In April 1875 the pearling schooner John Bull’s crew happened upon a man clearly of European heritage living with a group of Aborigines on Cape York Peninsula. Mistakenly thinking that the man was being held against his will, they took him onboard their vessel and delivered him to the Government outpost at Somerset. His name was Narcisse Pelletier.
Pelletier spent about two weeks at Somerset before boarding the steamer Brisbane bound for Sydney. During his time there, he spoke little but on the voyage south, he was befriended by Lt J.W. Ottley, a British Indian Army officer taking leave in Australia. Using his rusty schoolboy French, Ottley managed to get Pelletier to tell him his remarkable story.
Narcisse Pierre Pelletier was the son of a Saint Gilles shoemaker who, at the age of 14, had gone to sea as a cabin boy on the Saint Paul under the command of Captain Emmanuel Pinard. He sailed from Marseille in August 1857 bound for the Far East. The following year the Saint Paul left Hong Kong bound for Sydney with 330 Chinese passengers, all keen to try their luck on the New South Wales goldfields. However, the ship was wrecked off Rossel Island in the dangerous Louisiade Archipelago east of New Guinea.
When some of the crew, including Pelletier went in search of water, they were attacked by the local inhabitants and the mate and several sailors were killed. Pelletier himself was struck on the head and barely escaped with his life. He claimed that the captain had then decided their best chance of surviving was for the remaining crew to make for New Caledonia leaving the Chinese passengers to their fate. This was at odds with Captain Pinard’s account where he claimed to have gone in search of help at the behest of the passengers and that he had left them with most of the provisions and firearms. (The loss of the Saint Paul is the subject of a future blog post.)
Pelletier said they suffered greatly in the longboat surviving on a diet of flour and a few raw birds that were unlucky enough to be knocked out of the sky if they flew too close to the boat. Their misery was amplified several days before reaching land when their water ran out. Pelletier was unsure how long they had been at sea but they came ashore on the Australian mainland near Cape Direction, the land of the Uutaalnganu people.
Nine men reached land including Pinard and Pelletier. The first water hole they found was so small, according to Pelletier, that by the time everyone else had drunk their fill there was none left for him. By now he was half dead from hunger and thirst. He was suffering from exposure to the elements and his feet had been lacerated from walking barefoot on coral.
He told Ottley that Pinard and the rest of the men abandoned him, reboarded the boat and set out to sea intent on reaching the French settlement at New Caledonia.
Again, Pelletier’s version differs from Pinard’s who said the whole band of survivors remained with the Uutaalnganu people for several weeks before being picked up by the schooner Prince of Denmark which eventually took them to New Caledonia.
Regardless of the precise circumstances, when his shipmates left, Pelletier remained with the Uutaalnganu people.
They tended to his injuries and slowly nursed him back to good health and he would remain with them for the next 17 years. For a very long time, Pelletier said, he missed his parents and younger brothers and longed for the company of his countrymen. But as the years rolled by those longings faded and were replaced by strong affection for his Uutaalnganu adopted family. From the ceremonial scars on his chest and arms and the piercing to his ear lobe, for which he felt great pride, he was initiated into the society and from a later French biography, he apparently married and fathered several children.
Then, in 1875 his world was upturned yet again. One day, the pearling lugger John Bull happened to anchor nearby. Several sailors came ashore for water and to conduct a little trade. They noticed the white man among the local inhabitants and coaxed him to return to their ship with them. He only agreed to go with them out of fear of their guns rather than any desire to return to “civilisation.” What’s more, he had no idea that he would be taken away and would never see his family and friends again. He told Ottley he would have preferred being returned to the Uutaalnganu, or as he called them – his people.
Narcisse Pelletier never did return to the Uutaalnganu. Rather, he was taken to Sydney where the French Consul organised passage for him to return to France. When, in January 1876, he arrived in his hometown to be reunited with his parents the whole town turned out to greet him. He soon found work as a lighthouse keeper near Saint Nazaire and married a few years later. Narcisse Pelletier passed away on 28 September 1894, aged 50 years.
© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.
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