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French explorer's shipwreck found

Solomon Islands
Pacific Ocean

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- One of the great mysteries of early European exploration of the Pacific Ocean has been solved with the confirmed identification of a sea-floor wreck as that of French seafarer La Perouse.

The fate of Jean-Francois de Galaup de La Perouse has been a matter of speculation for more than 200 years after the experienced seaman disappeared following his departure from Botany Bay in Australia in 1788.

It was thought La Perouse's two frigates had been shipwrecked during a storm off the coast of the Solomon Islands to the northeast of Australia, a theory which has now been confirmed by physical evidence.

An expedition launched by the Solomon Islands Association and backed by the French government said Tuesday it had identified a shipwreck off the island of Vanikoro as that of La Boussole, one of La Perouse's ships.

The mission, the seventh bid to solve the mystery, involves 70 people based on a French navy transport ship and includes archaeologists, an entomologist, a linguist, painter and a geophysicist, and Marc de La Perouse, a descendant of the aristocratic explorer.

La Boussole was found at a site known as "the fault".

Last week, a sextant -- an instrument used by navigators to measure the angular distance of the sun from the horizon -- with the inscription "Mercier" was found near "the fault".

The Solomons Association said the recovery of the instrument had allowed them to identify the ship, as documents indicate that La Perouse had a sextant aboard La Boussole that was made by "Master Mercier".

La Perouse, who was born in 1741, was asked by French king Louis XVI to chart the globe in order to open new maritime routes. He left France on August 1, 1785 with two frigates, La Boussole and L'Astrolabe.

He sent a message on March 10, 1788 from Australia that he expected to be back in France by December that year.

Had La Perouse made it back to France he may well have successfully claimed the continent of Australia for France, rewriting the colonial history of the South Pacific.

His name does live on in Australia however, with a Sydney beachside suburb named after him.

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