The Sea has no end: the life of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.
The Dundurn Group.
Storms and dreams. Louis de Bougainville: soldier, explorer, statesman.
Unlike most other explorers of his time, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville survived to old age, dying in his bed in Paris at the age of 81. Bougainville crammed a huge amount into those 81 years making one of the most interesting men of the eighteenth century and someone deserving of a good biography. Part of his life, especially that in which he sailed around the world between 1766 and 1769, has been written about, but other longer periods of his fascinating life remain largely ignored. Even in France, Bougainville’s exploits remain largely unknown while in the English-speaking world his round-the-world voyage was soon eclipsed by the voyages of Cook.
Bougainville was given a lukewarm reception in Paris on his return in 1769, signalling an ambivalent attitude in France that has prevailed to this day. One of the first efforts to remedy this situation came from Jean Etienne Martin-Allanic, whose 1964 work is a published version of a thesis. However, it is in French and, while containing huge amounts of information, is not an easy book to read. About the same time, Edward Hamilton produced an interesting book, in English, dealing with Bougainville’s time in North America. One of the most important works came out in 1977, when Etienne Taillemite reproduced an annotated edition of the journals of Bougainville’s voyage. Michael Ross produced an appalling biography in 1978 and Mary Kimbrough followed with a biography in 1990 that promised much but never quite satisfied.
So we come to 2004-2005 and suddenly we have two biographies of Bougainville being published. The first is by Canadian writer and historian (and CCS member) Victor Suthren. Suthren’s book provides an overview of Bougainville’s life without ever going into great detail or providing new insights. He appears to have set out to write a story that is accessible to all readers and not just the academic historian, and if that is the case, he has succeeded. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index and contains only a few illustrations.
Not long after Suthren’s book was published a second book appeared in New Zealand. This one is by John Dunmore, the eminent scholar and foremost expert on the French exploration of the Pacific. You might expect Dunmore’s book to be academic in tone but, in fact, it manages to be both authoritative and most readable. Dunmore, who edited the excellent Hakluyt edition of the Pacific journal of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, is able to provide more coverage and he goes into more detail than Suthren. The presence of an index and a larger bibliography help considerably.
Bougainville’s birth in 1729, his childhood in Paris with the early loss of his mother and the influence of his older brother, Jean Pierre are covered in both books. Bougainville’s early academic prowess is dealt with, including his treatise on calculus that led to his early admission to the Royal Society in Britain. The books proceed to record his time as aide-de-campe to Montcalm with the French army in Canada during the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1760. However, given Suthren’s proximity to Canadian sources, it is to be regretted that he does not spend more time detailing this period and his relationships with the Native Americans. Bougainville also had a reputation in his early life as something of a ladies’ man, both in Canada and Paris, but neither book dwells on this aspect.
After Canada, Bougainville attempted to establish a French colony on the Îles Malouines (the Falkland Islands) before being forced to hand over the islands to Spain. This period is touched upon by Suthren and, in more detail, by Dunmore. As compensation for the Malouines, Bougainville was offered the chance of a round-the-world voyage and this, the pivotal part of his life, is dealt with at some length by both authors.
The last forty years of Bougainville’s life after his world voyage are somewhat rushed in Suthren, with Dunmore, once again, providing better coverage. After the voyage, Bougainville joined the navy and participated in the battles of Chesapeake Bay (1781) and the Saintes (1782). He married Flore-Josèphe de Longchamps de Montendre in 1780 and their happy marriage, which survived the French Revolution, lasted until her death in 1806. Together, they had four sons, including Hyacinthe, who later sailed to the Pacific. Bougainville spent time at the French court while Louis XVI was still king, even helping to defend the king during the early days of the Revolution. Afterwards, he became involved in many scientific projects and became a friend and favourite of Napoleon, who made him a comte and bestowed on him the Légion d’Honneur. Bougainville died in 1811.
Bougainville, a man of many parts and achievements, and a Renaissance man living in the Enlightenment, now has two fine books about him. Suthren’s book is well-written and acts as a good introduction to the subject but leaves one wanting more. For that you need to read Dunmore’s excellent book.
- Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de. Adventure in the wilderness: the American journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760, translated and edited by Edward P. Hamilton. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
- Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de. The Pacific journal of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, translated and edited by John Dunmore. London: Hakluyt Society, 2003. 0904180786
- Bougainville et ses compagnons autour du monde: 1766-1769, joutnaux de navigation, etablis et commentes par Etienne Taillemite. 2 vols. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1977.
- Kimbrough, Mary. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, 1729-1811: a study in French naval history and politics. Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1990. 0889467447.
- Martin-Allanic, Jean Etienne. Bougainville, navigateur et les découverts de son temps. 2 vols. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1964.
- Ross, Michael. Bougainville. London: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1978. 0860330591.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 31, volume 28, number 4 (2005).