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Portrait of Barthélemy de Lesseps. Engraving by Edouard Garnier

Jean-Baptiste Barthélemy de Lesseps (27 January 1766 in Sète - 6 April/26 April 1834 in Lisbon)[1] was a French diplomat and writer, member of the scientific expedition of Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse (1 August 1785 - January 1788) and uncle of Ferdinand de Lesseps.[2]


Family and early career

His childhood was spent in Hamburg and then St. Petersburg where his father Martin de Lesseps (1730–1807) was the French Consul General.[3]. His mother was Anna Caysergues (1730–1823) and he had a sister Lise de Lesseps (1769–1840), married in 1788 to Louis Maurice Taupin de Magnitot (1757–1823), and a brother Mathieu de Lesseps (Hamburg, 4 May 1774 - Tunis, 28 December 1832), married to Catherine de Grevigné (Málaga, 11 June 1774 - Paris, 27 January 1853), the parens among whom of Ferdinand de Lesseps.

By age 12 he spoke fluent Russian, German, Spanish and, of course, French. After studying at the Jesuit college of Versailles for five years, he returned to St. Petersburg in 1783.

He was appointed Vice-Consul of France in Kronstadt and once had to intervene with the crew of the French ship Uranie of Dunkirk which had largely deserted. Noticed by France's Ambassador to Russia, Mr de Ségur, he was entrusted to carry important news to Versailles where he met with Paul Antoine Fleuriot de Langle, second in command of the La Pérouse expedition, who had the respect of Louis XVI. La Pérouse asked the Minister of Marine and the Colonies, Charles Eugène Gabriel de La Croix, marquis de Castries to add Lesseps to the expedition as a Russian interpreter as the intended route took them into Russian territory in the north-west Pacific Ocean. His father should have been consulted but there was no time for that so Castries appointed him to be vice-consul to succeed his father but instead of returning directly to St. Petersburg, he would take the much longer route with La Pérouse to the north-west Pacific and then travel overland.[4]

The frigates Boussole and Astrolabe left Brest on 1 August 1785.[5] De Lesseps set out on the latter boat commanded by de Langle.

The journey took the ships down the Atlantic Ocean, around Cape Horn to the Pacific, stopping at Easter Island, Hawaii, modern-day Alaska, Macao, Manila, the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk and then to the port of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, now Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the eastern side of the Kamchatka Peninsula.[6]

Trans-continental journey

Path of Barthélemy de Lesseps of the La Pérouse expedition

While in port, La Pérouse received orders to proceed as quickly as possible to Australia to investigate a rumored British settlement at Botany Bay but before leaving, he needed to get reports of the voyage so far back to Paris. Since ice would soon close the port for months, the only option that would keep the material under French control was to send de Lesseps overland.

The ships left on 30 September 1787 and de Lesseps left a week later with Kassloff Ougrenin, the governor of Okhotsk, traveling 160 km across the peninsula to Bolsheretsk a journey that took two weeks and the building of a raft to cross the Bolchaiareka River. From there they hoped to sail to Okhotsk but when that wasn't possible, they decided to follow the coast around the top of the Sea of Okhotsk, a distance of 1600 km. The party stayed in Bolsheretsk until the end of January while a convoy of 35 sleighs was assembled but both the weather and Kassloff's official duties slowed progress. De Lesseps chose to separate from the main group, reaching Yamsk at the end of April and then speeded by a road, reaching Okhotsk of 8 May.

Lessops crossing the Kamchatka Peninsula by dog sled

De Lesseps set off promptly for Yakutsk, 1200 km inland but as the weather warmed and the tracks through the snow turned to mud, the sleighs were bogged down so he dragged them back to Okhotsk.

On his return he was able to buy a few horses which he described as "frightful, half-starved beasts" setting off again on 6 June. From there he sailed on 5 July up the Lena River to Lensk and then Kirensk, both at that time merely a few log cabins. As it was now mid-summer, the water was no longer freezing but clouds of midges swarmed near the shore. The boats broke up on the rapids but de Lesseps was able to continue on horseback to Irkutsk, near the south-western end of Lake Baikal.

De Lesseps then used a carriage to travel through Krasnoyarsk, Achinsk, Tomsk, Tobolsk, Tyumen, Yekaterinburg, and Kungur in the Ural Mountains to Kazan where he was injured in an accident. To avoid being caught in another winter, he pressed on to Nizhniy Novgorod, then (Veliky) Novgorod, reaching St Petersburg, his intended destination, on 22 September 1788, more than a year after he started.

However, this was not the end of his journey. After delivering La Pérouse's reports to the French Ambassador, he learned that he was wanted in Paris so he continued on through Riga, Kaliningrad and Berlin reaching Paris on 17 October. The new Secretary of State for the Navy, César Henri, comte de La Luzerne, met him at Versailles and took him to Louis XVI where he was greeted as a hero and appointed Consul at Kronstadt.[7]

Given the subsequent loss of both ships, by leaving at Petropavlovsk, de Lesseps became the only man to survive the expedition.[8]

Career during and after the Revolution

His appointment to Kronstadt kept him clear of the violence of the French Revolution but after being sent to Turkey as First Secretary, he was imprisoned. Later he was part of the disastrous retreat from Moscow by Napoleon's defeated army in 1812. Finally he was posted to Lisbon where spent the next 20 years until his death in 1834.[9]

Marriage and issue

He married Rose Catherine Cécile Lucie Ruffin and had eight children:

  • Aimée de Lesseps (1794 - ?), married in Lisbon, Santa Catarina, on 15 April 1822 to Pierre Geoffroi Blanchet
  • Marie Fortunée de Lesseps (1798 - ?), married in Lisbon, Santa Catarina, on 10 January 1820 to Charles Joseph Lagau
  • Lucie Virginie de Lesseps (1801–1876), married firstly in Lisbon, Santa Catarina, on 5 November 1823 to Charles Joseph Gautier, and married secondly in Lisbon on 7 October 1834 to Julien François Lecesne
  • Charles de Lesseps (1807 - ?)
  • Hortense de Lesseps (1809 - ?), married to ...
  • Celeste de Lesseps (1810 - ?)
  • Julie de Lesseps (1812 - ?), married to ...
  • Edmond-Prosper de Lesseps (1815–1868), married to ...


  • Journal historique du voyage de M. de Lesseps, consul de France, employé dans l'expédition de M. le comte de la Pérouse en qualité d'interprète du roi ; depuis l'instant où il a quitté les frégates Françaises au port Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul du Kamtschatka jusqu'à son arrivée en France le 17 octobre 1788 , Paris, Impr. royale 1790 , 2 vol. Royal 1790, 2 vol. in 8. in 8.[10] Also translated into English with the title, Travels in Kamchatka during the years 1787 and 1788, London 1790.[11]
  • La boussole, Des confins de la Sibérie à Versailles avec le messager de Lapérouse (1787–1788) (rough translation: The compass, Of the borders from Siberia in Versailles with the messenger of La Pérouse (1787–1788)), Guy Vassal, Paris, 2006[12]

External links


  1. ^;p=barthelemy;n=de+lesseps
  2. ^ As uncle of Ferdinand: Rigby, Nigel et al.2005, Pioneers of the Pacific, Voyages of Exploration 1787-1810, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley ISBN 1-920694-64-1, p.52
  3. ^ Father as Consul General in St Petersburg: Dunmore, John. 2006. Where Fate Beckons. ABC Books, Sydney. ISBN 0-7333-1646-8, p. 191
  4. ^ last sentence: Dunmore, John. 2006. Where Fate Beckons. ABC Books, Sydney. ISBN 0-7333-1646-8, p. 191
  5. ^ Dunmore, John. 2006. Where Fate Beckons. ABC Books, Sydney. ISBN 0-7333-1646-8, p. 194
  6. ^ Dunmore, John. 2006. Where Fate Beckons. ABC Books, Sydney. ISBN 0-7333-1646-8, map p. 198
  7. ^ All details under "Trans-continental journey" except last sentence: Dunmore, John. 2006. Where Fate Beckons. ABC Books, Sydney. ISBN 0-7333-1646-8, p. 233-236
  8. ^ As only survivor
  9. ^ Dunmore, John. 2006. Where Fate Beckons. ABC Books, Sydney. ISBN 0-7333-1646-8, p. 236-237
  10. ^ Original account in French
  11. ^ English translation
  12. ^ Book description at (in French)

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