Dentrecasteaux died while his ships were in the waters to the north of New Guinea. He fell violently ill, raving at first, then subsiding into unconsciousness, a death terrible to read about in the published narrative, where the full extent of his troubles is not revealed. Kermadec, commander of the Esperance, also died at New Caledonia. After their decease the ships returned to France as rapidly as they could. They were detained by the Dutch at Sourabaya for several months, as prisoners of war, and did not reach Europe till March, 1796. Their mission had been abortive.
Five French Captains who brought expeditions to Australia at this period all ended in misfortune. Laperouse was drowned; de Langle was murdered; Dentrecasteaux died miserably at sea; Kermadec, the fourth, had expired shortly before; and Baudin, the fifth, died at Port Louis on the homeward voyage.
Nor is even that the last touch of melancholy to the tale of tragedy. There was a young poet who was touched by the fate of Laperouse. Andre Chenier is now recognised as one of the finest masters of song who have enriched French literature, and his poems are more and more studied and admired both by his own countrymen and abroad. He planned and partly finished a long poem, “L’Amerique,” which contains a mournful passage about the mystery of the sea which had not then been solved. A translation of the lines will not be attempted here; they are mentioned because the poet himself had an end as tragic, though in a different mode, as that of the hero of whom he sang. He came under the displeasure of the tyrants of the Red Terror through his friends and his writings, and in March, 1794, the guillotine took this brilliant young genius as a victim.
J’accuserai les vents et cette mer jalouse
Qui retient, qui peut-etre a ravi Laperouse
so the poem begins. How strangely the shadow of Tragedy hangs over this ill-starred expedition; Louis XVI the projector, Laperouse and de Langle the commanders, Dentrecasteaux and Kermadec the searchers, Andre Chenier the laureate: the breath of the black-robed Fury was upon them all!
CAPTAIN DILLON’S DISCOVERY.
The navigators of all nations were fascinated by the mystery attaching to the fate of Laperouse. Every ship that sailed the Pacific hoped to obtain tidings or remains. From time to time rumours arose of the discovery of relics. One reported the sight of wreckage; another that islanders had been seen dressed in French uniforms; another that a cross of St. Louis had been found. But the element of probability in the various stories evaporated on investigation. Flinders, sailing north from Port Jackson in the investigator in 1802, kept a sharp lookout on the Barrier Reef, the possibility of finding some trace being “always present to my mind.” But no definite news came.