Bougainville, Louis Antoine

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Bougainville, Louis Antoine (1729-1811): French Explorer.

Born to an upper-middle-class family, his mother died while he was still an infant. He was adopted by a widow, Mme Hérault, and later attended the University of Paris, where he studied law, the classics, languages and mathematics. In 1755, he published the first volume of Traité de calcul intégral, which earned him recognition in academic circles. At the outbreak of the Seven Years War, Bougainville was sent to Canada as aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Montcalm to protect French possessions in North America. As the situation worsened for the French, Montcalm picked Bougainville for a mission to Paris in a vain effort to receive substantial help from the government, which was short of funds at the time.

After the Fontainebleau Treaty (1762), when France officially ceded to Britain nearly all her possessions in India and eastern North America, Bougainville presented plans to the king to make the Falkland Islands a French colony, from which French ships would embark on voyages of discovery. On September 15, 1763, Bougainville sailed out of Saint-Malo on an expedition that he partly financed himself. In April 1764, he took formal possession of the Malouines, the Falklands, but in 1766, all his hard work in establishing the colony was nullified by the cession of these islands to Spain.

However, Bougainville did not give up his maritime ambitions, but immediately planned to circumnavigate the globe for the French government. His project was readily accepted, and he left on the frigate La Boudeuse accompanied by her sistership the Etoile in November 1766. He brought along two scientists, Véron the astronomer, who figured out during the voyage how to measure longitude through lunar distances, and the naturalist Commerson, who studied and recorded the new plants and animals discovered during the trip, including bougainvillea, named for the explorer.

He claimed many important islands in the South Pacific in the name of France. In 1771, the publication of his Voyage autour du monde (Voyage around the World) was a great success, specifically because of his description of native Tahitian customs (he had taken formal possession of Tahiti during a brief stay). Bougainville was the first Frenchman to carry the flag of his country round the world.

In 1780, he married Flore-Joseph de Montendre, a woman twenty years his junior. That same year, he sailed to America with the Comte de Grasse's fleet to help the insurgents in their fight for independence. He played an active role in the important naval victory at Chesapeake Bay over the British fleet. In 1799, Bonaparte, Napoleon made him Count of the Empire and Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. Bougainville died in 1811 at the age of 82.

Further Reading:

Victor Suthren, The Sea has no end: the life of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, 2004.

Guy Toubiana

The Citadel