The Caribbean islands soon entered common history, as the routes across
the Atlantic were marked in the 17th century. In the 18th c. the routes
across the Pacific, which Magellan had opened, were traced out. Fantastic
ocean, perhaps too wide, where islands and winds gave shelter to navigation
and had unknown worlds and imaginary treasures to offer. Its extension
still allowed the belief in the existence of an unknown continent, the
“terra australis”, and it nurtured the fabulous legends
of these waters and of the inhabitants of its lands. At a time when
navigation relied fully on the winds and the skilfulness of captains,
where Spaniards were the first to discover the remedy to fight scurvy
with the intake of fresh foods, above all citrus fruits, in the era
of the great sailing ships, three expeditions were carried out which
still today seem incredible: that of British Captain Cook, that of the
grand Spaniard Alejandro Malaspina, and that of Frech La Pérousse.
The names of the ships have mythical connotations today: L’Astrolabe,
La Récherche, La Boussole and Malaspina’s La Descubierta
and La Atrevida. None of these brave captains, however, was lucky: Cook
was killed in Hawaii; on his return, Malaspina was sentenced by the
Inquisition, incarcerated and sent into exile in Sicily, where he died
in abject poverty; and La Pérousse succumbed with his ships.
Their voyages, however, came to nurture not only imagination but also
science; even in recent times many anthropologists have taken these
men’s notes as their first reference, especially Malaspina’s,
for the observation skills and the intelligence of this exceptional
sailor. La Perousse’s immortality might be the most worked-out
of all, since Jules Verne’s story of his adventure made him relive
in thousands of imaginations.
CHAPTER XVIII VANIKORO
This terrible spectacle was the forerunner of the series of maritime catastrophes
that the Nautilus was destined to meet with in its route. As long as
it went through more frequented waters, we often saw the hulls of shipwrecked
vessels that were rotting in the depths, and deeper down cannons, bullets,
anchors, chains, and a thousand other iron materials eaten up by rust.
However, on the 11th of December we sighted the Pomotou Islands, the
old "dangerous group" of Bougainville, that extend over a
space of 500 leagues at E.S.E. to W.N.W., from the Island Ducie to that
of Lazareff. This group covers an area of 370 square leagues, and it
is formed of sixty groups of islands, among which the Gambier group
is remarkable, over which France exercises sway. These are coral islands,
slowly raised, but continuous, created by the daily work of polypi.
Then this new island will be joined later on to the neighbouring groups,
and a fifth continent will stretch from New Zealand and New Caledonia,
and from thence to the Marquesas.
One day, when I was suggesting this theory to Captain Nemo, he replied
"The earth does not want new continents, but new men."
On 15th of December, we left to the east the bewitching group of the
Societies and the graceful Tahiti, queen of the Pacific. I saw in the
morning, some miles to the windward, the elevated summits of the island.
These waters furnished our table with excellent fish, mackerel, bonitos,
and some varieties of a sea-serpent.
On the 25th of December the Nautilus sailed into the midst of the New
Hebrides, discovered by Quiros in 1606, and that Bougainville explored
in 1768, and to which Cook gave its present name in 1773. This group
is composed principally of nine large islands, which form a band of
120 leagues N.N.S. to S.S.W., between 15º and 2º S. lat.,
and 164º and 168º long. We passed tolerably near to the Island
of Aurou, which at noon looked like a mass of green woods, surmounted
by a peak of great height.
That day being Christmas Day, Ned Land seemed to regret sorely the non-celebration
of "Christmas," the family fete of which Protestants are so
fond. I had not seen Captain Nemo for a week, when, on the morning of
the 27th, he came into the large drawing-room, always seeming as if
he had seen you five minutes before. I was busily tracing the route
of the Nautilus on the planisphere. The Captain came up to me, put his
finger on one spot on the chart, and said this single word: "Vanikoro."
The effect was magical! It was the name of the islands on which La Perouse
had been lost! I rose suddenly.
"The Nautilus has brought us to Vanikoro?" I asked.
"Yes, Professor," said the Captain.
"And I can visit the celebrated islands where the Boussole and the
"If you like, Professor."
"When shall we be there?"
"We are there now."
Followed by Captain Nemo, I went up on to the platform, and greedily
scanned the horizon.
To the N.E. two volcanic islands emerged of unequal size, surrounded
by a coral reef that measured forty miles in circumference. We were
close to Vanikoro, really the one to which Dumont d'Urville gave the
name of Isle de la Recherche, and exactly facing the little harbour
of Vanou, situated in 16º 4' S. lat., and 164º 32' E. long.
The earth seemed covered with verdure from the shore to the summits
in the interior that were crowned by Mount Kapogo, 476 feet high. The
Nautilus, having passed the outer belt of rocks by a narrow strait,
found itself among breakers where the sea was from thirty to forty fathoms
deep. Under the verdant shade of some mangroves I perceived some savages,
who appeared greatly surprised at our approach. In the long black body,
moving between wind and water, did they not see some formidable cetacean
that they regarded with suspicion?
Just then Captain Nemo asked me what I knew about the wreck of La Perouse.
"Only what everyone knows, Captain," I replied.
"And could you tell me what everyone knows about it?" he inquired,
I related to him all that the last works of Dumont d'Urville had made
known – works from which the following is a brief account.
La Perouse, and his second, Captain de Langle, were sent by Louis XVI,
in 1785, on a voyage of circumnavigation. They embarked in the corvettes
Boussole and the Astrolabe, neither of which were again heard of. In
1791, the French Government, justly uneasy as to the fate of these two
sloops, manned two large merchantmen, the Recherche and the Esperance,
which left Brest the 28th of September under the command of Bruni d'Entrecasteaux.
Two months after, they learned from Bowen, commander of the Albemarle,
that the debris of shipwrecked vessels had been seen on the coasts of
New Georgia. But D'Entrecasteaux, ignoring this communication –
rather uncertain, besides – directed his course towards the Admiralty
Islands, mentioned in a report of Captain Hunter's as being the place
where La Perouse was wrecked.
They sought in vain. The Esperance and the Recherche passed before Vanikoro
without stopping there, and, in fact, this voyage was most disastrous,
as it cost D'Entrecasteaux his life, and those of two of his lieutenants,
besides several of his crew.
Captain Dillon, a shrewd old Pacific sailor, was the first to find unmistakable
traces of the wrecks. On the 15th of May, 1824, his vessel, the St.
Patrick, passed close to Tikopia, one of the New Hebrides. There a Lascar
came alongside in a canoe, sold him the handle of a sword in silver
that bore the print of characters engraved on the hilt. The Lascar pretended
that six years before, during a stay at Vanikoro, he had seen two Europeans
that belonged to some vessels that had run aground on the reefs some
Dillon guessed that he meant La Perouse, whose disappearance had troubled
the whole world. He tried to get on to Vanikoro, where, according to
the Lascar, he would find numerous debris of the wreck, but winds and
tides prevented him.
Dillon returned to Calcutta. There he interested the Asiatic Society
and the Indian Company in his discovery. A vessel, to which was given
the name of the Recherche, was put at his disposal, and he set out,
23rd January, 1827, accompanied by a French agent.
The Recherche, after touching at several points in the Pacific, cast
anchor before Vanikoro, 7th July, 1827, in that same harbour of Vanou
where the Nautilus was at this time.
There it collected numerous relics of the wreck – iron utensils,
anchors, pulley-strops, swivel-guns, an 18 lb. shot, fragments of astronomical
instruments, a piece of crown work, and a bronze clock, bearing this
inscription: "Bazin m'a fait," the mark of the foundry of
the arsenal at Brest about 1785. There could be no further doubt.
Dillon, having made all inquiries, stayed in the unlucky place till October.
Then he quitted Vanikoro, and directed his course towards New Zealand;
put into Calcutta, 7th April, 1828, and returned to France, where he
was warmly welcomed by Charles X.
But at the same time, without knowing Dillon's movements, Dumont d'Urville
had already set out to find the scene of the wreck. And they had learned
from a whaler that some medals and a cross of St. Louis had been found
in the hands of some savages of Louisiade and New Caledonia. Dumont
d'Urville, commander of the Astrolabe, had then sailed, and two months
after Dillon had left Vanikoro he put into Hobart Town. There he learned
the results of Dillon's inquiries, and found that a certain James Hobbs,
second lieutenant of the Union of Calcutta, after landing on an island
situated 8º 18' S. lat., and 156º 30' E. long., had seen some
iron bars and red stuffs used by the natives of these parts. Dumont
d'Urville, much perplexed, and not knowing how to credit the reports
of low-class journals, decided to follow Dillon's track.
On the 10th of February, 1828, the Astrolabe appeared off Tikopia, and
took as guide and interpreter a deserter found on the island; made his
way to Vanikoro, sighted it on the 12th inst., lay among the reefs until
the 14th, and not until the 20th did he cast anchor within the barrier
in the harbour of Vanou.
On the 23rd, several officers went round the island and brought back
some unimportant trifles. The natives, adopting a system of denials
and evasions, refused to take them to the unlucky place. This ambiguous
conduct led them to believe that the natives had ill-treated the castaways,
and indeed they seemed to fear that Dumont d'Urville had come to avenge
La Perouse and his unfortunate crew.
However, on the 26th, appeased by some presents, and understanding that
they had no reprisals to fear, they led M. Jacquireot to the scene of
There, in three or four fathoms of water, between the reefs of Pacou
and Vanou, lay anchors, cannons, pigs of lead and iron, embedded in
the limy concretions. The large boat and the whaler belonging to the
Astrolabe were sent to this place, and, not without some difficulty,
their crews hauled up an anchor weighing 1,800 lbs., a brass gun, some
pigs of iron, and two copper swivel-guns.
Dumont d'Urville, questioning the natives, learned too that La Perouse,
after losing both his vessels on the reefs of this island, had constructed
a smaller boat, only to be lost a second time. Where, no one knew.
But the French Government, fearing that Dumont d'Urville was not acquainted
with Dillon's movements, had sent the sloop Bayonnaise, commanded by
Legoarant de Tromelin, to Vanikoro, which had been stationed on the
west coast of America. The Bayonnaise cast her anchor before Vanikoro
some months after the departure of the Astrolabe, but found no new document;
but stated that the savages had respected the monument to La Perouse.
That is the substance of what I told Captain Nemo.
"So," he said, "no one knows now where the third vessel
perished that was constructed by the castaways on the island of Vanikoro?"
"No one knows."
Captain Nemo said nothing, but signed to me to follow him into the large
saloon. The Nautilus sank several yards below the waves, and the panels
I hastened to the aperture, and under the crustations of coral, covered
with fungi, I recognised certain debris that the drags had not been
able to tear up--iron stirrups, anchors, cannons, bullets, capstan fittings,
the stem of a ship, all objects clearly proving the wreck of some vessel,
and now carpeted with living flowers. While I was looking on this desolate
scene, Captain Nemo said, in a sad voice:
"Commander La Perouse set out 7th December, 1785, with his vessels
La Boussole and the Astrolabe. He first cast anchor at Botany Bay, visited
the Friendly Isles, New Caledonia, then directed his course towards
Santa Cruz, and put into Namouka, one of the Hapai group. Then his vessels
struck on the unknown reefs of Vanikoro. The Boussole, which went first,
ran aground on the southerly coast. The Astrolabe went to its help,
and ran aground too. The first vessel was destroyed almost immediately.
The second, stranded under the wind, resisted some days. The natives
made the castaways welcome. They installed themselves in the island,
and constructed a smaller boat with the debris of the two large ones.
Some sailors stayed willingly at Vanikoro; the others, weak and ill,
set out with La Perouse. They directed their course towards the Solomon
Islands, and there perished, with everything, on the westerly coast
of the chief island of the group, between Capes Deception and Satisfaction."
"How do you know that?"
"By this, that I found on the spot where was the last wreck."
Captain Nemo showed me a tin-plate box, stamped with the French arms,
and corroded by the salt water. He opened it, and I saw a bundle of
papers, yellow but still readable.
They were the instructions of the naval minister to Commander La Perouse,
annotated in the margin in Louis XVI's handwriting.
"Ah! it is a fine death for a sailor!" said Captain Nemo, at
last. "A coral tomb makes a quiet grave; and I trust that I and
my comrades will find no other."
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea Julio Verne.