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The State of Aloha

Albi is a very old town in Southern France. The architecture of the core of buildings huddled along the banks of the Tarn River have traces of French, Spanish, and North African influences. In other words, it’s on the other side of the planet from here. But should you ever find walking its narrow streets admiring the distinct red brick buildings along the riverbank you may notice a museum devoted to one of Albi’s most famous native sons.

A baby boy was born there far from the ocean 280 years ago. France in 1741 was a realm ruled by an absolute monarch. At the ripe old age of 15, the boy left Albi and his family and enlisted in the Navy. In order to get ahead in prerevolutionary France, he added the phrase “de Galaup” to his name and threw in the name of his family’s small farm.

Now he had a new appellation that would help him get ahead in aristocratic France: Jean Francois Galaup, compte de la Perouse–known to us nearly three centuries later as La Perouse.

After successful missions to the French colonies of Pondicherry in India, Madagascar, and island chains in the Indian Ocean, La Perouse took command of a squadron prepared for war against the English. France had come to the aid of the American colonists in their fight for independence. In 1782 he was sent to Canada. He captured a key fort in the Hudson Bay run by the English without a fight. La Perouse returned to France a war hero and, for leaving the English with provisions to survive for the brutal Canadian winter, something of a humanitarian.

After the war, La Perouse was given the assignment of a lifetime. France wanted to finish what was started by Capt. James Cook in mapping the Pacific Ocean. King Louis XVI commissioned two ships to explore the ocean on the other side of the planet with the latest in scientific and navigation equipment. He personally chose La Perouse to lead it.

The sixteen-year-old Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte was considered for the voyage but didn’t make the final cut. Bonaparte ended up leaving the Navy and joined the Army. But that’s a very different story.

And so in 1785, La Perouse and his crew set out on La Boussole and L’Astrolabe. He would never see France again. After rounding the Horn, La Perouse sailed along the Chilean coast, stopped off in Rapa Nui, and set out west.

In May 1786, they anchored in a little bay on an island in the central Pacific. He would write that the locals “hastened alongside in their canoes, bringing, as articles of commerce, hogs, potatoes, bananas, roots of arum, which (they) call taro.” He added that he had never met “a people so mild and so attentive.” La Perouse and his men were the first non-Polynesians to set foot on Maui.

From Maui, he headed northward to Alaska, down the Canadian coast to California, and across the Pacific to Russia, Japan, and Korea. He surveyed and explored Macau, the Philippines, Samoa, Tonga, and Australia. At the English penal colony of Botany Bay, La Perouse sent a report back to France. His dispatch in 1788 was his last. The entire expedition disappeared.

La Perouse’s fate remained a mystery for Europeans for decades. In the midst of the French Revolution, King Louis XVI on the day of his beheading in 1791 is said to have inquired if there was any word from La Perouse (there wasn’t). It wasn’t until 1828–after the Sun King and even Napoleon–when the world discovered the wrecked remains of La Perouse’s ships in Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz Islands.

Places in the Pacific still bear his name. There’s the La Perouse Strait–the frigid waters separating Japan’s Hokkaido island and the Russian island of Sakhalin. La Perouse Peninsula juts out at the entrance to Botany Bay in Sydney, Australia. There’s even a mountain on the South Island of New Zealand bearing his name. And of course, there’s our own little bay tucked away on the rugged, dark southwestern coast on Maui between Cape Kinau and Cape Hanamanioa.

If you take the road that runs through Kihei and Wailea all the way to the end, you’ll find yourself in a barren, hot, and dry landscape. This is the newest part of Maui. It’s believed that the lava flowed here as recently as 1790 after La Perouse’s visit. The bay’s real name is Keoneo’io. It’s the trailhead for the King’s Highway, a road cut through the lava fields that connects the South Coast. A noble structure and plaque commemorating the boy from Albi’s historic visit centuries ago.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com.

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