surrounding areas, and helped the British pull off a surprise attack against the French-held Quebec. After the war, he stayed in the Newfoundland region for a few more years, tasked with charting the island. The maps he produced are considered the first detailed and accurate maps of the area.

Voyage to Australia

Cook’s career as an explorer began in 1768 when he left England for an expedition mounted by the Royal Society aboard Endeavour, with a crew in tow, including famous naturalist Joseph Bank. Their journey was a scientific expedition, charged with sailing to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, but it also had a hidden military agenda. Cook carried sealed orders instructing him to seek out the “Great Southern Continent,” an undiscovered landmass that was believed to lurk somewhere near the bottom of the globe. He left Plymouth in the summer of 1768 and rounded Cape Horn to reach Tahiti in April 1769. Once there, he established a base for their research. Cook also sailed to some of the neighboring islands before heading south, in search of the Southern Continent. In October 1769, Cook and his men made landfall in modern day New Zealand, but he was not the first European to reach it; Dutch explorer Abel Tasman reached there first in 1642. Cook is however credited with producing highly accurate maps of the area, distinguishing the two parts of the island separated by a strait that now bears his name. Cook then decided to sail north and reached the coastline of New Holland (modern day Australia) in April 1770. He was the first explorer to set foot in Australia. The crew landed in Botany Bay near modern day Sydney, which would later become the springboard for future English colonization. After a brief meeting with the Aborigines and a study of the local fauna and flora, Cook set sail east, back to England, but the expedition soon came to a standstill for several weeks after hitting the Great Barrier Reef. The expedition eventually sailed onward, once his ship was seaworthy, and Cook went on to explore Cape York Peninsula, New Guinea, Possession Island, Batavia (Jakarta) and Cape of Good Hope. After a three-year voyage, Cook and his crew reached England on June 12, 1771. The journey also enabled naturalist Joseph Banks to bring back some 30,000 plant specimens, including about 1,500 hitherto unknown to botanists, and a thousand species of animals.

Looking for the Southern Continent

Still convinced of the existence of a continent at the southern tip of the globe, the Royal Society charged James Cook with a second expedition for which he left England in 1772 with two ships: Resolution and Adventure. In January 1773, he crossed into the Antarctic Circle, but his two ships became separated. Adventure returned to England. Cook and the Resolution continued south. Cook came very close to Antarctica without ever seeing the continent. He sailed around it, convinced it didn’t exist, and the crew went back up to Tahiti, New Caledonia and Easter Island before returning to England in 1775. Cook was warmly welcomed by the Royal Society, which awarded him their most prestigious scientific award, the Copley Medal, in 1776. That year, Cook again left England with two ships in what would prove to be his last expedition. On his way to New Zealand, he discovered two new islands: the Kerguelen Islands near Antarctica, and the Christmas Island, between Indonesia and Australia. In 1778, he made a significant discovery when he came upon the islands of Hawaii. He would later try to leave these islands twice but would be forced to return: the first time after failing to cross the Bering Strait because of the weather, and the second time due to damage to his ships. The second time they landed in Hawaii, he was met with angry natives and the situation quickly deteriorated. Cook was killed on February 14, 1779 during a confrontation between the locals and the British. The next day, the remaining crew left Hawaii to return to England after paying him military honours. 

Encounter with the Native Americans

The adventures of Jacques Cartier

Who was he?

Born in 1491 in the coastal village of Saint-Malo, France, Jacques Cartier was an experienced navigator from a respectable family of mariners. He began sailing as a young man and gained a reputation before even making his famous voyages to North America. In May 1532, he was introduced to King Francis I by Jean Le Veneur, then a French Abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel and a chaplain of France, during a pilgrimage that the king made to the tidal island. On his recommendation, the government of King Francis I commissioned Cartier to lead an expedition to the “northern lands,” as the east coast of North America was then known to “collect riches such as gold and spices”, and find a northwest passage to Asia. Cartier went on to explore the western coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, doing the first mapping of the St. Lawrence River as far as Montreal. He is considered by Quebecers and French explorers to be the discoverer of Canada. 

His first North American voyage

In April 1534, Jacques Cartier set sail with two ships and 61 men onboard, and the crew crossed the ocean in just 20 days. During that first expedition, he explored the western coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence before heading south and skirting the Magdalen Islands. He docked in Gaspé, Quebec, claiming possession of the territory in the name of King Francis I of France by erecting a 30-foot cross on the cliffs of the future Gaspé Bay in July 1534. The meeting with the Native Americans was rather friendly, and Jacques Cartier left the Gaspé area the following month to return to Saint-Malo with the two sons of the Native chief Donnacona. 21 days later he was home. 

His second voyage

When Jacques Cartier returned to France, the revelations of the sons of Donnacona persuaded the king to send Cartier on a second expedition across the Atlantic, this time with three ships. He set sail in May 1535, accompanied by the two young American Indians to serve as his guides. Thanks to their knowledge, he managed to trace the course of the St. Lawrence River as far as Stadacona in the Quebec City region. The water of the river not allowing them to move further, Cartier left his ship in Lake Saint-Pierre and he proceeded to the Iroquois village in a small craft. The island and village were overlooked by a mountain, which he named mount Royal, now Montreal. The rapids north and south of the Montreal island preventing him from continuing his route to the west, Cartier decided to return to Stadacona, only to be greeted by the threat of an early winter. From mid-November that year, Jacques Cartier’s fleet stayed imprisoned in ice, and December began with an epidemic of scurvy. His crew suffered heavy losses. In April 1536, he began a voyage back to France, this time forcibly taking the Native chief and his two sons with him to convince the king of accounts of another great river stretching west, leading to untapped riches and possibly to Asia. On the way back, Cartier stopped in Newfoundland and in Saint Pierre and Miquelon before reaching Saint-Malo in the summer of 1536.

His last expedition

Happy with Jacques Cartier’s last expeditions, and convinced of riches waiting to be discovered, Francis I ordered the navigator to return to Canada, this time appointing nobleman Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval to set up a permanent colony in the northern lands. Jacques Cartier became his lieutenant and sailed a year before him, on May 23, 1541, with 5 ships and 1,500 men to find gold and diamonds. But the rapids of the St. Lawrence River did not allow him to go very far upstream. As winter approached, they settled near Cap-Rouge but the relationship with the American Indians deteriorated, forcing Jacques Cartier to leave for Saint-Malo in June 1542, with a quantity of what he thought were gold and diamonds. When he arrived back in France, the minerals were found to have no value. Such was the disillusionment that it would take more than half a century for the French to regain interest in the northern lands with Samuel de Champlain. Jacques Cartier died of the plague in Saint-Malo on September 1, 1557.

For the story of our next great explorer, stay tuned.

About Nimah Koussa

The best part about being a travel writer is bringing cities and destinations to life: their stories, secret addresses, luxurious gems and unique holiday moments. And I have been one for a little more than 10 years. From the best bars and restaurants in different cities of the world to hotels where you can check-in to get away from it all, this Magazine is all about making every trip just a bit more meaningful.

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