CHAPTER 19

Vanikoro

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THIS DREADFUL SIGHT was the first of a whole series of maritime

catastrophes that the Nautilus would encounter on its run.

When it plied more heavily traveled seas, we often saw wrecked hulls

rotting in midwater, and farther down, cannons, shells, anchors, chains,

and a thousand other iron objects rusting away.

Meanwhile, continuously swept along by the Nautilus, where we lived

in near isolation, we raised the Tuamotu Islands on December 11,

that old "dangerous group" associated with the French global

navigator Commander Bougainville; it stretches from Ducie Island

to Lazareff Island over an area of 500 leagues from the east-southeast

to the west-northwest, between latitude 13 degrees 30'

and 23 degrees 50' south, and between longitude 125 degrees 30'

and 151 degrees 30' west.  This island group covers a surface area

of 370 square leagues, and it's made up of some sixty subgroups,

among which we noted the Gambier group, which is a French protectorate.

These islands are coral formations.  Thanks to the work of polyps, a slow

but steady upheaval will someday connect these islands to each other.

Later on, this new island will be fused to its neighboring island groups,

and a fifth continent will stretch from New Zealand and New Caledonia

as far as the Marquesas Islands.

The day I expounded this theory to Captain Nemo, he answered me coldly:

"The earth doesn't need new continents, but new men!"

Sailors' luck led the Nautilus straight to Reao Island, one of the most

unusual in this group, which was discovered in 1822 by Captain Bell

aboard the Minerva.  So I was able to study the madreporic process

that has created the islands in this ocean.

Madrepores, which one must guard against confusing with precious coral,

clothe their tissue in a limestone crust, and their variations in

structure have led my famous mentor Professor Milne-Edwards to classify

them into five divisions.  The tiny microscopic animals that secrete

this polypary live by the billions in the depths of their cells.

Their limestone deposits build up into rocks, reefs, islets, islands.

In some places, they form atolls, a circular ring surrounding

a lagoon or small inner lake that gaps place in contact with

the sea.  Elsewhere, they take the shape of barrier reefs,

such as those that exist along the coasts of New Caledonia

and several of the Tuamotu Islands.  In still other localities,

such as Réunion Island and the island of Mauritius, they build

fringing reefs, high, straight walls next to which the ocean's

depth is considerable.

While cruising along only a few cable lengths from the underpinning

of Reao Island, I marveled at the gigantic piece of work accomplished

by these microscopic laborers.  These walls were the express

achievements of madrepores known by the names fire coral,

finger coral, star coral, and stony coral.  These polyps grow

exclusively in the agitated strata at the surface of the sea,

and so it's in the upper reaches that they begin these substructures,

which sink little by little together with the secreted rubble

binding them.  This, at least, is the theory of Mr. Charles Darwin,

who thus explains the formation of atolls--a theory superior,

in my view, to the one that says these madreporic edifices sit

on the summits of mountains or volcanoes submerged a few feet

below sea level.

I could observe these strange walls quite closely:  our sounding lines

indicated that they dropped perpendicularly for more than 300 meters,

and our electric beams made the bright limestone positively sparkle.

In reply to a question Conseil asked me about the growth rate

of these colossal barriers, I thoroughly amazed him by saying

that scientists put it at an eighth of an inch per biennium.

"Therefore," he said to me, "to build these walls, it took . . . ?"

"192,000 years, my gallant Conseil, which significantly extends

the biblical Days of Creation.  What's more, the formation of coal--

in other words, the petrification of forests swallowed by floods--

and the cooling of basaltic rocks likewise call for a much longer

period of time.  I might add that those 'days' in the Bible

must represent whole epochs and not literally the lapse of time

between two sunrises, because according to the Bible itself,

the sun doesn't date from the first day of Creation."

When the Nautilus returned to the surface of the ocean, I could take

in Reao Island over its whole flat, wooded expanse.  Obviously its

madreporic rocks had been made fertile by tornadoes and thunderstorms.

One day, carried off by a hurricane from neighboring shores,

some seed fell onto these limestone beds, mixing with decomposed

particles of fish and marine plants to form vegetable humus.

Propelled by the waves, a coconut arrived on this new coast.

Its germ took root.  Its tree grew tall, catching steam off the water.

A brook was born.  Little by little, vegetation spread.

Tiny animals--worms, insects--rode ashore on tree trunks snatched

from islands to windward.  Turtles came to lay their eggs.

Birds nested in the young trees.  In this way animal life developed,

and drawn by the greenery and fertile soil, man appeared.

And that's how these islands were formed, the immense achievement

of microscopic animals.

Near evening Reao Island melted into the distance, and the Nautilus

noticeably changed course.  After touching the Tropic of Capricorn

at longitude 135 degrees, it headed west-northwest, going back up

the whole intertropical zone.  Although the summer sun lavished

its rays on us, we never suffered from the heat, because thirty

or forty meters underwater, the temperature didn't go over 10

degrees to 12 degrees centigrade.

By December 15 we had left the alluring Society Islands in the west,

likewise elegant Tahiti, queen of the Pacific.  In the morning

I spotted this island's lofty summits a few miles to leeward.

Its waters supplied excellent fish for the tables on board:

mackerel, bonito, albacore, and a few varieties of that sea serpent

named the moray eel.

The Nautilus had cleared 8,100 miles.  We logged 9,720 miles

when we passed between the Tonga Islands, where crews from

the Argo, Port-au-Prince, and Duke of Portland had perished,

and the island group of Samoa, scene of the slaying of Captain

de Langle, friend of that long-lost navigator, the Count de

La Pérouse. Then we raised the Fiji Islands, where savages

slaughtered sailors from the Union, as well as Captain Bureau,

commander of the Darling Josephine out of Nantes, France.

Extending over an expanse of 100 leagues north to south, and over 90

leagues east to west, this island group lies between latitude 2

degrees and 6 degrees south, and between longitude 174 degrees and 179

degrees west.  It consists of a number of islands, islets, and reefs,

among which we noted the islands of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, and Kadavu.

It was the Dutch navigator Tasman who discovered this group in 1643,

the same year the Italian physicist Torricelli invented the barometer

and King Louis XIV ascended the French throne.  I'll let the reader

decide which of these deeds was more beneficial to humanity.

Coming later, Captain Cook in 1774, Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux in 1793,

and finally Captain Dumont d'Urville in 1827, untangled the whole

chaotic geography of this island group.  The Nautilus drew near

Wailea Bay, an unlucky place for England's Captain Dillon, who was

the first to shed light on the longstanding mystery surrounding

the disappearance of ships under the Count de La Pérouse.

This bay, repeatedly dredged, furnished a huge supply of

excellent oysters.  As the Roman playwright Seneca recommended,

we opened them right at our table, then stuffed ourselves.

These mollusks belonged to the species known by name as Ostrea lamellosa,

whose members are quite common off Corsica.  This Wailea oysterbank

must have been extensive, and for certain, if they hadn't been

controlled by numerous natural checks, these clusters of shellfish

would have ended up jam-packing the bay, since as many as 2,000,000

eggs have been counted in a single individual.

And if Mr. Ned Land did not repent of his gluttony at our oyster fest,

it's because oysters are the only dish that never causes indigestion.

In fact, it takes no less than sixteen dozen of these headless

mollusks to supply the 315 grams that satisfy one man's minimum

daily requirement for nitrogen.

On December 25 the Nautilus navigated amid the island group

of the New Hebrides, which the Portuguese seafarer Queirós

discovered in 1606, which Commander Bougainville explored in 1768,

and to which Captain Cook gave its current name in 1773.

This group is chiefly made up of nine large islands and forms a

120-league strip from the north-northwest to the south-southeast, lying

between latitude 2 degrees and 15 degrees south, and between longitude

164 degrees and 168 degrees. At the moment of our noon sights,

we passed fairly close to the island of Aurou, which looked to me

like a mass of green woods crowned by a peak of great height.

That day it was yuletide, and it struck me that Ned Land badly

missed celebrating "Christmas," that genuine family holiday where

Protestants are such zealots.

I hadn't seen Captain Nemo for over a week, when, on the morning

of the 27th, he entered the main lounge, as usual acting as if he'd

been gone for just five minutes.  I was busy tracing the Nautilus's

course on the world map.  The captain approached, placed a finger

over a position on the chart, and pronounced just one word:

"Vanikoro."

This name was magic!  It was the name of those islets

where vessels under the Count de La Pérouse had miscarried.

I straightened suddenly.

"The Nautilus is bringing us to Vanikoro?"  I asked.

"Yes, professor," the captain replied.

"And I'll be able to visit those famous islands where the Compass

and the Astrolabe came to grief?"

"If you like, professor."

"When will we reach Vanikoro?"

"We already have, professor."

Followed by Captain Nemo, I climbed onto the platform, and from there

my eyes eagerly scanned the horizon.

In the northeast there emerged two volcanic islands of unequal size,

surrounded by a coral reef whose circuit measured forty miles.

We were facing the island of Vanikoro proper, to which

Captain Dumont d'Urville had given the name "Island of the Search";

we lay right in front of the little harbor of Vana, located in latitude

16 degrees 4' south and longitude 164 degrees 32' east.  Its shores

seemed covered with greenery from its beaches to its summits inland,

crowned by Mt.  Kapogo, which is 476 fathoms high.

After clearing the outer belt of rocks via a narrow passageway,

the Nautilus lay inside the breakers where the sea had a depth of thirty

to forty fathoms.  Under the green shade of some tropical evergreens,

I spotted a few savages who looked extremely startled at our approach.

In this long, blackish object advancing flush with the water,

didn't they see some fearsome cetacean that they were obliged

to view with distrust?

Just then Captain Nemo asked me what I knew about the shipwreck

of the Count de La Pérouse.

"What everybody knows, captain," I answered him.

"And could you kindly tell me what everybody knows?" he asked me

in a gently ironic tone.

"Very easily."

I related to him what the final deeds of Captain Dumont d'Urville

had brought to light, deeds described here in this heavily condensed

summary of the whole matter.

In 1785 the Count de La Pérouse and his subordinate, Captain de Langle,

were sent by King Louis XVI of France on a voyage to circumnavigate

the globe.  They boarded two sloops of war, the Compass and the Astrolabe,

which were never seen again.

In 1791, justly concerned about the fate of these two sloops

of war, the French government fitted out two large cargo boats,

the Search and the Hope, which left Brest on September 28 under

orders from Rear Admiral Bruni d'Entrecasteaux. Two months later,

testimony from a certain Commander Bowen, aboard the Albemarle,

alleged that rubble from shipwrecked vessels had been seen

on the coast of New Georgia.  But d'Entrecasteaux was unaware

of this news--which seemed a bit dubious anyhow--and headed toward

the Admiralty Islands, which had been named in a report by one

Captain Hunter as the site of the Count de La Pérouse's shipwreck.

They looked in vain.  The Hope and the Search passed right

by Vanikoro without stopping there; and overall, this voyage

was plagued by misfortune, ultimately costing the lives of

Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux, two of his subordinate officers,

and several seamen from his crew.

It was an old hand at the Pacific, the English adventurer

Captain Peter Dillon, who was the first to pick up the trail left

by castaways from the wrecked vessels.  On May 15, 1824, his ship,

the St. Patrick, passed by Tikopia Island, one of the New Hebrides.

There a native boatman pulled alongside in a dugout canoe and sold

Dillon a silver sword hilt bearing the imprint of characters engraved

with a cutting tool known as a burin.  Furthermore, this native

boatman claimed that during a stay in Vanikoro six years earlier,

he had seen two Europeans belonging to ships that had run aground

on the island's reefs many years before.

Dillon guessed that the ships at issue were those under the Count de

La Pérouse, ships whose disappearance had shaken the entire world.

He tried to reach Vanikoro, where, according to the native boatman,

a good deal of rubble from the shipwreck could still be found,

but winds and currents prevented his doing so.

Dillon returned to Calcutta.  There he was able to interest

the Asiatic Society and the East India Company in his discovery.

A ship named after the Search was placed at his disposal,

and he departed on January 23, 1827, accompanied by a French deputy.

This new Search, after putting in at several stops over the Pacific,

dropped anchor before Vanikoro on July 7, 1827, in the same harbor

of Vana where the Nautilus was currently floating.

There Dillon collected many relics of the shipwreck:

iron utensils, anchors, eyelets from pulleys, swivel guns,

an eighteen-pound shell, the remains of some astronomical instruments,

a piece of sternrail, and a bronze bell bearing the inscription

"Made by Bazin," the foundry mark at Brest Arsenal around 1785.

There could no longer be any doubt.

Finishing his investigations, Dillon stayed at the site of

the casualty until the month of October.  Then he left Vanikoro,

headed toward New Zealand, dropped anchor at Calcutta on April 7,

1828, and returned to France, where he received a very cordial

welcome from King Charles X.

But just then the renowned French explorer Captain Dumont d'Urville,

unaware of Dillon's activities, had already set sail to search

elsewhere for the site of the shipwreck.  In essence, a whaling

vessel had reported that some medals and a Cross of St. Louis

had been found in the hands of savages in the Louisiade Islands

and New Caledonia.

So Captain Dumont d'Urville had put to sea in command of a vessel

named after the Astrolabe, and just two months after Dillon had

left Vanikoro, Dumont d'Urville dropped anchor before Hobart.  There he

heard about Dillon's findings, and he further learned that a

certain James Hobbs, chief officer on the Union out of Calcutta,

had put to shore on an island located in latitude 8 degrees 18'

south and longitude 156 degrees 30' east, and had noted the natives

of those waterways making use of iron bars and red fabrics.

Pretty perplexed, Dumont d'Urville didn't know if he should give

credence to these reports, which had been carried in some of

the less reliable newspapers; nevertheless, he decided to start

on Dillon's trail.

On February 10, 1828, the new Astrolabe hove before Tikopia Island,

took on a guide and interpreter in the person of a deserter who had

settled there, plied a course toward Vanikoro, raised it on February 12,

sailed along its reefs until the 14th, and only on the 20th dropped

anchor inside its barrier in the harbor of Vana.

On the 23rd, several officers circled the island and brought back some

rubble of little importance.  The natives, adopting a system of denial

and evasion, refused to guide them to the site of the casualty.

This rather shady conduct aroused the suspicion that the natives

had mistreated the castaways; and in truth, the natives seemed afraid

that Dumont d'Urville had come to avenge the Count de La Pérouse

and his unfortunate companions.

But on the 26th, appeased with gifts and seeing that they didn't

need to fear any reprisals, the natives led the chief officer,

Mr. Jacquinot, to the site of the shipwreck.

At this location, in three or four fathoms of water between the Paeu

and Vana reefs, there lay some anchors, cannons, and ingots

of iron and lead, all caked with limestone concretions.  A launch

and whaleboat from the new Astrolabe were steered to this locality,

and after going to exhausting lengths, their crews managed to dredge

up an anchor weighing 1,800 pounds, a cast-iron eight-pounder cannon,

a lead ingot, and two copper swivel guns.

Questioning the natives, Captain Dumont d'Urville also learned that

after La Pérouse's two ships had miscarried on the island's reefs,

the count had built a smaller craft, only to go off and miscarry

a second time.  Where?  Nobody knew.

The commander of the new Astrolabe then had a monument erected under a

tuft of mangrove, in memory of the famous navigator and his companions.

It was a simple quadrangular pyramid, set on a coral base,

with no ironwork to tempt the natives' avarice.

Then Dumont d'Urville tried to depart; but his crews were run down from

the fevers raging on these unsanitary shores, and quite ill himself,

he was unable to weigh anchor until March 17.

Meanwhile, fearing that Dumont d'Urville wasn't abreast of

Dillon's activities, the French government sent a sloop of war

to Vanikoro, the Bayonnaise under Commander Legoarant de Tromelin,

who had been stationed on the American west coast.  Dropping anchor

before Vanikoro a few months after the new Astrolabe's departure,

the Bayonnaise didn't find any additional evidence but verified

that the savages hadn't disturbed the memorial honoring the Count

de La Pérouse.

This is the substance of the account I gave Captain Nemo.

"So," he said to me, "the castaways built a third ship on Vanikoro Island,

and to this day, nobody knows where it went and perished?"

"Nobody knows."

Captain Nemo didn't reply but signaled me to follow him to the

main lounge.  The Nautilus sank a few meters beneath the waves,

and the panels opened.

I rushed to the window and saw crusts of coral:  fungus coral,

siphonula coral, alcyon coral, sea anemone from the genus Caryophylia,

plus myriads of charming fish including greenfish, damselfish,

sweepers, snappers, and squirrelfish; underneath this coral covering

I detected some rubble the old dredges hadn't been able to tear free--

iron stirrups, anchors, cannons, shells, tackle from a capstan,

a stempost, all objects hailing from the wrecked ships and now

carpeted in moving flowers.

And as I stared at this desolate wreckage, Captain Nemo told me

in a solemn voice:

"Commander La Pérouse set out on December 7, 1785, with his ships,

the Compass and the Astrolabe.  He dropped anchor first at Botany Bay,

visited the Tonga Islands and New Caledonia, headed toward

the Santa Cruz Islands, and put in at Nomuka, one of the islands

in the Ha'apai group.  Then his ships arrived at the unknown reefs

of Vanikoro.  Traveling in the lead, the Compass ran afoul of breakers

on the southerly coast.  The Astrolabe went to its rescue and also

ran aground.  The first ship was destroyed almost immediately.

The second, stranded to leeward, held up for some days.

The natives gave the castaways a fair enough welcome.

The latter took up residence on the island and built a smaller

craft with rubble from the two large ones.  A few seamen stayed

voluntarily in Vanikoro.  The others, weak and ailing, set sail

with the Count de La Pérouse. They headed to the Solomon Islands,

and they perished with all hands on the westerly coast of the chief

island in that group, between Cape Deception and Cape Satisfaction!"

"And how do you know all this?"  I exclaimed.

"Here's what I found at the very site of that final shipwreck!"

Captain Nemo showed me a tin box, stamped with the coat of arms

of France and all corroded by salt water.  He opened it and I saw

a bundle of papers, yellowed but still legible.

They were the actual military orders given by France's Minister

of the Navy to Commander La Pérouse, with notes along the margin

in the handwriting of King Louis XVI!

"Ah, what a splendid death for a seaman!"  Captain Nemo then said.

"A coral grave is a tranquil grave, and may Heaven grant that my

companions and I rest in no other!"

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