Many of the artefacts held at Whangārei Museum have a connection with the area, its residents or relate to events of local or national significance.

Yet there are others that have made their way into the collection with minimal provenance or those which pertain to historical circumstances outside this realm.

A small miscellany of relics viewed recently comes under the latter and are associated with a little-known island in the Santa Cruz archipelago and a French disaster which occurred more than two centuries ago.

The Astrolabe and the Boussole at anchor probably in Alaska in 1786. Drawing made during the La Perouse expedition. Photo/Supplied
The Astrolabe and the Boussole at anchor probably in Alaska in 1786. Drawing made during the La Perouse expedition. Photo/Supplied

Vanikoro is the site of one of the most intriguing sea mysteries of the 18th century where hundreds of desperate French sailors met with tragic circumstances when caught in a powerful tropical cyclone.


In 1785 Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, was commissioned to head a French voyage bearing his name, around the world. The mission, which was to rival the exploits of Captain Cook, was both practical and scientific.

Two frigates, the Boussole and Astrolabe (the Compass and the Sextant) set sail from Brest with a complement of 225 officers, crew and scientists, equipped with the finest scientific instruments, provisions and trade goods, for a voyage that was intended to last four years. In a world of wooden sailing ships, their odyssey was truly phenomenal.

After numerous stopovers, which criss crossed the seas of the globe, the holds filled with plants, fossils, insects, fabrics, spices and many other priceless treasures.

In March 1788, after a six-week sojourn in Botany Bay, Lapérouse's expedition set sail for the Solomons and was never heard from again.

The sudden and complete disappearance of the ships and their crew formed a veil of mystery around this impressive voyage.

An search party failed to find the ill-fated frigates. Nearly 40 years after La Perouse disappeared, part of the mystery was solved when intrepid captain Peter Dillon found ships' debris near Vanikoro.

Polynesian inhabitants of nearby Tikopia Island also presented Dillon with artefacts of European manufacture procured from Vanikoro islanders, which provided vital clues to La Pérouse expedition's fate.

Both ships had been wrecked in a tropical cyclone which had propelled the vessels on to the forbidding, uncharted coral reefs around Vanikoro despite all efforts to circumvent them.

Reports indicate that some of the shipwrecked survivors were killed by local inhabitants, while other survivors built a timber vessel and left the island, but they too were never seen again. Those who remained died before search parties finally arrived in 1826.

It was at a site in Paeu, Vanikoro that a silver Spanish piece of eight (Spanish dollar) dated 1766, shot, musket ball, shoe buckle and flint were found by Harry Perkinson of Whangārei, who gifted them to the Museum in 1964.

These tiny stone flints were the matches of the 18th century called 'strike-a-lights' and were often used as gifts or trade goods.

Numerous other artefacts were discovered from the Boussole and Astrolabe following a series of underwater explorations and archaeological excavations which also included coins, musket balls, china and helmets amongst other remnants.

The arrangement of small objects at Whangārei Museum, although appearing rather trivial and insignificant, are remnants from an epic voyage of scientific and navigational exploration and a reminder of the tragedy that ensued on a remote Melanesian Island.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.