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Chapter 19 Vanikoro

  • THIS DREADFUL SIGHT was the first of a whole series of maritime catastrophe_hat the Nautilus would encounter on its run. When it plied more heavil_raveled seas, we often saw wrecked hulls rotting in midwater, and farthe_own, cannons, shells, anchors, chains, and a thousand other iron object_usting away.
  • Meanwhile, continuously swept along by the Nautilus, where we lived in nea_solation, we raised the Tuamotu Islands on December 11, that old "dangerou_roup" associated with the French global navigator Commander Bougainville; i_tretches from Ducie Island to Lazareff Island over an area of 500 league_rom the east–southeast to the west–northwest, between latitude 13° 30' an_3° 50' south, and between longitude 125° 30' and 151° 30' west. This islan_roup covers a surface area of 370 square leagues, and it's made up of som_ixty subgroups, among which we noted the Gambier group, which is a Frenc_rotectorate. These islands are coral formations. Thanks to the work o_olyps, a slow but steady upheaval will someday connect these islands to eac_ther. Later on, this new island will be fused to its neighboring islan_roups, and a fifth continent will stretch from New Zealand and New Caledoni_s 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 mos_nusual in this group, which was discovered in 1822 by Captain Bell aboard th_inerva. So I was able to study the madreporic process that has created th_slands in this ocean.
  • Madrepores, which one must guard against confusing with precious coral, cloth_heir tissue in a limestone crust, and their variations in structure have le_y famous mentor Professor Milne–Edwards to classify them into five divisions.
  • The tiny microscopic animals that secrete this polypary live by the billion_n the depths of their cells. Their limestone deposits build up into rocks, reefs, islets, islands. In some places, they form atolls, a circular rin_urrounding a lagoon or small inner lake that gaps place in contact with th_ea. Elsewhere, they take the shape of barrier reefs, such as those that exis_long the coasts of New Caledonia and several of the Tuamotu Islands. In stil_ther localities, such as Réunion Island and the island of Mauritius, the_uild fringing reefs, high, straight walls next to which the ocean's depth i_onsiderable.
  • While cruising along only a few cable lengths from the underpinning of Rea_sland, I marveled at the gigantic piece of work accomplished by thes_icroscopic laborers. These walls were the express achievements of madrepore_nown by the names fire coral, finger coral, star coral, and stony coral.
  • These polyps grow exclusively in the agitated strata at the surface of th_ea, 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 th_ormation of atolls—a theory superior, in my view, to the one that says thes_adreporic edifices sit on the summits of mountains or volcanoes submerged _ew feet below sea level.
  • I could observe these strange walls quite closely: our sounding line_ndicated that they dropped perpendicularly for more than 300 meters, and ou_lectric beams made the bright limestone positively sparkle.
  • In reply to a question Conseil asked me about the growth rate of thes_olossal barriers, I thoroughly amazed him by saying that scientists put it a_n 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 biblica_ays of Creation. What's more, the formation of coal—in other words, th_etrification of forests swallowed by floods—and the cooling of basaltic rock_ikewise 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 tim_etween two sunrises, because according to the Bible itself, the sun doesn'_ate from the first day of Creation."
  • When the Nautilus returned to the surface of the ocean, I could take in Rea_sland over its whole flat, wooded expanse. Obviously its madreporic rocks ha_een made fertile by tornadoes and thunderstorms. One day, carried off by _urricane from neighboring shores, some seed fell onto these limestone beds, mixing with decomposed particles of fish and marine plants to form vegetabl_umus. Propelled by the waves, a coconut arrived on this new coast. Its ger_ook root. Its tree grew tall, catching steam off the water. A brook was born.
  • Little by little, vegetation spread. Tiny animals—worms, insects—rode ashor_n tree trunks snatched from islands to windward. Turtles came to lay thei_ggs. Birds nested in the young trees. In this way animal life developed, an_rawn by the greenery and fertile soil, man appeared. And that's how thes_slands were formed, the immense achievement of microscopic animals.
  • Near evening Reao Island melted into the distance, and the Nautilus noticeabl_hanged course. After touching the Tropic of Capricorn at longitude 135°, i_eaded west–northwest, going back up the whole intertropical zone. Althoug_he 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° to 12° centigrade.
  • By December 15 we had left the alluring Society Islands in the west, likewis_legant Tahiti, queen of the Pacific. In the morning I spotted this island'_ofty summits a few miles to leeward. Its waters supplied excellent fish fo_he tables on board: mackerel, bonito, albacore, and a few varieties of tha_ea serpent named the moray eel.
  • The Nautilus had cleared 8,100 miles. We logged 9,720 miles when we passe_etween the Tonga Islands, where crews from the Argo, Port–au–Prince, and Duk_f Portland had perished, and the island group of Samoa, scene of the slayin_f Captain de Langle, friend of that long–lost navigator, the Count de L_érouse. Then we raised the Fiji Islands, where savages slaughtered sailor_rom the Union, as well as Captain Bureau, commander of the Darling Josephin_ut of Nantes, France.
  • Extending over an expanse of 100 leagues north to south, and over 90 league_ast to west, this island group lies between latitude 2° and 6° south, an_etween longitude 174° and 179° 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 sam_ear the Italian physicist Torricelli invented the barometer and King Loui_IV ascended the French throne. I'll let the reader decide which of thes_eeds was more beneficial to humanity. Coming later, Captain Cook in 1774, Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux in 1793, and finally Captain Dumont d'Urville i_827, untangled the whole chaotic geography of this island group. The Nautilu_rew near Wailea Bay, an unlucky place for England's Captain Dillon, who wa_he first to shed light on the longstanding mystery surrounding th_isappearance of ships under the Count de La Pérouse.
  • This bay, repeatedly dredged, furnished a huge supply of excellent oysters. A_he Roman playwright Seneca recommended, we opened them right at our table, then stuffed ourselves. These mollusks belonged to the species known by nam_s Ostrea lamellosa, whose members are quite common off Corsica. This Waile_ysterbank must have been extensive, and for certain, if they hadn't bee_ontrolled by numerous natural checks, these clusters of shellfish would hav_nded up jam–packing the bay, since as many as 2,000,000 eggs have bee_ounted in a single individual.
  • And if Mr. Ned Land did not repent of his gluttony at our oyster fest, it'_ecause oysters are the only dish that never causes indigestion. In fact, i_akes no less than sixteen dozen of these headless mollusks to supply the 31_rams that satisfy one man's minimum daily requirement for nitrogen.
  • On December 25 the Nautilus navigated amid the island group of the Ne_ebrides, which the Portuguese seafarer Queirós discovered in 1606, whic_ommander Bougainville explored in 1768, and to which Captain Cook gave it_urrent name in 1773. This group is chiefly made up of nine large islands an_orms a 120–league strip from the north–northwest to the south–southeast, lying between latitude 2° and 15° south, and between longitude 164° and 168°.
  • At the moment of our noon sights, we passed fairly close to the island o_urou, which looked to me like a mass of green woods crowned by a peak o_reat height.
  • That day it was yuletide, and it struck me that Ned Land badly misse_elebrating "Christmas," that genuine family holiday where Protestants ar_uch 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 fiv_inutes. I was busy tracing the Nautilus's course on the world map. Th_aptain approached, placed a finger over a position on the chart, an_ronounced just one word:
  • "Vanikoro."
  • This name was magic! It was the name of those islets where vessels under th_ount 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 th_strolabe 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 eye_agerly 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 facin_he island of Vanikoro proper, to which Captain Dumont d'Urville had given th_ame "Island of the Search"; we lay right in front of the little harbor o_ana, located in latitude 16° 4' south and longitude 164° 32' east. Its shore_eemed covered with greenery from its beaches to its summits inland, crowne_y Mt. Kapogo, which is 476 fathoms high.
  • After clearing the outer belt of rocks via a narrow passageway, the Nautilu_ay 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 wh_ooked extremely startled at our approach. In this long, blackish objec_dvancing flush with the water, didn't they see some fearsome cetacean tha_hey were obliged to view with distrust?
  • Just then Captain Nemo asked me what I knew about the shipwreck of the Coun_e La Pérouse.
  • "What everybody knows, captain," I answered him.
  • "And could you kindly tell me what everybody knows?" he asked me in a gentl_ronic tone.
  • "Very easily."
  • I related to him what the final deeds of Captain Dumont d'Urville had brough_o light, deeds described here in this heavily condensed summary of the whol_atter.
  • In 1785 the Count de La Pérouse and his subordinate, Captain de Langle, wer_ent by King Louis XVI of France on a voyage to circumnavigate the globe. The_oarded two sloops of war, the Compass and the Astrolabe, which were neve_een again.
  • In 1791, justly concerned about the fate of these two sloops of war, th_rench government fitted out two large cargo boats, the Search and the Hope, which left Brest on September 28 under orders from Rear Admiral Brun_'Entrecasteaux. Two months later, testimony from a certain Commander Bowen, aboard the Albemarle, alleged that rubble from shipwrecked vessels had bee_een on the coast of New Georgia. But d'Entrecasteaux was unaware of thi_ews—which seemed a bit dubious anyhow—and headed toward the Admiralt_slands, which had been named in a report by one Captain Hunter as the site o_he Count de La Pérouse's shipwreck.
  • They looked in vain. The Hope and the Search passed right by Vanikoro withou_topping there; and overall, this voyage was plagued by misfortune, ultimatel_osting the lives of Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux, two of his subordinat_fficers, and several seamen from his crew.
  • It was an old hand at the Pacific, the English adventurer Captain Pete_illon, who was the first to pick up the trail left by castaways from th_recked vessels. On May 15, 1824, his ship, the St. Patrick, passed by Tikopi_sland, one of the New Hebrides. There a native boatman pulled alongside in _ugout canoe and sold Dillon a silver sword hilt bearing the imprint o_haracters engraved with a cutting tool known as a burin. Furthermore, thi_ative boatman claimed that during a stay in Vanikoro six years earlier, h_ad seen two Europeans belonging to ships that had run aground on the island'_eefs many years before.
  • Dillon guessed that the ships at issue were those under the Count de L_érouse, ships whose disappearance had shaken the entire world. He tried t_each Vanikoro, where, according to the native boatman, a good deal of rubbl_rom the shipwreck could still be found, but winds and currents prevented hi_oing so.
  • Dillon returned to Calcutta. There he was able to interest the Asiatic Societ_nd the East India Company in his discovery. A ship named after the Search wa_laced at his disposal, and he departed on January 23, 1827, accompanied by _rench deputy.
  • This new Search, after putting in at several stops over the Pacific, droppe_nchor before Vanikoro on July 7, 1827, in the same harbor of Vana where th_autilus 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 o_ome astronomical instruments, a piece of sternrail, and a bronze bell bearin_he inscription "Made by Bazin," the foundry mark at Brest Arsenal aroun_785. There could no longer be any doubt.
  • Finishing his investigations, Dillon stayed at the site of the casualty unti_he month of October. Then he left Vanikoro, headed toward New Zealand, dropped anchor at Calcutta on April 7, 1828, and returned to France, where h_eceived a very cordial welcome from King Charles X.
  • But just then the renowned French explorer Captain Dumont d'Urville, unawar_f Dillon's activities, had already set sail to search elsewhere for the sit_f the shipwreck. In essence, a whaling vessel had reported that some medal_nd a Cross of St. Louis had been found in the hands of savages in th_ouisiade Islands and New Caledonia.
  • So Captain Dumont d'Urville had put to sea in command of a vessel named afte_he Astrolabe, and just two months after Dillon had left Vanikoro, Dumon_'Urville dropped anchor before Hobart. There he heard about Dillon'_indings, and he further learned that a certain James Hobbs, chief officer o_he Union out of Calcutta, had put to shore on an island located in latitud_° 18' south and longitude 156° 30' east, and had noted the natives of thos_aterways making use of iron bars and red fabrics.
  • Pretty perplexed, Dumont d'Urville didn't know if he should give credence t_hese 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 _uide and interpreter in the person of a deserter who had settled there, plie_ course toward Vanikoro, raised it on February 12, sailed along its reef_ntil the 14th, and only on the 20th dropped anchor inside its barrier in th_arbor of Vana.
  • On the 23rd, several officers circled the island and brought back some rubbl_f little importance. The natives, adopting a system of denial and evasion, refused to guide them to the site of the casualty. This rather shady conduc_roused the suspicion that the natives had mistreated the castaways; and i_ruth, the natives seemed afraid that Dumont d'Urville had come to avenge th_ount de La Pérouse and his unfortunate companions.
  • But on the 26th, appeased with gifts and seeing that they didn't need to fea_ny reprisals, the natives led the chief officer, Mr. Jacquinot, to the sit_f the shipwreck.
  • At this location, in three or four fathoms of water between the Paeu and Van_eefs, there lay some anchors, cannons, and ingots of iron and lead, all cake_ith limestone concretions. A launch and whaleboat from the new Astrolabe wer_teered to this locality, and after going to exhausting lengths, their crew_anaged to dredge up an anchor weighing 1,800 pounds, a cast–iro_ight–pounder cannon, a lead ingot, and two copper swivel guns.
  • Questioning the natives, Captain Dumont d'Urville also learned that after L_érouse's two ships had miscarried on the island's reefs, the count had buil_ smaller craft, only to go off and miscarry a second time. Where? Nobod_new.
  • The commander of the new Astrolabe then had a monument erected under a tuft o_angrove, in memory of the famous navigator and his companions. It was _imple quadrangular pyramid, set on a coral base, with no ironwork to temp_he natives' avarice.
  • Then Dumont d'Urville tried to depart; but his crews were run down from th_evers raging on these unsanitary shores, and quite ill himself, he was unabl_o weigh anchor until March 17.
  • Meanwhile, fearing that Dumont d'Urville wasn't abreast of Dillon'_ctivities, the French government sent a sloop of war to Vanikoro, th_ayonnaise under Commander Legoarant de Tromelin, who had been stationed o_he American west coast. Dropping anchor before Vanikoro a few months afte_he new Astrolabe's departure, the Bayonnaise didn't find any additiona_vidence but verified that the savages hadn't disturbed the memorial honorin_he 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, an_o 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 charmin_ish including greenfish, damselfish, sweepers, snappers, and squirrelfish; underneath this coral covering I detected some rubble the old dredges hadn'_een able to tear free—iron stirrups, anchors, cannons, shells, tackle from _apstan, a stempost, all objects hailing from the wrecked ships and no_arpeted in moving flowers.
  • And as I stared at this desolate wreckage, Captain Nemo told me in a solem_oice:
  • "Commander La Pérouse set out on December 7, 1785, with his ships, the Compas_nd the Astrolabe. He dropped anchor first at Botany Bay, visited the Tong_slands and New Caledonia, headed toward the Santa Cruz Islands, and put in a_omuka, one of the islands in the Ha'apai group. Then his ships arrived at th_nknown reefs of Vanikoro. Traveling in the lead, the Compass ran afoul o_reakers on the southerly coast. The Astrolabe went to its rescue and also ra_ground. The first ship was destroyed almost immediately. The second, strande_o leeward, held up for some days. The natives gave the castaways a fai_nough welcome. The latter took up residence on the island and built a smalle_raft with rubble from the two large ones. A few seamen stayed voluntarily i_anikoro. 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 th_esterly coast of the chief island in that group, between Cape Deception an_ape 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 an_ll 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 t_ommander La Pérouse, with notes along the margin in the handwriting of Kin_ouis XVI!
  • "Ah, what a splendid death for a seaman!" Captain Nemo then said. "A cora_rave is a tranquil grave, and may Heaven grant that my companions and I res_n no other!"