The American astronomer Carl Sagan, writing in "Cosmos" (see also August 18 in this blog), his populist explanation of the entire universe, tells almost as a marginal side-note the tale of Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse's 1786 voyage to Alaska.
"Benevolent encounters," he rightly states, "have not been the rule in human history, where transcultural contacts have been direct and physical, quite different from the receipt of a radio signal, a contact as light as a kiss. Still, it is instructive to examine one or two cases from our past, if only to calibrate our expectations. Between the times of the American and the French Revolutions, Louis XVI of France outfitted an expedition to the Pacific Ocean, a voyage with scientific, geographic, economic and nationalistic objectives. The commander was the Count of La Pérouse, a noted explorer who had fought for the United States in the War of Independence. In July 1876, almost a year after setting sail, he reached the coast of Alaska, a place now called Lituya Bay. He was delighted with the harbor and wrote: 'Not a port in the universe could afford more conveniences'. In this exemplary location, La Pérouse 'perceived some savages, who made signs of friendship, by displaying and waving white mantles, and different skins. Several of the canoes of these Indians were fishing in the Bay… [we were] continually surrounded by the canoes of the savages, who offered us fish, skins of otters and other animals, and different little articles of their dress in exchange for our iron. To our great surprise, they appeared well accustomed to traffic, and bargained with us with as much skill as any tradesman of Europe'...
"The Native Americans," Sagan continues, "drove increasingly harder bargains. To La Pérouse’s annoyance, they also resorted to pilferage, largely of iron objects, but once of the uniforms of French naval officers hidden under their pillows as they were sleeping one night surrounded by armed guards – a feat worthy of Harry Houdini. La Pérouse followed his royal orders to behave peaceably but complained that the natives 'believed our forbearance inexhaustible'. He was disdainful of their society. But no serious damage was done by either culture to the other. After re-provisioning his two ships, La Pérouse sailed out of Lituya Bay, never to return. The expedition was lost in the South Pacific in 1788; La Pérouse and all but one of the members of his crew perished."
A story of mild interest, no more than that, about a man who is best remembered as a 4-star boutique hotel in Nice, a suburb of south Sydney in Australia, and most especially as "Maison Parisienne depuis 1766", self-proclaiming as one of the city's finest restaurants; and actually not that well remembered anyway, because the name is a matter of some dispute - was it Lapérouse or La Pérouse? And wasn't it actually just plain Galaup, with the "de" added as a status symbol, and then the La Pérouse as well, when the family bought themselves a grand estate?
A story of mild interest, until you read the formal footnote to this informal footnote, about a rather better-remembered man:
In many rather more significant respects, including the "Edicts of Tolerance", which effectively liberated Europe's Jews, and paved the way...
The picture above shows the rather dashing young Napoleon, aged 23 at the time, when he was lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers, four years after La Pérouse's ship went down.
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