The Forgotten Castaway
French cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier was only 13 years old when he set out on his first epic sea voyage with a crew from Marseilles, France. The Frenchmen were looking to pick up labourers in Hong Kong, but Pelletier would never complete the journey. The voyage was a mess from the start; and quickly ran out of resources. Ultimately Pelletier ended up stranded on the Cape York Peninsula in Australia.
After a gruelling voyage in a longboat across the Coral Sea to Cape York, he was rescued by a coastal Aboriginal family and remained with them as a member of the Uutaalnganu people for seventeen years. Even though it is all but forgotten in Australia, and in France his Cape York experience is known only in its broad outlines, his story rivals that of the famous William Buckley.
Narcisse Pelletier was 13 when he set off with a crew from Marseilles, France in August of 1857. Their trip had a stop in Bombay before heading to Hong Kong to pick up labourers, and then they were on their way to Australia. Along the trip, they encountered a number of problems, like running out of food, being shipwrecked, and angry natives. While what exactly happened is disputed, the end result was that sometime between late September and early October, 1858, Pelletier was left alone on the Cape York Peninsula in Australia.
Pelletier was found on the beach by a group of Aboriginal people. After his journey, he was incredibly weak, he had been injured by natives and his feet were cut up after some contact with coral. Amazingly, after a short time with the Aboriginals he was adopted by one of the men and was given the name Amglo.
On April 11, 1875, English sailors were exploring the area and saw a group of Aboriginals with a white man. They tried to communicate with Pelletier, who had been with his aboriginal family for 18 years, but Pelletier didn’t understand them because he didn’t speak English. Despite not being able to communicate he said he felt compelled to go with the men. He said that he wasn’t rescued or kidnapped, but he thought if he ran away from the men, they might shoot him. Once he was back at the ship, two men spoke French to him, but Pelletier’s French was rough and it took him a while before he could speak it again.
In December of 1875, at the age of 32, Pelletier returned to Paris and was reunited with his family. He was of immense interest for not only his story, but also because he had marks and holes in his body from Aboriginal traditions, such as the holes in his ear lobes from where wooden plugs had once been. After returning to Paris, he worked in a lighthouse and died at the age of 50 in 1894.
Narcisse Pelletier is as famous in Australia as it is unknown in France. And yet, this sailor, a native of Vendée, lived one of the most incredible adventures of our “South Seas”: abandoned seriously wounded, following a shipwreck, on a beach in northern Australia by a scrupulous captain, he spent seventeen years of his life in an aboriginal clan, in which he underwent all the rites of initiation until becoming a perfect Aboriginal, which well-meaning sailors brought back to France.
In May 1875, the steamer Brisbane entered Moreton Bay on the way to Brisbane Town. On board was a young Frenchman called Nicholas Pelletier. His sensational story was detailed in the local press after he landed.
THE Eastern and Australian steamship ”Brisbane” has, this voyage, conveyed to the capital of Queensland a very unusual passenger, concerning whose career a short sketch may possibly prove interesting.
Narcisse Pierre Pelletier, the son of a shoemaker of Saint Gilles, near Bordeaux, embarked from Marseilles as a cabin boy on the Saint-Paul under the command of Captain Emmanuel Pinard. The ship left with a cargo of wine for Bombay and then headed on to Hong Kong where it picked up 317 Chinese labourers departing for work on the Australian goldfields.
Rations began to run short so the captain opted for a quicker, but more dangerous route to Sydney, sailing between the Solomon Islands and the Louisiade Archipelago, rather than travelling right around the Solomon Islands.
One moonless night the vessel struck on a reef in the Louisiade Group of islands, and soon became a total wreck, the captain, crew, and emigrants reaching an island, some in boats and others along the reef.
The stay of the French crew on the tropical island was to be short-lived. Not only were they fearful of the Chinese who vastly outnumbered them, but they soon became aware of the resident Polynesians who were far from welcoming. The crew decided to decamp during the night, leaving behind the Chinese to fend for themselves. Despite a head wound suffered during a skirmish with the natives, the boy Narcisse managed to clamber aboard the boat.
It would seem that the captain told the men that he should make for a country where they would either fall in with English settlements or English vessels. The duration of the voyage is uncertain, but must have been considerable, as the distance traversed cannot have been less than 600 miles.
It seems clear, however, that the crew endured great hardships, for having no fire they lived on flour and such birds (uncooked) as they could catch or knock down; and further, that for some three or four days before sighting the Australian coast, their supply of fresh water ran out. The point where they landed is known as “First Red Rocky Point,” south of Cape Direction
When they finally landed the small boat, the thirsty crew went in search of fresh water. Stumbling upon a tiny waterhole, the men sated their thirst leaving none for the cabin-boy who was by now near death, weakened from the deprivation of the voyage in the open boat. Considering the boy to be beyond help, the crew abandoned little Narcisse, leaving him to perish alone in the bush.
The Captain and his men – eight in all – returned to their boat and sailed away again, leaving the boy to die by the empty water hole. They reached New Caledonia in safety, and there the captain reported the loss of his vessel and the hardships which he and his companions had undergone. He did not, however, report his abandonment of Narcisse Pelletier.
And there we lose all news of the fate of 14 year old Narcisse Pelletier for 17 years.
They landed just south of Cape Direction (referred to, wrongly, as Cape Flattery, in the early French account), on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula, after a journey of almost 1,200 kilometres (750 mi). Again, the accounts differ as to how Pelletier got left behind after they found water ashore, but he was later found by three Aboriginal women who went off to tell their husbands. Pelletier must have been very weak from the long journey, the wounds he had received at Rossel Island and with his feet cut by the coral. He was taken in by the Aboriginal group, adopted by one of the men called Maademan, and was given the new name, ‘Amglo’
A biography of Pelletier recorded after his return to France by Constant Merland contains details of the “social organisation, language, beliefs, treatment of illnesses, mortuary practices, bodily decoration, dances, conflict, punishments, subsistence activities and crafts” of the people who rescued and cared for him. This provides a precious insight into the way of life of the Aboriginal people before they had sustained contact with Europeans, and broadly agrees with present understandings of the conditions at the time by both anthropologists and modern Aboriginal residents.
Pelletier’s account contains little about the spiritual beliefs, sacred knowledge, sorcery and similar subjects. Amongst most, if not all, Aboriginal tribes in Australia, the information of this nature was kept secret – not just from outsiders, but from uninitiated people and those of the opposite sex in their own tribe. Those who are shown or taught about such matters are almost always placed under solemn obligations not to divulge them, and this, indeed, lends credence to Pelletier’s story:
“It is unlikely that a boy who was adopted by a clan member, grew to manhood and was betrothed would not be inducted into Uutaalnganu ways as an initiated man…. the realm of belief and secret knowledge was not freely talked about by the Kuuku Ya’u, a language group contiguous with the Uutaalnganu people. This would be so by definition, but it makes Pelletier’s reticence quite explicable…. All of this suggests his continuing adherence to the belief system of the Uutaalganu.”
On 11 April 1875, a pearling boat, the John Bell, captained by Joseph Frazer, and based at Jervis Island (now Mabuiag Island) in the Torres Strait, was anchored off Night Island (Queensland) and some men were sent ashore to find water.
The landing party were amazed to stumble across a naked white man with a group of aborigines. The news of the discovery of Narcisse Pelletier eventually reached England and France where it was greeted as a sensation. The Times in London reported at length on the case:
On the 11th of April in the present year the John Bell schooner, engaged in the bêche de mer fishery, anchored at Night Island, a small island off the north-east coast of Queensland, about three miles distant from the mainland, to which boats were despatched from the ship in search of water.
The sailors sent on this duty encountered in the bush a party of aboriginal blacks, with whom they found a white man, who was, like the blacks, perfectly naked, and. appeared to be completely identified with their in language and habits.
The crew reported their unexpected discovery to the master of the John Bell. He decided the castaway must be rescued and the following day they returned to the small island.
Joseph Frazer sent his men back with some things to barter in exchange for the white man. According to the French biography, Pelletier’s adopted father Maademan encouraged him to trade with the seamen and they persuaded him to go with them.
The white savage was induced to enter one of the ship’s boats, where he was given biscuit to eat and told to sit still, muskets being at the same time pointed at the natives and fired over their heads to induce them to retire, which they were very unwilling to do without being accompanied by the white man, whom they begged to return with them. This, he has since explained, he wished to do, but was afraid of the guns held by the sailors, and thought that they would shoot him if he tried to leave the boat.
However, Pelletier always maintained that he was kidnapped, not rescued, and that he did not want to leave his Aboriginal family. He could not communicate with the sailors who spoke English and believed that they would shoot him if he tried to escape.
The John Bell sailed for Somerset, a settlement at the tip of Cape York, where Narcisse was given clothes. Up to this time he had only muttered a few words of French. By happenstance, an officer of the Royal Navy arrived, who spoke fluent French.
Although he said enough to show that he was a Frenchman, and wrote down on paper, in a stiff upright French hand, his own name and a few almost unintelligible sentences, which were subsequently found to contain a short account of his history. On the return to Cape York of Lieutenant Conner, R.N., who speaks French fluently, a good deal more was extracted from the savage, and apparently his name was Narcisse Pierre Pelletier, son of Martin Pelletier, shoemaker at St. Gilles, Department of Vendee, France.
He was then taken to the small administrative outpost of Somerset, at the tip of Cape York, from where a report of his discovery was sent to the Colonial Secretary, Arthur Macalister.
He had trouble at first remembering his French which he was able to use to communicate with two men then at Somerset who spoke the language. He reportedly made some attempts to escape while still at Somerset. His bodily markings (cicatrices) and piercings were noted and he apparently confided to one person that he had had three children during his stay with the Aborigines, but this claim has never been substantiated. Another report from this time states that he had ‘left two children behind’.
Slowly the castaway related his story.
It emerged that after Narcisse was abandoned, he did not perish as expected by the captain of the St. Paul. Serendipity would save his life. For it turned out that he was not alone after all.
It appears that the aborigines happening to cross the track of the boat’s crew followed it up to the waterhole and found the little dying boy. He was lying asleep under a tree when a gentle shaking made him aware that he was in the presence of three black men and two black women, who made signs of surprise and commiseration.
They gave him some food, and led him away without any violence to their camp, where he was received by others of the tribe in an equally friendly manner. He became one of the tribe and adopted their way of living, which, as he describes it, is, perhaps, as primitive as any that can now be found.
By the time he was reunited with his fellow Europeans, Narcisse had fully integrated with the tribe and had the initiation scars and piercings to prove it.
Across his chest are two horizontal lines of raised flesh, about the thickness of an ordinary lead pencil. The upper one extends from nipple to nipple, the other, rather shorter, is about an inch lower. Above each breast are four short horizontal scars, one above the other, and on the upper part of his right arm a sort of gridiron has been scored, consisting of four vertical cuts enclosed in one passing all round them.
The lobe of his right ear has been pierced and the flesh itself considerably drawn down, apparently between two and three inches. When found he wore piece of wood in this aperture about half an inch in diameter and four inches long. His nose is also pierced, and he was accustomed to wear in it a piece of white shell, probably that of the pearl oyster.
After a short stay in Brisbane, the steamer continued on to Sydney. Among the passengers, there was a large compliment of Chinese men headed for the goldfields. Having spent the previous seventeen years bathing in the warm tropical waters of far north Queensland, Narcisse was not appreciative of the unwashed Chinese.
Narcisse is a short, thick-set, active man. His skin is of a bright red colour, and glazed upon the surface by continued exposure to the sun. He is clean in his person, and says that the blacks among whom he has lived are so also—a statement apparently confirmed by the disgust he expressed for the Chinese on board the Brisbane, whom he styled dirty pigs (“des sales cochons“).
Pelletier left Somerset 14 May 1875 on the Brisbane, another ship carrying Chinese labourers for the Australian goldfields headed to Sydney, via Cooktown, Townsville, Bowen, Keppel Bay, and Brisbane, arriving in Sydney on 25 May. He was there for 38 days in which time he was the object of much curiosity and was contacted by the French consul there who had him photographed. He was photographed again after his arrival in France.
Back in Europe great interest was taken in him by anthropologists and other scholars. The London Times reported:
The finding of Narcisse Pelletier, after 17 years among the savages, has excited considerable interest. This man’s rapid recovery of his early knowledge is very instructive, and no doubt the case will afford material for the anthropological section of the British Association soon to assemble. The story may be used as an argument for the force of hereditary instincts and gifts. But it shows, too, how much may be done, and what a solid foundation can be laid, and what advantage can be given by education, even at twelve years of age.
The photographs clearly show the cicatrices on chest and arms and the holes in his ears (which had previously held wooden plugs) are clearly visible.
Govt Office, Somerset
11th May 1875
I have the honour to report that on the 5th instant Capt Frazer of the brig “John Paul” of Sydney, brought into Somerset a white man whom he found amongst the natives of the northeast coast at a spot opposite Night Isl about 13 miles NW of Cape Sidmouth.
Attached is a copy of the statement made to me by Capt Frazer regarding the circumstances attending the man’s discovery:
“I took charge of the man at once, though he had almost entirely forgotten his native tongue he had not forgotten how to write his name. He has since partially recovered sufficient recollection of his own language to be able to communicate the following particulars.
His name is Narcisse Peltier [sic], a native of St Gile, a fishing village on the west coast of France. His father’s name was Martin Peltier [sic] and his mother’s Alfonsine. He had two younger brothers named Elie and Alfonse. He is one of the survivors of the French vessel St Paul from Bordeaux which was wrecked at Rossel Island, Louisiade Archipelago, in 1858, on her voyage from Hong Kong to Sydney with 327 Chinese passengers.
He was a boy of 11 or 12 years of age at the time, and was one of six persons who, with the captain, left the wreck in a boat with the intention of making New Caledonia. They appear to have got down the coast at some point at a considerable distance, as Narcisse states, from the neighbourhood of where he was eventually found. He says the boat was short of water, and the Captain put into a bay on the coast for the purpose of obtaining water- that he (Narcisse) got out of the boat and laid down under a tree and fell asleep, and was left behind by the Captain – that for three days he was alone in the neighbourhood of a waterhole and existed on what fruits and berries he could find. That the first blacks who came him were 2 men and 3 women, who fed him with coconuts, and that they took him to the tribe after 6 days walking.
He states that the name of the tribe is Macadama, and his name amongst them ‘Anco’, that they treated him very kindly always, but would not allow him to communicate with any vessels that were passing.
He is marked with large scars over the abdomen and breast, and also on the right shoulder, besides having the septum of his nose pierced and the lobe of his right ear perforated and stretched downwards as if by a weight.
I have given him a passage to Brisbane by mail steamer, but presume that the Vice Consul of France, W Forrest, will reimburse the Govt for this expense and will take steps to have him forward to France where he is desirous of going –“
The report of the Brisbane Courier gives even greater detail:
“When discovered, Narcisse was stark naked, like the rest of the tribe, his body burnt by the sun to a rich red colour, and having a glazed appearance; his breast adorned with raised lines of flesh, of the thickness of a pencil, while the lobe of his right ear was ornamented with a piece of wood about half-an-inch in diameter and four inches long. The cuts on his breast, of which he is very proud, were made with pieces of broken glass-bottles [..].
The sailors who brought him off are under the impression that he came willingly, and that the savages understood that he was being ransomed with “trade.” Narcisse, however, states that the sailors labored under a misconception, and that neither did the natives wish him to go, nor did he himself wish to leave.”
After an absence of 18 years, Narcisse finally returned to his family. He arrived in Toulon on 13 December, where one of his brothers met him and took him to Paris. He finally returned to his home town of Saint-Gilles on 2 January where he was greeted triumphantly by his family and the whole population of the town with great shouts of “Long live Pelletier!” The next day a mass of thanksgiving was celebrated in the local church by the same priest who had baptised him 32 years previously.
After returning to France he was offered a job in a travelling show but, when he found out he was to be displayed as ‘the huge Anglo-Australian giant,’ he firmly refused. He later got work as a lighthouse keeper of the Phare de l’Aiguillon near Saint-Nazaire. In 1880, then aged 36, he married a seamstress, Louise Désirée Mabilou, who was 22 at the time.
His marriage certificate gives his occupation as ‘signalman.’ They lived near the entrance to the harbour of Saint-Nazaire where he worked, but had no children. He died on 28 September 1894, aged 50. The death certificate says he was a clerk at the harbour at this time.
Pelletier was always well treated in the 17 years he spent with the Uutaalnganu people of far north-eastern Cape York: indeed he grew to manhood as a member of one of their clan, and he came to see the man who adopted him as his “second father” and his Uutaalnganu country as his “second homeland”.
The Aboriginal group whose ancestors saved the life of the young sailor when they discovered him half dead on their shores in 1858, accepted him as one of them for the 17 years he lived with them and tried to prevent him being taken from them – something he himself always maintained was against his will – in 1875.