Monsieur de la Perouse
On the 27th of December, Vavao was perceived, an island which Captain Cook had never visited, but was no stranger to its existence, as one of the archipelago of the Friendly Islands; it is nearly equal in extent to that of Tongataboo, and is particularly fortunate in having no deficiency of fresh water. The two small islands of Hoongatonga are no more than two large uninhabitable rocks, which are high enough to be seen at the distance of fifteen leagues. Their position is ten leagues north of Tongataboo; but that island being low, it can hardly be seen at half that distance. On the 31st of December, at six in the morning, an appearance like the tops of trees, which seemed to grow in the water, proved the harbinger of Van Dieman's point. The wind being northerly, La Perouse steered for the south coast of the island, which may, without danger, be approached within three musket-shots. Not the semblance of a hill is to be seen; a calm sea cannot present a more level surface to the eye. The huts of the natives were scattered irregularly over the fields, and not socially collected into a conversable neighborhood. Seven or eight canoes were launched from these habitations, and directed their course towards the vessels; but these islanders were awkward seamen, and did not venture to come near, though the water was smooth, and no obstacle impeded their passage. At the distance of about eight or ten feet, they leaped overboard and swam near the frigates, holding in each hand a quantity of cocoa-nuts, which they were glad to exchange for pieces of iron, nails, and hatchets; from the honesty of their dealings a friendly intercourse ensued between the islanders and the navigators, and they ventured to come on board.
Norfolk Island, off the coast of New South Wales, which they saw on the 13th of January, is very steep, but does not exceed eighty toises above the level of the sea. It is covered with pines, which appear to be of the same species as those of New Caledonia, or New Zealand. Captain Cook having declared that he saw many cabbage-trees in this island, heightened the desire of the navigators to land on it. Perhaps the palm which produces these cabbages is very small, for not a single tree of that species could be discovered. On the 26th, at nine in the morning, La Perouse let go the anchor at a mile from the north coast of Botany Bay, in seven fathoms water. An English lieutenant, and a midshipman, were sent on board his ship by Captain Hunter, commander of the Sirius. They offered him, in Captain Hunter's name, all the services in his power; but circumstances would not permit him to supply them with provision, ammunition, or sails. An officer was despatched from the French to the English Captain, returning thanks, and adding, that his wants extended only to wood and water, of which he should find plenty in the bay. The journal of La Perouse proceeds no further. La Perouse, according to his last letters from Botany Bay, was to return to the Isle of France in 1788.
They left Botany Bay in March, and, in a letter which the commodore wrote February 7, he stated his intention to continue his researches till December, when he expected, after visiting the Friendly Islands, to arrive at the Isle of France. This was the latest intelligence received of the fate of the expedition; and M. d' Entrecasteaux, who was despatched by the French government, in 1791, in search of La Perouse, was unable to trace the course he had taken, or gain any clew to the catastrophe which had befallen him and his companions.
In 1825 the attention of the public was excited towards this mysterious affair, by a notice published by the French minister of the marine, purporting that an American captain had declared that he had seen, in the hands of one of the natives of an island in the tract between Louisiade and New Caledonia, a cross of the order of St. Louis, and some medals, which appeared to have been procured from the shipwreck of La Perouse.
In consequence of this information, the commander of a vessel which sailed from Toulon, in April, 1826, on a voyage of discovery, received orders to make researches in the quarter specified, in order to restore to their country any of the shipwrecked crew who might yet remain in existence. Other intelligence, relative to the wreck of two large vessels, on two different islands of the New Hebrides, was obtained by Captain Dillon, the commander of an English vessel at Tucopia, in his passage from Valparaiso to Pondicherry, in May, 1826, in consequence of which he was sent back to ascertain the truth of the matter. The facts discovered by him on this mission, were, that the two ships struck on a reef at Mallicolo; one of them immediately went down, and all on board perished; some of the crew of the other escaped, part of whom were murdered by the savages; the remainder built a small vessel and set sail, but their fate is not known. It is not certain that these were the vessels of La Perouse.