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- LAPEROUSE - 6/12 -
courage and perseverance of which all Europe knows him to have been capable," wrote Laperouse, never failing to use an opportunity of expressing admiration for his illustrious predecessor. But there was still useful work to do, and the French occupied their time very profitably with it from June to August. Then their ships sailed down the western coast of America to California, struck east across the Pacific to the Ladrones, and made for Macao in China--then as now a Portugese possession--reaching that port in January, 1787.
The Philippines were next visited, and Laperouse formed pleasant impressions of Manilla. It is clear from his way of alluding to the customs of the Spanish inhabitants that the French captain was not a tobacco smoker. It was surprising to him that "their passion for smoking this narcotic is so immoderate that there is not an instant of the day in which either a man or woman is without a cigar;" and it is equally surprising to us that the French editor of the history of the voyage found it necessary to explain in a footnote that a cigar is "a small roll of tobacco which is smoked without the assistance of a pipe." But cigars were then little known in Europe, except among sailors and travellers who had visited the Spanish colonies; and the very spelling of the word was not fixed. In English voyages it appears as "seegar," "segar," and "sagar."
Formosa was visited in April, northern Japan in May, and the investigation of the north-eastern coasts of Asia occupied until October.
A passage in a letter from Laperouse to Fleurieu is worth quoting for two reasons. It throws some light on the difficulties of navigation in unknown seas, and upon the commander's severe application to duty; and it also serves to remind us that Japan, now so potent a factor in the politics of the East and of the whole Pacific, had not then emerged from the barbarian exclusiveness towards foreigners, which she had maintained since Europe commenced to exploit Asia. In the middle of the seventeenth century she had expelled the Spaniards and the Portugese with much bloodshed, and had closed her ports to all traders except the Chinese and the Dutch, who were confined to a prescribed area at Nagasaki. Intercourse with all other foreign peoples was strictly forbidden. Even as late as 1842 it was commanded that if any foreign vessel were driven by distress or tempestuous weather into a Japanese port, she might only remain so long as was necessary to meet her wants, and must then depart. Laperouse knew of this jealous Japanese antipathy to foreign visitors, and, as he explains in the letter, meant to keep away from the country because of it. He wrote:--
"The part of our voyage between Manilla and Kamchatka will afford you, I hope, complete satisfaction. It was the newest, the most interesting, and certainly, from the everlasting fogs which enveloped the land in the latitudes we traversed, the most difficult. These fogs are such that it has taken one hundred and fifty days to explore a part of the coast which Captain King, in the third volume of Cook's last voyage, supposes might be examined in the course of two months. During this period I rested only ten days, three in the Bay of Ternai, two in the Bay de Langle, and five in the Bay de Castries. Thus I wasted no time; I even forebore to circumnavigate the island of Chicha (Yezo) by traversing the Strait of Sangaar (Tsugaru). I should have wished to anchor, if possible, at the northern point of Japan, and would perhaps have ventured to send a boat ashore, though such a proceeding would have required the most serious deliberation, as the boat would probably have been stopped. Where a merchant ship is concerned an event of this kind might be considered as of little importance, but the seizure of a boat belonging to a ship of war could scarcely be otherwise regarded than as a national insult; and the taking and burning of a few sampans would be a very sorry compensation as against the people who would not exchange a single European of whom they were desirous of making an example, for one hundred Japanese. I was, however, too far from the coast to include such an intention, and it is impossible for me to judge at present what I should have done had the contrary been the case.
"It would be difficult for me to find words to express to you the fatigue attending this part of my voyage, during which I did not once undress myself, nor did a single night pass without my being obliged to spend several hours upon deck. Imagine to yourself six days of fog with only two or three hours of clear weather, in seas extremely confined, absolutely unknown, and where fancy, in consequence of the information we had received, pictured to us shoals and currents that did not always exist. From the place where we made the land on the eastern coast of Tartary, to the strait which we discovered between Tchoka (Saghalien) and Chicha, we did not fail to take the bearing of every point, and you may rest assured that neither creek, port, nor river escaped our attention, and that many charts, even of the coasts of Europe, are less exact than those which we shall bring with us on our return."
"The strait which we discovered" is still called Laperouse Strait on most modern maps, though the Japanese usually call it Soya Strait. It runs between Yezo, the large northerly island of Japan, and Saghalien. Current maps also show the name Boussole Strait, after Laperouse's ship, between Urup and Simusir, two of the Kurile chain of small islands curving from Yezo to the thumblike extremity of Kamchatka.
At Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka the drawings of the artists and the journals of the commander up to date were packed up, and sent to France overland across Asiatic Russia, in charge of a young member of the staff, J. B. B. de Lesseps. He was the only one of the expedition who ever returned to Europe. By not coming to Australia he saved his life. He published a book about his journey, a remarkable feat of land travel in those days. He was the uncle of a man whose remarkable engineering work has made Australia's relations with Europe much easier and more speedy than they were in earlier years: that Ferdinand de Lesseps who (1859-69) planned and carried out the construction of the Suez Canal. The ships, after replenishing, sailed for the south Pacific, where we shall follow the proceedings of Laperouse in rather closer detail than has been considered necessary in regard to the American and Asiatic phases of the voyage.
LAPEROUSE IN THE PACIFIC.
On the 6th December, 1787, the expedition made the eastern end of the Navigator Islands, that is, the Samoan Group. As the ships approached, a party of natives were observed squatting under cocoanut trees. Presently sixteen canoes put off from the land, and their occupants, after paddling round the vessels distrustfully, ventured to approach and proffer cocoanuts in exchange for strings of beads and strips of red cloth. The natives got the better of the bargain, for, when they had received their price, they hurried off without delivering their own goods. Further on, an old chief delivered an harangue from the shore, holding a branch of Kava in his hand. "We knew from what we had read of several voyages that it was a token of peace; and throwing him some pieces of cloth we answered by the word 'TAYO,' which signified 'friend' in the dialect of the South Sea Islands; but we were not sufficiently experienced to understand and pronounce distinctly the words of the vocabularies we had extracted from Cook."
Nearly all the early navigators made a feature of compiling vocabularies of native words, and Cook devoted particular care to this task. Dr. Walter Roth, formerly protector of Queensland aboriginals a trained observer, has borne testimony as recently as last year (in THE TIMES, December 29, 1911) that a list of words collected from Endeavour Strait blacks, and "given by Captain Cook, are all more or less recognisable at the present day." But Cook's spellings were intended to be pronounced in the English mode. Laperouse and his companions by giving the vowels French values would hardly be likely to make the English navigator's vocabularies intelligible.
The native canoes amused the French captain. They "could be of use only to people who are expert swimmers, for they are constantly turned over. This is an accident, however, at which they feel less surprise and anxiety than we should at a hat's blowing off. They lift the canoe on their shoulders, and after they have emptied it of the water, get into it again, well assured that they will have the same operation to perform within half an hour, for it is as difficult to preserve a balance in these ticklish things as to dance upon a rope."
At Mauna Island (now called Tutuila) some successful bargaining was done with glass beads in exchange for pork and fruits. It surprised Laperouse that the natives chose these paltry ornaments rather than hatchets and tools. "They preferred a few beads which could be of no utility, to anything we could offer them in iron or cloth."
Two days later a tragedy occurred at this island, when Captain de Langle, the commander of the ASTROLABE, and eleven of the crew were murdered. He made an excursion inland to look for fresh water, and found a clear, cool spring in the vicinity of a village. The ships were not urgently in need of water, but de Langle "had embraced the system of Cook, and thought fresh water a hundred times preferable to what had been some time in the hold. As some of his crew had slight symptoms of scurvy, he thought, with justice, that we owed them every means of alleviation in our power. Besides, no island could be compared with this for abundance of provisions. The two ships had already procured upwards of 500 hogs, with a large quantity of fowls, pigeons and fruits; and all these had cost us only a few beads."
Laperouse himself doubted the prudence of sending a party inland, as he had observed signs of a turbulent spirit among the islanders. But de Langle insisted on the desirableness of obtaining fresh water where it was abundant, and "replied to me that my refusal would render me responsible for the progress of the scurvy, which began to appear with some violence." He undertook to go at the head of the party, and, relying on his judgment, the commander consented.
Two boats left the ship at about noon, and landed their casks undisturbed. But when the party returned they found a crowd of over a thousand natives assembled, and a dangerous disposition soon revealed itself amongst them. It is possible that the Frenchmen had, unconsciously, offended against some of their superstitious rites. Certainly they had not knowingly been provoked. They had peacefully bartered their fruits and nuts for beads, and had been treated in a friendly fashion throughout. But the currents of passion that sweep through the minds of savage peoples baffle analysis. Something had disturbed them; what it was can hardly be surmised. One of the officers believed that the gift of some beads to a few, excited the envy of the others. It may be so; mere envy plays such a large part in the affairs even of civilised peoples, that we need not wonder to find it arousing the anger of savages. Laperouse tells what occurred in these terms:--
"Several canoes, after having sold their ladings of provisions on board our ships, had returned ashore, and all landed in this bay, so that it was gradually filled. Instead of two hundred persons, including women and children, whom M. de Langle found when he arrived at half past one,
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