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La Pérouse: 1786 Chart of the B.C. Coast

SECHELT, BC — APRIL 14, 2008 — Local real estate agent Gary Little has written the following article as a memorial to the 220th anniversary of the death of French explorer Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse who surveyed the coast of British Columbia in 1786 as part of a scientific exploration of the Pacific Ocean. The article describes in detail a chart of the B.C. coast which was first published in 1797 in the atlas to his book Voyage de La Pérouse Autour du Monde. This is one in a planned series of articles on the history of B.C. to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the founding of the Crown Colony of British Columbia in 1858.

Perouse stamp
France issued a stamp in 1945
to honour La Pérouse
Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse was a prolific French sea captain in the late 18th century. He was born in Albi in southern France on August 23, 1741. At the age of 15 he went north to the port of Brest in Brittany for naval training and by mid 1757, during the Seven Years War with England, was assigned to a war ship headed to Canada to defend French possessions in North America. For the next 30 years he sailed the seven seas, in times of both war and peace.

His next visit to Canada came in August 1782 when he led three navy ships in a surprise raid of the two Hudson's Bay Company trading posts on the west coast of the Bay — Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory. Both posts were sorely understaffed and surrendered quickly in hopeless circumstances. La Pérouse seized all the fur pelts he could find, then had the forts razed, though he did allow the captured traders to sail back to England unharmed. (This included Samuel Hearne, the governor of Prince of Wales Fort, famous for his 1771 trip to the mouth of the Coppermine River which established there was no northwest passage south of the Arctic Ocean. La Pérouse allowed Hearne to keep his journal of this important expedition and recommended he publish it as quickly as possible. As it turned out, it was not published until 1795, three years after Hearne's death.)

La Pérouse's next — and last — trip to Canada had far more peaceful goals. In 1785-1788 he led a great scientific exploration of the Pacific Ocean for France. His two ships sailed from Brest on August 1, 1785 and one year later, in August 1786, they had reached the coast of what is now British Columbia. His survey of the B.C. coast that month provided the raw data used to create the chart described in this article.

Perouse stamp
This 1988 French stamp shows La Pérouse's route through the Pacific

The title of La Pérouse's British Columbia chart is:

reconnue par les Frégates Françaises
en 1786
2e. Feuille.

When the atlas of the voyage was first published in 1797 (as a companion volume to his book Voyage de La Pérouse Autour du Monde), it was the only one covering the mysterious northwest coast of America from California to Alaska based on a survey other than Capt. James Cook's well-known survey of 1778. Cook's atlas was published in 1784. Although there were three Spanish expeditions which closely examined the northwest coast in the 1770s, the results were closely guarded as state secrets and not published officially until 1802.

Perouse map 1786
La Pérouse's 1786 Chart Showing the British Columbia Coast

The B.C. chart shows the Pacific coast from Tillamook Head in the south (Cap Rond at latitude 45°40′) to the northwestern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii) in the north (Baie de Clonard at latitude 54°10′). This example of the chart is from the second French-language edition of 1799 (published in London by G.G. & J. Robinson).

Several landmarks around the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver Island are identified, notably Nootka where Cook had gone ashore in 1778. Vancouver Island is not shown as an island because its insularity was not established until 1792. Like Cook, La Pérouse missed Juan de Fuca Strait separating Vancouver Island from Washington State (at latitude 48°30′); this strait was finally discovered by Capt. Charles Barkley in 1787.

Vancouver Island detail
Vancouver Island detail

Haida Gwaii detail
Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) detail

Only a few of the place names marked on La Pérouse's British Columbia chart are in use today, most prominently Nootka. Here is a summary of the names used by La Pérouse followed by those found on modern maps:

Baie de Clonard Beresford Bay
Baie de la Touche Englefield Bay
Mont de la Touche Mt. De la Touche
Cap Buache Lyell Island
Cap Hector Cape St. James
Îles Kerouard Kerouard Islands
Îles de Fleurieu Aristazabal and Price Islands
Cap Fleurieu Goose Island
Mont Fleurieu Silverthrone Mountain
Îles de Sartine Scott Islands (one is Sartine Island)
Baie de St. Louis Quatsino Sound
Pointe Boisée Cape Cook
Nootka Nootka Sound
Pointe des Brisants Estevan Point
Banc dont on ne connoit pas les limites La Perouse Bank
Île des Douleurs Destruction Island
Anse des Martirs Grenville Bay
Cap Rond Tillamook Head

Pointe Boisée and Pointe des Brisants are translations of the English names Cook had given in 1778 to two prominent landmarks on the west coast of Vancouver Island: Woody Point and Breakers Point. Similarly, Île des Douleurs and Anse des Martirs are translations of Spanish names given by Bruno de Hezeta in 1775 to Washington State coast locations: Isla de Dolores (Island of Sorrows) and Punta de los Mártires (Martyrs Point).

La Pérouse's survey of the coast of British Columbia, though sketchy and obviously incomplete, was still more detailed than Cook's. Because of very bad weather, Cook, after leaving Nootka (at latitude 49°34′), had sailed north far offshore until he reached the Alaskan coast (near Sitka at latitude 57°), so his chart shows the unseen B.C. coast as a straight line. Nevertheless, La Pérouse's chart was largely ignored because it was not published until eleven years later in 1797. By this time, more detailed charts of the Queen Charlotte Islands and the west coast of Vancouver Island had appeared. In 1798 the chart was rendered completely obsolete when George Vancouver's superb chart, based on his meticulous survey of 1792-1794, was published.

La Pérouse and his crew never returned home to France. Their two ships, Boussole (the French word for compass) and Astrolabe, were wrecked in the Solomon Islands in early 1788 and all hands were lost either to the sea or to murderous natives. Information collected by the expedition survived because La Pérouse periodically forwarded his records to Paris from earlier ports of call — Macao, Kamchatka, and Botany Bay.

An original exemplar of La Pérouse's 1786 chart is on display in Gary Little's office at the Royal LePage office in downtown Sechelt, British Columbia.

Vignette of La Pérouse found on an 1851 map of the Tarn region of France.
La Pérouse was born in Albi, the capital of this region.

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Gary Little is a realtor® and licensed real estate trading services representative in the offices of Royal LePage Sussex in Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada. He is a former senior software marketing manager, having previously worked in Silicon Valley for almost 20 years at the worldwide headquarters of Apple Inc. and Sun Microsystems, Inc. He is well known for his interactive real estate map of the Sunshine Coast (map.garylittle.ca).

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Gary Little, realtor®
Royal LePage Sussex
5561 Wharf Ave., P.O. Box 979
Sechelt, BC V0N 3A0
Cell: 604-741-5347
Office: 604-885-3295
Fax: 604-885-5422

This news release is located online at: http://www.GaryLittle.ca/maps-historic/perouse.html