- Dunstan, Timothy, SBLT, NEOC 39 RANC
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Compassion and Leadership in the Pacific
Sailing into the Pacific Ocean was a welcome change for de Bougainville and his crew aboard La Boudeuse and Etoile. The crew was able to wash and dry their clothes, simply lounge around in the sunshine and visit the soon to be famous, for one reason in particular, Tahiti. While in Tahiti, de Bougainville showed his compassion and empathy as a man and a commanding officer. In relation to native Tahitians stealing items from de Bougainville’s ships, he tried to be understanding and be conciliatory. ‘No doubt curiosity towards new objects awoke in them violent desires – and anyhow there are rascals everywhere.’ The understanding de Bougainville showed in this situation begins to clearly mark his leadership style as one in which he goes out of his way to look at the big picture and realise that external factors can influence peoples decision making. A similar situation occurred when de Bougainville allowed a Tahitian to sail with them back to France, even after some early hesitation. de Bougainville was often criticised for this, but he maintained that the Tahitian was brought to France as a guest not as a trophy.
While compassion was a major feature of de Bougainville’s leadership and man management, he was still not afraid to take necessary action on maintaining the discipline of his men. On 13 April 1768 three Tahitians were shot dead. de Bougainville avoided a situation by putting four soldiers in irons and giving peace offerings to the Tahitians.
Upon sailing to Samoa, de Bougainville began to encounter health problems aboard both the La Boudeuse and Etoile. With the supplies of fresh fruit acquired in Tahiti running low, scurvy was beginning to rear its ugly, all too common head. Sailors and officers were beginning to get bruises which wouldn’t heal, loose teeth, and get inflamed mouths with bleeding gums. To go along with this, was an out break of ‘the venereal distemper’. This venereal disease turned out to be syphilis which was contracted from the Tahitians after Wallis’s Dolphin had brought the disease to Tahiti the previous year. Following de Bougainville’s return to France, a heated argument broke out between the British and the French as to who exactly brought syphilis to the Tahitian Islands. The French blamed Wallis while the British blamed de Bougainville. Not surprisingly, de Bougainville reacted very angrily against the accusation, which was bitterly embarrassing. de Bougainville defended the honour of his men in the second edition of his Voyage when he attacked the lack of justification the British could muster in accusing his men of bringing the disease upon the Tahitians. This act by de Bougainville in support of his subordinates fits perfectly into one of the ten principles of leadership taught to all trainee officers at the Royal Australian Naval College, ‘know and care for your subordinates.’
To further this notion of de Bougainville caring for his subordinates while on his voyage in the Pacific and over all circumnavigation, it is beneficial to point out the death ratio. This was a time when the aforementioned scurvy and syphilis caused huge losses amongst ships’ companies. Commanding officers were judged by the number of crew they brought home, de Bougainville lost only seven seamen out of approximately 200. This caring and compassionate attitude towards his men obviously made de Bougainville a well respected leader. This allowed him to get the most out of his subordinates in attempting to achieve his ultimate goal, to circumnavigate the world and discover new land for France in the Pacific.
One final situation during de Bougainville’s voyage in the Pacific would not only give the voyage a permanent place in history but would again display de Bougainville’s logical and compassionate style of leadership. Again in Tahiti, it was discovered that the valet of the expeditions botanist, Commerson, was a woman named Jeanne Baret. Jeanne Baret is therefore the first woman ever to have circumnavigated the globe. In a time where women aboard naval vessels were completely against regulations and held harsh penalties for the individual and the commanding officer of the vessel, de Bougainville could do little except contain her. In relation to the incident de Bougainville wrote, ‘I admire her determination, I have taken steps to ensure that she suffers no unpleasantness. The Court will. I think, forgive her for this infraction to the ordinances. Her example will hardly be contagious.’ Once again de Bougainville’s situational awareness allowed him to make a logical decision on Jeanne Baret’s situation.