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Dumont d'Urville on Truk

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ


Abstracted from J. Dumont d'Urville, Voyage au Pole sud et l'Oceanie sur les Corvettes l'Astrolabe et la Zelee... 1837-1840 (Paris: 1841-1846), Vol. V, 120-167, by Francis X. Hezel, Micronesian Seminar, Truk.

Dumont D'Urville is generally considered the principal explorer of the Truk lagoon. Until his visit in 1838, on his second voyage around the world, we have no written description of Truk proper by any explorer who actually entered the lagoon, excepting Arellano's report of almost three centuries earlier.

On December 22, 1838, some 30 or 40 canoes full of Trukese raised a deafening shout as they watched the two ships, Astrolabe and Zelee, slide through one of the narrow passages in the southeast part of the reef. In the trading that took place as soon as the ship had found anchorage off the island of Tsis, the Trukese exchanged mats, combs, ornaments, and bags for knives, bracelets, and necklaces.

Early in the afternoon, the captain went ashore at Tsis and was received in a friendly way by a chief he met along the path. The next morning, he and some of his men visited the island of Param where he made the acquaintance of three young men whom he later employed as guides: Otokoi, Kepouti, and Ikevets. The trading that had been conducted aboard ship that morning proceeded peacefully enough, he observed.

The only unpleasant incident involved a native who had tried to trick the captain; but he was summarily put off the ship "and the lesson was not lost on the others." Dumont d'Urville commented that "the natives live together in harmony and appear naturally gentle and peaceful"-a judgment that he would later be obliged to revise.

On December 24, the Frenchmen split up into two parties: one was sent out to explore the barrier reef, the other to explore Param Island. Meanwhile, a single Frenchman went to Tsis to carry out further investigation. Messrs. Marescot and Desgraz, who were among the party that headed for Param, submitted this account of their travels:

After walking along the shore for a while, we turned inland at the bidding of our guide, Otokoi. We would come on groups of women and children from time to time, but whenever we made a motion towards them they fled with a scream. Our guide seemed bothered by the cold reception that we were receiving and began to hold up the gifts we had given him to prove our friendliness. But the people's fear proved greater than their curiosity, and they fled.

We passed a large house which looked as though it might be the dwelling of a chief. In front of it were three splendid-looking war canoes, about 45 feet in length. The old men who were seated within looked delighted to see us and invited us to join them. We began to communicate with one another by signs. They offered us coconuts, in return for which we gave them fishhooks and glass trinkets. The women began to approach the house little by little, but did not dare enter the hut. At the least gesture on our part, they made motions to flee. I was surprised by their timidity and was wondering what the reason might be when one of the young men had rowed us over to Param offered us the full possession of one of the island beauties who stood around the house. I declined, explaining that my companion and I were under a taboo. At this there was a murmur of approval among the group of men, and the women became less timid almost immediately.

The greatest attraction of the women seemed to be their youth. All those who were past the age of 20 were ugly and deformed, with not the slightest trace of what they must have been in their earlier years. I did not notice the least bit of tattooing on any women. The men appeared to be very jealous, for they gave me to understand that a woman who delivered herself to a stranger without their consent would be immediately put to death.

Young girls go completely naked until the age of ten, after which they wear a skirt or lavalava. In place of the poncho, which is worn by men, women drape a piece of woven cloth over their shoulders. They wear their hair long and let it fall behind their head, like the men, they have pierced ears from which they hang rings of shell.

Women fish off the reefs that surround the island; this they do at night with torches of resinous wood. In each hand they hold a small net, the whole group arranged in the shape of a circle. I also saw a hand loom used for weaving cloth.

We passed the whole day with the people of this island. On returning to the beach for our canoe, the people greeted us much more warmly than before. The children no longer ran off, and the women all came out and spoke to us. At 5'oclock in the evening we finally left the shore, and an hour later we were aboard the Astrolabe.

M. Jacquinot, who had gone alone to Tsis, reported that he had seen only three or four houses that were inhabited at the time. Everyone seemed frightened of him. At his arrival, the women were hidden away or whisked off to another island. Since there were no customs to observe, collections to make, or strange handiwork to study, he returned to the Zelee with the intention of setting out to explore Fefan the next day.

On the following morning (Dec.25), canoes from the nearby islands came to visit the ship, as usual. On one of them was a man wearing a large orange poncho and shell necklaces who appeared to be a chief. He had come from Fefan along with two other natives. Jacquinot persuaded him with the offer of a blue necklace to take him to Fefan. Taking his gun and a bag filled with trade goods and biscuits Jacquinot set out in the canoe for the Astrolabe to pick up Desgraz who had promised to accompany him. In the meantime, however, Desgraz had changed his mind, for he had hopes of picking up a golden cowry shell in the trading that was going on aboard the ship. Jacquinot decided to continue on alone, well aware of the personal risk involved and far less confident than he had been a bit earlier. On the way to Fefan, Jacquinot's canoe was overtaken by another bearing M. Lafond, and together they made for the island. Jacquinot's account continues:

When we landed, we were met by a group of children of both sexes who surrounded us and showed their delight and surprise at seeing two strange persons. We took a few steps through the mangrove swamps and came upon what looked like the house of a chief. An old man was sitting out in front. At seeing us, he appeared extremely frightened and wanted to leave. Our guide, the young chief, had a hard time restraining him, but our gift of a few presents seemed to reassure him a bit. Meanwhile, the children offered us some old coconuts. Our guides suddenly turned around and gestured to us that we were to get back in the canoe. We did not know where they wanted to take us, and were afraid that they were trying to bring us back to our ship. We let them know that we wanted to walk inland. When they attempted to dissuade us, we insisted and followed the path we had started on. They followed us quietly.

Later we came to realize that we had misread the intentions of our guides. The path that we were traveling was nothing but a big swamp and we had to keep stepping over the gnarled roots of mangroves. After walking about a half mile, struggling to keep our balance all the way, we returned to the very place where we had disembarked from the canoes.

Along the way we were surprised to see an orange tree-a wild one, to be sure, but one whose fruit was quite good, even if a little on the sour side. Where did this tree come from? We know that orange trees are not found in Oceania, and those that are found in Tonga and Tahiti have been imported from elsewhere.

A short distance from the shores we came upon some huts scattered here and there. Each is located on a small bay or rivulet that has been dug out right down to the seashore. Each hut could hold only a single canoe. The houses were deserted when we passed; the inhabitants were no doubt aboard our ship trading. Inside there were mats and large oval shaped wooden bowls, painted red, that were used to carry water. On the walls hung weapons; bundles of spears tipped with stingray tails; war clubs of hard wood; and long pikes, polished and painted yellow, with a bulge at each end. One of their weapons is a sling made from coconut twine, with which they hurl projectiles, the size and shape of a human eye, that are carefully ground from basaltic rock.

Some huts, larger than the others, contained the great proas or war canoes that are capable of fast speed (although their speed has been exaggerated by some explorers). Our guides brought us into one of these houses, which held two canoes painted red and black. The house was decorated with carefully executed carvings. In it there were several men sitting on the floor in a circle engaged in conversation. I'm sure that we must have been the main topic of conversation. Until this time we had not seen any women. Then, turning towards the entrance, I saw several young ladies half-hidden by large banana leaves who kept peeking at us. When they realized that their presence was detected, they ran off, only to return a while later to continue their game. Finally, one of the men spotted them and angrily ordered them to leave. They did so.

We left the canoe house and followed the path up a hill covered with lovely trees. Here and there we could see the roof of a house. Our young guide tried to keep us from following the path, but we pushed on despite him. At the top of the hill we found two or three houses nestled in a grove of coconut and breadfruit trees. All at once we beheld a bevy of young women who ran towards us displaying necklaces and other objects that their husbands and brothers obtained from the ship. The women were slender, but rather ugly-on the whole, not as attractive as the men. The most remarkable garment was a bit of yellow fabric they wore around their neck. We have not seen this anywhere else in the Pacific; it resembles the poncho worn by the Araucanos of Chile. Our guide appeared so upset that after giving the women a few gifts we put a quick end to the encounter.

The rest of our trip was spent collecting plants, insects, and shells. We learned that the natives had no knowledge of firearms; this was evident in the surprise and fright that they showed at the first shot I fired. Their astonishment was even greater a moment later when they saw a bird fall bloody and lifeless.

Towards evening the canoes returned from the ship, and the houses that had been abandoned during the day filled up once again. The natives who had remained behind during the day ran to meet the new arrivals and told them doubtlessly of the gun they had just seen. Shortly afterwards the natives surrounded us and asked us to shoot some birds that were running along the shore. I fired two or three times and hit the target to their astonishment. Thunderstruck, they let out a long "OH!" and struck the palm of their hand against the hollow of their arm.

As night began to descend, it became difficult to see the birds. One of the natives pointed to a bird, but 1 looked for a long time without being able to make it out. Finally, I saw the head and long neck of the bird and fired. One of the natives picked up the dead bird and brought it over to an old man sitting on a rock. He examined it for a time with deep attention, struck the hollow of his arm and began to speak to the people. The group of natives listened with religious attention to the old man who was doubtless a sage-perhaps even the patriarch or possibly the high priest of the tribe. What I would have given to be able to understand what he was saying to them!

As everyone began leaving the beach, Lafond and I made for the house nearest the shore. Many women and children were seated around an oven hollowed into the ground where there were fish, bananas and other kinds of food cooking. As we unpacked our own meager provisions of biscuit and cheese, hands reached towards us from everywhere. We gave away just about everything we had in response to the ever-multiplying demands of the people, hoping that we would be given a share of the food that was on the fire. Everyone seemed to like the biscuit we gave them, but they threw away the cheese with obvious disgust. As for the wine, they drank it with a wince.

We were finally given fish which, unfortunately, was only half-cooked. Lafond had been given some crabs. But alas! There were worse than raw; they were still alive! So he put them in his bag to take them back to the ship for study, for the species looked interesting.

When we told our guides that we wanted to sleep, they brought us to a canoe house and showed us a mat on the floor. We lay down there to rest, but a throng of natives gathered around us and began an animated conversation. As you might well imagine, this was not conducive to a good night's sleep. What's more, I felt the hands of two or three of the natives as they slid across the floor towards my bag. So I rose, examined the canoe, and threw my mat on its platform which was five or six feet above the ground. Hoisting myself up, I made my bed there with my bag under my head, my rifle in one hand, and a fairly large geological hammer in the other. Armed such wise on my fortress, I waited patiently for what was to come.

Until then the natives had done nothing to cause the least bit of fear. Still, in all their deceitful and treacherous nature and their covetousness of our belongings inspired thoughts that were anything but comforting. There were a good number of them now around the fire. Then, all of a sudden, one of them, sounding a long wail broke into a chant that ended on a shrill note. When he finished he pointed to Lafond, who was creeping closer to the fire so that he could hear well. Instantaneously my companion thundered out verses of the "Marseilles", the songs of Beranger and other pieces much to the delight of his audience.

Then one of the natives, a large fellow, rose and began to dance in the most bizarre way to his own singing. The reddish light of the fire which reflected off his bronze features, the black shadow of the dancer that fell between the fire and myself, his strange contortions-all of this made the scene the most weird one imaginable. Then it was Lafond's turn to dance. He had just made a brave start when the natives demanded that he undress. Lafond thought it better not to refuse, and a moment later, there he was in naturalibus doing the "Cavalier seul" in front of the savages.

I awoke in the morning after a deep sleep and went down to the beach with the intention of returning to the ship. All the natives were already gathered at the shore filling canoes with carefully chosen round stones. At first we feared that these were to be used as weapons, but in the canoe on the way to the ship we learned that they were only to be employed as weights for fishing lines. At last we reached our ship and joyfully climbed aboard.

Meanwhile, M. Lafarge had also returned to the ship after passing the night on the tiny island of Onan. He found no one there except for some fishermen who told him that they lived on the island of Tol.

Dumont D'Urville himself spent the better part of the three days on Tsis taking on water. He was impressed by the large taro swamps there and concluded that the plant grew without cultivation on the part of the natives. "Nothing was more distressing than to see the canoe houses that served as meeting places for the natives," he observed. "Parts of them were eaten away; these places seem to be entirely infested with vermin." D'Urville also noted that the natives pick lice out of one another's hair, "less out of a sense of propriety than because of the taste they have acquired for these insects which they eat with relish." D'Urville, like the others in his party, observed that although the men received him graciously there were no women in evidence. He supposed that the men hid them away or temporarily removed them to another island "due to justifiable doubt their virtue." The only animals he saw were a few cats, some few wild hens, and numerous rats of heroic proportions. Early the next morning (Dec.26), d'Urville appointed M. Duroch to oversee the hydrographic survey that was to be carried out in the small boat. At 4:30 AM, before the arrival of the natives and the commencement of the day's trading activities, the party left the ship. D'Urville watched with surprise as the launch reached the northeast tip of Fefan, only to turn around unexpectedly and make for the ship again. M.Dumoulin's account of the trip follows:

Early in the morning we took on board the launch of the Astrolabe a cannon, a case of weapons and powder, and left to explore a group of islands behind Fefan. On arriving there, we met a group of canoes on their way to the ships. These canoes, which were all from Uman, came towards us and raced with us playfully for a while. The natives in them seemed to have peaceful intentions, and they used every means at their disposal to try to persuade us to come and visit their island.

Passing through the channel that separates Dublon from Fefan, however, we saw a number of canoes whose construction was entirely different from those we had just seen set out from a large village on the northern shore of Fefan. As we were making our way through the channel, a string of reefs appeared to bar our way and made us fear that we would not find a passage for the launch. The natives must have thought that our boat had run aground on the reef, for they chose this moment to attack us.

Suddenly our sailors were hit with a shower of oranges thrown by the natives in the canoes. We took this for a joke at first but to let the natives understand that we did not enjoy this kind of a prank, we threw the oranges into the sea. In a split second the whole complexion of the situation changed. One of the chiefs, standing atop the canoe platform, hurled a spear at us. At that instant the rest of the natives picked up their weapons and made ready for combat. Our position was critical. We had trouble keeping the crew under control, yet we were too near the reef to turn and fight. Fifty or so natives armed with slings and stones were coming on foot over the reef. If they advanced to within sling range, we were finished. Within seconds each of our men was armed with a loaded weapon. Everyone then helped with the sails. The foresail was raised, and the wind carried us through the whole flotilla of canoes while the natives rained spears upon us.

Not a single shot had been fired so far, even though M. Duroch and I had drawn a bead on the chief who was directing the attack not more than six yards from us. We assumed that when he saw the gun barrel pointing at his chest he would refrain from further hostilities; but after looking at us for about half a minute, he picked up more lances and got ready to pursue the attack.

On the shore long lines of women could be seen running towards the mountain with their children and their possessions on their backs. The flotilla regrouped for the attack—over 20 canoes, with 5 to 10 warriors in each. The chief's canoe held no fewer than 22 men. The natives were only encouraged to redouble their efforts after observing what appeared to them to be a shameful flight on our part. The battle was inevitable, so we motioned to the three friendly canoes from Uman that had followed us all the while to withdraw. This they did. The Fefan canoes approached us in serried rank, led by the chief's canoe and another smaller one. In the prow of the latter two men were busily doing lewd and derisive dances for our benefit. When the chief's canoe was not more than a pistol's length from us, the chief took off his poncho and let down his hair in an apparent sign of friendship. But we saw that each of the natives in the canoe had picked up a lance in the meantime. Then we opened fire. The shot from the cannon tore the chief's canoe to pieces, while M. Duroch and I brought down the two dancers who had taunted us for so long. The natives fled in haste. Those unfortunate souls who were in the first two canoes jumped into the sea, made a rampart of their wrecked boats, and swam into the wind as fast as they could, carrying their dead and wounded and the remains of their canoes with them. The beaten natives made for the reef surrounding Dublon, not daring to return to their own village for fear that they would fall into our hands.

We continued our exploration, but as we sailed back to the reef to look for an opening we saw the flotilla there with most of the warriors. They evidently thought that they could wait in safety near the village for the next opportunity to attack. So we riddled them with grapeshot from a considerable distance. Unfortunately our aim was too good—and we soon saw the natives jump into the water and carry the bodies of their dead with them. The wounded had not uttered a single cry during the engagement. After this fusillade, the natives who were watching from the trees on the shore hastily left their perches to seek safety far inland.

Saddened at having to take such extreme measures, we continued on our way and found a narrow pass between Fefan and Dublon. On the way back to the ship we passed two canoes that had been crippled in the first battle. We were surprised that they had not sought safety ashore, but they were probably afraid of falling into the hands of their enemies on Dublon. We passed by them without firing, although we could have annihilated them if we had chosen to do so.

One of the canoes from Uman, whose crew had begged us to take refuge on their island when the hostilities began, remained with us the whole time. When the fight was over, they went to all the islands to tell of the defeat that their traditional enemies had suffered at our hands. In the meantime, we thought that it would be more prudent not to attempt to land at any of the islands. After surveying Moen Island and two or three of the isolated reef islands from the launch, we steered for our ships. Thanks to our friends from Uman, the news of our fight spread quickly throughout the whole lagoon. We were concerned about the safety of the two Frenchmen who had been on Fefan that day. But shortly after we arrived back at the ship Lafond was brought aboard by a native canoe, and at 6 in the evening Ducorps was also returned, safe and sound, by a canoe. Ducorps told us that as soon as his host on Fefan had heard the news of the fight he insisted on bringing the Frenchman back to the ship immediately, all atremble with fright.

After dinner a party headed by d'Urville landed at Tsis where the news of the battle had already become known. They found about 50 natives armed with spears. Through Mafi, a Trukese interpreter and guide, the Frenchmen made the warriors hand over their weapons with the assurance that they would be returned after the survey team had safely reboarded the ship. The next morning (Dec.27), there were fewer canoes than usual coming out to the ship. Among those who did come out were Otokoi and Ikevets from Param. They brought food gifts and took great pains to explain that the chiefs of Uman, Tsis, Fefan, Moen, Falabaguets, Udot, etc., were the enemies of the Frenchmen, while the chiefs of Param and Tarik were their friends. They assured us that about a dozen of our enemies had been killed or wounded in the battle of the day before. They also gave the names of the different islands in the lagoon. That same morning, two officers from the Astrolabe met with three from the Zelee on Tsis. They watched as fifty or so natives gathered on the beach, with the number growing each moment. The natives were all armed with spears with metal points-probably made with the iron hoop the people had obtained in the previous days' trading. The attitude of the natives was far from congenial, and Jacquinot had already been attacked on that same island. But the officers returned to the ship without incident. There they heard this story from Jacquinot:

The morning after the attack, a launch brought officers from the Zelee to Tsis as usual. The company consisted of Messrs. Dubouzet, Goupil and myself. Upon our arrival at Tsis we were astonished to see a great number of decorated war canoes there. The shore was covered with huts that had been hurriedly thrown up; alongside them many natives sat in mournful silence. We could only assume that they were the parents and friends of the victims of yesterday's battle, and that it was for the sake of revenge that they had left their village a good distance away to spend the night on this sandspit. The weapons that they carried and the bundles of spears that lay next to the huts were clear proof of their intentions. But we were too far from the ships to show any signs of fear. Besides, we were well-armed and knew of their terror of firearms. So we beached the launch and went ashore.

Instead of remaining together as prudence would have dictated, we separated and went our different ways. Dubouzet headed for the opposite shore; Goupil stopped not far from where we disembarked; I made for some trees to shoot birds with a crowd of men and children behind me. Not long afterwards, my friend Goupil approached and told me that he could not stop for a moment without being surrounded by natives. One of them even speared a branch that fell right at his feet. We remained together for a short time, but as the natives dispersed he went back to continue his work. When I walked into the forest, the people who were following me disappeared little by little. Soon I was alone. After a walk of some distance, I was surprised to find that I had reached the shore on another part of the island. The sea was perfectly still, and in front of me, about a mile off, our ships gleamed in the sun. To the left was a small canoe in which a sailor and an officer were making a map of the shallows. The beach to the right would bring me to the spot where we had disembarked from our launch. As I stopped to reload my musket, a rock landed hard right next to me. Turning suddenly, I saw the feet of several natives who were hiding in the bushes. The rock must have come from them. I slid a ball into each barrel of my musket and quickly decided to follow the shore to the right, hoping that I would at least be seen by the ships if I were attacked. I walked without too much haste, looking in the trees for birds while keeping my eyes on the natives all the while. As I moved along, they left their hiding place-about twenty strong, all armed with spears and painted from head to foot. They moved up to my side without running and followed me step for step. I had hardly gone twenty paces when all at once a native jumped out of the forest right in front of me. It was the chief, a tall man, entirely naked and painted in a yellowish-orange. He held a spear whose white tip had just recently been sharpened. My finger tightened on the trigger of my musket; at the first movement of the spear I was prepared to shoot. As soon as he showed himself, the others took up the shout "hourrak", which must have meant "Kill him!" Still he made no hostile movement. His face showed fear and his limbs trembled. When I made some friendly signs, he responded with a forced smile and pointed to a small bird that was hopping from branch to branch. I indicated that it was too small to shoot and continued to walk ahead-now with longer gait. My position at that time was extremely critical, for he walked two or three feet behind me with the spear held at my back. I expected to feel the point in my flesh at any moment.

The warriors advanced, and a fight now seemed unavoidable. Had it not been for a providential bit of luck, my doom would have been sealed on the spot. The beach was broken by some large rocks. If I could reach them, they would offer me some hope of safety. I became more watchful, half turning towards the chief behind me to check his movements. At last I reached the rocks, scrambled over them quickly, and turned the musket on the natives to hold them off. Once I was hidden from the sight of the chief and his companions, I resumed my course. When I heard their cries I knew that I was safe.

Some distance from the launch, I met Messers. Hombron and Gervasie and two of our sailors, and quickly related to them what had happened. A little further on we found Messrs. Dubouzet and Goupil swimming. When they heard of my adventure, they lost no time in dressing. They had no sooner finished then a launch arrived to take us back to the ship.

After dinner, Messrs. Dumoulin, Hombron, Ducorps and Lafond went ashore. On the beach they found a party of natives even larger than the one they had encountered that morning-inhabitants of all the islands. Keeping close together, they walked straight for the chief's house where they found several armed men. The natives, checked as they were by the fear of European firearms, gave them a good welcome. Just then a canoe appeared from the village that had been responsible for the attack that evening. The first of the natives from the canoe to enter the chief's house was visibly distressed to meet the officers of the ship there. With some embarrassment he made signs to show that he had come as a friend. Another from the same canoe addressed M. Dumoulin directly in a long speech that none of the Frenchmen could of course understand.

As they walked around the island later, the officers suspected that the natives were looking for some way to split them up and make them shoot at birds. Everywhere they went, they were followed by armed savages. At last, without any disturbance, they found M. Roquemaurel, who had gone to the island alone. He said that he had not been insulted or attacked, but that the natives seemed to be rather insolent and badly disposed. Just as they were taken aboard the ship, a gunshot was heard. M. Demas, it was learned, had gone out with the boat. Although the natives appeared peaceful at first, they soon attacked the steward with rocks. Demas noticed the native who had incited the attack and shot him. The others took flight immediately.

D'Urville's final comments on the islands reflect the unhappy experiences of his last two days in Truk:

The reputation of the Carolines has been tarnished, for we have found here treacherous and wicked people, however engaging their appearance. In no part of Oceania have we found such self-interested hospitality as here. The people do not give much and are very demanding in their requests. They are dirty; it is hard to breathe in their houses. Even though beautifully worked branches can become dangerous weapons in their hands, they know nothing of the bow and arrow.

At seven o’clock, the ships were under sail and were accompanied to the reef by some small canoes. The final entry in the journal before sailing westward is: "Our work here finished, we left the most beautiful group in the Carolines for good."

Guam Recorder, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1974: 42-50



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