La Pérouse, Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de, 1741-1788.The voyage of La Pérouse round the world, in the years 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, with nautical tables. Arranged by M.L.A. Nilet Mureau, Inspector of Fortifications and member of several literary societies at Paris. To which is prefixed, narrative of an interesting voyage from Manilla to St. Blaise, and annexed, travels over the continent,with the dispatches of La Pérouse in 1787 and 1788, by M. de Lesseps. Translated from the French.Illustrated with fifty-one plates in two volumes. London: Printed for John Stockdate, Piccadilly, 1798.
On the 9th of April, according to the European Calendar, but the 10th by that of the Manillas, we set sail [from Cavita] with a good breeze at N.E. which flattered us with the hopes of doubling, in the course of the day, all the islands that form the various streights of the bay of Manilla. Before we got under way, M. de Langle and myself received a visit from M. de Bermudas, who assured us that the north-east monsoon would not change in less than a month, and that it was still later on the coast of Formosa, the continent of China being in a manner the source of the northerly winds, which prevail more than nine months in the year, on the coast of that empire. But our impatience to depart did not admit of listening to the counsels of experience. We flattered ourselves with the hope of a fortunate exception: and that each year might give different epochas of change to its monsoons. Thus we took our leave, and some trifling variations of the wind soon permitted us to get to the northward of the island of Luconia.
We had scarcely doubled Cape Bujador when the wind became obstinately fixed in the north east, and proved the truth of M. Bermuda's advice. I flattered myself, though with little ground for hope, that we should find under the lee of Formosa the same variations as under the island of Luconia. I did not forget that the proximity of the coast of China rendered this opinion less probable. But in all events we had no alternative, but to wait the change of the monsoon. For the heavy failing of our ships, which were sheathed with wood and filled, left us no hopes of making any way to the northward with contrary winds.
On the 21st of April we made the island of Formosa; in the channel which separates it from Luconia we experienced very violent currents, which appeared to be occasioned by a regular tide, for our dead reckoning never differed from the result of our observations, either in latitude or longitude. On the 22nd April, I discovered the island of Lamay, which lies off the S.E. point of Formosa, at a distance of about three leagues, bearing E. by S. the sea was very high, and the aspect of the coast convinced me I should make more way northward, if I could approach that of China. With the N.N.E. winds, I might steer N.W. and thus gain a higher latitude. But in the middle of the channel I remarked that the sea was extremely changed; we were then in 22° 57' N. lat. and to the westward of the meridian of Cavita, or in 116° 41' E. longitude, and in 27 fathoms water, over a sandy bottom: and four minutes afterwards in only 19 fathoms. So rapid a change led me to conclude these were not the soundings of the coast of China, from which we were at a distance of more than 30 leagues, but of a bank not laid down in the charts. I kept the lead going, and soon found only twelve fathoms water; I then tacked towards Formosa, and the bottom continued equally irregular. I was now of opinion that we ought to anchor, and therefore made a signal to that effect to the Astrolabe.
The night was serene, and at the return of day we perceived no breakers around; I got under sail, and again shaped my course N.W. by W. towards the continent of China, but at nine o'clock in the morning, being in 21 fathoms water, and one minute after in 11 fathoms with a rocky bottom, I was of opinion that we ought not to continue any longer so dangerous a pursuit, since our boats did not sail well enough to keep a head of our ships, and apprise us of the soundings. I determined therefore to run back on the same point of the compass, and accordingly steered S.E. by E. We sailed six leagues on this course, over a bottom of sand and rock, our soundings varying from 24 to 11 fathoms: after which we deepened our water, and, at ten o'clock at night, entirely lost bottom, about 12 leagues from the point from whence we had tacked in the morning. This bank whose limits to the N.W. we had not determined, is in the middle of the length of the course we had run in 23° of north latitude, and in 116° 45' of E. longitude: its S.E. extremity is 22° 52' of latitude, and 117° 3' of longitude. It may not be dangerous, since our least depth of water was 11 fathoms; but the nature and inequality of the bottom renders it extremely suspicious, and it must be observed, that these shoals, which are very common on the coast of China, have almost always points even with the water's edge, and have occasioned many shipwrecks.
Our board carried us back to the coast of Formosa, towards the entrance of the bay of the old fort Zeeland, on which stands the city of Taywan, the capital of the island. I was informed of the revolt of the Chinese colony, and I knew an army of 20,000 men had gone against it, under the command of the Santock of Canton. The N.E. monsoon, which still continued with violence, permitting me to sacrifice a few days to the pleasure of learning the last accounts of this event; I dropped anchor to the west of this bay in 17 fathoms water, although our boats had found 14 fathoms at a league and a half from the shore. But I was aware that it is not allowed to approach too near to the island, that there were only seven feet water in the port of Taywan, and that, when the Dutch were in the possession of it, their vessels were obliged to remain at the Pescador islands, where was an excellent port which they had fortified. This circumstance rendered me extremely undetermined whether to send a boat on shore, as I could not have protected it with my frigates, and it would probably have been suspected in the then state of war of the Chinese colony. At best, I could only expect it to be sent back without permission to land: whereas, should it be detained, my situation would become extremely embarrassing, and the burning two or three sampanes would have been a poor recompense for that misfortune. I therefore endeavoured to entice the crews of some Chinese boats that approached us to come on board, and shewed them some piastres, which I had found a powerful loadstone for that nation; but all communication with foreigners seemed to be prohibited: yet it was evident we excited no fear in them, since they passed within reach of our arms, though they refused to come along side. Only one of them was sufficiently bold; we gave him the price he asked for his fish, that he might make a more favorable report, should he dare to acknowledge his having any communication with us. It was impossible, however, for us to understand the answers of these fishermen to our questions, which they certainly did not comprehend. Not only has their language no analogy with those of Europe, but that mimetic communication which we deem an universal tongue, is no better understood, and a motion of the head, which with us signifies yes, has perhaps with them an import diametrically opposite.
This essay, even supposing they should give my boat the most favorable reception, convinced me of the impossibility of satisfying my curiosity. I therefore determined to get under way next morning with the land-breeze. Several fires along the coast, and which appeared to be signals, led me to believe we had caused an alarm. But, it was more probable, the Chinese and rebel armies were not near Taywan, where we had only seen a small number of fishing boats, which, in time of warlike transactions, would have a very different destination. What was then mere conjecture soon became a certainty; the next day the land and sea breezes having permitted us to get ten leagues to the northward, we perceived the Chinese army at the mouth of a great river, in 23° 25' N. lat. whose sand banks extend four or five leagues into the offing. We anchored opposite its mouth in 37 fathoms water over a muddy bottom; it was impossible to count all the vessels in fight, many of which were under sail, others riding at anchor along the coast, and a very great number in the river. The Admiral's ship, which was covered with flags, was farthest out to sea; he anchored near the edge of the sand banks a league to the eastward of our ships. All night he shewed lights on all his masts, which served as signals to recal [sic] many vessels that were still to windward. These vessels being obliged to pass near us to join their Commodore, were very careful not to come within gunshot of us, uncertain whether we were friends or enemies. The light of the moon permitted us to make these observations till midnight, and we never more ardently desired that the weather should continue clear, that we might see the result of these events. We had descried [sic] the southernmost islands of the Pescadors bearing W. by N., and it is probable the Chinese army setting out from the province of Fokien, had rendezvoused in the island of Pong-hou, the principal of the Pescadors, where is an excellent harbour, and that it had departed from thence to commence its operations.
We could not however satisfy our curiosity, for the weather became so bad that we were obliged to get under sail before morning, in order to save our anchor, which it would have been impossible to purchase had we delayed that operation one hour longer. The sky darkened at four o'clock in the morning, it blew a heavy gale, and the horizon no longer admitted of our distinguishing the land. At break of day I saw the Chinese Admiral's ship run before the wind towards the river with some other sampanes (vessels) which I still perceived through the fog. I stood out to sea under close-reefed top-sails on courses. The wind was N.N.E. and I flattered myself I should weather the Pescadors by standing to the N.W. To my great astonishment, at nine in the morning, I perceived several rocks forming a part of this cluster of islands, which bore N.N.W., and the weather was so hazy that it was impossible to distinguish them till we were very near. The breakers that surrounded them were confounded with those occasioned by the high waves. I had never seen a heavier sea in my life. I tacked towards Formosa again at nine o'clock in the morning, and at noon the Astrolabe, being a-head of us, made a signal for 12 fathoms water while she was wearing; when I immediately sounded, and found 40 fathoms waters. Thus in less than a quarter of a league there is a variation from 40 to 12 fathoms, and in all probability we should very soon have shoaled from 12 to two, since the Astrolable [sic] only found eight fathoms while she was wearing, and that vessel was probably not four minutes in running on that short board. This circumstance apprised us that the channel between the islands north-east of the Pescadors, and the sand banks of Formosa was not more than four leagues wide. Consequently it would have been dangerous to have plied in it during the night in dreadful weather, with an horizon of less than a league in extent, and so heavy a sea, that every time we wore with the wind aft, we were in danger of its breaking on board of us. These various motives determined me to bear away, in order to run to the eastward of Formosa. My instructions did not enjoin me to pass through the channel, and I was but too well convinced that I should not succeed in it before the change of the monsoon, and as that period, which must necessarily be very near, is almost uniformly preceded by a very heavy gale of wind, I deemed it better to encounter those squalls out at sea, and I shaped my course towards the southern islands of the Pescadors, which I made, bearing W.S.W. Being obliged to adopt this measure, I was desirous at least to reconnoitre these islands as much as the bad weather would permit. We ran along them at a distance of two leagues, and they appeared to extend towards the south as far as 23° 12', although the chart of Mons. Daprès lays down the southernmost 13' more to the north. We are not equally certain of their limits towards the northward. The most northerly that we observed, extends as far as 23° 25', but we are uncertain whether there are not others still further to the northward.
These islands are a heap of rocks in every variety of form. One of them is an exact counterpart of the Tower of Cordouan at the mouth of the river of Bourdeaux, and we might almost aver, that the rock was cut by human hands. Among these little islands we counted five of a moderate height, which had the appearance of downs of sand; but we did not perceive a single tree. In fact, the dreadful weather at that time rendered our observations very uncertain. The description of these isles must therefore be learnt from the Dutch, who fortified the port of Pong-hou when they were masters of Formosa. We know also that the Chinese maintain a garrison there, consisting of five or six hundred Tartars, who are annually relieved.
As the water became much smoother under the lee of these islands, we sounded there several times. The bottom was sandy, and so irregular, that the Astrolabe, at a musket shot from shore was in forty fathoms water, at the same time that we were in twenty-four, and presently after could not strike the ground. When night approached, I shaped my course S. by E. and at the return of day I hauled up E.S.E. in order to enter the channel between Formosa and the Bashee Islands. The next day we met with as strong a gale as on the preceding evening, which, however, continued only till ten o'clock at night. It was preceded by a heavy rain that could only be equalled between the tropics. The heavens were on fire during the whole night, and the most vivid lightnings flashed from every point of the horizon; yet we heard but a single clap of thunder. We ran before the wind under our foresail, and fore and main topsails close reefed, steering S.E. in order to double Vela-reta, which, according to the bearings we had taken before the close of the day of the southern point of Formosa, should have been four leagues to the eastward of us. The wind blew constantly from the N.W. during the whole night, but the clouds flew with the greatest rapidity to the S.W. and a fog, which extended not above a hundred fathoms in height, followed the lower current of the wind. I had made the same observation during several days. It had not, however, determined me to stand out to sea during this crisis of nature, thus announced by the winds, and which the full moon rendered still more probable. We were becalmed the whole of the following day, and in mid channel between the Bashee Islands and those of Botol Tabaco-xima. This channel is 16 miles wide, our observations having fixed the S.E. point of the latter in 21° 51' N. lat. and 119° 32' E. long. The winds having permitted us to approach this island within two-thirds of a league, I distinctly perceived three villages on the southern coast, and a canoe which seemed to be making towards us. I would willingly have paid a visit to these villages, which in all probability were inhabited by a race of men familiar to those of the Bashees, whom Admiral Dampier has described as so good and hospitable; but the only bay that seemed to promise us anchorage was open to the S.E. winds, which appeared likely to blow very shortly, since the clouds drove with rapidity in that direction. In fact, towards midnight the wind settled in that quarter, and permitted me to steer N.E. by N. which is the direction M. Daprès gives the island of Formosa as far as 23° 30'. We had sounded several times on our approach to Botol Tabaco-xima, and within half a league of land, without striking ground; and every indication shews, that if there is anchorage, it is extremely near the coast. This island, on which no navigator ever landed, may be four leagues in circumference. It is separated by a channel half a league in width from a small island or very great rock, whereon we perceived some little verdure, and a few bushes, but which is neither inhabited, nor habitable.
The island, however, appears to contain a considerable number of inhabitants, since we counted three extensive villages in the space of a league. It is very woody from about one-third of its elevation, taken between the water's edge and its summit, which appeared crowned with trees of the largest size. The declivity of the space between these forests and the beach is very rapid. It was covered with the most beautiful verdure, and in many places cultivated, though furrowed by the torrents that descend from the mountains. I believe Botol Tabaco-xima may be seen at a distance of 15 leagues when the sky is clear; but this island is very often covered with fogs, and it should seem Lord Anson only observed the small island just mentioned, which is not half so high. After having doubled this island, we directed our course to the N.N.E. with constant attention during the night, to observe if any land presented itself before us. A strong northerly current prevented our knowing with any certainty the way we made; but a very fine moon and the minutest attention protected us against the inconveniences of navigating in an archipelago very little known by geographers; for it is only known by a letter of Father Gaubil, a missionary, who had learnt some particulars of the kingdom of Liqueo, and its thirty-six islands from an ambassador of the king of that country, with whom he was acquainted at Pekin.
It is evident how insufficient to navigation are determinations of longitude and latitude on such data. It is, however, a great advantage to know that there exist islands or rocks in the parts where we are sailing. On the 5th of May, at one o'clock in the morning, we discovered an island bearing N.N.E. We passed the rest of the night under easy sail, standing off and on, and at break of day I endeavored to have the island bearing W. at half a league distance. We sounded frequently, but as yet found no bottom. We soon had sufficient proof that the island was inhabited, for we saw fires in several places, and herds of cattle passing along the shore. As soon as we had doubled its westernmost point, which is the most beautiful and best inhabited part of the island, several canoes left the coast to observe us. We seemed to inspire them with the greatest terror; for though their curiosity brought them within musket-shot, their fears made them immediately fly from us with precipitation. At length our cries, our gestures, our signals of peace, and the sight of some manufactures induced two of them to come on board, when I ordered a piece of nankeen and some medals be given to each. We perceived that they had not left the coast with any view to trade with us, for they had nothing to offer us in exchange for our presents. They fastened a bucket of fresh water to a rope, making at the same time a sign that they did not think they had discharged the obligation, but that they would go on shore and return with provisions, expressing this intention by putting their hands to their mouth. Before they had come alongside, they had placed their hands on their belly, and raised their arms towards heaven. We repeated these signs, on which they came on board, but with a distrust which their physiognomy never ceased to express. They invited us however to come nearer the shore, making signs that we should want for nothing. These islanders are neither Chinese nor Japanese: situated between these two empires, they seem in some respects analogous to each. They were dressed in a callico shirt and drawers, their hair turned up on the crown of their head, and rolled round a bodkin, which appeared to be gold; and they had each a poniard with a handle of the same metal. Their canoes were hollowed trees, which they managed very badly. I wished to have gone ashore, but as we had brought to in order to wait for their canoes, and the current drifted us to the northward with extreme rapidity, we had fallen much to leeward, and we might have in vain attempted to near it again; nor had we a moment to lose, as it was of great importance to quit the sea of Japan before the month of June, when the storms and hurricanes commence, which render those seas the most dangerous in the universe.
It is evident that vessels which had been long at sea might procure wood, water, and provisions in this island and even perhaps trade there in a small degree. But as it is scarcely three or four leagues in circumference, it is not probable its population should exceed four or five hundred, and a few gold bodkins are not a proof of considerable riches. I have continued to distinguish this island by the name of Kumi, and in the chart of Father Gaubil, where it is laid down nearly in the same latitude and longitude as our observations, which fix it at 24° 33' N. lat. and 120° 56' E. long. In that chart Kumi is one of a cluster of seven or eight islands, of which it is the most westerly, and is separated from those supposed to lie east of it by channels from eight to ten leagues wide, for our horizon was of that extent without seeing land. According to the description of Father Gaubil of the great island of Liqueo, the capital of all the islands eastward of Formosa, I am led to believe that the Europeans would be received there, and that they might carry on a trade equally advantageous with that of Japan.
If you have devoted a few moments to reading the chapter in my journal relative to Manilla, and my navigation along the coast of Formosa, you will have already perceived that I anchored before the capital of that island opposite the ancient port of Zeland [sic]; but the sand-banks, of which this coast is full, did not permit our ships to approach within a league and a quarter of that place. I did not think proper to send a boat on shore, which I could not protect with my guns, fearing it might be detained on account of the war which at that time existed between this colony and its metropolis. M. d'Entrecasteaux had dispatched the ship la Sylphide to Manilla, to desire me to navigate with great circumspection to the northward of China, as the least uneasiness on the part of the Chinese might be injurious to the negociation [sic] with which he was entrusted. I confess I was not deterred by that motive, for I am convinced more is to be gained of the Chinese by fear than by any other means: but I considered that, in sending a boat to Taywan, the greatest advantage I could expect would be its returning with a few refreshments, and without any communication with the inhabitants; for even should the officer be permitted to land, most certainly he could have given me no information upon his return, since he could not have comprehended a single word of Chinese. Thus should I have risked very great inconveniences, unattended with the hope of any advantage, had I hazarded the sending a boat on shore. I did not, however, neglect to obtain information relative to Formosa, both at China and Manilla, and I think I may very confidently assert, that 2 frigates, 4 corvettes, and 5 or 6 gun-boats, with a sufficient number of transports for 4,000 troops, provided with artillery and all necessary ammunition, would be sufficient to secure the success of this expedition, which a wise man would not undertake with a smaller force, though perhaps 1200 or 1500 men would appear sufficient to those enterprising adventurers, who having nothing to lose, make war a game of mere hazard, without considering how humiliating it is for a great nation to miscarry in its attempts against a people very inferior in courage, in arms, and in military science; though, in my opinion, far above the contemptible rank in which they are held by Europeans. The empire of China is so vast, that a great difference may well be supposed to exist between the inhabitants of the northern and southern parts, the latter of whom are a cowardly mean-spirited people. Europeans inhabiting the province of Canton, from an acquaintance with their character, entertain the most contemptible opinion of the Chinese.
But the inhabitants of the north, those Tartars who conquered China, must not be confounded with this servile race. Yet, though superior to the Chinese of the south, I cannot compare them with even the worst of our troops; to whom they are still far inferior, though not so much in courage, as in their manner of making war. Be this as it may, the Chinese, who consider the preservation of Formosa of the highest importance, keep a garrison of 10,000 Tartars on this island. Their cannon, their forts, even the posts which they occupy, and in which they are intrenched, I disregard; but I think an enterprise of such a nature, should never be formed without an almost absolute certainty of a successful conclusion. The coast of Formosa being flat, small vessels only can approach it, and boats drawing seven or eight feet water, carrying guns, and adapted for protecting the descent, would be absolutely requisite. The first operation ought to be that of gaining possession of the Pescador islands, where there is a good harbour, to shelter the fleet; and it would not require more than five or six hours to cross the channel which separates these islands from Formosa. The time for executing such an attempt, would be April, May, and June, and before the month of July and August, during which, the seas of China are exposed to water spouts, which are greatly to be dreaded by ships.
Should this expedition be made in concert with the Spaniards, the entrepôt of Manilla would considerably facilitate its success; because from that colony, it is at all times easy to effect a landing on the southern part of Formosa; and provisions and ammunition would be found there, which might be wanted, should a resistance or the loss of any ships render succours necessary.
The island of Formosa is of very great importance; and any nation possessing it, and essentially studying to improve it to the best advantage, by keeping a strong garrison there, with a marine at the Pescador Islands, would by obtain fear every thing they might demand of the Chinese. I am convinced, that had not the English been engaged in wars, which have employed all their forces, they would already have effected this conquest, more interesting in every respect for them, than for any other nation, because the pernicious use of tea, has rendered them tributary to China and that plant is become in all the British islands, an article of first necessity. I should not be surprised, soon to behold all Europeans reduced to the same condition in China, as the Dutch in Japan. But this revolution will be of little importance to France, and even to the rest of Europe, whose concerns with China are not worth their submitting to any humiliations; though I must once more observe, that the English will either be obliged to submit to them or to engage in a war; and I have no doubt they would rather adopt the latter alternative.
It is well known in Europe, that the eastern part of Formosa is inhabited by the aborigines, and does not recognize the sovereignty of the Chinese; but the western part is extremely populous, because the Chinese being too numerous, and greatly oppressed in their own country, are always ready to emigrate. I have been assured, that since the conquest of the island, 500,000 have removed there, and that the capital city contained 50,000 inhabitants. As these live in habits of labour and industry, this would be a further advantage to the conquerors. But it must ever be kept in view, that greater forces would, perhaps, be required to keep in subjection than to conquer a people, naturally very prone to rebellion; and that if, after conquering the island, the means of preserving it should be neglected, and the victors avoid the expense of keeping, and recruiting a body of three or four thousand men, at so vast a distance, they would run the risk of being all massacred.
I believe the produce of this island, would one day defray the expenses of its government; but I am persuaded, that the first years of its possession would be very expensive, and a ministry would see with regret, considerable sums of money pass over to this part of Asia, which promised but a very distant return.
The commerce with China would at first be interrupted, but it would, in my opinion, soon revive with increased vigour, and permission would certainly be obtained, to visit the several ports of the province of Fokien, the coast of which forms one side of the Bay of Formosa. It remains to be considered what opening offers for the Chinese articles of commerce, the basis of which is tea, an article consumed hardly anywhere but in England, a little in Holland, and in the United States of America.
I may, therefore, conclude this memoir with an assurance of the possibility of conquering Formosa, by the means I have pointed out, and particularly should we be favoured with the assistance of the Spaniards of Manilla; but it is not equally clear that this conquest would not be an additional burden to the state, and then it would be far better not to have conquered, than to permit such a settlement to languish.
In the harbour of St. Peter and St. Paul, 10th September, 1787.