― 83 ―

VIII. The Mystery, and the Secret of the Sea.

THE Boussole and the Astrolabe sailed from Botany Bay on March 10, 1788. After recording that fact we might well inscribe the pathetic last words of Hamlet, “the rest is silence.”

We know what LapérouseLaperouse intended to do. He wrote two letters to friends in France, explaining the programme to be followed after sailing from Botany Bay. They do not agree in every particular, but we may take the last letter written to express his final determination. According to this, his plan was to sail north, passing between Papua ( New Guinea) and Australia by another channel than Endeavour Strait, if he could find one. During September and October he intended to visit the Gulf of Carpentaria, and thence sail down the west and along the south of Australia, to Tasmania, “but in such a manner that it may be possible for me to stretch northward in time to arrive at Ile-de-France in the beginning of December, 1788.” That was the programme which he was not destined to complete — hardly, indeed, to enter upon. Had he succeeded, his name would have been inscribed amongst the memorable company of the world's great maritime

  ― 84 ―
explorers. As it is, the glint on his brow, as he stands in the light of history, is less that of achievement than of high promise, noble aims, romance and mystery.

One of the letters sent from Sydney concluded with these words: “Adieu! I shall depart in good health, as are all my ship's company. We would undertake six voyages round the world if it could afford to our country either profit or pleasure.” They were not the last words he wrote, but we may appropriately take them as being, not merely his adieu to a friend, but to the world.

Time sped on; the date given for the arrival at Ile-de-France was passed; the year 1789 dawned and ticked off the tally of its days. But nothing was heard of LapérouseLaperouse. People in France grew anxious, one especially we may be sure — she who knew so well where the ships would anchor in Port Louis if they emerged out of the ocean brume, and who longed so ardently that renewed acquaintance with scenes once sweetly familiar would awaken memories meet to give wings to speed and spurs to delay. Not a word came to sustain or cheer, and the faint flush of hope faded to the wan hue of despair on the cheek of love. By 1791 all expectation of seeing the expedition return was abandoned. But could not some news of its fate be ascertained? Had it faded out of being like a summer cloud, leaving not a trace behind? Might not some inkling be had, some

  ― 85 ―
small relics obtained, some whisper caught, in those distant isles,

“Where the sea egg flames on the coral, and the long-backed breakers croon
Their endless ocean legend to the lazy, locked lagoon.”

France was then in the throes of her great social earthquake; but it stands to the credit of the National Assembly that, amidst many turbulent projects and boiling passions, they found time and had the disposition to cause the fitting out of a new expedition to search for tidings of those whose disappearance weighed heavily on the heart of the nation. The decree was passed on February 9, 1791.

Two ships, the Recherche and the Espérance, were selected and placed under the command of Dentrecasteaux. He had already had some experience in a part of the region to be searched, had been a governor of Ile-de-France, and during a South Sea voyage had named the cluster of islands east of Papua now called the D'Entrecasteaux Group. The second ship was placed under the command of Captain Huon Kermadec. The Huon River in Tasmania, and the Kermadec Islands, N.E. of New Zealand, are named after him.

Fleurieu again drew up the instructions, and based them largely upon the letter from LapérouseLaperouse quoted above, pointing out that remains of him would most probably be found in the neighbourhood of coasts which he had intended to explore. It was especially indicated that there was, south of New

  ― 86 ―
Holland, an immense stretch of coastline so far utterly unknown. “No navigator has penetrated in that part of the sea; the reconnaissances and discoveries of the Dutch, the English and the French commenced at the south of Van Diemen's Land.”

Thus, for the second time, was a French navigator directed to explore the southern coasts of Australia; and had Dentrecasteaux followed the plan laid down for him he would have forestalled the discoveries of Grant, Bass and Flinders, just as LapérouseLaperouse would have done had his work not been cut short by disaster.

It has to be remembered that the instructions impressed upon Dentrecasteaux that his business primarily was not geographical discovery, but to get news of his lost compatriots. But even so, is it not curious that the French should have been concerned with the exploration of Southern Australia before the English thought about it; that they should have had two shots at the task, planned with knowledge and care, officially directed, and in charge of eminently competent navigators; but that nevertheless their schemes should have gone awry? They made a third attempt by means of Baudin's expedition, during the Napoleonic Consulate, and again were unsuccessful, except in a very small measure. It almost seems as if some power behind human endeavours had intended these coasts for British finding — and keeping.

The full story of Dentrecasteaux' expedition has not yet been told. Two thick books were written

  ― 87 ―
about it, but a mass of unpublished papers contain details that were judiciously kept out of those volumes. When the whole truth is made known, it will be seen that the bitter strife which plunged France in an agony of blood and tears was not confined to the land.

The ships did not visit Sydney. Why not? It might have been expected that an expedition sent to discover traces of LapérouseLaperouse would have been careful to make Botany Bay in the first instance, and, after collecting whatever evidence was available there, would have carefully followed the route that he had proposed to pursue. But it would seem that an European settlement was avoided. Why? The unpublished papers may furnish an answer to that question.

Neither was the south coast of Australia explored. That great chance was missed. Some excellent charting — which ten years later commanded the cordial admiration of Flinders — was done by Beautemps-Beaupré, who 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

  ― 88 ―
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 Espérance, 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. LapérouseLaperouse 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 LapérouseLaperouse. André Chénier 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

  ― 89 ―
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-être a ravi LapérouseLaperouse

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