Skip to main content

“Tayo! Tayo!” in Nouvelle-Cythère

ISSUE:  Autumn 1991

In the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, they believed in a pristine golden time when man in his natural state, uncorrupted by civilization, was innocent and good. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage” was the ideal. Such a creature could be found only in distant lands remote from the insidious influence of decadent Europe. Arcadia might once have existed in America, but constant warfare between the white colonists and Indians, as well as the bitter conflict between the British and French, now compelled men to seek elsewhere.

Prestige and opportunities for exploitation abounded in discovery of unknown regions, located across trackless wastes of ocean, but the unique achievement might be to stumble upon the untainted savage himself, exhibiting the qualities that Rousseau and others had extolled.

No Europeans were more susceptible to this aspect of exploration than the French. For in France, the autocratic state, as created by Louis XIV and his dedicated ministers, bore down heavily on the King’s subjects. So regimented had the French become that Rousseau’s works were like a clarion call to break the chains. Never mind that Rousseau himself was scarcely a model character, with his five unwanted bastards deposited on the doorstep of the foundling home. Jean-Jacques was a teacher and visionary, with the power to illuminate men’s minds.

In the southwest Pacific, 10,000 miles from France, lay the island of Otaheite or Tahiti, unspoiled and visited briefly only in 1767 by the British mariner, Samuel Wallis, in the Dolphin. But Wallis was not the man to seek inspiration from the island’s natives or fire one’s imagination with tales of nature’s noblemen as in Rousseau’s vision.

That would be the role of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. Tall, of commanding presence, with gleaming blue eyes in a pink and white complexion, Bougainville was the son of a Paris lawyer. He had early made his mark as the author of a treatise on differential calculus. His own law studies had been interrupted by the Seven Years War with Great Britain in which he distinguished himself in the defense of New France as aide and deputy commander to the Marquis de Montcalm.

At 34, Bougainville still smarted over the defeat at Quebec in 1759. Indeed, he had wanted to continue the struggle from Montreal. Now he had a plan to succor the French colonists summarily expelled from Acadia (Nova Scotia) by resettling them in the Malouin Islands off the southeastern coast of New Castile in South America. He proposed his project to the minister of foreign affairs, Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, who was trying to repair the disasters of the recent war.

Bougainville’s uncle was minister of postes and one of the intimate circle of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, while his older brother, Jean-Pierre, was a royal advocate and a noted scientist. To Choiseul, Louis-Antoine said: “I have created a company to finance the operation; my uncle, my cousin, Bougainville de Nerville, and a shipbuilder of Saint-Malo.”

Choiseul replied: “The project seems well in hand. What can I do for you?”

“I wish to become a naval officer,” Bougainville explained. “I intend to lead the expedition and I can hardly do so as a colonel in the army.” He offered to complete his naval training at Brest.

Choiseul knew the worth of this young officer who had performed so valiantly in New France. “No question of that, mon cher Bougainville! Your expertise in mathematics is well known. You will be commissioned captain of a ship.”

Bougainville’s grandson thrice removed, Francois de Bronac, comte de Bougainville, points out that his ancestor “formed the project of the Malouines to found new colonies for France. He dreamed of planting the French flag in the North American west, so that French Acadians, expelled en masse by the British, could find a new homeland. The Malouines could act as a base to go by sea from France to the west of Canada.”

During a voyage of 18 months in the frigate Aigle, Bougainville got his sea legs and honed his skills as a navigator. He brought the Acadians to the Malouines and returned to France, only to learn that his efforts were in vain. Two other powerful states had claimed the islands.

Commodore Sir John Byron, known as “Foul Weather Jack” from his apparent attraction for tempests, much like his grandson the poet, had unfurled the Union Jack over the islands and named the group the Falklands. Spain, however, had the better right as the islands lay off the coast of Spanish South America. Turning his back on the British, who seemed to be claiming everything in sight, Choiseul had decided in favour of Spain. He wanted Bougainville to return to the Malouines and deliver them to the Spanish.

For some time, the adventurous sea captain had been meditating on a grand design to bring new luster to the Lilies of France. Stung by the check to his plans for the Acadians, he said to the minister: “Of course, I will carry out the king’s command, but the whole world knows that we have lost Canada, Louisiane, Guyane and now the Malouines. Something is needed to efface our defeats. Some striking act.”

“What striking act?” Choiseul inquired.

“A trip around the world!” declared Bougainville. “A voyage of discovery. I intend, after my duty at the Malouines, to go back to the Pacific like Magellan.”

Since Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, there had been 12 previous voyages around the world, but none had been made by a Frenchman. With his two vessels, Bougainville was given a mission to explore the South Pacific, to discover and claim unknown lands for France, and to increase scientific knowledge. The Boudeuse, or the Bounding Lass, was a 3-masted frigate of 600 tons, 120 feet long and 32 feet wide, with a crew of 214 men and seven officers. The flûte or supply ship Etoile, 400 tons, 104 feet long and 28 feet wide, carried 120 men and four officers.

Boudeuse left Nantes on Nov. 16,1766, while Etoile was to leave later and rendezvous at the Malouines. Bougainville and his first officer, an expert navigator, Nicolas-Pierre Duclos-Guyot, had a smooth passage to South America. On April 1st, the captain made formal delivery of the Malouines to the Spanish. At Rio, the Boudeuse met with the Etoile, delayed by bad weather. The two ships proceeded to Montevideo for refitting and reprovisioning before the long haul across the Pacific.

While in drydock, Bougainville had an opportunity to witness the expulsion of the Jesuits from Paraguay by order of Charles III of Spain, eliminating their unique welfare state to Christianize and to civilize the Guarani Indians. This event has been poignantly dramatized in the award-winning film, Mission, in which the total dedication of the Jesuit Fathers was portrayed. Bougainville himself felt that much of the case against them was fabricated simply to get rid of an extraordinary regime of charity and yet absolute control, beyond the reach of the king’s representatives.

Loaded to the gunwales with cattle, pigs, chickens, and 60 quintals (600 kilos) of flour, the Boudeuse set course for Cape Horn on November 14, almost exactly one year after departing from Nantes. As they neared the “Quarantaines Rugissants” of latitude, icy gales churned up mountainous seas; three sailors were washed overboard and most of the cattle died. Bougainville decided to chance the tortuous Straits of Magellan rather than to risk his ship rounding the Horn.

As the French sailed through the 334-mile Strait, past the desolate shores of Patagonia, their decks were awash in constant squalls; at times, they were enveloped in snowstorms. Landing briefly, Bougainville found a wretched people, with nothing to suggest the noble primitive. “These savages are shriveled, ugly, thin and have a terrible odour. They are almost naked, wearing bad sealskins which also serve as roofs for their huts.”

Yet Bougainville, a man of the Enlightenment, always had a sympathy for natives anywhere. At the Long House of the Five Nations near Montreal, he had been made a chief and blood brother of the Iroquois, with the name of Garionatsigou or “Great Angry Sky.” In a letter home, the newly-created Indian war leader commented: “Behold me, an Iroquois chief! My clan is that of the Turtle, first for eloquence in council. They exhibited me to all the nation, gave me the best cut of the feast, and I sang my war song.”

Even for the degraded Patagonians of Tierra del Fuego, Bougainville felt sympathy. A native boy broke a mirror shown him by the French sailors and consumed the fragments. When he died in agony, the others fled from the French. Bougainville said of the incident, “They have obtained from us the notion of evil beings, but who would not pardon the resentment of such a conjecture.”

As he was fond of saying, “All men are brothers and true religion makes no distinction of color.”

What was perhaps rarer in the period, he was equally benevolent with the officers and men under his command. During the long arduous voyage, Bougainville’s warm fraternity was displayed in whatever concerned the 400 men confined for weeks at a time in the cramped primitive quarters of sailing ships. In an age of brutal discipline, he “treated his company as friends whose life and well-being had been entrusted to him,” an early biographer noted. His sailors were comfortably outfitted and well-fed; when supplies ran short, all on board shared the same rations.

At last, on January 25, after 52 days, “We discovered with joy an immense horizon unbounded by land and a great wave coming from the west proclaimed to us the mighty Ocean.” The French were through into the Pacific, with all sails set to catch a fair following wind for the Happy Isle.


In the timeless ocean, another vessel is sailing the same track, a small ship scarcely 100 feet long, with ugly lines, a blunt prow and high boxlike stern, very different from the sleek Bounding Lass. Yet this unprepossessing craft will be the most famous of all to make the voyage. As she sails, a black seabird amid the infinite blue of the South Pacific, her destiny as yet unperceived, her name in gilded letters on the stern can be seen above the foaming wake: HMS Bounty.

Her captain strides the narrow quarterdeck, a short lowering figure in cocked hat, blue brass-buttoned tail coat with white facings and white nankeen breeches. Lieutenant William Bligh of the Royal Navy will one day be as famous as his ship, but at present he is spraying curses on his miserable crew, the scum of the press gang, as he deems them. The mood on the Bounty is bitter.

Running before the southeast trade winds, the French expedition searched for new lands. Every day, Etoile went off on her own, to the limit of visibility, and the ships made a rendezvous at sunset. Toward the end of March, the French came on a chain of small inhabited islands. On one, almost totally naked natives surged down to the shore, brandishing javelins and uttering ferocious cries.

This island, Bougainville dubbed appropriately, “Isle des Lanciers,” while another became “Isle de la Harpe” from its curious shape. The whole chain of eleven or more small islands, he called the “Dangerous Archipalogo” whose reefs and shoals had effectively prevented the French from landing.

On April 2nd, the foretop lookout of Boudeuse sighted a towering peak shaped like a sugarloaf and rising sheerly out of the ocean. At sea since January, he shouted, “Land! Land ahead!”

Flying the white pavilion of the Royal Marine above a red hull with a broad yellow stripe, the Boudeuse drew near. From her prow thrust the challenging figurehead of a yellow lion. In the wake of the first came another smaller ship.

Crowding the bulwarks, the French perceived a large wooded island ringed by a coral reef against which the sea dashed. Natives ran to the shore as the ships tacked outside the reef. A pirogue shot out, then another, finally perhaps one hundred pirogues were swarming about the visitors. The bronze-coloured islanders, unarmed, stood up in their boats, shouting, “Tayo! Tayo!”—their word for “friend.” They brought gifts of fruit and suckling pigs.

The tall aristocratic commander of the Boudeuse, in lace ruffles and horizon-blue uniform coat, gazed down from the quarterdeck on the scene. He saw “women who do not yield in comely features to the greatest number of Europeans, while their figures vied with those of all other women.”

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, leading the first French expedition around the world, felt as if he were beholding a dream come true. Tahiti was like an enchanted isle. His crew had no doubt at all that they had found the paradise of the Pacific. The captain wondered, “how to keep at work, in the midst of such a spectacle, 400 Frenchmen, young, sailors, who for six months have not laid eyes on a woman?”

After this rapturous welcome, the commander conned his vessels inside the reef. As sailors were below decks, turning the capstan to let out the anchor, Bougainville perceived that “a young girl had climbed aboard, who came on the quarter-deck to sit on the open hatchway over the capstan. She casually dropped her loincloth and appeared to all eyes as Venus. Soldiers and sailors crowded to the hatch and never was a capstan turned with such alacrity.”

The French anchored on the east side, opposite the great peak Orehena, more than 7000 feet high, down which poured foaming cascades. The island had the form of a figure 8, the larger loop connected to the smaller by the narrow isthmus of Teravao. Though Tahiti was 37 miles long, most of it was heavily wooded and the Polynesians, numbering about 40,000, lived on the strip of shore, one and a half miles wide.

On landing to obtain fresh water as well as fruit and vegetables to avoid scurvy, the French were literally greeted with open arms. Exploring the island, they found Tahitian girls, artless and unashamed, splashing in the streams. After their baths, they anointed their bodies with coconut oil. The blue tattoo on their breasts and buttocks was the first the French had ever seen.

To embrace a desirable girl, a Frenchman had only to ask permission of the father or husband, which was readily granted. As in Tahiti the rites of Venus were public, the initial embarrassment of the French was a source of wonder to their hosts. With dry wit, the captain remarked: “However, I do not guarantee that no one overcame his reluctance.”

One who overcame his was Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen, a volunteer with the expedition. Young and gallant, he was strolling one day amid romantic groves when a shower came up. Taking refuge in a nearby hut, he found six pretty girls. They promptly took off their scanty garments to reveal the charms of their perfect bodies. They then undressed the prince. Fascinated by the visitor’s white skin, the girls “were eager to see if I was formed like their own people . . .how many tender caresses I received!” A joyful crowd soon filled the cabin. The ground was strewn with sweet-smelling herbs, while the onlookers chanted hymns of love, accompanied by musicians on nose flutes.

Next to love-making, the Tahitians enjoyed feasting. No insects or serpents infested the island and the small houses were always open. Bougainville and Ereti, chief of that region, became good friends and the chief, conforming to native hospitality, offered his youngest wife to his French guest. The company partook of a lavish meal of roast suckling pig, poultry, and even the flesh of small native dogs, specially bred for the delectation of their masters. Side dishes consisted of coconuts, bananas, breadfruit and yams. Fish came fresh caught from the sea by skilled Tahitians in large outrigger cedar pirogues.


In addition to feasting and dallying with Tahitian beauties, the French had serious tasks to perform. In a notable first, the expedition had on board a group of learned men whose investigations would obtain results of universal value. Bougainville took with him a botanist who doubled as a physician, an astronomer, and an official chronicler of the voyage, as well as the customary naval surgeon.

Bougainville, the chronicler, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Germain, a lawyer of Swiss origin, and the surgeon, Francois Vives, who had served in the Navy since the age of eleven, all took elaborate notes on the practices and taboos in Tahiti. To the French wonder, the men always ate apart and were served by women, while the food was prepared by men. The fairer-skinned upper-class kept retinues of servants and the rule of the chiefs was strict. When a native stole from the French, the articles were speedily recovered, with apologies, by a chief. While their men warred against neighboring islands, the women managed the household and made cloth from the bark of the breadfruit.

It was somewhat disconcerting for the image of the noble primitive to discover that human sacrifice prevailed, usually of men captured in the persistent warfare. Any women taken were enslaved and added to the polygamous establishments of the upper-class.

Bougainville was also occupied with gathering stores and showing the Tahitians how to cultivate maize, wheat, barley, rice, and onions, seedlings of which he had brought. As the soil was entirely volcanic and metals unknown, he delighted natives with gifts of garden tools and nails. The girls, in fact, were very happy with a few nails after an ardent hour or two.

The rites for the dead were carried out in a manner reminiscent of the Plains Indians of North America. The corpse was anointed with coconut oil and exposed on a high platform, festooned with flowers and fruit, as it was thought that the dead were only sleeping. When the corpse had begun to decay, it was taken down and burned or in some instances thrown into the sea.

The natives had names for various deities such as the sun and moon as well as for household gods whose effigies were displayed in the huts and on pirogues. As the Tahitians prayed at the rising and setting of the sun, Vives believed that they were praying directly to the solar god. Above the Eatoua, the collective name of all the lesser gods, was the Eri-t-Era, a supreme being who had no physical representation.

Bougainville also made a study of the native speech and compiled a small glossary of terms. The vocabulary was limited, suited to the everyday island life, and consisted largely of vowels. There were, however, 13 words for coconuts and their manifold uses!

Philibert Commerson, the botanist cum zoologist, was equally assiduous in his work. He went “botanizing” daily to collect specimens, accompanied by Jean Baret, his devoted young assistant. Termed by Commerson his “beast of burden”, Baret staggered along behind the avid scientist, loaded down with arms, provisions, and numerous bulky notebooks.

These sorties led to an extraordinary episode. The two were met one morning by several strapping young males, with Aotourou, the young brother of the chief, in the van. Scrutinizing Baret, Aotourou gave a sudden whoop and cried: “Ahenai! Ahenai!” This meant “girl” in the native tongue and, gathering around, the Tahitians were ready to perform the traditional honours of the island on the hapless Baret.

Flabbergasted, Commerson lost his head and began shouting. This aroused the Tahitians who had treated the matter as a joke and they circled ever closer to the trembling Baret. Commerson’s cries brought the officer of the guard who did his utmost to pacify the natives, now feeling baffled and resentful at the deception and their rebuff. At length, the officer managed to get Baret away and march the assistant down to the waiting boat.

Apprised of the affair, Bougainville was not altogether surprised. “For some time,” he noted, “a rumour was current on both ships that the servant of Monsieur Commerson named Baret was a woman. Her build, her scruples at undressing in front of anyone at all, her beardless chin and several other indications lent substance to the suspicion.”

Summoned before the commandant, Baret was asked: “Do you agree to be examined or do you prefer to tell the truth?”

Baret burst into tears and confessed. She was a penniless orphan of 26 and had disguised herself as a young man to earn her keep. She had formerly served as a gentleman’s lackey in Paris. Hearing about the voyage around the world, she had decided to sign on as the only woman to know such an adventure. Commerson, she insisted, had no idea of her true identity; she had approached him at Rochefort just before the embarquement.

Interrogated in turn, Commerson swore that he had no inkling his assistant might be a woman and that he had, as she said, engaged her at the last moment before sailing.

As would appear later, both were lying. Baret was covering up for her master whom in fact she had served for four years prior to shipping out with him. It is likely that her duties for Commerson had included intimate services which neither wished to disclose.

Suspecting that Baret’s story was the result of the need to keep her job, Bougainville and others hardly blamed her but even admired her spirit of adventure. Prince Charles wrote: “She dared to confront very exhausting work, dangers and all the incidents that one can expect on such an enterprize. She deserves a place among famous women.”

Bougainville owned that “she had always behaved on board with the most scrupulous modesty.” But, he speculated, “if the two ships had been wrecked on a desert island, what a singular fate would have befallen Baret!”

Far different was the attitude toward Commerson. His deceit over Baret marked the culmination of his unpopularity on board. While all acknowledged the botanist’s scientific expertise, his character was another matter. He had quarreled with everyone and especially with Vives, the conscientious naval surgeon, an hostility no doubt intensified by the traditional antagonism between physicians and surgeons, who at one time had been classed with barbers and forbidden to practice except under the supervision of the faculty of medicine.

Commerson and his girl Friday were not the only problems to confront the commandant. More serious were several incidents that involved thefts by the natives. Amongst other items, two muskets and a small stove disappeared during the night. Bougainville could not figure out how they had managed to make off with a stove as it had been in a tent where sailors slept and which was ringed by a stockade guarded by sentries.

The worst trouble resulted over the price of a pig. From the first, the French had traded with the Tahitians, offering nails, glass beads, even brass uniform buttons for poultry, pigs, coconuts, and other provisions. In time, the natives began to up their prices. Instead of one or two small nails, they demanded nails of the largest size, hatchets, and agricultural tools.

Thus, when four soldiers offered two three-inch nails for a fat porker, the native refused. Angered by the refusal, the soldiers then seized the pig and felled the furious owner. His cries alerted other Tahitians and a mélée ensued in which three natives were killed by bayonet thrusts.

As the fray had occurred some distance from the French camp, the officers were not immediately aware of it. The Tahitians, however, knew at once, and the deadly brawl struck terror into their hearts. Forsaking their dwellings, they fled into the hills and abandoned all contact with the French.

Puzzled and disturbed at the unwonted absence of his native friends, Bougainville sent out Prince Charles to reconnoitre. Exploring the area, the prince suddenly met a group of women weeping, their foreheads streaming blood from self-inflicted wounds—a Tahitian symbol of profound grief. “O tayo, tayo!” they wailed. “You were friends, but now you kill us!”

The prince coaxed them to return to the French camp, promising redress. The culprits were soon discovered and, in full view of the natives, Bougainville put them in irons. Good fellowship restored, Ereti and Bougainville presided over a feast of reconciliation. After many succulent dishes, the French shot off rockets, the ship’s guns were fired to the panicky thrill of the Tahitians and, as Duclos-Guyot tartly observed, “stealing flourished.”

Notwithstanding this show of harmony, Bougainville, in accord with his mandate from Choiseul, fully intended to take over Tahiti. To be sure, the formal French claim to their future was concealed from the inhabitants of the island, who might have felt that they had something to say about the matter. On April 12, an Act of Possession, laying claim to the archipelago and to the island of which it formed a part, was engraved on an oak plank and buried secretly at night near the anchorage, together with a bottle containing a list of the ship’s officers, the scientists and the volunteers from the noblesse. Bougainville named the whole chain of islands the “Archipelago of Bourbon,” while Tahiti became “la Nouvelle-Cythère” after the Aegean island of love in the Greek legend, recalling Watteau’s famous painting, l’Embarquement pour Cythère.

Too soon, the idyll was over. The French anchorage had been ill-chosen, three leagues away, as Vives noted, from the superb Matavai Bay where the British (and the MGM Bounty) would anchor. In the night of April 14, a storm came up, the anchor cables broke and the Boudeuse just missed being driven on the razor-sharp coral reefs and irreparably lost.

The narrow escape decided Bougainville to take his departure. The French received a farewell visit from Ereti who brought with him an eager Aotourou. Scrambling on board, Aötourou announced his intention of setting out with the Boudeuse. The most curious and friendly of natives, he had regularly appeared in the French camp and conversed as best he could with the visitors. Impressed by the great ships and the lethal powers of French guns, he wished to behold the land whence such wonders had come.

Aötourou had another motive, as Charles-Felix Fesche, a volunteer with the expedition, informs us. A true denizen of the Isle of Love, Aötourou was constant in his homage to Venus. Having enjoyed a surfeit of dusky native belles, he longed to possess a white woman. Frustrated in his attempt on Jeanne Baret, he had resolved to satisfy his desire in France itself.

The commandant had taken a shine to Aötourou and was willing to accommodate him on board. The Tahitian, he thought, could be useful in contacts with inhabitants of other islands and in furthering the knowledge of native beliefs and practices. For the French, no doubt flattered by the attentions of their token Tahitian, considered him one of the most intelligent they had seen.

The Boudeuse weighed anchor in the early morning of April 16. As the great headland receded and they left behind the bewitching isle, Bougainville confessed, apropos of the Tahitians’ farewell, “I was not less surprised at the sorrow caused by our departure than I had been at the affectionate trust on our arrival.”


Plowing the timeless ocean in another April, the Bounty is returning after five blissful months amid the enchantments of Cythère. The choleric captain has fulfilled his mission; the ship is laden with 1000 breadfruit plants. And his leave-taking echoes the French homage to the isle. “We bade farewell to Otaheite where for twenty-three weeks we were treated with the greatest kindness and fed with the best meat and finest fruit in the world.”

But Bligh’s scorn for his men is in no way abated. Now it is a question of coconuts. The pile on board has unaccountably diminished, so he imagines. Who has stolen the captain’s coconuts? He suspects Fletcher Christian, his acting lieutenant, of a prominent Cumberland family and a friend of some standing. Yet friendship does not weigh against coconuts. “Damn your blood!” the captain reviles him. “You have stolen my coconuts!”

Fletcher Christian protests that he has taken but one coconut to refresh himself. The captain will not have it, “You lie, you scoundrel!” he roars. “You have stolen one-half!”

The foul abuse decides Fletcher Christian, who has been in hell for weeks with Bligh. He will seize the ship and cast his tormentor adrift. He is joined by many of the crew, equally suffering from the captain. Forced into a longboat with 19 loyal men, Captain Bligh, clad only in his shirt and trousers, lunges to his feet. Shaking his fist at the mutineers in the captured ship, he vows: “I’ll see you all hanged from the highest yardarm in the Fleet!”

Mingled with contemptuous snorts from the ship come exultant cries: “Huzzah for Otaheite! Back to Otaheite!”

This famous sea drama as yet lay in the future, but the dream of escape to a far off Pacific Eden was made real by the voyage of the Boudeuse. During the next few weeks after leaving Cythère, Bougainville discovered and laid claim to the Samoan Islands, named the “Isles of Navigators,” and the New Hebrides, which he called the “Grand Cyclades.” On June 7, the French sighted the forbidding coast of New Holland or northeast Australia. Sailing around New Guinea, they discovered and named the “Archipelago of Louisiade,” extending 100 leagues. In the Solomons, the commander christened two islands, “Bougainville” and “Choiseul”, taking possession, while warding off native attacks.

Though the ships took on fresh water, nowhere were they able to reprovision, and scurvy broke out, due to lack of Vitamin C. Rats, plentiful on board, were roasted and consumed. Saint-Germain recorded: “Yesterday, I ate a rat with the prince; we found it excellent. Happy for us if we could have it often.” On September 1, having regretfully eaten the ship’s goat and devoured available rats, the French reached Bourou in the Spice Islands, where the Dutch had a trading post.

This landfall marked the end of the exploration. At sea almost continually for more than ten months since Montevideo, the French lay over for three weeks recuperating and refitting at Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Setting course for France, the Boudeuse and Etoile called at the Ile de France or Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, where Etoile remained for further repairs.

Here also Commerson, Baret and Veron disembarked. The Intendant of the He de France afforded Commerson every facility to continue his scientific work, including lavish accommodation in the official residence. However, Pierre Poivre’s successor as Intendant had other views; in a letter to the Minister of Colonies, he stigmatized the botanist as a man of the worst character and blackest ingratitude. As on the Boudeuse, Commerson was fated to become a controversial figure. Aided by the latter Intendant, Jeanne Baret managed to get away from Commerson and go to Madagascar where she ended her bizarre career by marrying a French planter.

Resuming the return trip, Boudeuse called at the Cape of Good Hope, allowing Bougainville to further his interest in natural history by adopting a baby giraffe. This creature had not been seen in Europe since Roman times. Unluckily, the giraffe died, but Bougainville made an exact drawing for his naturalist friend, the comte de Buffon.

From Ascension Island, the French, crowding on sail, made a run for the Azores, which they sighted at the end of February. On March 14, the Boudeuse was off Ouessant. Two days later, she sailed proudly into Saint-Malo.

The great voyage was over. Boudeuse had sailed 66,000 miles during a period of 28 months, with 440 days at sea. The French had discovered and laid claim to several archipelagos in the vast Pacific as well as their original achievements in science and navigation. The odyssey would give a strong impetus to future exploration with expert scientists on board.

Commerson, whose abilities even the Intendant had recognized while deploring his character, had found rare and beautiful plants, which were named for shipmates. The mauve “Bougainvillaea” commemorated the commandant; the “Veronica Tristoflora” the astronomer; the “Baretia” the botanist’s maid of all work. In the Solomons, he also discovered a plant which gave relief from the effects of scurvy.

Veron had calculated numerous positions in the Pacific and, despite lack of a chronometer, had accurately fixed longitudes by means of lunar distances. The ship’s doctor, Francois Vives, had realised an almost miraculous result by losing only six men through illness. In the entire voyage, only ten men were lost from Boudeuse and two from Etoile. Compare this record with that of the British explorer, Captain James Cook, who during his first voyage a year later, in the Endeavor, would lose 41 out of 96 men. Vives had also successfully employed Pierre Poissonier’s invention for distilling fresh water from the sea.

Only an outbreak of syphilis marred the record. Several weeks after leaving the Isle of Love, 22 cases appeared among the crew of Boudeuse. As the sailors and marines had been given a clean bill of health before going ashore, the malady had been acquired in Tahiti. From Aotourou, Bougainville learned that the previous year a British vessel, the Dolphin, had called at the island. Perhaps the Dolphin’s crew had brought the infection or, the French reasoned, the disease may have been prevalent among the natives in a rather benign form over a long period.

Such problems were soon forgot in the excitement which greeted the returned adventurers. Tales of idyllic life in nature’s wonderland of Nouvelle-Cythère held Paris salons spellbound. And Bougainville had brought with him one of those noble savages!

A ship’s officer had rigged out Aotourou in European costume, and the native had dined at the commandant’s mess. He never touched wine but was partial to brandy. In his new finery, Aotourou was presented at Court and taken to meet Buffon, Denis Diderot, and Baron Holbach, all admirers of Rousseau. Madame de Choiseul took a fancy to him and he accompanied her to the opera ballet, where he greatly enjoyed the dancing. The coqueluche of Tout-Paris, Aotourou became the living symbol of la Nouvelle-Cythère.

Joseph Joubert, a philosopher friend of Diderot, rhapsodized: “O Tahiti, how beautiful are your women and how gentle your men! You are the marvel of the Tropics and the Age of Gold is in your groves!”

Bougainville’s definitive account, Voyage autour du Monde, published in 1771, did try to make clear that Tahitian society was rigidly stratified, that warfare was frequent, that slavery and human sacrifice were important aspects of this primitive people’s tradition. His multitude of readers, however, preferred to quote the passages which extolled the simple life, the generosity, the loving trust of the natives. Unspoiled by civilization, they were living as Rousseau said men should.

Diderot, editor of the Encyclopedie, that unique compendium of human knowledge, feared that the advent of Europeans on the island would have a dire result. In the Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville, Diderot imagines an old Tahitian admonishing his people: “Weep, O Tahitians, for the arrival and not for the departure of these ambitious and ruthless men. One day, you will know them better. They will return, the cross in one hand and the sword in the other, to enslave you, to subject you to their foolishness and their vices. One day, you will be as corrupt, as vile, as unhappy as they are.”

Despite this diatribe, Rousseau’s dream of a free democratic society persisted among the French. In a few years, many would cross the Atlantic to enable American colonists to win their independence. Bougainville would play a key role in the naval victory off Yorktown, which determined the war’s outcome. Commanding the French vanguard, Bougainville engaged the oncoming British, put six ships out of action and forced Admiral Graves to abandon Cornwallis’ army to its fate. Introducing Bougainville to Washington, Admiral de Grasse declared: “It is to him that you owe your triumph.”

It was also owed in no small part to the spirit of the times, which had sent forth the Boudeuse on her great voyage of exploration and which had confirmed Rousseau, as men believed, by the discovery of a golden age on a remote Pacific isle.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading