Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

FRIGATES THAT VANISHED IN THE SOUTH SEAS

WHEN our forefathers were fighting in the Revolution, which was not so very long ago in history, the world was a vastly entertaining place for a man who loved to wander in quest of bold adventures. Nowadays the unknown seas have all been charted, and it is not easy to realize that a great part of the watery globe was unexplored and trackless when George Washington led his ragged Continentals. There were no lean, hard-bitted Australian troops to rally to the call of the mother country when England was fighting most of Europe as well as the American Colonies, because not a solitary Briton had then set foot upon the mighty continent of the South Pacific.

For three centuries the high-pooped merchant ships and the roving buccaneers of all flags had been sailing on the trade routes to the New World and to the East Indies, but scarcely a solitary keel had furrowed the immense expanse of blue water which is called the South Seas. Daring traders as were the old skippers of Salem, it was not until 1811 that the first of them, in the bark Active, bartered a cargo with the Fiji Islanders, and he was only four years later than the pioneer ship of the British East India Company.

In the rivalry for the honors of discovery, France was moved by the desire to continue on the sea the illustrious traditions of her great explorers who had won empire in North America. The peace of Versailles in 1783 had ended her conflict with England, and although that absurd blockhead of a monarch, Louis XVI, was far more interested in exploring the menu of his next meal, there were noble spirits eager to win victories in peace as well as in war, and they persuaded the ministry to send a splendidly equipped expedition to the mysterious Pacific and the legendary coasts of Asia. Their choice of a leader was Captain Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, soldier and sailor, who had proved his mettle by destroying the Hudson's Bay posts as an act of war, and thereby wringing with anguish the hearts of the directors of that opulent British company.

La Pérouse is a shadowy name to this generation and wholly forgotten by most of us, but he was a great and gallant gentleman who was of the rare company of those that wrought enduring deeds in a younger, ruder world, and so helped to build for those who should come after him. It was his fate to vanish with his ships, and so utterly were those fine frigates and their hundreds of sailors erased from the seas that no fragment of tidings was discovered for almost forty years. Their disappearance was one of the sensations of an era in which shipwrecks were so frequent that they had to be quite extraordinary to arouse public attention.

The two frigates carried an elaborate party of scientists, which included a geographer, a civil engineer, a noted surgeon, an astronomer, a physicist, a botanist, and a clock-maker. They were prepared to survey, map, and investigate any distant shores which had been overlooked by the persistent English, Dutch, and Portuguese navigators. It was typical of French thoroughness that "Fleurien, the superintendent of ports and arsenals, contributed an entire volume of learned notes and discussions upon the results of all known voyages since the time of Christopher Columbus."

Laden with all manner of stores and merchandise the two ships La Boussole and L'Astrolabe sailed bravely out of the ancient port of Brest on August 30, 1785. By way of Madeira they ran the long slant across the Atlantic to Brazil, and during this first leg of the voyage La Pérouse showed himself to be a wonderfully capable leader. Those old wooden war-ships were so many pest-houses, as a rule, in which sailors sickened and died by scores during prolonged periods of sea duty. The quarters in which the men were crowded were wet and foul and unventilated in rough weather, and the diet of salt meat bred the disease of scurvy. The journal of this voyage says:

 

After ninety-six days' navigation we had not one case of illness on board. The health of the crew had remained unimpaired by change of climate, rain, and fog; but our provisions were of first-class quality; I neglected none of the precautions which experience and prudence suggested to me; and above all, we kept up our spirits by encouraging dancing every evening among the crew whenever the weather permitted.

 

Around Cape Horn and to the Sandwich Islands, which Captain Cook had discovered only a few years earlier, the lonely frigates steered their wandering course, and then northward to the Alaskan coast of America. While exploring a bay among the glaciers two boats were swamped and lost in the breakers, and the shipmates of the drowned officers and men built a monument of stone with this epitaph carved upon it:

 

At this entrance of this port, twenty-one brave sailors perished.
Whoever you may be, mingle your tears with ours.

 

Thence La Pérouse coasted down to Monterey Bay, and was cordially welcomed among the Spanish missions of California. He had it in mind to cross the unknown stretches of the Pacific, and so set out to reach China by a new sailing route. This brought him within sight of Guam, where he landed, and then he touched at Manila. Next he explored Formosa and the coast of Tartary, and tarried awhile among the primitive fishing folk of Saghalin and Kamchatka. It was pleasanter when the frigates turned southward again and floated in the warm and tranquil South Seas. The second in command, M. de Langle, was killed during a clash with the natives of the Navigator Islands, and thirty-two of the French sailors were slain or wounded while trying to fill the water-casks.

Short-handed and dismayed by this tragedy, La Pérouse went to Botany Bay, Australia, where the English were just then beginning to establish a colony, in order to send his sick and wounded ashore and to refit his worn, weary ships. They had been away from France almost three years, and the frigates hoisted sails that were patched and threadbare until it seemed as though a breeze would blow them from the yards. The clothes of the men were no better. The paint was weather-worn on the sides and bulwarks, weeds and barnacles grew thick on the planking, and the decks were cracked and blistered by tropical suns. They were like the phantom ships of some old sailor's yarn.

Yet La Pérouse was ready to go on with his quest, nor was there any sign of mutiny among his men. Most of them were hard and brown and healthy, and ready to follow him to other ends of the earth. It was his purpose to depart from Botany Bay and explore the Australian coast and the Friendly Islands, and finally to lay his course to reach Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, at the end of the year of 1788. This was the last word that came from him to France. Two more years passed, and not a ship had sighted the roving frigates, nor had they been seen in any port. The people of France were proud of La Pérouse and his romantic achievements, and although the unhappy nation was in the throes of revolution, the National Assembly passed a decree which read in part:

 
That the King be entreated ta give orders to all ambassadors, residents, consuls, and national agents at the courts of foreign powers that they may engage those different sovereigns, in the name of humanity and of the arts and sciences, to charge all navigators and agents whatsoever, their subjects, in whatever place they may be, but especially in the southerly part of the South Sea, to make inquiry after the two French frigates, La Boussole and L'Astrolabe, commanded by M. de la Pérouse as well as after their crews, and to obtain every information which may ascertain their existence or their shipwreck; so that in case M. de la Pérouse, and his companions should be found, no matter in what place, there shall be given to them every assistance, and all means procured for them, that they may be enabled to return to their country with whatever may belong to them. It is further decreed that the King be entreated to direct that one or more vessels be equipped and several learned and experienced persons embarked therein, to the commanders of which may be given in charge the double mission, to search after M. de la Pérouse and also at the same time to render this expedition useful and advantageous to navigation, to geography, and to the arts and sciences.
 

This hope of rescue appealed to the quick imagination of France. La Pérouse was a national hero. It was argued, with good reason, that he might be waiting on some solitary island of those empty seas where topsails had never yet lifted above the blue horizon. Again two frigates were elaborately fitted out at Brest, and rechristened, with a pretty touch of sentiment, la Recherche (The Research) and L'Esperance (The Hope) . They sailed early in 1791, touching at the Cape of Good Hope, where the vice-admiral in command got wind of a curious rumor that "near the Admiralty Islands in the Pacific Ocean the captain of a British sloop-of-war had seen men dressed in the European style and in what he took to be French uniforms."

This fanned the spark of expectation and seemed a promising trail to follow, but the most careful search failed to confirm the report. Among the reefs and islands the frigates cruised in vain until they had been away from home more than two years. Then without finding a trace of La Pérouse and all his gallant officers and patient, resolute seamen, they sailed to the Dutch East Indies. There they received amazing news from their beloved France. Louis XVI had been beheaded, and the agonized republic was at war with the armies of Europe. The Dutch officials of Sourabaya, regarding all Frenchmen as lawful enemies, held the crew of the frigates as prisoners, and this was the end of the search for La Pérouse.

The people of storm-tossed France had other things to think of, and they forgot all about the lost explorer and his ships' companies. There was reason to believe that some of them were alive when the two frigates had been trying to find them. In 1791 Captain Edwards was roaming the South Seas in the British frigate Pandora, whose mission was to run down and carry home for punishment the famous mutineers of the Bounty. He sighted the island of Vanikoro and ran along its shore, no more than a mile outside the barrier reef. In his log he noted that natives appeared to be attempting to communicate with him by means of smoke signals. Captain Edwards was a brave, but stupid, officer of the Royal Navy, and it failed to occur to him that the natives of this little island, which had been undiscovered until then, would be most unlikely to try to talk to him in this manner. In the light of later information there is every probability that this smoke was made by survivors of La Pérouse's party, and they were still marooned on Vanikoro several years after their shipwreck. Their emotions must have been profoundly melancholy when they saw the tall British frigate glide past unheeding and drop from their wistful vision.

It was not until 1813 that the first thread of this tangled skein of mystery was disclosed. La Pérouse had vanished a quarter of a century before, and his ships were long since listed on the sadly eloquent roll of "missing with all hands." It is hard to astonish a deep-water sailor, because nothing is too strange to happen at sea. The British merchantman Hunter, on a voyage from Calcutta to New South Wales and Canton, stopped at the Fiji Islands to pick up some sandalwood and bêche-de-mer by way of turning over a few dollars in trade. Already the beach-comber had begun to find a refuge from toil in the South Sea Islands, and Fiji was plagued with runaway sailors whose idea of paradise was to loaf and get drunk and dance with the girls.

While the Hunter was taking on her cargo, a party of these salt-water vagabonds engaged in a murderous row with the natives, who decided to be rid of them. The earnest intention of the embattled Fijian warriors was to exterminate their European guests. The chief mate of the Hunter, Mr. Dillon, happened to be ashore with a boat's crew, and he was a lusty man in a shindy, as his name might indicate. Out of the mêlée he succeeded in hauling a German beach-comber, Martin Bushart, who seems to have been a sober, decent fellow, and a Lascar sailor. They were taken off to the ship and allowed to remain there.

When the Hunter sailed for China, this derelict of a Martin Bushart made the singular request of Chief Officer Dillon that he be landed on the first island that happened to be convenient to the vessel's course. Dillon's story fails to explain why this simple-minded "Prussian," as he called him, should have desired to run the risk of being killed and perhaps eaten after he had escaped by the narrowest margin. However, the captain and the mate of the Hunter were obliging mariners who sensibly concluded that it was a man's own business if he yearned to hop from the frying-pan into the fire, and so they let the ship go toward the first land sighted after leaving Fiji.

This happened to be the island of Tucopia, and if you care to prick it off on the chart, Chief Officer Dillon gives the position as latitude 12° 15' S. and longitude 169° E. The Lascar sailor who also had been saved from the irate Fijians and their uplift movement elected to seek this new place of exile along with Martin Bushart as a sort of Man Friday to a Prussian Robinson Crusoe, and so the singular pair were left on the beach of Tucopia, where they waved an unperturbed farewell, while the Hunter hoisted colors and fired a gun to express her regards and best wishes. What kind of welcome the natives extended them is left to conjecture.

Mr. Dillon, when it came to writing about the episodes, unconsciously employed the trick of the playwright who permits so many years to elapse between the acts of the drama. Nothing could be more concise than his method of joining the facts together. He tells us:

 
We landed Martin Bushart and the Lascar on this island the 20th September, 1813. On the 13th of May, 1826, in command of my own ship, the St. Patrick, bound from Valparaiso to Pondicherry, I came in sight of the island of Tucopia. Prompted by curiosity, as well as regard for an old companion in danger, I hove my ship to off the island of Tucopia. Shortly a canoe put off from the island and came alongside. In it was the Lascar. Immediately after another canoe came off with Martin Bushart, the Prussian. They were both in sound health and were extremely rejoiced to see me. They informed me that the natives had treated them kindly; that no ship had touched there from the time they were first landed until about a year previous to my arrival when an English whaler visited the island for a short time.
 

Captain Dillon mentions the dates in a very casual fashion, but some years had elapsed with a vengeance—thirteen of them, in fact—during twelve of which Martin Bushart had dwelt contentedly without seeing the face of another white man. The ties that bound him to his island had been strong enough to hold him there when the chance was offered to sail away in the English whaler.

While the pair of them were visiting Captain Dillon on board of the St. Patrick, the Lascar showed the sailors a tarnished old silver sword-guard, and one of them bought it of him for a few fish-hooks. Captain Dillon happened to see it, and asked Martin Bushart where it had come from. In this strangely accidental way was revealed the clouded mystery of La Perouse and his lost frigates. Bushart explained that when he had first landed on the island the natives possessed as their chief treasures this ornate sword-guard, the handle of a silver fork, a few knives, tea-cups, glass beads and bottles, and a spoon engraved with a crest and monogram. In addition to these furnishings of a ship's cabin, they had also some iron bolts, chain-plates, and axes.

Martin Bushart had been curious to discover how these islanders had obtained such relics of disaster, for the Hunter was the first ship that had ever been seen off Tucopia when he was set ashore there in 1813. He was informed that a large group of islands called Manicola lay to leeward about two days' sail in a canoe, and that voyages were frequently made there for trade and sociability. It was from the people of Manicola that the articles of iron and silver had been obtained. Now, Captain Dillon remembered the story of La Pérouse, as did every shipmaster who traversed the South Seas, and so he examined the sword-guard and discovered engraved initials, faint and worn, but legible enough for him to surmise that they were those of the French discoverer and navigator.

His interest keen. Captain Dillon went ashore with Martin Bushart, who interpreted for him, and they held a long conversation with the chiefs of Tucopia. Many years before, so the tale ran, two great ships had anchored among the islands of Manicola. Before they were able to send any boats ashore or to become acquainted with the natives, a very sudden storm arose, and both ships were driven upon the reefs and were destroyed by the fury of the surf. The people of Manicola rushed in crowds to the beach, armed with clubs, spears, and bows and arrows, and the sailors of the ships fired muskets and big guns at them. This infuriated the people, who killed some of the shipwrecked men when they were washed ashore or managed to make a landing in their boats. The survivors showed a friendly spirit and offered axes, buttons, and trinkets as gifts, at which the people ceased to attack them.

The foreign sailors saved a large quantity of stores and other material from the wrecks, and at once began to build a small vessel from the timbers of the two shattered frigates. They worked with astonishing skill and speed, and built a schooner that was large enough to carry most of them away. The commander promised to return and bring off those whom he was compelled to leave behind. Crowded into this little makeshift craft, a large number of the officers and men of the lost Boussole and L'Astrolabe steered away from Manicola and were never heard of again. A second shipwreck swallowed them somewhere in the South Seas. It was impossible to ascertain whether La Pérouse himself was one of this company. Those who were left behind lived with the people of Manicola and were kindly treated by the chiefs.

The Lascar had made two voyages to Manicola and had actually talked with two aged Europeans, who told him that they had been wrecked many years before in a ship, the fragments of which they pointed out to him. They told him that no other ship had ever stopped there since and that most of their companions were dead, but that they had been scattered so widely among the islands of the group that it was impossible to know whether any more of them were still living. By the Lascar's reckoning, this would have been about thirty years after the disaster that overwhelmed the frigates of La Pérouse and, for all that is known, he himself may have been one of those aged men who dwelt so long beyond all knowledge of their countrymen in France and to whom the priceless gift of rescue was denied.

Captain Dillon was determined to proceed at once to Manicola and find and save those two aged castaways whom the Lascar believed to be Frenchmen. Leaving Tucopia, he cracked on sail, and Martin Bushart went with him, having concluded to return to civilization and much moved by the friend ship which prompted the Irish shipmaster to visit him after so many years had passed. The Lascar remained behind, having a large and happy family, which he declined to desert. Within sight of the Manicola group a dead calm held the good ship St. Patrick, and for seven days not a breath of wind stirred her spires of canvas. She was running short of provisions, leaking badly, and most reluctantly Captain Dillon was compelled to resume his voyage to India.

Reaching Calcutta, he presented a carefully written report to officials of the British Government and stated his conclusion that the remains of the expedition of La Pérouse were to be found among the islands of the Manicola group. The story was so credible that the Government made a ship ready and placed her in command of Captain Dillon, who got under way in January, 1827. It was September before he arrived at Tucopia, where he found the Lascar, who, for some reason of his own, refused to accompany the party to Manicola. Martin Bushart was still with Captain Dillon, however, and he conducted a thorough investigation among the people of his own island home in order to discover all the relics possible. Tucopia was systematically ransacked, and among the articles brought to light were more swords, bits of iron and copper, and silverware with the monogram of La Pérouse.

After a fortnight. Captain Dillon took his ship to Manicola, where the green mountains towered from the sea. Alas! no aged Frenchmen came down to the beach to greet them, nor could any living survivor be found. Almost forty years had gone since they were cast away, and the last of them had slipped his moorings, with a farewell sigh and a prayer for France. When Captain Dillon's party went ashore in a flotilla of armed boats, all the chief men of the island were assembled in the council-hall, and the most venerable and influential of them delivered himself of a long oration, the facts of which differed somewhat from the story as the natives of Tucopia had retold it to Martin Bushart and the Lascar. It is probable, however, that the patriarchal chief, speaking at first hand, told the truth when he said to Captain Dillon:

 
A long time ago the people of this island, upon coming out one morning, saw part of a ship on the reef opposite Paiow where it held together until the middle of the day when it was broken by the sea and fell to pieces so that large parts of it floated on shore along the coast. The ship got on the reef in the night when it blew a tremendous hurricane which broke down great numbers of our fruit trees. We had not seen the ship there the day before. Of those saved from her four men were on the beach at this place; whom we were about to kill, supposing them to be evil spirits, when they made a present to our chief of something and he saved their lives.

These men lived with us for a short time and then joined the rest of their own people on the other island of Paiow. None of these four men was a chief. They were only subordinate men who obeyed orders. The things which we have brought together to show you were procured from the ship wrecked on that reef where, at low water, our people were in the habit of diving and bringing up what they could find. Several pieces of the wreck floated on shore, from which we obtained some things; but nothing more has been found for a long, long time.

We killed none of the ship's crew at this place, but many dead bodies were cast up on the beach. On the same night another great ship struck a reef near another of our islands, Whanou, and went down. There were many men saved from her, and they built a little ship, and went away five moons after the big one was wrecked. While building it, they had a high fence of logs all around them to keep out the islanders, who were also afraid of them, and therefore there was not much intercourse between them.

The white men often used to look at the sun through something made of wood and brass, but they carried it away with them as being very precious. Two white men remained behind after the rest went away. These I remember, although there were more, no doubt. One of them was a chief and the other a common person, who attended on this other, his master. The white chief died about three years ago. His servant went away to another island with one of our chiefs some time before that. The only white men that the people of these islands have ever seen were those who came ashore from the two wrecked ships and you who stand before me now.
 

Obedient to orders, the friendly islanders had assembled for Captain Dillon's inspection everything that had been fished up or handed down to them from the pitiful fragments of La Pérouse's frigates. There was much iron and copper, broken chinaware, silver plate stamped with the lilies of France, a ship's bell, several brass cannon, and pewter dishes also bearing the fleur-de-lis. On the bronze bell was the emblem of the holy cross between images of the Saviour and the Virgin Mary, and so the symbols of religion, of faith, of suffering, and of consolation had been preserved for those survivors who grew old and died on these undiscovered islands of the South Seas.

It was evident that the frigates had driven ashore on two different islands of the group, and Captain Dillon visited the scenes of both disasters. Native divers explored the reefs and found cannon embedded in the sand and massive oaken timbers and other memorials which enabled him to fix the position of the ships. Of the stockade and the launching-ways upon which the stout-hearted French seamen had built their little schooner not a trace could be found. During forty years of luxuriant growth the jungle had obliterated man's handiwork, and the logs had rotted into mold.

The extraordinary fact was noted that the survivors who lingered into old age on these islands had left no written record or message behind them, not a word to indicate who they were. Lacking paper, they might have carved upon boards the brief epitome of their story or lettered it with charcoal on bits of bark, and the kindly chiefs of Manicola would have guarded the record with care. Like ghosts of sailormen, they lived in the memories and the traditions of these South Sea Islanders. Captain Dillon made an interesting discovery while exploring the reefs, and he thus describes it:

 

Being in want of water, two men from each boat landed with the water kegs and went up to the nearest house. On passing it, one of our people called out in Spanish, "Here is a fleur-de-lis, which M. Chaigneau and I, who followed and understood him, desired him to point out. He directed our attention to the door of a house where we saw at the bottom of the threshold a decayed piece of fir or pine plank with a fleur-de-lis and other ornamental work upon it. It had probably formed part of a ship's stern and when complete exhibited the national arms of France. It was placed upon edge to barricade the passage, for the double purpose of keeping the pigs out and the children in the house. This we bought for a hatchet.

 

It was in Captain Dillon's mind that one of the survivors had gone to another island, according to the old chief's story, and so after finishing the investigation of the Manicola group, he sailed to ransack the seas near by. Nothing came of the search, and the natives whom he questioned here and there had never seen or heard of other white men excepting in the legends of the wreck of the two great ships as they had listened to the tales and songs of visitors from Manicola. Captain Dillon returned to Calcutta, where his enterprise and success were highly approved by the British Government of India, which ordered him to proceed to France with the precious relics of the lost expedition of La Pérouse.

The Irish merchant skipper found that he had become a distinguished personage. His Most Christian Majesty, Charles X of France, was pleased to make him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, with an annuity of four thousand francs. Chevalier Dillon relates:

 
I was now taken to the French court and presented to the king who received me very graciously and conversed with me upon the subject of my voyage. He was well acquainted with the history of La Pérouse's expedition and addressed several judicious questions to me respecting the loss of that celebrated navigator, and inquired what was my opinion as to the probability of any of the crew being yet alive on the Solomon Islands. While in Paris I met several times with the Viscount Sesseps who is the only person of La Pérouse's expedition now known to be alive. He was attached to it twenty-six months and was landed at Kamchatka to convey dispatches and the charts and journals to France. He is now sixty-five years of age and in good health. He accompanied me one day to the Ministry of Marine for the purpose of viewing the relics procured at Manicola which he examined minutely. The piece of board with the fleur-de-lis on it, he observed, had most probably once formed a part of the ornamental work of the Boussole's stern on which the national arms of France were represented. The silver sword handle he also examined and said that such swords were worn by the officers of the expedition. With regard to the brass guns, having looked at them attentively, he observed that the four largest were such as stood on the quarter-deck of both ships, and that the smallest gun was such as they had mounted in the long-boats when going on shore among the savages. On noticing a small mill-stone, he turned around suddenly and expressed his surprise, exclaiming, "That is the best thing you have got!" We had some of them mounted on the quarter-deck to grind our grain.
 

Savants and naval officers weighed all the evidence, and were of the opinion that at least two of the survivors had been alive as late as 1824, or thirty-six years after the shipwreck, and that one of them was possibly La Pérouse. The theory was advanced that after his great adventure had been eclipsed by a misfortune so enormous, he might have been unwilling to return to France, fancying himself disgraced, and that he perhaps chose to maroon himself at Manicola when his comrades sailed away in their tiny schooner. Be that as it may, their fate was no less tragic, for the sea conquered them and left no sign or token. Long after Captain Dillon had made his famous voyage of discovery, the belief still persisted in France that La Pérouse and some of his officers and men were existing somewhere in the South Seas and awaiting the rescue that never came.

Soon after Captain Dillon visited Manicola, a French ship arrived there on a similar mission. Having satisfied himself as to the location of the wreck of the flag-ship, L'Astrolabe, the captain sent his crew ashore to erect an enduring monument of stone, upon which was carved the words:

"To the Memory of La Pérouse and his Companions."