After the Treaty of Paris, La Pérouse was appointed in 1785 by Louis XVI and his minister of marine, marquis de Castries, to lead an expedition around the world. Its aims were to complete the Pacific discoveries of James Cook (whom La Pérouse greatly admired), correct and complete maps of the area, establish trade contacts, open new maritime routes and enrich French science and scientific collections. His ships were the Astrolabe (under Fleuriot de Langle) and the Boussole, both 500 tons. They were storeships, reclassified as frigates for the occasion. Their objectives were geographic, scientific, ethnological, economical (looking for possibilities of whaling or fur trading), and political (the eventual establishment of French bases or colonial cooperation with their Spanish allies in the Philippines). They were to explore both the north and south Pacific, including the coasts of the Far East and of Australia, and send back reports through existing European outposts in the area.
As early as March 1785, Lapérouse proposed that Paul Monneron, who had been chosen as the expedition's chief engineer, go to London to find out about the latest conclusions on the anti-scurvy measures recommended by Cook and the exchange items used by Cook in his dealings with the native peoples, and to buy scientific instruments of English manufacture.
The best-known figure on Cook's mission, Joseph Banks intervened at the Royal Society to obtain him two inclining compasses that had belonged to Cook, and Monneron also bought scientific instruments figuring on a list produced by Fleurieu, having recourse to the largest English firms, particularly Ramsden. He even surpassed Fleurieu's directives by acquiring two sextants of a new type.
La Pérouse tried to get on well with the Pacific islanders, and was well-liked by his men. Among his 114-man crew there were ten scientists: Dagelet, an astronomer and mathematician; Robert de Lamanon, a geologist; La Martinière, a botanist; a physicist; three naturalists; and three illustrators, Duché de Vancy and an uncle and nephew named Prévost. Another of the scientists was Jean-André Mongez. Even both chaplains were scientifically schooled.
One of the men who applied for the voyage was a 16-year-old Corsican named Napoléon Bonaparte. Bonaparte, a second lieutenant from Paris's military academy at the time, made the preliminary list but he was ultimately not chosen for the voyage list and remained behind in France. At the time Bonaparte was interested in serving in the navy rather than army because of his proficiency in mathematics and artillery, both valued skills on warships. (One can only speculate on the course history might have taken had La Pérouse selected young Napoleon for the trip.)
Copying the work methods of Cook's scientists, the scientists on this voyage would base their calculations of longitude on precision watches and the distance between the moon and the sun (followed by theodolite triangulations or bearings taken from the ship, the same as those taken by Cook to produce his maps of the Pacific islands. As regards geography, Lapérouse decisively showed the rigour and safety of the methods proven by Cook. From his voyage, the resolution of the problem of longitude was evident and mapping attained a scientific precision. Impeded (as Cook had been) by the continual mists enveloping the northwestern coast of America, he nevertheless did not succeed any better in producing complete maps, though he managed to fill in some of the gaps.
He again crossed the Pacific Ocean in 100 days, arriving at Macau, where he sold the furs acquired in Alaska, dividing the profits among his men. The next year, on 9 April 1787, after a visit to Manila, he set out for the northeast Asian coasts. He saw the island of Quelpart (Cheju), which had been visited by Europeans only once before when a group of Dutchmen shipwrecked there in 1635. He visited the mainland coast of Korea, then crossed over to Oku-Yeso (Sakhalin).
In May 1793, he arrived at the island of Vanikoro, which is part of the Santa Cruz group of islands. D'Entrecasteaux thought he saw smoke signals from several elevated areas on the island, but was unable to investigate due to the dangerous reefs surrounding the island and had to leave. He died two months later.
It was not until 1826 that an Irish captain, Peter Dillon, found enough evidence to piece together the events of the tragedy. In Tikopia (one of the islands of Santa Cruz), he bought some swords he had reason to believe had belonged to La Pérouse. He made enquiries, and found that they came from nearby Vanikoro, where two big ships had broken up. Dillon managed to obtain a ship in Bengal, and sailed for Vanikoro where he found cannon balls, anchors and other evidence of the remains of ships in water between coral reefs. He brought several of these artifacts back to Europe, as did Dumont d'Urville in 1828. De Lesseps, the only member of the expedition still alive at the time, identified them as all belonging to the Astrolabe. From the information Dillon received from the people on Vanikoro, a rough reconstruction could be made of the disaster that struck La Pérouse, which was confirmed by the find and search of the shipwreck of the Boussole in 1964. In May 2005, the wreck was formally identified as that of the Boussole.
Both ships had been wrecked on the reefs, the Boussole first. The Astrolabe was unloaded and taken apart. A group of men, probably the survivors of the Boussole, were massacred by the local inhabitants. According to natives, surviving sailors built a two-masted craft from the wreckage of the Astrolabe, and left westward about 9 months later, but what happened to them is unknown. Also, two men, one a "chief" and the other his servant, had remained behind, surviving until 1823, three years before Dillon arrived.