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- LAPEROUSE - 5/12 -
They are admirably clear instructions, indicating a full knowledge of the work of preceding navigators and of the parts of the earth where discovery needed to be pursued. Their defect was that they expected too much to be done on one voyage. Let us glance over them, devoting particular attention to the portions affecting Australasia.
The ships were directed to sail across the Atlantic and round Cape Horn, visiting certain specified places on the way. In the Pacific they were to visit Easter Island, Tahiti, the Society Islands, the Friendly and Navigator groups, and New Caledonia. "He will pass Endeavour Strait and in this passage will try to ascertain whether the land of Louisiade (the Louisiade Archipelago), be contiguous to that of New Guinea, and will reconnoitre all this part of the coast from Cape Deliverance to the Island of St. Barthelomew, east-northeast of Cape Walsh, of which at present we have a very imperfect knowledge. It is much to be wished that he may be able to examine the Gulf of Carpentaria."
He was then to explore the western shores of New Holland. "He will run down the western coast and take a closer view of the southern, the greater part of which has never been visited, finishing his survey at Van Diemen's Land, at Adventure Bay or Prince Frederick Henry's, whence he will make sail for Cook's Strait, and anchor in Queen Charlotte's Sound, in that Strait, between the two islands which constitute New Zealand."
That direction is especially important, because if Laperouse had not perished, but had lived to carry out his programme, it is evident that he would have forestalled the later discoveries of Bass and Flinders in southern Australia. What a vast difference to the later course of history that might have made!
After leaving New Zealand he was to cross the Pacific to the north-west coast of America. The programme included explorations in the China Sea, at the Philippines, the Moluccas and Timor, and contemplated a return to France in July or August, 1789, after a voyage of about three years.
But although his course was mapped out in such detail, discretion was left to Laperouse to vary it if he thought fit. "All the calculations of which a sketch is given here must be governed by the circumstances of the voyage, the condition of the crews, ships and provisions, the events that may occur in the expedition and accidents which it is impossible to foresee. His Majesty, therefore, relying on the experience and judgment of the sieur de Laperouse, authorises him to make any deviation that he may deem necessary, in unforeseen cases, pursuing, however, as far as possible, the plan traced out, and conforming to the directions given in the other parts of the present instructions."
A separate set of instructions had regard to observations to be made by Laperouse upon the political conditions, possibilities of commerce, and suitability for settlement, of the lands visited by him. In the Pacific, he was to inquire "whether the cattle, fowls, and other animals which Captain Cook left on some of the islands have bred." He was to examine attentively "the north and west coasts of New Holland, and particularly that part of the coast which, being situated in the torrid zone, may enjoy some of the productions peculiar to countries in similar latitudes." In New Zealand he was to ascertain "whether the English have formed or entertain the project of forming any settlement on these islands; and if he should hear that they have actually formed a settlement, he will endeavour to repair thither in order to learn the condition, strength and object of the settlement."
It is singular that the instructions contain no reference to Botany Bay. It was the visit paid by Laperouse to this port that brought him into touch with Australian history. Yet his call there was made purely in the exercise of his discretion. He was not directed to pay any attention to eastern Australia. When he sailed the French Government knew nothing of the contemplated settlement of New South Wales by the British; and he only heard of it in the course of his voyage. Indeed, it is amazing how little was known of Australia at the time. "We have nothing authentic or sufficiently minute respecting this part of the largest island on the globe," said the instructions concerning the northern and western coasts; but there was not a word about the eastern shores.
The reader who reflects upon the facts set forth in this chapter will realise that the French Revolution, surprising as the statement may seem, affected Australian history in a remarkable way. If Louis XVI had not been dethroned and beheaded, but had remained King of France, there cannot be any doubt that he would have persisted in the investigation of the South Seas. He was deeply interested in the subject, very well informed about it, and ambitious that his country should be a great maritime and colonising Power. But the Revolution slew Louis, plunged France in long and disastrous wars, and brought Napoleon to the front. The whole course of history was diverted. It was as if a great river had been turned into a fresh channel.
If the navigator of the French King had discovered southern Australia, and settlement had followed, it is not to be supposed that Great Britain would have opposed the plans of France; for Australia then was not the Australia that we know, and England had very little use even for the bit she secured. Unthinking people might suppose that the French Revolution meant very little to us. Indeed, unthinking people are very apt to suppose that we can go our own way without regarding what takes place elsewhere. They do not realise that the world is one, and that the policies of nations interact upon each other. In point of fact, the Revolution meant a great deal to Australia. This country is, indeed, an island far from Europe, but the threads of her history are entwined with those of European history in a very curious and often intricate fashion. The French Revolution and the era of Napoleon, if we understand their consequences, really concern us quite as much as, say, the gold discoveries and the accomplishment of Federation.
THE EARLY PART OF THE VOYAGE.
The expedition sailed from Brest rather sooner than had at first been contemplated, on August 1, 1785, and doubled Cape Horn in January of the following year. Some weeks were spent on the coast of Chili; and the remarks of Laperouse concerning the manners of the Spanish rulers of the country cover some of his most entertaining pages. He has an eye for the picturesque, a kindly feeling for all well-disposed people, a pleasant touch in describing customs, and shrewd judgment in estimating character. These qualities make him an agreeable writer of travels. They are fairly illustrated by the passages in which he describes the people of the city of Concepcion. Take his account of the ladies:
"The dress of these ladies, extremely different from what we have been accustomed to see, consists of a plaited petticoat, tied considerably below the waist; stockings striped red, blue and white; and shoes so short that the toes are bent under the ball of the foot so as to make it appear nearly round. Their hair is without powder and is divided into small braids behind, hanging over the shoulders. Their bodice is generally of gold or silver stuff, over which there are two short cloaks, that underneath of muslin and the other of wool of different colours, blue, yellow and pink. The upper one is drawn over the head when they are in the streets and the weather is cold; but within doors it is usual to place it on their knees; and there is a game played with the muslin cloak by continually shifting it about, in which the ladies of Concepcion display considerable grace. They are for the most part handsome, and of so polite and pleasing manners that there is certainly no maritime town in Europe where strangers are received with so much attention and kindness."
At this city Laperouse met the adventurous Irishman, Ambrose O'Higgins, who by reason of his conspicuous military abilities became commander of the Spanish forces in Chili, and afterwards Viceroy of Peru. His name originally was simply Higgins, but he prefixed the "O" when he blossomed into a Spanish Don, "as being more aristocratic." He was the father of the still more famous Bernardo O'Higgins, "the Washington of Chili," who led the revolt against Spanish rule and became first president of the Chilian Republic in 1818. Laperouse at once conceived an attachment for O'Higgins, "a man of extraordinary activity," and one "adored in the country."
In April, 1786, the expedition was at Easter Island, where the inhabitants appeared to be a set of cunning and hypocritical thieves, who "robbed us of everything which it was possible for them to carry off." Steering north, the Sandwich Islands were reached early in May. Here Laperouse liked the people, "though my prejudices were strong against them on account of the death of Captain Cook." A passage in the commander's narrative gives his opinion on the annexation of the countries of native races by Europeans, and shows that, in common with very many of his countrymen, he was much influenced by the ideas of Rousseau, then an intellectual force in France--
"Though the French were the first who, in modern times, had landed on the island of Mowee, I did not think it my duty to take possession in the name of the King. The customs of Europeans on such occasions are completely ridiculous. Philosophers must lament to see that men, for no better reason than because they are in possession of firearms and bayonets, should have no regard for the rights of sixty thousand of their fellow creatures, and should consider as an object of conquest a land fertilised by the painful exertions of its inhabitants, and for many ages the tomb of their ancestors. These islands have fortunately been discovered at a period when religion no longer serves as a pretext for violence and rapine. Modern navigators have no other object in describing the manners of remote nations than that of completing the history of man; and the knowledge they endeavour to diffuse has for its sole aim to render the people they visit more happy, and to augment their means of subsistence."
If Laperouse could see the map of the Pacific to-day he would find its groups of islands all enclosed within coloured rings, indicating possession by the great Powers of the world. He would be puzzled and pained by the change. But the history of the political movements leading to the parcelling out of seas and lands among strong States would interest him, and he would realise that the day of feeble isolation has gone. Nothing would make him marvel more than the floating of the Stars and Stripes over Hawaii, for he knew that flag during the American War of Independence. It was adopted as the flag of the United States in 1777, and during the campaign the golden lilies of the standard of France fluttered from many masts in co-operation with it. Truly a century and a quarter has brought about a wonderful change, not only in the face of the globe and in the management of its affairs, but still more radically in the ideas of men and in the motives that sway their activities!
The geographical work done by Laperouse in this part of the Pacific was of much importance. It removed from the chart five or six islands which had no existence, having been marked down erroneously by previous navigators. From this region the expedition sailed to Alaska, on the north-west coast of North America. Cook had explored here "with that
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