August 23


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 (click here)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:

"When La Pérouse was mustering the ship's company in France, there were many bright and eager young men who applied but were turned down. One of them was a Corsican artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. It was an interesting branch point in the history of the world. If La Pérouse had accepted Bonaparte, the Rosetta stone might never have been found, Champollion might never have decrypted Egyptian hieroglyphics, and in many more important respects our recent history might have changed significantly."

In many rather more significant respects, including the "Edicts of Tolerance", which effectively liberated Europe's Jews (see February 3), 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.

Amber pages

Leitmotifs occur to me after the event; themes that I would never have written down as a "must-do" if I had planned this book, preferring to go through the almanacs and take what offers itself, and then discover something new about myself from my choices. So there are Dreyfus and Rosa Parkes and Nat Turner and Nelson Mandela, and more, and still more, of those who refused to be passively complicitous, who refused to actively collaborate in their own victimhood, who stood up, or sat down, for what they believed to be right, but who, in most cases, became victims of the wrong-doers anyway.

So, today in 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti - the Massachussetts Two rather than the Guildford Four - went to the electric chair. And who were they? The lights are amber. You will have to find out for yourself, or wait till someone pushes the little button, and they become green.

Nazi Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact, today in 
1939 - just eight days before the invasion of Poland, but the pretext for that invasion was being set up at the time, and the man who planned and led it was also the man who went to Russia during the war, to try to renegotiate the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. So it is logical to assume that, being a Major in the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence, that man is likely to have been a key figure in today's events too. Shame that neither Keneally nor Spilberg picked up this side of his murkiness. The name of this man was Oskar Schindler.

And today, in 1966, the first ever photographic image of the Earth from the vicinity of the Moon, taken by Lunar Orbiter 7, and a splendid partner-photo for the one Louis Daguerre took, of the moon from the Earth - see January 1 

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