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- LAPEROUSE - 2/12 -
promoted to the rank of ensign, he had a rest.
It was not a popular peace on either side. In Paris there was a current phrase, "BETE COMME LA PAIX," stupid as the peace. In England, the great Pitt was so indignant on account of its conditions that, all swollen and pinched with gout as he was, he had himself carried to the House of Commons, his limbs blanketted in bandages and his face contorted with pain, and, leaning upon a crutch, denounced it in a speech lasting three hours and forty minutes. The people cheered him to the echo when he came out to his carriage, and the vote favourable to the terms of the treaty was carried by wholesale corruption. But all the same, Great Britain did very well out of it, and both countries --though neither was satisfied--were for the time being tired of war.
For Laperouse the seven years had been full of excitement. The most memorable engagement in which he took part was a very celebrated one, in November, 1759. A stirring ballad has been written about it by Henry Newbolt:--
"In seventeen hundred and fifty-nine When Hawke came swooping from the West, The French King's admiral with twenty of the line Came sailing forth to sack us out of Brest."
Laperouse's ship, the FORMIDABLE, was one of the French fleet of twenty-one sail. What happened was this. The French foreign minister, Choiseul, had hatched a crafty plan for the invasion of England, but before it could be executed the British fleet had to be cleared out of the way. There was always that tough wooden wall with the hearts of oak behind it, standing solidly in the path. It baffled Napoleon in the same fashion when he thought out an invasion plan in the next century. The French Admiral, Conflans, schemed to lure Sir Edward Hawke into Quiberon Bay, on the coast of Brittany. A strong westerly gale was blowing and was rapidly swelling into a raging tempest. Conflans, piloted by a reliable guide who knew the Bay thoroughly, intended to take up a fairly safe, sheltered position on the lee side, and hoped that the wind would force Hawke, who was not familiar with the ground, on to the reefs and shoals, where his fleet would be destroyed by the storm and the French guns together. But Hawke, whose name signally represents the bold, swift, sure character of the man, understood the design, took the risk, avoided the danger, and clutched the prey. Following the French as rapidly as wind and canvas could take him, he caught their rearmost vessels, smashed them up, battered the whole fleet successively into flight or splinters, and himself lost only two vessels, which ran upon a shoal. Plodding prose does scant justice to the extraordinary brilliancy of Hawke's victory, described by Admiral Mahan as "the Trafalgar of this war." We cannot pass on without quoting one of Mr. Newbolt's graphic verses:--
"'Twas long past the noon of a wild November day When Hawke came swooping from the west; He heard the breakers thundering in Quiberon Bay, But he flew the flag for battle, line abreast. Down upon the quicksands, roaring out of sight, Fiercely blew the storm wind, darkly fell the night, For they took the foe for pilot and the cannon's glare for light, When Hawke came swooping from the West."
"They took the foe for pilot:" that is a most excellent touch, both poetical and true.
The FORMIDABLE was the first to be disposed of in the fight. She was an 80-gun line-of-battle ship, carrying the flag of Admiral du Verger. Her position being in the rear of the squadron, she was early engaged by the RESOLUTION, and in addition received the full broadside of every other British ship that passed her. The Admiral fell mortally wounded, and two hundred on board were killed. She struck her colours at four o'clock after receiving a terrible battering, and was the only French ship captured by Hawke's fleet. All the others were sunk, burnt, or beached, or else escaped. The young Laperouse was amongst the wounded, though his hurts were not dangerous; and, after a brief period spent in England as a prisoner of war, he returned to service.
An amusing rhyme in connection with this engagement is worth recalling. Supplies for Hawke's fleet did not come to hand for a considerable time after they were due, and in consequence the victorious crews had to be put on "short commons." Some wag--it is the way of the British sailor to do his grumbling with a spice of humour--put the case thus:--
"Ere Hawke did bang Monsieur Conflans, You sent us beef and beer; Now Monsieur's beat We've nought to eat, Since you have nought to fear."
An interesting coincidence must also be noted. Thirty-five years later, only a few leagues from the place where Laperouse first learnt what it meant to fight the British on the sea, another young officer who was afterwards greatly concerned with Australasian exploration had his introduction to naval warfare. It was in 1794 that Midshipman Matthew Flinders, on the BELLEROPHON, Captain Pasley, played his valiant little part in a great fleet action off Brest. Both of these youths, whose longing was for exploration and discovery, and who are remembered by mankind in that connection, were cradled on the sea amidst the smoke and flame of battle, both in the same waters.
During the next twenty-five years Laperouse saw a considerable amount of fighting in the East and West Indies, and in Canadian waters. He was commander of the AMAZON, under D'Estaing, during a period when events did not shape themselves very gloriously for British arms, not because our admirals had lost their skill and nerve, or our seamen their grit and courage, but because Governments at home muddled, squabbled, starved the navy, misunderstood the problem, and generally made a mess of things. We need not follow him through the details of these years, but simply note that Laperouse's dash and good seamanship won him a high reputation among French naval officers, and brought him under the eye of the authorities who afterwards chose him to command an expedition of discovery.
One incident must be recorded, because it throws a light on the character of Laperouse. In 1782, whilst serving under Admiral Latouche-Treville in the West, he was ordered to destroy the British forts on the Hudson River. He attacked them with the SCEPTRE, 74 guns. The British had been engaged in their most unfortunate war with the American Colonies, and in 1781, in consequence of wretchedly bad strategy, had lost command of the sea. The French had been helping the revolted Americans, not for love of them, but from enmity to their rivals. After the capitulation of the British troops at Yorktown, a number of loyalists still held out under discouraging conditions in Canada, and the French desired to dislodge them from the important waterway of the Hudson.
Laperouse found little difficulty in fulfilling his mission, for the defence was weak and the garrisons of the forts, after a brief resistance, fled to the woods. It was then that he did a thing described in our principal naval history as an act of "kindness and humanity, rare in the annals of war." Laperouse knew that if he totally destroyed the stores as well as the forts, the unfortunate British, after he had left, would perish either from hunger or under the tomahawks of the Red Indians. So he was careful to see that the food and clothing, and a quantity of powder and small arms, were left untouched, for, as he nobly said, "An enemy conquered should have nothing more to fear from a civilised foe; he then becomes a friend."
Some readers may like to see the verses in which a French poet has enshrined this incident. For their benefit they are appended:--
"Un jour ayant appris que les Anglais en fuite Se cachaient dans un bois redoutant la poursuite, Tu laissas sur la plage aux soldats affames, Par la peur affoles, en haillons, desarmes, Des vivres abondantes, des habits et des armes; Tu t'eloignas apres pour calmer leurs alarmes, Et quand on s'etonnait: 'Sachez qu' un ennemi Vaincu n'a rien a craindre, et devient un ami.'"
The passage may be rendered in English thus: "One day, having heard that the fleeing English were hidden in a forest dreading pursuit, you left upon the shore for those soldiers--famished, ragged, disarmed, and paralysed by fear--abundance of food, clothes and arms; then, to calm their fears, you removed your forces to a distance; and, when astonishment was expressed, you said: 'Understand that a beaten enemy has nothing to fear from us, and becomes a friend.'"
THE LOVE STORY OF LAPEROUSE.
"My story is a romance"--"Mon histoire est un roman"--wrote Laperouse in relating the events with which this chapter will deal. We have seen him as a boy; we have watched him in war; we shall presently follow him as a navigator. But it is just as necessary to read his charming love story, if we are to understand his character. We should have no true idea of him unless we knew how he bore himself amid perplexities that might have led him to quote, as peculiarly appropriate to his own case, the lines of Shakespeare:--
"Ay me! for ought that ever I could read, Could ever hear by tale or history, The course of true love never did run smooth,"
During the period of his service in the East Indies, Laperouse frequently visited Ile-de-France (which is now a British possession, called Mauritius). Then it was the principal naval station of the French in the Indian Ocean. There he met a beautiful girl, the daughter of one of the subordinate officials at Port Louis. Louise Eleonore Broudou is said to have been "more than pretty"; she was distinguished by grace of manner, charm of disposition, and fine, cultivated character. The young officer saw her often, admired her much, fell in love with her, and asked her to marry him. Mademoiselle loved him too; and if they two only had had to be consulted, the happy union of a well-matched pair might have followed soon.
It signified little to Laperouse, in love, that the lady had neither rank nor fortune. But his family in France took quite a different view.
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