In the early 1960s I was living in a village in southwest France overlooking the river Dordogne. For most or all of the year I explored the countryside on foot, and eventually I bought, from an acquaintance who was leaving the region, a Vespa, a wonderfully quiet model on which I could go putt-putting along back lanes too far away for me to walk in an afternoon. There was far less traffic in those days than there is now, and before I had the moto for long I took to fastening a bedroll and a few essentials onto the rack over the rear wheel and taking off to wander for a few days at a time, discovering the country to the southeast, southwest, always to the south. I wound my way along the Aveyron and across the Causse Noir. I slept in empty barns in woods or in small village hotels. The country, as I remember it, was still magically unselfconscious, as one hopes discoveries will be. It had years to go before the touch of tourism reached it. I am not sure now how many times, on those trips, I crossed the river Tarn and went up the hill along the river into the main square of Albi beside the huge brick block of the cathedral.

In college, a few years earlier, I had read what Cyril Connolly had written about Albi, a favorite city of his. He considered it one of the key points of what he called the magic triangle, the heart of what he loved in southern France, and in Europe. I had never seen Europe when I read him, and I had tried to imagine the Albi he wrote about, where he, in turn, looking out across the river from a window of the old Bishop’s Palace—a kind of fortress that had been turned into a museum—tried to imagine the Albi of roughly half a century earlier, when it had been Toulouse-Lautrec’s city, before the painter went off to Paris. I had not known then, when I read about Toulouse-Lautrec, just how long the echo of those two names, Toulouse and Lautrec, had resounded in the antiquity of the region. I had read almost nothing about the city’s earlier history. My knowledge of what came to be called the Albigensian Crusade—named for the city, of course, although Albi was not one of those that suffered most—was sparse and scattered.

Connolly had written of his admiration for the massive red cathedral and for its looming, grisly altarpiece with the helpless figures of the damned reaching vainly, out of a sea of damnation, for the world they have lost, and I stared at it trying to recognize what he had seen in it, since I knew little about the place or the painting except what I could remember of his writing, and the details in the few brochures in the church porch. I had not heard then of a French explorer named Jean-François Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, who had been born in that city, and it would be twenty years and more before the La Pérouse museum would be opened there, across the river. I went slowly through the quiet museum at the Bishop’s Palace, roamed for a while in the square and the streets around it, and then set off again on the Vespa into the countryside along the valley of the Tarn.

Some fifteen years later I went to Hawaii for the first time and visited the island of Maui. I would, in fact, come to live on the island, though I did not know it as I drove past the few hotels (then) and the handful of houses along the west-facing coast to a dry unpopulated lava flow and a crescent of sand and shingle that has come to be known as La Pérouse Bay. When I asked, I was told that the name was that of a French explorer who had—in fact, I am not quite sure of what I was told that he had done. Until late in the twentieth century those who wrote or spoke European languages thought nothing of saying that someone had “discovered” some part of the world that may have been inhabited by non-Europeans for millennia.

La Pérouse of course did not “discover” Maui. He was not even the first European on the island. It is possible that Spaniards knew of the Hawaiian Islands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Spanish vessels may have been shipwrecked there, and others may have stopped on Pacific crossings. Bits of Spanish metal from that period, iron daggers and other objects, have turned up in the islands, and there are legends, but there are no records, and the maps that have survived are unclear—in some cases perhaps deliberately so, in order to mislead strangers into whose hands they might fall. One Spanish chart of the Pacific, dated 1555, shows a group of islands that might represent the Hawaiian archipelago. Captain James Cook was the first European to make a recorded landing in Hawaii. He visited Kauai and Hawaii, and he saw Maui in 1778, on his second voyage, and anchored offshore in several places to trade, but he did not land there. (He named them the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich, then the first lord of the admiralty.)


When La Pérouse with his two frigates, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, approached the island from the south at the end of May 1786, Cook had been dead for seven years, killed by inhabitants of the island of Hawaii under circumstances that remain unclear, since the written eyewitness accounts, inevitably, were left only by Europeans. La Pérouse knew those narratives well, as he knew everything available about Cook, and he had had some hesitation about stopping in Hawaii at all.

His two frigates had sailed from Brest on August 1, 1785, on what was intended to be a voyage of circumnavigation and exploration that would take several years. The enterprise had been meticulously planned, from its benign purpose (which was to add to the general sum of scientific and geographical knowledge) to the itinerary and the equipment, and even to the appropriate attitude. In the early days, when hopes were high, La Pérouse had written that he wanted this to be a voyage of circumnavigation that would shed not a drop of blood and would not give the native peoples they met any cause to regret their coming.

They had crossed the Atlantic to Brazil—a hundred days to the island of Santa Caterina—and then to Cape Horn, slipping through the Straits of Magellan more easily than they had dared to hope. Then in early February they had sailed north along the coast of Chile to Concepción, where they stayed three weeks, resting up, replenishing stores, making repairs to the vessels. They loved the place. La Pérouse pronounced it delightful but backward (his, after all, was the age of the Enlightenment). The women dressed up, he said, in “that old cloth woven with gold and silver thread that used to be manufactured in Lyon.”

The original plans for his itinerary, approved by the minister of maritime affairs and the King, Louis XVI, called for the vessels to sail due west from Chile, across the south Pacific to Tahiti, but La Pérouse had been given liberty to alter the plans according to the circumstances of the voyage, and since it was so early in the year, he decided to sail northwest instead. He landed on Easter Island on April 9, 1786, nine months and a week out of Brest.

The islanders were the first indigenous people they had visited on the voyage. In France Rousseau’s fantasy of the Noble Savage was in vogue. La Pérouse had a view of the subject that was respectful but skeptical. He had read not only Rousseau but descriptions of violent encounters with native peoples in the accounts of earlier voyagers, besides Cook’s. He was aware that the ignorance and aggressiveness of the Europeans probably had helped to cause some of the incidents, but he saw no reason to assume that the motives of native peoples were very different from those of his own men, and he remained tolerant but watchful. And the instructions for the voyage, signed by the King, were explicit about any shore party being well armed and never losing contact with the frigates. He directed his men to use “all possible kindness and humanity” toward the inhabitants, so that the visit would not be a misfortune to them, but “a means of supplying them with advantages of which they have been deprived.”

They stayed on the island for a matter of hours, giving the inhabitants goats, sheep, and pigs (no blessing, in the long run, any of them, but the French did not know that), and seeds of orange trees, lemon trees, maize, and “every species that might do well on their island.” They walked up from the shore and Jean-Nicolas Collignon, the young man chosen to be the gardening expert for the expedition by the King’s gardener who had also supplied the seeds, sowed cabbage, carrot, pumpkin, corn, beet, and fruit-tree seeds in places where he thought they might grow well. Meanwhile the friendly inhabitants stole the hats off their heads and the handkerchiefs out of their pockets and ran off with them, and the women offered their favors to anyone who gave them presents. La Pérouse laughed at the thefts, and to prevent trouble over them, promised to replace whatever was stolen.


They left that same night and sailed on northward, passing the northeast coast of the island of Hawaii on the morning of May 28, 1776, and on across the Alenuihaha (“Big Crashing Billows”) Channel toward the south coast of Maui, along the island to the Alalakeiki (“Crying Baby”) Channel at the southwest corner, looking up the vast mountainside of Haleakala (“House of the Sun”) toward its upper slopes hidden in clouds, a single mountain so enormous that it appeared to be an entire range.

The sight of Maui, La Pérouse wrote, was “ravishing”:

We saw the water cascading down from the heights to the sea, irrigating the house plots of the Indians on the way. There are so many of those that a single village seems to run for three or four leagues (about ten miles) with all the houses built along the edge of the sea, and the mountains are so close to the shore that the habitable land appears to be less than half a league wide. One would have to be a sailor, and reduced, as we were, in that burning climate, to one bottle of water a day, to have any idea of what we felt at the sight. The trees that crowned the mountains, the verdure, the banana trees around the dwellings looked inexpressibly delightful to us. But the sea broke on that coast with terrible force, and like Tantalus in our time we were reduced to desiring and devouring with our eyes what we could not reach.

They edged along the south coast, watching one green, deep valley after another slip past with its distant waterfall, but finding no bay or safe anchorage, and the shore grew drier and stonier as they sailed until, instead of the dense rain-forest colors and shadows that they had first seen, they were looking up across black lava flows and arid slopes to a landscape of dry forest shimmering in the sun.

They stood offshore all night and in the morning rounded the southwest corner of Maui, and as they came in closer to the coast the vessels were surrounded by Hawaiians in canoes, trying to keep up with them. When they turned the corner of the island they found a bay, with a village around it, and there they anchored. In a moment the deck of the Astrolabe, commanded by an old friend of La Pérouse, Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot de Langle, was a mass of “these Indians,” but

they were so docile, so anxious not to offend us, that there was no trouble at all in getting them to go back into their canoes. They were wildly excited by pieces of our old barrel hoops, and they were quite adept at bargaining for them.

In exchange for them, they offered pigs and fruits. La Pérouse had come well provided with nails of different sizes, iron tools, and metal fishhooks. In the barter there on shipboard, and later, on shore, the officers acquired for the expedition a cloak, a red helmet, tapa cloths and mats, a canoe, small objects made of feathers and shells, and more than a hundred pigs, bananas, and an immense quantity of fruit. Two chiefs had come aboard the Boussole and given La Pérouse pigs as presents, and La Pérouse, in return, gave them medals, axes, and assorted pieces of metal.

La Pérouse and de Langle put together a shore party, guarded by forty soldiers, and they were received on shore with the same warmth and eager welcome. It was a tiny village, ten or fifteen huts covered with grass. They were the same shape, La Pérouse noted, as the thatched cottages in some parts of France:

The roofs are pitched on both sides, and the doorway at the gable end is only about three feet high so that one has to bend down to enter. The houses are furnished with mats, used like carpets. They cover the floor neatly, and the inhabitants use them to sleep on. Their only cooking pots are painted gourds.

Everywhere he was met by the same gentle behavior and the same generosity from the chiefs. When he came to write about them, upon reflection he said that he could not help comparing them to the people of Easter Island. The Sandwich Islanders (as they were then called by Europeans) were superior in every respect,

even though I was wholly prejudiced against them on account of the death of Captain Cook. It is more natural for navigators to regret so great a man than to examine coolly whether some incautious action on his part might not, in some way, have forced the inhabitants…to resort to justified self-defense.

But he wrote that sometime after he had left Maui, and Hawaii. As long as he was there, an image of Cook’s fate must have stood beside him, redoubling his caution, for he did not hand out presents of hoofed animals and of seeds as he had done on Easter Island, nor give the botanists and other scientists permission to conduct observations of the flora and fauna of the bay and the volcanic shore. The current in the channel, the uncertainty of the anchorage, the weather, may also have prompted him to be on his way. He stayed there the rest of that day, filling the water barrels, noticing the marks of skin eruptions on the inhabitants, most of them, presumably, venereal disease which Cook’s crew is thought to have introduced to other islands in the chain. His own men had a chance to mingle with the island women, and no doubt contributed to the contagion, or picked it up to pass on.

And though he was the first European to set foot on Maui, despite the example of earlier explorers (Bougainville had not hesitated to lay claim to the Society Islands for France), he did not claim the entire island for his own country in “the cool fashion of the time,” as Mark Twain had said of La Salle, who, a century earlier, had formally proclaimed the whole Mississippi basin French. La Pérouse had not been sent on a voyage of imperial aggrandizement, and he did not think much of such easy arrogation. “The philosophers must groan,” he wrote,

to see men, merely because they have cannons and bayonettes, count as nothing sixty thousand members of their own kind whose sacred rights they dismiss, and whose land, which they have watered with their sweat for centuries, and which is the tomb of their ancestors, they take to be an object of conquest.

He did not want to linger in Hawaii, for whatever reason, and in the evening he weighed anchor and sailed west and north between the islands, toward the cold. His journal of the visit would survive, but he himself would not see Hawaii (or France) again.

The best, most productive, and successful part of his great projected voyage of circumnavigation ended at Maui. He sailed north, explored some of the coast of Alaska that Cook had missed, but lost a boat and all the officers and men on it in a tidal rip at the mouth of a bay there. He sailed across the Pacific from California to China, narrowly escaping shipwreck at night on a sunken island to the northwest of Hawaii, a place still known as French Frigate Shoals—a prophetic brush with fate. The scientists on the expedition were increasingly restive. They resented being subjected to the conditions of life on a cramped naval vessel. From China he sailed north again and explored the Russian coast around Kamchatka, where mail from France reached him which included orders to change his plans and sail directly to Australia to find out what the British were up to there.

On his way south, in Samoa, his lifelong friend de Langle, commander of his companion frigate, leading a large shore party, was attacked, for reasons still uncertain. De Langle was killed, and many others with him. La Pérouse was profoundly affected by the disaster, and in a sense he never recovered. He sailed on to Botany Bay, met the English, overhauled his ships, gave his journals to an English officer to deliver to France, along with letters to friends and to his wife, Eléonore, whom he had waited years to marry and with whom he had managed to live for only a few happy months. Despite the severe physical and mental attrition of the voyage, he planned most of a year’s further exploration on his way back to France. Then, he said, he would give up the sea and settle down at last with Eléonore.

When he sailed from Australia, the English at Botany Bay were the last Europeans to see his vessels. He disappeared. It would be years before an Irish adventurer named Peter Dillon would discover what had happened to him. Both frigates had been wrecked at night in a typhoon on the small, uncharted island of Vanikoro, off the Solomons. Whether he survived that wreck and sailed on in a smaller vessel built from the wreckage, as some islanders said, or died there, is not known.*

The name of the bay where he had landed on Maui, and of the cluster of houses around it, was—and in Hawaiian still is—Keone ‘o’io, (“Bonefish Sand”). When La Pérouse had forgotten it completely it would be named after him.

The village disappeared long ago. Within a decade the English captain George Vancouver tried to find the place, using the La Pérouse journal account of the visit, but what he found seemed so different from the description that he believed there must have been a lava flow between the date when La Pérouse had been there and his own arrival. That was the generally accepted view until recently, when carbon dating showed that the last lava flow to the shoreline there took place much earlier. One of the aims of the La Pérouse expedition had been to contribute to the cartography of the Pacific, and the maps that were made in the course of it were remarkably accurate for their time. It would be strange if Keone ‘o’io had been an exception, carelessly or hastily recorded. In any event, what La Pérouse saw there has disappeared with him, and it would be years after I first saw the bay that I began to piece together bits of his story.

Copyright © 2004 by W.S. Merwin

This Issue

May 27, 2004