Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse (1782)

The following is a roughly translated note — with mistakes — made of an exerpted passage of La Perouse’s letter to the Secretary of State for the Marine Department, France, originally published in Supplément À La Gazette 29 October 1782. See Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, excerpt of letter to Charles Eugène Gabriel de La Croix, marquis de Castries (6 September 1782), written aboard the Sceptre, while in Hudson Strait, http://www.canadiana.org/ECO/mtq?id=7a8668f9e0&doc=94127.

A much smoother translation appears in The Political Magazine and Parliamentary, Naval, Military, and Literary Journal, Volume 4 (1872). Google Books http://bit.ly/aRGxrx, although there are odd mistakes in some of the distances given.

See also R. Glover, with Gertrude Laing, trans., “La Perouse on Hudson Bay,” The Beaver 30, no. 4 (March 1951): 42-46, http://www.historysociety.ca/media/pdf/30-4-951-Mar-p42-46.pdf

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Thomas Woolnoth, stipple engraving print, detail of “La Perouse, from a miniature in the possession of La Perouse’s niece at Alby.” Source: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Laperouse_1.jpg


You have been informed of my departure from Cape François the 31st of May, with the Royal Ship Sceptre, of 74 guns, & the frigates L’Astrée & L’Engageante, of 36, commanded by the Chevalier de Langle, & le Sieur de la Jaille, Naval Lieutenants, for the expedition in the Bay of Hudson. I embarked at St. Dominique 250 men, of Armagnac and Auxerrois, & 40 men of artillery, 2 mortars of 8 inches, 300 bombs & four cannon. This detachment was under the command of Sieur de Rostaing, Major of the Armagnac regiment. The Sieur Le Certain, Captain of the Artillery for service of the Colonies, had charge of that department; the Sieur de Monneron, Captain of the Royal Corps of Engineers, was to direct the operation of sieges, & the Sieur de Manfuy, Captain-Engineer of the Colonies, to chart the coasts & the bays that we were going to visit.

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French Ships of the Line, off Chesapeake, 1781. Source: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BattleOfVirginiaCapes.jpg

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There was nothing to remark in my navigation until 17 July, when I made notice at midnight of the island of Resolution. Just 20 leagues into the Strait of Hudson, I found multiple obstacles all around; my ships were for days restrained in the ice; the Sailors were able to go by foot from one ship to another; the frigates Astrée & Engageante suffered greatly & damaging their sterns considerably, which gave me much disquiet; the Sceptre came dangerously close to losing its rudder. All was new for us in this navigation, so that I had neglected to bring ice anchors, which would have been of great utility: finally, on 30 July, I made sight of Cape Walsingham, that is the most westerly part of the strait. I had nothing more to guide me but this, some points determined astronomically, inferrences from the Practical Navigator, & with these le Sieur de Manfuy and I had traced a chart that we corrected in increments as the fog permitted sight of land. I was satisfied that the greatest difficulties were past, & I burned with impatience to arrive at Fort Prince of Wales. That was the primary point of attack in my plan; & I did not have an instant to lose, the rigor of the season obliges all ships to abandon that sea in the first days of September, but my impatience was tested anew; sailing with confidence in the Bay of Hudson, I was enveloped in fog on 3 August; soon ice-bergs seemed to be everywhere so I was forced to signal the convoy to halt in the ice. The fog lifted two hours later, & and I saw the three ships entangled in ice as far as the eye could see; I therefore feared with good reason that the season for my operation had passed, & had nearly resolved to send back my ship to the islands of Vent with the one frigate, & to winter in the Bay myself in the second frigate, & a small number of the troops under the Sieur de Rostaing. I hoped to attack & destroy the English establishments the next season, but on 5 August, the ice-field which enclosed us gave way a little, & I determined to forge ahead by force of sails, whatever the risks to my little convoy. Happily I succeeded, & on 8 August at night, I saw the building of Prince of Wales; I approached, sounding to within one and a half leagues & anchored my Division in eighteen fathoms of water with mud bottom. At the same time I sent an Officer to sound; he reported to me it would be easy for our ships to approach close to the fort; & I learned that if the enemy proposed to offer resistance, the Sceptre could easily surmount them; all was instantly made ready, but the night soon became very dark & the sea was contrary. The shallops were not under way until two o’clock in the morning: we made land without obstacle within three quarters of a league of the stone fort, & it seemed to present a strong defence. Le Sieur de Rostaing marched with his troops just within range of the cannon, where he halted; & perceiving the enemy took no part in mounting a defence, he sent a summons to the fort to surrender. There was no difficulty: the gates were opened; the Governor & his garrison surrendered of their own volition.

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L’Astrée. Source: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_battle_off_Cape_Breton.

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They had in the fort a very great quantity of merchandise of all kinds; the armaments were in the best state possible; all their magazines were full.

Having not a moment to lose for completing my operations in the Bay of Hudson, I determined to burn everything, excepting some beaver pelts & others, these were put on board the Astrée. I gave up to the Savages all that they wished to take, especially powder and shot; these people living entirely on hunting.

I took sail on the 11th, for the fort of Yorck [sic], chief of all the English establishments in the Bay; but I met here with difficulties much greater than those that I had encountered since entering that sea. I knew that the coast was full of shoals; I had no chart, our prisoners obstinately refused to give me any information; finally after infinite precautions, of innumerable reefs that the Sceptre & the two frigates sighted, sailing in six or seven fathoms, of rocky bottom, I spied the entrance of the River Nelson, where I anchored on 20 August, at about five leagues from shore.

I had happily added to my Division three boats, prizes from Fort Prince of Walles [sic], which were a great help. I conferred their command to Sieurs du Bordieu, Swedish Naval Ensign; Dorié, Lieutenant of Frigate; & Carbonneau, Marine Guard. Better service than that of these three Officers is impossible, sounding ahead, & searching to discover the river Hayes, on which is situated Fort Yorck, & about which I knew entry was impractical for large ships. On 18 August, the Sieurs du Bordieu & Carbonneau, each in their boat; & the S.r Lefebvre, Second Officer, in the Sceptre’s boat, took an exact survey of that river. I waited for them at our anchorage eight leagues at sea, out of sight of land. They recorded exact soundings for the river; & returned on board, they piloted the fleet. On 20 August we anchored on a good sandy bottom. I prepared to go ashore, on the 21st, in the morning, with the start of the tide; I thought it best to bring the shallops, myself in the lead, having nothing to fear by sea from the enemy; the great distance of the ships might have suggested a means of opposing us, whereas at Fort Prince-Walles there was no such idea, because of the ease my ship had approaching the latter establishment; I ordered Chevalier de Langle to follow me, & gave to the Sieur de la Jaille the command of the Division, assuring him, that once the landing was completed, I would return on board my ship, & leave Chevalier de Langle to command the shallops, which would remain ashore until after the surrender of the fort.

Haye’s island, on which is situated the Fort of Yorck, is at the mouth of a large river, which it divides in two branches; one that is in front of the fort, called the River Hayes; the other, River Nelson. I knew that all the means of defence were on the River Hayes; there was in addition a ship of the Hudson’s Company, carrying 26 nine pounder cannon, anchored in the mouth: the river is full of shallows, the currents are very violent, the ebb & tide course with extraordinary rapidity; our shallops could run aground in range of the fort’s cannon, & it was important to not give such an opportunity to the enemy. I determined to head to the River Nelson, knowing very well that our Troops would have to march over four miles; but by this, all the batteries on the River Hayes, placed to protect the river, were rendered useless. We arrived, the 21st in the evening, at the entrance of River Nelson, with our little flotilla of shallops; they numbered a dozen, including those taken as prizes at Fort of Prince-Walles; I had about 250 land troops; all my mortars, all my cannon, eight day’s provision; the disposition of things meant we had no need from the ships, of anything that it was difficult to communicate, because of the great distance they were obliged to stand off. I ordered the shallops to anchor in three fathoms, at the entrance of the river, & I advanced in my boat, with Chevalier de Langle, the Sieurs de Rostaing & Monneron, sounding up the river, on which I supposed the Enemys perhaps had made some preparations for a defence. We had passed five in the evening, so near the Fort Yorck & the company’s ship, that with the aid of spy-glasses, they could distinguish the colour of our troops’ uniforms, the ship fired a gun, loaded with shot, & the Fort answered; I supposed this to be a signal for their Troops to march  towards River Nelson; that which I had most to fear, was an regiment of Savages, whom the English might have engaged, with brandy and powder, to take up arms for their defence.

I found, in sounding for the space of one mile, that the River Nelson is not navigable; the smallest boats could not approach within 100 [yards?]; & the remaining space being soft  mud. We therefore determined to await the day, & remain at anchor; but the tide ebbing more than I had presumed, my shallops anchored in two fathoms & an half, were aground by three o’clock in the morning. Chevalier de Langle proposed to Sieur de Rostaing to walk over the mud & and get all to shore. This was agreed to; all the troops debarqued with their guns shouldered; we waded a quarter of a mile through the knee-deep mud, & we finally reached only a marsh, distant from the woods half a mile. The troops then ranged for battle & marched about one mile to the woods where we hoped to find a dry path that would lead us to the fort. A prisoner to whom we gave generous payment, had offered to serve as guide; he pointed out to us a road that Sieur de Roslaing reconnoitred, & that he judged impracticable; yet we have since been told is the best of the island. The whole day passed in fruitless searching for roads that did not exist. I determined finally to cut one, through the woods & the swamp: Seiurs de Monneron & de Manfuy took charge of that extremely fatiguing work. The troops camped at the edge of the woods; & at night it was announced that they had to traverse two miles of knee-deep swamp.

In the night, the wind blew a great gale; I was in great anxiety for my ships that anchored close to the coast, where the sea is rough, & where the bottom, though muddy, is full of rocks that can cut the cables. I determined to do all I could to rejoin my Division; the landing done, I had no authority to abandon my ships, especially when the danger was clearly evident. I ordered Chevalier de Langle to take command of the shallops, & I took to the sea shore; but the storm continuing, I could not embark. I profited by an quieter interval the next day, & arrived on board, one hour before a second gale arose. The Sieur de Carbonneau, who had set out with me lost his boat; luckily making shore with his men & their equipment. They returned on board three days after, having eaten only roots & wild fruits. The Engageante lost two anchors in the second squall, & the Astrée two. If the storm had lasted any hours more, the frigate of Sieur de la Jaille would have been lost & 300 men also.

The wind having calmed on the 26th, I learned that our troops had arrived before the Fort on the 24th in the morning, & that, on the first summons of Sieur de Rostaing, the gates were opened, after having a capitulation proposed and accepted. I wrote Sieur de Rostaing, to burn everything & re-embark immediately. … [damp or no damp?] Sieur de Rostaing agreed to comply with all possible diligence. …

Yet my plan was overturned by a fresh hurricane, in which the Engageante was again at risk; its third anchor broke likewise the bar of the rudder, & its shallop was lost … at last good weather returned, & I was pleased, on the morning of 31st of August, to see Fort Yorck on fire, & Sieur de Rostaing, with the rest of the troops, returning in a large vessel belonging to the Company, that I had taken prize in the river. It anchored at night one mile from my ship, & in the morning he came aboard the Sceptre. I weighed anchor immediately, having on board the three Governors of Forts Prince-Walles, Yorck & Severn, a small establishment dependant on Yorck, that I neglected to destroy, because it has no kind of importance, & that my ships, having lost their shallops and anchors, & having 300 sick, we could do nothing better than leave those seas, which from 25 August, are more tempestuous than the la Manche [the Channel between France and England] in January.

I put a value of 10 or 12 million on the loss sustained by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

I took care, in burning Fort Yorck, to spare a considerable magazine, situated at a remove from the flames, & in there I had deposited provisions, gunpowder, lead, guns, & a certain quantity of European merchandise, the most proper to exchange with the Savages, because several English, who I know took refuge in the woods, when they return to their old establishment, will find in that magazine means to procure subsistence, until England is informed of their situation. I am assured that the King will approve my conduct in this regard, & that in providing for those unfortunates, I have only acted out the benevolent intentions of the King.

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Richard Condi, “Canada Vignettes – Fort Prince of Wales,” National Film Board, posted to You Tube by NationalFilmBoardFan, 9 September 2008.

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One Response to Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse (1782)

  1. yovisto says:

    Thank you very much for your interesting and illustrative post about La Perouse Bay! Because of the 228th anniversary of the start of Jean-Francois La Pérouse’s voyage, we have also made a contribution about La Pérouse in our daily History of Science, Arts, and Technology Blog: Jean-François de La Pérouse and his Voyage around the World, http://yovisto.blogspot.de/2013/08/jean-francois-de-la-perouse-and-his.html

    Best,
    Harald

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