- Dank, Matthew, MIDN
- Biographies and personal histories, Early warships
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Relationship with seniors and subordinates:
The maintenance of prosperous relationships with senior hierarchy and the ruling classes was a particular forté of Bougainville’s. He possessed a temperament and bearing well received by those who would facilitate his opportunities to achieve. Furthermore, he was closely related to Marchioness de Pompadour, which largely assisted his appointment to aide-de-camp to (General) Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, and initiated what served as a process of grooming for, and later progressing to, the higher echelons. Bougainville was able to articulate his aspirations in a manner convincing to his superiors. After his brother and the ideas of several notable thinkers of this day aroused in him the interest of possible French colonial expansion in the South Pacific, he successfully lobbied the Due de Choiseul and the French Marine Minister and elicited their backing.
Bougainville discharged his duties as a leader of men in a thoroughly professional manner. Exercising an army style, captaincy of men approach to command, he was aware of and sensitive to the plight of his subordinates. In September 1768 after making port in Buru, Eastern Indonesia, and being significantly behind in schedule and pushed for progress, he elected to favour the welfare of his crew rather than go forth with his voyage.
Intellectual attributes were a hallmark of Bougainville’s persona throughout his life. With his father being a lawyer and having studied law himself, challenging academic pursuits fell within his gamut of capability. He was a polymath, and excelled at most disciplines to which he applied himself, although his chosen field was mathematics, and as previously mentioned he distinguished himself with a published work on calculus.
He was noted as being driven and passionate in the pursuit of his convictions, with an enthusiasm that was hard to dampen. Coming from a non-nautical background, he motivated himself to acquire the knowledge of sailing and navigation during his many sea voyages to and from theatres of conflict. This is evidence of his propensity to embrace and assimilate whatever knowledge he decreed would be of use in achieving his significant ambitions.
In terms of his ethnological contributions, Bougainville was forthright in confronting the erstwhile unpopular perceptions of the Pacific natives, in contrast to the insular and restricted approach of his peers. Thus he demonstrated reformist and progressive tendencies, which would well have been suited to the furore of the French Revolution (from which he managed to escape in the twilight of his career).
Effect on the course of history:
The course of European and world history was altered in two chief ways by Bougainville. The first was in terms of European exploration and discovery, the second was in terms of the anthropological understanding of man in his natural state. Bougainville was the first officer in the French Navy to sail around the world. He made significant discoveries in the Solomon Islands group, despite being somewhat overshadowed by the achievements of other European expeditions at the time. He showed little interest in investigating the islands of Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, and he diverted to the north when on a course to encounter Australia, which would have been his most significant achievement. Bougainville’s Pacific voyage produced a moderate number of new charts, however they were not as widely distributed as those of British origin at the time; as a result this aspect of his voyage was largely ignored in the annals of history.
From an anthropological perspective, Bougainville was a pioneering influence. He was critical of the dominant opinions on the native inhabitants of Pacific Islands, regarding these opinions as having been created by ‘That class of lazy writers (sitting) in the shade of their desks (who) philosophise to great loss on the world and its inhabitants and imperiously reduce nature to their imaginations.’
Critically, he interpreted observations of the native men from a frame of reference aside from his own incumbent cultural framework and its corollary prejudices. Thus he was able to eschew his societal predispositions, when his contemporaries were not. It was this willingness to defy the constraints of convention, by acknowledging the displays of practices his intellectual and cultural background had ruled out, and being prepared to receive the Tahitian people as reasonable and intelligible, which defined his most valuable contribution to the advancement of human knowledge and understanding.
(For reasons of space minor editing has been carried out, and references and bibliography omitted – these can be supplied on request).