La Pérouse joined the French naval officer training as a Garde-Marine at the age of 15, and joined several supply expeditions to New France, France’s North American colony. After being wounded and captured during the Seven Years War, he participated in France’s attempt to wrest Newfoundland from the British in 1762. By 1778, he commanded the Amazone, a 32-gun frigate, to fight the English and, in 1779, La Pérouse captured the HMS Ariel, mentioned in our letter, and which La Pérouse used against the British beginning in 1780 when France’s navy fought in the American Revolution.
Our letter was signed aboard the 74-gun ship of the line, Sceptre, used during La Pérouse’s involvement in the Battle of Saint Kitts (the Battle of Frigate Bay) between a British fleet commanded by Samuel Hood and the French fleet under Comte de Grasse, January 25-26, 1782. Later that August, La Pérouse commanded the Sceptre, Astrée and Engageante during the Hudson Bay expedition, where he captured two Hudson Bay Company trading outposts, the Prince of Wales and York Forts. Scurvy and other maladies decimated the crews during the campaign and La Pérouse’s ships were badly damaged by the cold weather.
In 1785, Louis XVI appointed La Pérouse commander of an ambitious scientific expedition ordered to correct maps, establish trade routes and collect scientific specimens throughout the Pacific, including Asia and Australia. Interestingly, a young Napoleon Bonaparte applied to join the expedition but was not selected. Equipped with the best English scientific instruments (thanks to the help of Joseph Banks) and accompanied by French scientists and artists, the 500-ton frigates L’Astrolabe and La Boussole left Brest in 1785 to stop in Chile, Easter Island, Hawaii, California, Alaska, Russia, Korea, and Japan. Twelve members of the crew were killed on Navigator Island, Samoa, before the expedition continued to Australia in January 1788. They departed three months later, on March 10, 1788, bound for New Caledonia but disappeared at sea, their proximity to Australia leading to rumors of British involvement. The expedition’s unknown fate prompted King Louis XVI to inquire on the morning of his 1793 execution, “Any news of La Pérouse?” (“Finding La Pérouse,” Australian National University Reporter, Walker). Evidence surfaced decades later suggesting the ships had been wrecked on a coral reef in the Solomon Islands and the survivors massacred by locals.
Our letter concerns the service of Julien Le Pecheux de Mortain who enlisted in the French Navy on May 3, 1778, to join La Pérouse aboard the Amazone. With two lists of his military service during the American Revolution through 1783, including descriptions of battles and a handwritten extract about his family origin from the diocesan register of baptisms and marriages.
In overall fine condition. Anything signed by France’s great seafaring commander and explorer is rare; nothing appears to have been sold at auction in more than thirty years.