Trip through time: Mystery behind missing French explorer

Trip through time: Mystery behind missing French explorer
The cape, where the La Perouse Museum is located, commands a panoramic view of Botany Bay and many tourists visit there.

SYDNEY - Many explorers from Europe crossed the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century to establish new settlements overseas. One expedition to Australia can be traced through various objects found along Sydney's Botany Bay.

The ocean breeze whips the French national flag in front of a private house on a cape on the east side of the bay. Road signs in this area also bear a French flag design.

There is a national park in the area that embodies nature's bounty.

The area is called La Perouse after French naval officer and explorer Comte de Laperouse, who arrived in the area in 1788.

Robert Cooley, who has lived in the area for decades, told me Laperouse was said to have been welcomed by the natives and that their French descendants settled there continue to do so.

He added, regretfully, that Laperouse was not as widely known as Captain Cook.

British explorer James Cook, a captain in the Royal Navy, was believed to be the first European to have landed in Australia. This paved the way for the British to settle in Australia.

In the 18th century, the British and French navies competed strongly to rule the waves, and Cook's discovery of Australia shocked France.

French King Louis XVI called for exploratory voyages to defend the nation's prestige.

The king decided to dispatch two ships - the Astrolabe and the Boussole - to the Pacific under the command of up-and-coming Laperouse.

Laperouse's ships sailed around South America and entered the Pacific. They sailed up to Hawaii, Manila and waters adjacent to Japan.

Laperouse was known as a "cautious and bold" navigator.

Because of his calm and level-headed nature, he refrained from taking reprisals against native tribes who killed his men on one of the islands the ships stopped at.

His expedition arrived at Botany Bay and, after staying there for about six weeks, the ships left for New Caledonia and the west coast of Australia. They were never heard from again.

The news reportedly shook Paris, which was in the throes of the French Revolution.

French author Jules Verne reflected on the event in one of his books, noting that people showed extraordinary interest in the whereabouts of Laperouse.

His ships were believed to have become stranded near Vanikoro Island, one of the islands in the Santa Cruz chain, but the disappearance of the commander remains a mystery.

When Laperouse arrived at Botany Bay, he encountered a British warship. Laperouse immediately sent a letter to the naval minister in his home country, pledging he would fulfil the mission handed down by the king.

The La Perouse Museum, which stands on a hill on a cape that commands a panoramic view of Botany Bay, has exhibited about 2,000 items associated with Laperouse, including nautical tables.

How did Laperouse, a French explorer who dreamed of a discovery that would surpass Britain's, feel when he gazed at the ocean from the cape?

I thought about the feeling of the missing explorer who had sailed on dangerous voyages at the risk of his life.

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