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Fate of missing 18th century explorer could lie in Great Barrier Reef

It’s the high-seas mystery that’s confounded historians for almost 200 years: what happened to the famous French navigator Comte de La Pérouse
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La Pérouse disappeared without a trace in 1788 – along with two ships and 225 officers, sailors and scientists – while exploring the Pacific for King Louis XVI. Now, a Canberra researcher says the answer to this cold case could lie at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef.

Anthropologist Dr Garrick Hitchcock of the Australian National University believes he has stumbled across a clue suggesting the last survivors of La Pérouse’s voyage were wrecked on the “graveyard of ships” – the Great Barrier Reef, near Murray Island.

Portrait of French explorer La Pérouse. Photo: ANU

“La Pérouse’s voyage of discovery in the Pacific is recognised as one of the most important of its era, rivalled only by the work of Cook,” Dr Hitchcock said.

But, after setting out in 1785, La Pérouse’s ships Astrolabe and Boussole were both wrecked three years later on Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands.

The survivors who made it to shore spent several months constructing a small “two-masted craft” from timber salvaged in the shipwreck and launched it in a bid to return to France.

“What became of this ship and its crew, desperate to return to France, has been an ongoing mystery,” Dr Hitchcock said.

Portrait of French explorer La Pérouse. Photo: ANU

On his way to the guillotine in 1793, it’s said King Louis XVI himself asked: “Is there news of La Pérouse?”

It was while digging into the history of Torres Strait that Dr Hitchcock came across a new lead – an article published in an 1818 Indian newspaper, The Madras Courier.

It tells the story of Shaik Jumaul, a castaway Indian seaman who survived the sinking of Morning Star off the coast of north Queensland in 1814. Jumaul lived on Murray Island for four years before being rescued by a merchant ship.

He told his rescuers he had seen muskets and cutlasses on the islands, which he didn’t recognise as being of English make, as well as a compass and a gold watch.

When he asked the Islanders how they came across these things, they told him a ship had been wrecked off the Great Barrier Reef, in sight of the island, about 30 years earlier.

New clue may reveal the fate of famous French explorer Comte de La Perouse. Photo: ANU

Boats with crew had come ashore but they were eventually killed as fights broke out with the locals.

“The chronology is spot on,” Dr Hitchcock said. “It was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors left Vanikoro in their small vessel.”

According to Jumal’s account, the only survivor of the shipwreck was a small boy, who was saved and brought up by the local people “as one of their own”.

Outlining his theory in The Journal of Pacific History, Dr Hitchcock wonders if that child could be Françoiss Mordelle, a ship’s boy from northwestern France listed in the La Pérouse expedition crew list.

He said historians and maritime archaeologists were not aware of any other European ship being in the region at the time.

“This means that this is the earliest known shipwreck in Torres Strait, and indeed, eastern Australia.”

While the article was later reproduced in newspapers throughout Britain, France and Australia, where observers noted the parallels to the La Pérouse expedition, it has largely been forgotten and its clues missed.

Dr Hitchcock now hopes a future recovery of artefacts from the wreck site – yet to be discovered on the Great Barrier Reef – could solve the mystery of the doomed voyage once and for all.

Studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars, the Torres Strait region has seen at least 120 ships come to grief in its waters.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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