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- LAPEROUSE - 10/12 -


was Dentrecasteaux' cartographer, especially round about the S.W. corner of the continent. Esperance Bay, in Western Australia, is named after one of the ships of this expedition. But from that corner, his ships being short of fresh water, Dentrecasteaux sailed on a direct line to Southern Tasmania, and thence to New Zealand, New Caledonia, and New Guinea. Touch with the only European centre in these parts was --apparently with deliberation--not obtained.

Dentrecasteaux died while his ships were in the waters to the north of New Guinea. He fell violently ill, raving at first, then subsiding into unconsciousness, a death terrible to read about in the published narrative, where the full extent of his troubles is not revealed. Kermadec, commander of the ESPERANCE, also died at New Caledonia. After their decease the ships returned to France as rapidly as they could. They were detained by the Dutch at Sourabaya for several months, as prisoners of war, and did not reach Europe till March, 1796. Their mission had been abortive.

Five French Captains who brought expeditions to Australia at this period all ended in misfortune. Laperouse was drowned; de Langle was murdered; Dentrecasteaux died miserably at sea; Kermadec, the fourth, had expired shortly before; and Baudin, the fifth, died at Port Louis on the homeward voyage.

Nor is even that the last touch of melancholy to the tale of tragedy. There was a young poet who was touched by the fate of Laperouse. Andre Chenier is now recognised as one of the finest masters of song who have enriched French literature, and his poems are more and more studied and admired both by his own countrymen and abroad. He planned and partly finished a long poem, "L'Amerique," which contains a mournful passage about the mystery of the sea which had not then been solved. A translation of the lines will not be attempted here; they are mentioned because the poet himself had an end as tragic, though in a different mode, as that of the hero of whom he sang. He came under the displeasure of the tyrants of the Red Terror through his friends and his writings, and in March, 1794, the guillotine took this brilliant young genius as a victim.

J'accuserai les vents et cette mer jalouse Qui retient, qui peut-etre a ravi Laperouse

so the poem begins. How strangely the shadow of Tragedy hangs over this ill-starred expedition; Louis XVI the projector, Laperouse and de Langle the commanders, Dentrecasteaux and Kermadec the searchers, Andre Chenier the laureate: the breath of the black-robed Fury was upon them all!

Chapter IX.

CAPTAIN DILLON'S DISCOVERY.

The navigators of all nations were fascinated by the mystery attaching to the fate of Laperouse. Every ship that sailed the Pacific hoped to obtain tidings or remains. From time to time rumours arose of the discovery of relics. One reported the sight of wreckage; another that islanders had been seen dressed in French uniforms; another that a cross of St. Louis had been found. But the element of probability in the various stories evaporated on investigation. Flinders, sailing north from Port Jackson in the INVESTIGATOR in 1802, kept a sharp lookout on the Barrier Reef, the possibility of finding some trace being "always present to my mind." But no definite news came.

A new French voyage of exploration came down to the Pacific in 1817, under the command of Louis de Freycinet, who had been a lieutenant in Baudin's expedition in 1800-4. The purpose was not chiefly to look for evidence concerning Laperouse, though naturally a keen scrutiny was maintained with this object in view.

An extremely queer fact may be mentioned in connection with this voyage. The URANIE carried a woman among the crew, the only one of her sex amidst one hundred men. Madame de Freycinet, the wife of the commandant, joined at Toulon, dressed as a ship's boy, and it was given out in the newspapers that her husband was very much surprised when he found that his wife had managed to get aboard in disguise. But Arago, one of the scientific staff, tells us in his Memoirs, published in 1837, that--as we can well believe--Freycinet knew perfectly who the "young and pretty" boy was, and had connived at her joining the ship as a lad, because she wanted to accompany her husband, and the authorities would have prevented her had they known. She continued to wear her boy's dress until after the ships visited Gibraltar, for Arago informs us that the solemn British Lieutenant-Governor there, when he saw her, broke into a smile, "the first perhaps that his features had worn for ten years." If that be true, the little lady surely did a little good by her saucy escapade. But official society regarded the lady in trousers with a frigid stare, so that henceforth she deemed it discreet to resume feminine garments. It does not appear that she passed for a boy when the expedition visited Sydney, and of course no hint of Madame's presence is given in the official history of the voyage.

We now reach the stage when the veil was lifted and the mystery explained. In 1813 the East India Company's ship HUNTER, voyaging from Calcutta to Sydney, called at the Fiji Islands. They discovered that several Europeans were living on one of the group. Some had been shipwrecked; some had deserted from vessels; but they had become accustomed to the life and preferred it. The HUNTER employed a party of them to collect sandal wood and beche-de-mer, one of her junior officers, Peter Dillon, being in charge. A quarrel with natives occurred, and all the Europeans were murdered, except Dillon, a Prussian named Martin Bushart, and a seaman, William Wilson. After the affray Bushart would certainly have been slain had he remained, so he induced the captain of the HUNTER to give him a passage to the first land reached. Accordingly Bushart, a Fiji woman who was his wife, and a Lascar companion, were landed on Barwell Island, or Tucopia.

Thirteen years later Peter Dillon was sailing in command of his own ship, the ST. PATRICK, from Valparaiso to Pondicherry, when he sighted Tucopia. Curiosity prompted him to stop to enquire whether his old friend Martin Bushart was still alive. He hove to, and shortly after two canoes put off from the land, bringing Bushart and the Lascar, both in excellent health.

Now, Dillon observed that the Lascar sold an old silver sword guard to one of the ST. PATRICK'S crew in return for a few fish hooks. This made him inquisitive. He asked the Prussian where it came from. Bushart informed him that when he first arrived at the island he saw in possession of the natives, not only this sword guard, but also several chain plates, iron bolts, axes, the handle of a silver fork, some knives, tea cups, beads, bottles, a silver spoon bearing a crest and monogram, and a sword. He asked where these articles were obtained, and the natives told him that they got them from the Mannicolo (or Vanikoro) cluster of islands, two days' canoe voyage from Tucopia, in the Santa Cruz group.

"Upon examining the sword minutely" wrote Dillon, "I discovered, or thought I discovered, the initials of Perouse stamped on it, which excited my suspicion and made me more exact in my inquiries. I then, by means of Bushart and the Lascar, questioned some of the islanders respecting the way in which their neighbours procured the silver and iron articles. They told me that the natives of Mannicolo stated that many years ago two large ships arrived at their islands; one anchored at the island of Whanoo, and the other at the island of Paiou, a little distance from each other. Some time after they anchored, and before they had any communication with the natives, a heavy gale arose and both vessels were driven ashore. The ship that was anchored off Whanoo grounded upon the rocks.

"The natives came in crowds to the seaside, armed with clubs, spears, and bows and arrows, and shot some arrows into the ship, and the crew in return fired the guns and some musketry on them and killed several. The vessel, continuing to beat violently against the rocks, shortly afterwards went to pieces. Some of the crew took to their boats, and were driven on shore, where they were to a man murdered on landing by the infuriated natives. Others threw themselves into the sea; but if they reached the shore it was only to share the fate of their wretched comrades, so that not a single soul escaped out of this vessel."

The ship wrecked on Paiou, according to the natives' story, was driven on a sandy beach. Some arrows were fired into her, but the crew did not fire. They were restrained, and held up beads, axes, and toys, making a demonstration of friendliness. As soon as the wind abated, an old chief came aboard the wrecked ship, where he was received in friendly fashion, and, going ashore, pacified his people. The crew of the vessel, compelled to abandon her, carried the greater part of their stores ashore, where they built a small boat from the remains of the wreck. As soon as this craft was ready to sail, as many as could conveniently be taken embarked and sailed away. They were never heard of again. The remainder of the crew remained on the island until they died.

Such was the information collected by Captain Peter Dillon in 1826. He took away with him the sword guard, but regretted to learn that the silver spoon had been beaten into wire by Bushart for making rings and ornaments for female islanders.

When he reached Calcutta, Dillon wrote an account of his discovery in a letter to the government of Bengal, and suggested that he should be sent in command of an expedition to search the Vanikoro cluster in the hope of finding some old survivor of Laperouse's unhappy company, or at all events further remains of the ships. He had prevailed upon Martin Bushart to accompany him to India, and hoped, through this man's knowledge of the native tongue, to elicit all that was to be known.

The Government of British India became interested in Dillon's discovery, and resolved to send him in command of a ship to search for further information. At the end of 1826 he sailed in the RESEARCH, and in September of the following year came within sight of the high-peaked island Tucopia. The enquiries made on this voyage fully confirmed and completed the story, and left no room for doubt that the ships of Laperouse had been wrecked and his whole company massacred or drowned on or near Vanikoro. Many natives still living remembered the arrival of the French. Some of them related that they thought those who came on the big ships to be not men but spirits; and such a grotesque bit of description as was given of the peaks of cocked hats exactly expressed the way in which the appearance of the strangers would be likely to appeal to the native imagination:--" There was a projection from their foreheads or noses a foot long."

Furthermore, Dillon's officers were able to purchase from the islands such relics as an old sword blade, a rusted razor, a silver sauce-boat with fleur-de-lis upon it, a brass mortar, a few small bells, a silver sword-handle bearing a cypher, apparently a "P" with a crown, part of a blacksmith's vice, the crown of a small anchor, and many other articles. An examination of natives brought out a few further


LAPEROUSE - 10/12

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