Un linguiste à Vanikoro


Le souvenir du naufrage de 1788
May 13, 2005

Sea hero’s fate revealed after 217 years

Linguist sent to join search for clues to naval mystery

FRENCH scientists and divers in the South Pacific have finally answered the last question asked by Louis XVI as he waited to be guillotined in 1793: “Is there any news of Monsieur de la Pérouse?”

The King fretted until his final minutes about the disappearance of Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, a brilliant sailor whom he had dispatched with two frigates in 1785 to compete with Captain James Cook’s exploration of the Pacific.

This week the French confirmed that la Pérouse, who was last seen setting sail from Australia in early 1788, almost certainly died when his ship, La Boussole (the Compass), broke up on a reef off the remote island of Vanikoro in the Solomons.

An Irish sea captain learnt in 1826 that La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, the frigate captained by Paul-Antoine Fleuriot de Langle, had probably foundered at Vanikoro, a tiny atoll far from normal shipping routes, and that at least some of the 220 crew had survived. Subsequent expeditions uncovered the remains of two unidentified wrecks, the second in 1964.

The goal of this spring’s state-backed mission of 120 people was to ascertain the fate of the sailors, scientists and artists who vanished in one of the world’s most enduring naval mysteries. Had some of the “white ghosts” managed to leave the island, as local folklore had it? Had some stayed and mixed with the native Melanesians and Polynesians?

The team includes language experts charged with determining whether words in the local dialect could possibly have been handed down by the survivors.

A local bean is called the kasulay. As a native of the southwest, la Pérouse liked to feed his men cassoulet.

A breakthrough came last weekend, when the 2005 expedition discovered an 18th-century brass sextant in 40ft of water off Vanikoro, which had been aboard La Boussole. This identified la Pérouse’s vessel as the one that smashed to pieces on the reef, presumably in a tropical cyclone, leaving no chance of survival. The survivors are assumed to have come from the other wreck, L’Astrolabe, which beached less violently in a coral inlet.

“We are virtually certain that it was La Boussole that broke up on the reef and L’Astrolabe was the one that ran aground,” said Alain Conan, a businessman and president of the Solomon Association, who has spent the past 24 years trying to solve the mystery of la Pérouse.

Much of the enigma remains, M Conan acknowledged, but the fate of la Pérouse, an aristocratic captain who was a hero for winning battles against the British Navy in the Hudson Bay in Canada, now seems to have been established. M Conan said that it was also possible that la Perouse could have died before the ships reached the island because of the diseases that ravaged crews in the equatorial area.

Although France and England were competing for the Pacific, relations between the sailors were friendly. La Pérouse dined with Commodore Arthur Philip in Botany Bay, near what is now Sydney, in January 1788. The French ships had sailed in a few days after the British First Fleet landed to settle what was then New Holland. Philip sent la Pérouse’s logs back to France for him and Sydney named a suburb after the French navigator.

The 2005 expedition, which ends this week, has failed to find la Pérouse’s famed scientific treasures, but it has recovered dozens of artefacts, including a cannon, a wine glass and the foot from a skeleton believed to be that of a young French officer.

Jean-Christophe Galipaud, an archaeologist, reported yesterday that they had “confirmed the shape and dimensions of the French camp”, a site on the Bay of Paou where artefacts from the wrecks had previously been found. “We have managed in particular to pinpoint the village of Pokori, where the last survivor of the expedition is believed to have taken refuge and perhaps died,” he added.

Important findings could come from the work of Alexandre François, a specialist in Pacific languages who is the first researcher to try to learn the four local languages and glean tales of the wrecks without translation. Mr François said that he is wary of the contradictory legends circulating among the island’s historically feuding villages. According to these, some 50 or so survivors were eaten or died of disease within months, or sailed away in boats fashioned from the wreckage.