Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811) was a French soldier and explorer. An accomplished scholar, he was also a man of action who fought in the Seven Years War, explored the Pacific Ocean, and was the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the world.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville was born in Paris on Nov. 12, 1729, and early established a reputation as a mathematician. A friend of the philosophe Jean le Rond d'Alembert, Bougainville was elected to the British Royal Society in 1754 in recognition of a work on calculus. He served with distinction as aide-de-camp to Gen. Louis Joseph de Montcalm in Canada during the Seven Years War, assisting in the defense of Quebec.

After the war Bougainville—at his own expense— founded a settlement in the Falkland Islands. In 1767, however, he was ordered to surrender the colony to France's ally Spain, which had a prior claim. In return he was given charge of the first official expedition to the Pacific, where he hoped to make discoveries and find an outlet for French expansion.


Circumnavigation of the World

Aboard the frigate Boudeuse and accompanied by the storeship Étoile, Bougainville sailed from Nantes in November 1766. Rounding the Straits of Magellan, he crossed the Pacific via Tahiti, which he named New Cytheria and which he described in romantic terms. He sailed on to Samoa, which he called the Navigator Group, and to the New Hebrides, which he called the Great Cyclades. From there, moving west, he was turned away from the Australian coast about 100 miles east of Cooktown by dangerous reefs.

Bougainville then headed north through the Coral Sea, rounded New Guinea after trouble with the winds, and sailed for home, touching at the Solomons, the Moluccas, and Batavia, and reaching Saint-Malo on March 16, 1769. He thus became the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe, and although none of his discoveries was of major importance he gained much useful information and prestige. The lucid narrative which he published in 1771 attracted much attention and strengthened belief in the concept of the "noble savage."


Later Career

Rather than return to the army, Bougainville remained in the French navy and fought against the British in the struggle over the American colonies. The major part he played in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay in September 1781 considerably advanced the American cause. His later quarrel with the commander of the French fleet, Adm. de Grasse, however, disillusioned him with the navy, and he retired at the end of the war, returning only briefly after the outbreak of the French Revolution to command the fleet at Brest.

As a royalist, Bougainville was out of favor during the Revolutionary period and narrowly escaped execution. Napoleon had a high regard for him, making him a senator and count of the empire in 1804, besides presenting him with the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honor. He was also elected to the Academy of Sciences and to the Board of Longitude. Bougainville died on Aug. 31, 1811.


Further Reading on Louis Antoine de Bougainville

An account of Bougainville's travels is in his work, A Voyage Round the World (trans., 2 vols., 1967). For secondary treatments see J. C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific (1934; 3d ed. 1966), and John Dunmore, French Explorers in the Pacific, vol. 1: The Eighteenth Century (1965).