Hawaii – La Perouse Bay

L’Astrolabe & la Boussole at anchor in Maui (Hawaii) May 1786, Courtesy Musée de la Marine, France

La Perouse Bay (photos courtesy of Donna Osland)

After Easter Island Laperouse sailed onto Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands after Lord Sandwich) where he became the first European to set foot on the island of Maui.

Laperouse writes(extracts from Journal trans. John Dunmore): “on 15 May I was in latitude N.19d17′ and longitude W. of Paris 132d, that is to say in the same latitude as the island group on the Spanish charts as well as that of the Sandwich Islands, but 1000 Ls further E. than the former and 460 LsE. of the others.  Wishing to render an important service to geography by deleting from the charts these pointless names which apply to non-existent islands and merely serve to perpetuate errors that are harmful to navigation, I decided to continue my route as far as the Sandwich Islands so that no doubt might remain;  I even planned to pass through the channel separating the islands of Owhyhee and Mowee(Maui) which the English were not able to explore, and I proposed to land on Mowhee, purchase food supplies andleave without wasting an instant.  I knew that if I followed this programme only in part and covered only 200 leagues along this route thre would still be some doubters left, and I did not want the slightest challenge to be raised to my conclusions. ….On the 20th I had sailed through the middle of the entire Las Mojas group and I had never seen the slightest indication of any land close by.  I continued to sail W. along the parallel of 20d to 21d.  Finally, on the morning of the 28th, I sighted the mountains of Owhyhee which were covered with snow and not long after those of Mowee, a little lower than the former.  ………. The longitudes we observed were so much in agreement with those of Captain Cook that having adjusted our bearings with those of the English chart we had only a difference of 10′, being more E.  At 8 a.m. I saw Mowhee point bearing W.15dN.  To the W. 22d N I could see an islet which the English were not in a position to notice…..the island of Mowhee looked delightful….the coast trends SW 1/4W.  We could see waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside into the sea, after providing water for the natives’ homes; these are so numerous that one might mistake an area of 3 or 4 Ls for a single village;  but all the huts were along the seashore and the mountains are so close that it seemed to me that the space available for habitations was less than half a league in depth.   One needs to be a sailor and be reduced as we were, in these hot climates, to a bottle of water a day to understand our feelings:  the trees crowning the mountains, the greenery, the banana trees we could see around the houses, all this gave rise to a feeling of inexpressible delight;  the the waves were breaking wildly against the rocks and, like new Tantaluses, we were reduced to yearning, devouring with our eyes what was beyond our reach.  The winds had strengthened and we were sailing at 2 Ls an hour.  I wanted to complete the survey of all this part of the coastline before nightfall as far as Morokine where I hoped to find an anchorage that was sheltered from the trade winds;  this plan, forced on me by the overriding circumstances in which we were placed, did not allow me to shorten sail so as to wait for some 150 canoes coming to us from the shore, laden with fruit and pigs which the natives intended tob arter for pieces of iron.  Nearly all these canoes came up to one or the other frigate, but our speed was such that they filled with water once alongside us;  the natives were forced to let go of the rope we had thrown down to them – they jumped into the water and swam after their pigs, and bringing them back in their arms they then lifted their canoes over their shoulders, emptied the water and happily clambered back in, endeavouring to row back to the position they had forsaken near our frigates and which others had at once taken over until the same misfortune befell them;  I saw over 40 canoes swamped in this manner, so that although our trading with these good people was greatly welcomed by both parties we were unable to obtain more than 15 pigs and a little fruit, and possible missed the chance of buying another 300. The canoes were equiped with an outrigger.  Each one carried 3 to 5 men.  The length of the average canoe was possibly 24 feet, with one foot in width and much the same in depth.  I weighed one of this size which did not exceed fifty pounds.  It is with such frail craft that the inhabitants of these islands undertake journeys of 60 Ls, crossing channels where the sea can be very rough, 20 leagues wide like those of the island of Atooi and that of Woahoo but they are such good swimmers that only seals could be fairly compared with them. ……….  We only found shelter when we were faced with a frightful shore, where the lava had once run down as waterfalls do today in the other part of the island. …Natives from villages in this part of the island hastened to come up to the ships in their canoes, bring good to barter, such as pigs, sweet potatoes, bananas, arum roots(which the natives call taro) with some cloth and other curiosities forming part of their attire. I was prepared to allow them to come aboard only after the grigate was at anchor and the sails furled:  I told them this was taboo and this word, which I knew from the English narrative, had all the effect I was hoping;  Mr de Langle who had not taken the same precaution found the deck of his frigate disrupted by a crowd of these natives, but they were so docile that it was quite easy to persuade them to return to their canoes.  I had not expected such a gentle and considerate people:  when I allowed them to come up on board my frigate, they did not make a single move without our permission – they seemed always concerned not to incur our displeasure:  they were most meticulous in their bartering;  our old metal hoops appealed greatly to them, and they were very skilful in their attempts to obtain them;  they never sold a quantity of cloth or several pigs as one lot, fully aware that they would get a better deal by agreeing on a erpcie for each item.  This familiarity with trade, this knowledge of iron which, from their own evidence, they did not get from the English, are new proofs of the intercourse which these people had with the Spanish in early times.  That nation, a century ago, had very good reasons to conceal the existence of these islands because the western seas of America were infested by pirates who would have found food supplies among these islanders, but who on the contrary were forced to sail W. towards the Indian seas or return to the Atlantic sea by way of Cape Horn……..  The English narratives have made their form of government known, and the high degree of discipline which reigns among these islanders proves the existence of an accepted system of authority running from the king to the least of the chiefs and bears on the lower class.  My imagination compared them to the inhabitants of Easter Island….Comparing the two people, I favoured the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands, even though, on account of the death of Captain Cook, I was prejudiced against them.  It is more natural for navigators to feel regret at the loss of so great a man than to assess coolly whether some imprudent action  on his part did not, in some way, compel the inhabitants of Owhyhee to have recourse to a justified defence.  ………….  After visiting the village, I ordered 6 soldiers, led by a sergeant, to accompany us.  I left the others on the shore under the leadership of Mr de Pierrevert.  Their task was to guard our boats, from which no sailor had landed.

 Although the French are the first to have stepped onto the island of Mowee in recent times, I did not take possession of it in the King’s name.  This European practice is too utterly ridiculous, and philosophers must reflect with some sadness that, because one has muskets and canons, one looks upon 60000 inhabitants as worth nothing, ignoring their rights over a land where for centuries their ancestors have been buried, which they have watered with their sweat, and whose fruits they pick to bring them as offerings to the so-called new landlords.  It is fortunate for these people that they have been discovered in an age when religion is no longer a pretext for violence and greed.  Modern navigators have no other purpose when they describe the customs of newly discovered people than to complete the story of mankind. Their navigation must round off our knowledge of the globe, and the enlightenment which they try to spread has no other aim than to increase the happiness of the islanders they meet, as they add to their means of subsistence by introducing in the different islands bulls, cows, goats, ewes, rams, etc. They have also planted trees and sowed seeds from every country, and brought iron tools which should enable their skills to make very rapid progress.  We would have felt ourselves well regarded for the great hardships this campaign has caused us if we had succeeded in eradicating the practice of human sacrifices that is common among most of the South Sea islanders.

..  On 1 June at 6p.m. we were away from all the islands…A matter worth recording is that the same shoal travelled 1500 Ls with our frigates, that several bonitos which had been wounded by our small harpoons bore the scars on their backs, a form of identification we could not mistake, and thus we recognised every day the same fish we had seen the day before.”


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