FRENCH NAVIGATORS, I

The explorers coasted along it until the 13th October, upon which day an excellent port was discovered, sheltered from every wind, and formed by a number of small islands. M. de Surville cast anchor and named it Port Praslin. It is situated in 7° 25' S. lat. and 151° 55' E. long. reckoning from the Paris meridian.

Upon entering this port, the French saw several Indians, armed with spears, and carrying a sort of shield. The Saint-Jean Baptiste was very soon surrounded by pirogues, manned by a crowd of Indians, who were profuse in menacing gestures. However, they were pacified at last. About thirty of the boldest clambered on to the deck, and examined everything they saw with close attention. It soon became needful to check their advances, as there were many sick among the crew, and it was unwise to allow too many natives on board.

Pirogues of the Admiralty Islands
Pirogues of the Admiralty Islands.
(Fac-simile of early engraving.)

In spite of the welcome they received, the natives were still doubtful, and their looks expressed distrust. The slightest movement on board the vessel was sufficient to make them jump into their pirogues, or the sea. One only showed a little more confidence, and Surville gave him several presents. The Indian acknowledged the attention, by saying he could point out a spot where good water was to be had.

The captain gave orders to arm the boats, and entrusted the command to his lieutenant Labbé.

"The savages appeared impatient for the departure of the boats from the ship," says Fleurien, in his "Découvertes des Français," "and they were no sooner lowered than they were followed by all the pirogues. One of these appeared to lead the others; in it was the Indian who had offered his services to Surville. At the back of the pirogue, a man stood erect, holding in his hands a bunch of herbs, raising them above his head, with a rhythmical movement. In the centre of the same pirogue stood a young man, resting upon a spear, who gravely watched all that went on. Red flowers were in his ears, and passed through the cartilage of his nose, and his hair was powdered with white lime."

Certain trifling symptoms aroused the suspicions of the French, who soon found themselves in a cul-de-sac, where the natives persisted in declaring that fresh water was to be found. Labbé, in spite of all the persuasions of the natives, did not wish to imperil his boats in two or three feet of water, with a muddy bottom, and therefore allowed only a corporal and four soldiers to disembark. They soon returned, asserting that they had seen on all sides nothing but marsh, in which the men would sink to the waist.

It was evident that the natives had meditated treason. Labbé took good care not to let them suspect that he had detected their design, and asked them to point out a spring.

The natives then led the boats some three leagues away, to a spot from whence it was impossible to see the ship. The corporal was again sent forward with some men, but he found only a very poor spring, barely affording sufficient water to slake the thirst of his party. During his absence, the natives did all in their power to induce Labbé to land, pointing out to him the abundant cocoa-nut and other fruit trees, and even attempting to possess themselves of the boat-hook.

"More than two hundred and fifty of these natives," says the narrative, "armed with spears, from seven to eight feet long, with swords, or wooden clubs, arrows and stones, and some carrying shields, were assembled on the shore, observing the movements of the boats. When the detachment, consisting of five men, proceeded to re-embark, the natives fell upon them, wounding one soldier with a blow from a club, the corporal with a spear, and many others in different ways. M. Labbé himself was hit by two arrows in the thigh, and on the leg by a stone. The traitors were fired upon. The first volley so astonished them that they remained motionless. It was the more fatal, as, being fired only three or five fathoms from the boats, every shot took effect. The amazement of the natives gave the opportunity for a second discharge, which completely routed them, the death of their chief greatly hastening their flight. M. Labbé, who had recognized him, apart from the others, with his hands raised to heaven, striking his breast, and encouraging the assailants by his voice, aimed at him and shot him dead. The natives carried off their wounded, leaving thirty or forty dead upon the field of battle. It was then possible to land, and, picking up such of the enemy's weapons as were scattered about, the victors contented themselves with towing away one of their pirogues and destroying the others."

Picking up the enemies' weapons
"Picking up the enemies' weapons."

Surville was extremely anxious to capture an Indian, who might serve him as a guide, and who, convinced of the superiority of European weapons, might warn his countrymen against opposing the French. With this view, he hit upon a singular expedient. He ordered two negro sailors to be placed on board the pirogue he had seized, had their heads powdered, and disguised them so cleverly that the natives were likely to be deceived.