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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

Bruni D'Entrecasteaux

Bruni D'Entrecasteaux

1791 to 1793

An expedition sent to the Pacific to search for La Pérouse was commanded by Rear Admiral Bruni D'Entrecasteaux, who was given two ships of war, the Recherche and the Espérance. The Espèrance was under the command of Captain Huon Kermadec; the first and second lieutenants of the Recherche were M. Dauribeau and M. Rossel; and the naturalist for the expedition was Jacques Julian de Labillardière.

The ships went into the roads at Brest on September 25, 1791, sailed by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and cast anchor in Table Bay on January 17, 1792. In April the ships arrived at Tasmania. They sailed on May 16 and were at New Caledonia in June and among the islands off the east end of New Guinea in July. The D'Entrecasteaux Islands in this area were named after the leader of the expedition. In August they sailed along the north coast of New Guinea, reaching Ceram on September 1. On October 14 the ships sailed from Amboina; in November, they explored the west coast of Australia; and in December, the southwest coast. In January 1793, they stood for Tasmania and reached Storm Bay on that island on January 22. Friendly relations were established with the native Tasmanians, and interesting observations were made.

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On February 28, 1793, a course was shaped for Tonga via New Zealand. The Three Kings Islands, north of the North Cape of New Zealand, were sighted on March 10, and observations were made on the possessions of the Maoris who came off in three canoes. Proceeding north toward Tonga, the expedition encountered a group of islands on March 15. The most southerly was named l'Espérance (Hope) after the ship. The next two were recognized from the chart as Curtis and Macauley Islands discovered in 1788 and named by Sever, Captain of the Lady Penrhyn. The next day, the largest island in the group was sighted by M. Raoul, after whom it was named. The whole group was named the Kermadec Islands, after the commander of the Espérance.

Tongatabu was reached on March 24. Considerable intercourse with the Tongans took place, and King "Toubou" (Tubou) and the high chief "Feenou" gave presents and entertainment. Much useful information concerning the people was obtained by Labillardière. The ships, which sailed from Tongatabu on April 10, next visited Tanna and New Caledonia. On May 8 Dauribeau was appointed to command the Espérance, owing to the death of Captain Kermadec.

The ships were at the Santa Cruz Islands in May and the Louisiades off New Guinea in June. It was while they were off the north coast of New Guinea that Admiral D'Entrecasteaux died of a "dreadful cholic." On August 11 the ships passed the western extremity of New Guinea and worked through the eastern islands of the East Indies. On September 23 Dauribeau became ill and Rossel took command of the expedition. On October 19 the ships were at Madura, off the entrance to Surabaya, where they were informed that war had broken out between Holland and France. The ships, however, were permitted to enter Surabaya, and the officers and naturalists were allowed to live ashore. As Holland was at war with Republican France, Captain Dauribeau and the principal officers hoisted the white flag as a sign of allegiance to the French Monarchy and put themselves under the protection of the Dutch. Dauribeau then caused all officers, naturalists, and members of the crew thought to be Republicans to be imprisoned. He also seized all the collections and such manscripts as he could, but Labillardière and Legrand managed to save their personal journals. The prisoners were transferred to the prison in Batavia and afterwards exchanged and sent to the Ile de France in the Indian Ocean. Dauribeau died on August 22, 1794, and Rossel became the senior officer in command. Rossel gathered together Admiral D'Entrecasteaux's journal, charts, plans, drawings and natural history specimens and embarked with them early in 1795 in the Hoogly, a Dutch East Indiaman bound from Batavia to Amsterdam. On June 9, 1795, the Hoogly and seven other Dutch ships accompanying her were captured by H.M.S. Sceptre, commanded by Captain Essington. The Hoogly sprang a leak, so all the material, including the natural history specimens, of the D'Entrecasteaux expedition were transferred to another ship. On page 58 Canoes of the Friendly Isles (Tonga), Drawn by William Hodges, Artist With Cook on his Second Voyage. page 59 the ship's arrival in England, the material was transmitted by Captain Essington to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

Labillardière was freed from the Ile de France by the republican government of France, and he arrived in Paris on March 12, 1796. Learning that the collection of specimens was in the possession of the British Government, he urged the French Government to claim them. The application was warmly approved by Sir Joseph Banks, and the Admiralty Board ordered a lieutenant of the British Navy to deliver the twenty-one cases containing the collection to Havre, under a flag of truce. Thus, they were delivered up with the most scrupulous exactness "and in a manner that reflects the highest honour on the persons immediately concerned."

Though the expedition failed to gather any authentic information concerning the fate of La Pérouse, it was highly successful scientifically, and Labillardière's account of the Tongans is among the best contributions to the ethnology of that people.