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:
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.
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?"
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!"