previous
next



  ― 59 ―

VI. 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


  ― 60 ―
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. LapérouseLaperouse 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 Maüna Island (now called Tutuila) some successful bargaining was done with glass beads in exchange for pork and fruits. It surprised LapérouseLaperouse 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.


  ― 61 ―
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 rimes 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.”

LapérouseLaperouse 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


  ― 62 ―
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. LapérouseLaperouse 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, there were ten or twelve hundred by three o'clock. He succeeded in embarking his water; but the bay was by this time nearly dry, and he could not hope to get his boats afloat before four o'clock, when the tide would have risen. He stepped into them, however, with his detachment, and posted himself in the bow, with his musket and his marines, forbidding them to fire unless he gave orders.

“This, he began to realise, he would soon be forced to do. Stones flew about, and the natives, only up to the knees in water, surrounded the boats within less than three yards. The marines who


  ― 63 ―
were in the boats, attempted in vain to keep them off. If the fear of commencing hostilities and being accused of barbarity had not checked M. de Langle, he would unquestionably have ordered a general discharge of his swivels and musketry, which no doubt would have dispersed the mob, but he flattered himself that he could check them without shedding blood, and he fell a victim to his humanity.

“Presently a shower of stones thrown from a short distance with as much force as if they had come from a sling, struck almost every man in the boat. M. de Langle had only time to discharge the two barrels of his piece before he was knocked down; and unfortunately he fell over the larboard bow of the boat, where upwards of two hundred natives instantly massacred him with clubs and stones. When he was dead, they made him fast by the arm to one of the tholes of the long boat, no doubt to secure his spoil. The Boussole's long-boat, commanded by M. Boutin, was aground within four yards of the Astrolabe's, and parallel with her, so as to leave a little channel between them, which was unoccupied by the natives. Through this all the wounded men, who were so fortunate as not to fall on the other side of the boats, escaped by swimming to the barges, which, happily remaining afloat, were enabled to save forty-nine men out of the sixty-one.”

Amongst the wounded was Père Receveur, priest, naturalist and shoemaker, who later on died of his injuries at Botany Bay, and whose tomb there is as familiar as the LapérouseLaperouse monument.




  ― 64 ―
The anger of the Frenchmen at the treachery of the islanders was not less than their grief at the loss of their companions. LapérouseLaperouse, on the first impulse, was inclined to send a strongly-armed party ashore to avenge the massacre. But two of the officers who had escaped pointed out that in the cove where the incident occurred the trees came down almost to the sea, affording shelter to the natives, who would be able to shower stones upon the party, whilst themselves remaining beyond reach of musket balls.

“It was not without difficulty,” he wrote, “that I could tear myself away from this fatal place, and leave behind the bodies of our murdered companions. I had lost an old friend; a man of great understanding, judgment, and knowledge; and one of the best officers in the French navy. His humanity had occasioned his death. Had he but allowed himself to fire on the first natives who entered into the water to surround the boats, he would have prevented his own death as well as those of eleven other victims of savage ferocity. Twenty persons more were severely wounded; and this event deprived us for the time of thirty men, and the only two boats we had large enough to carry a sufficient number of men, armed, to attempt a descent. These considerations determined my subsequent conduct. The slightest loss would have compelled me to burn one of my ships in order to man the other. If my anger had required only the death of a few natives, I had had an opportunity after the massacre of sinking


  ― 65 ―
and destroying a hundred canoes containing upwards of five hundred persons, but I was afraid of being mistaken in my victims, and the voice of my conscience saved their lives.”

It was then that LapérouseLaperouse resolved to sail to Botany Bay, of which he had read a description in Cook's Voyages. His long-boats had been destroyed by the natives, but he had on board the frames of two new ones, and a safe anchorage was required where they could be put together. His crews were exasperated; and lest there should be a collision between them and other natives he resolved that, while reconnoitring other groups of islands to determine their correct latitude, he would not permit his sailors to land till he reached Botany Bay. There he knew that he could obtain wood and water.

On December 14 Oyolava (now called Upolu) was reached. Here again the ships were surrounded by canoes, and the angry French sailors would have fired upon them except for the positive orders of their commander. Throughout this unfortunate affair the strict sense of justice, which forbade taking general vengeance for the misdeeds of particular people, stands out strongly in the conduct of LapérouseLaperouse. He acknowledged in letters written from Botany Bay, that in future relations with uncivilised folk he would adopt more repressive measures, as experience taught him that lack of firm handling was by them regarded as weakness. But his tone in all his writings is humane and kindly.




  ― 66 ―
The speculations of LapérouseLaperouse concerning the origin of these peoples, are interesting, and deserve consideration by those who speak and write upon the South Seas. He was convinced that they are all derived from an ancient common stock, and that the race of woolly-haired men to be found in the interior of Formosa were the far-off parents of the natives of the Philippines, Papua, New Britain, the New Hebrides, the Friendly Islands, the Carolines, Ladrones, and Sandwich Groups. He believed that in those islands the interior of which did not afford complete shelter the original inhabitants were conquered by Malays, after which aboriginals and invaders mingled together, producing modifications of the original types. But in Papua, the Solomons and the New Hebrides, the Malays made little impression. He accounted for differences in appearance amongst the people of the islands he visited by the different degrees of Malay intermixture, and believed that the very black people found on some islands, “whose complexion still remains a few shades deeper than that of certain families in the same islands” were to be accounted for by certain families making it “a point of honour not to contaminate their blood.” The theory is at all events striking. We have a “White Australia policy” on the mainland to-day; this speculation assumes a kind of “Black Australasia policy” on the part of certain families of islanders from time immemorial.

The Friendly Islands were reached in December,


  ― 67 ―
but the commander had few and unimportant relations with them. On the 13th January, 1788, the ships made for Norfolk Island, and came to anchor opposite the place where Cook was believed to have landed. The sea was running high at the time, breaking violently on the rocky shores of the north east. The naturalists desired to land to collect specimens, but the heavy breakers prevented them. The commander permitted them to coast along the shore in boats for about half a league but then recalled them.

“Had it been possible to land, there was no way of getting into the interior part of the island but by ascending for thirty or forty yards the rapid stream of some torrents, which had formed gullies. Beyond these natural barriers the island was covered with pines and carpeted with the most beautiful verdure. It is probable that we should then have met with some culinary vegetables, and this hope increased our desire of visiting a land where Captain Cook had landed with the greatest facility. He, it is true, was here in fine weather, that had continued for several days; whilst we had been sailing in such heavy seas that for eight day, our ports had been shut and our dead-lights in. From the ship I watched the motions of the boats with my glass; and seeing, as night approached, that they had found no convenient place for landing, I made the signal to recall them, and soon after gave orders for getting under way. Perhaps I should have lost much time had I waited for a more favourable opportunity:


  ― 68 ―
and the exploring of this island was not worth such a sacrifice.”

At eight in the evening the ships got under way, and at day-break on the following morning sail was crowded for Botany Bay.

previous
next