Saturday, March 10, 2018

La Pérouse at Easter Island

In 1785, the French naval captain, Jean-François de Galaup de La Pérouse, was charged by King Louis XVI to undertake a scientific voyage around the world. After more than two and a half years at sea, the expedition set off from Australia, exactly 230 years ago today, to visit several Pacific islands, soon to be homeward bound - but the vessels and crew were never seen again. However, prior to departing, La Pérouse, who was a conscientious journal keeper, had dispatched his journals and letters with a British vessel returning to Europe. His papers eventually found their way back to Paris, where they were soon published in the original French, and then translated into English.

Jean François de Galaup was born in 1741 in Albi, in southern France, (though his father later added ‘
de La Pérouse’ to their name after some land he owned). He was educated at the local Jesuit college, and then entered the naval college in Brest. He fought in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). For a while, he was stationed at Isle of France (now Mauritius) where he met his future wife, Eleonore Broudou. Around 1780, he was promoted to commodore; he gained naval successes off the Canadian coast at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, in 1781, and Hudson’s Bay in 1782.

La Pérouse was chosen by Louis XVI and by the Secretary of State of the Navy, the Marquis de Castries, to lead a major scientific and geographic exploration around the world. With two frigates La Boussole and L’Astrolabe he left Brest in August 1785. His journey took him to Brazil, Chile, the Sandwich Islands, Alaska, California, Macao, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, and Siberia. Thereafter, the expedition sailed to the southern Pacific. Some of the crew were killed on the Samoa Islands, but the expedition made it to Botany Bay in Australia. Setting sail once more for New Caledonia and other Pacific islands on 10 March 1788, La Pérouse and all his crew were never heard of again. It seems, from evidence collected later, that they were killed on one of the Santa Cruz islands.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography has this assessment of the man: ‘La Pérouse is representative of the most accomplished of the 18th-century sailors. An excellent navigator, a brilliant combatant, a humane leader with a mind open to all the sciences of his time, he was always able to combine to advantage prudence and audacity, experience and theory. As resourceful as he was indefatigable, as amiable as he was firm, he had a talent for making everyone like him.’ Further information is also available from Wikipedia, Spartacus or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Throughout his voyage, starting in 1785, La Pérouse kept a journal. Fortuitously, while in Australia, he dispatched his journals, charts and letters in a British naval vessel heading back to Europe, and they were eventually brought to Paris. They were edited by M. L. A. Milet-Mureau in three volumes and published in 1797 in their original French language. This was translated into English the following year for publication as Voyage Round the World in the years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788 (and is freely available at Internet Archive). Much more recently, John Dunmore, a New Zealand-born historian and writer, has sought out the original papers, for a new two-volume edition published in 1994 by The Hakluyt Society as The Journal of Jean-François De Galaup de la Pérouse (reprinted by Routledge in 2011 - and on sale for £115!)

Dunmore records, in his preface, how he had some difficulty in tracking down La Pérouse’s manuscripts, but he also discusses why he persevered: ‘An expedition of such importance deserved recognition in the form of an annotated edition. James Cook had received the painstaking and devoted attention of J. C. Beaglehole, Bougainville’s journal was about to appear in a fine commemorative edition, Surville’s and J. R. Forster’s journals would soon follow: La Perouse could hardly be ignored. There was, of course, Milet-Mureau’s official publication of 1797, but there was no way to compare it with La Pérouse’s own writings. Even if Milet-Mureau had not taken the kind of liberties with the content and style that Hawkesworth had taken with Cook’s original journal, there was a dearth of acceptable footnotes. Milet-Mureau was neither a naval man nor a geographer; he was an army officer who had accepted the task of getting the manuscript ready for publication after several others, more qualified than him, had turned it down. He did his best, and the result was a credit to him, but his own style and indeed his own conclusions and preconceptions were everywhere apparent.’

And here is the beginning of La Pérouse’s own preface (as translated by Dunmore) in which he explains why he decided to keep a diary himself rather than delegate the task: ‘I could have entrusted the writing of my journal to a man of letters. It would have been in a purer style and sprinkled with reflections which would never have occurred to me; but that would have meant presenting oneself behind a mask, and one’s natural features, whatever they might be, seemed preferable. I have on several occasions regretted, on reading accounts of Captain Cook’s last two voyages, that he had borrowed another man’s pen for his first narrative. His descriptions of the customs, practices and art of various peoples left nothing to be desired, and the details of his navigation have always provided me with the enlightenment which I was seeking in order to guide my own: such advantages no editor can retain, and often the word which he sacrifices in order to create a more harmonious sentence is the one which a navigator would have preferred to all the rest.

Anyhow one cannot be attracted by such works without, at times, wishing to be in the traveller’s shoes, but at each line one meets only his shadow; and the actor who takes his place, although no doubt more elegant and more stylish, is an imperfect substitute. His various chapters were not written as the voyage proceeded; the outline of his navigation is evenly presented, although inevitably, being so vast and covering both hemispheres, it had undergone a thousand changes. His reflections lack the variations that arise out of the slightest events. In the end the man of letters shoulders aside the voyager, so to speak, and should he have his own preconceptions he will select from the journal only those facts which are likely to justify them. It was to avoid this danger that I refused all outside assistance.’

Here is one long extract from La Pérouse’s journal, early on in the expedition when he first sights Easter Island (taken from Dunmore’s edition, but for comparison see volume I of Milet-Mureau’s edition, page 527).

8-9 April 1786
‘On 8 April at 2 p.m. I saw Easter Island bearing from me W. 5d S. distant 12 leagues. The sea was very rough, the winds N. They had not been steady for four days, shifting from N. to S. by W. I do not believe that the proximity of a small island was the cause of these changes, and it is likely that the trade winds are not constant at this time of year in 27d. The headland in view was the E. point. I was on the exact spot where Captain Davis had come upon an sandy island and twelve leagues further on a land lying W. which Captain Cook and Mr Dalrimple believed was Easter Island rediscovered in 1722 by Roggewin, but these two sailors, although very well informed, did not sufficiently analyse what Waffer reported: he says (page 300 of the Rouen edition) that Captain Davis, leaving from the Galapagos with the intention of returning to Europe by way of Cape Horn and of putting in only at Juan Fernandez, felt a terrible blow in 12d of southern latitude and thought he had struck a rock; he had constantly kept to a southerly route and believed himself to be 120 leagues from the American continent; he later learnt that there had been an earthquake in Lima at the same moment. Having overcome his fear, he kept on S. to S.1/4S.E. and S.E. until he reached 27d 20’ and reports that at 2 a.m. a sound like a sea breaking on the shore was heard from ahead of the vessel; he hove to until morning and saw a small sandy island with no rocks around it; he came up to within a quarter mile of it and saw further off, 12 leagues to the W., a large land which was taken for a group of islands on account of breaks along it. Davis did not survey it and continued on his way to Juan Fernandez, but Waffer states that this small sandy island is 500 Ls from Copiago and 600 from the Galapagos. It has not been sufficiently pointed out that this result is impossible: if Davis, being in 12d of southern latitude and 150 Ls from the American coast, sailed S.S.E. as Waffer states, and obviously this buccaneer sailed with the E. winds which are very frequent in those waters, and taking into account his intention to going to Juan Fernandez island, there can be no doubt, as the Abbe Pingré has already indicated, that Dampierre’s calculations were wrong and that Davis Land, instead of being 500 Ls from Copiago, is only 200 leagues. It is therefore likely that Davis’s two islands are those of San Ambrosio and San Felix, a little further N. than Copiago; but the buccaneers’ pilots were not fussy and worked out their latitudes roughly to the nearest 30 or 40’. I would have spared my readers this little geography lesson if I had not had to oppose the views of two men deservedly famous; I must say however that Captain Cook was still unsure and says that if he had had time he would have solved the problem by sailing E. of Easter Island. As I covered 300 Ls along this parallel and saw no sandy island I think that no doubt should now remain and the question seems to me to be finally settled.

I sailed along the coast of Easter Island at a distance of 3 leagues during the night of 8 to 9 April. The sky was clear and in less than 3 hours the winds had veered from N. to S.E. At daybreak I made for Cook’s Bay - that is the one where one is best sheltered from the N. to S. by E. winds. It is only open to the W. winds and I had hopes that they would not blow for several days. At 11 a.m. I was only a league from this anchorage; the Astrolabe had already dropped anchor. I anchored quite close to that frigate, but the undertow was so strong that our anchors did not hold and we were forced to raise them and tack a couple of times to regain the anchorage.

This setback in no way lessened the natives’ enthusiasm. They swam behind us up a league offshore, and climbed aboard with a cheerfulness and a feeling of security which gave me the most favourable opinion of their character. A more suspicious people might have feared, when we set sail, to see itself torn from its relatives and carried away far from home, but the thought of such perfidy did not even seem to occur to them. They went about in our midst, naked and with no weapons, a mere string around the waist with a bunch of herbs to hide their natural parts.

Mr Hodgés, the painter who had accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage, has very inadequately [sic] reproduced their features. Generally speaking they are pleasing, but they vary a great deal, and do not have, like those of Malays, Chinese or Chileans, a character of its own. I made them various gifts. They preferred pieces of printed cloth, half an ell in size, to nails, knives or beads, but they greatly prized the hats of which we had too few to give to more than a very few. At 8 p.m. I took my leave of my new guests, making them understand by signs that I would be going ashore at dawn. They returned to their canoes, dancing, and jumped into the sea when within two musket shots from the shore over which the sea was breaking strongly; they had taken the precaution of making small parcels with my gifts, and each one had placed his on his head to protect it from the water.’

The Diary Junction

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