The Loss of the Saint Paul and its Horrific Aftermath– 1858

Stranding of the Saint Paul, on Rossel Island. Auguste Hadamard, Le Tour du Monde, volume 4, 1861.

In September 1858 the French ship Saint Paul was wrecked off Rossel Island east of New Guinea with as many as 370 people on board.    Of those, fewer than a dozen men escaped with their lives.   One of whom was Narcisse Pelletier who escaped to Cape York and lived with the Uutaalnganu people for the next 17 years.   The rest were massacred while waiting to be rescued.

The Saint Paul was a French merchant ship of 620-tons under the command of Captain Emmanuel Pinard.    In July 1858 she set sail from Hong Kong with as many as 350 Chinese passengers bound for Sydney to try their luck on the New South Wales goldfields.  

Hampered by foul weather after setting sail, provisions were running low by the time the ship was somewhere north of New Guinea.    Rather than stick to the regular shipping route which would have taken them east of the Solomon Islands, Captain Pinard thought to save time by shortening his passage.    He chose to risk the dangerous reef-strewn waters between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.  

Unfortunately, the gamble did not pay off.   He was plagued by more bad weather and heavy mists which precluded him from making any solar observations.   He was navigating blind as he tried to thread his way through the treacherous Louisaide Archipelago when disaster finally struck. 

Saint Paul.

On the night of 10/11 September the Saint Paul struck a reef off Rossel Island on the eastern edge of the archipelago.   The ship was beyond saving so the next morning the passengers were ferried ashore with what stores and provisions that could be salvaged.

They landed on a small rocky island about 2 or 3 kms off Rossel Island and set up camp there.   After a day or so, Pinard sent his First Mate with half his crew across to Rossel to find water, but they were attacked by the local inhabitants and several were killed.  

Pinard would later report that he then took the longboat crewed by most of the surviving seamen and set off for the Australian mainland to find help.   But, he said, he only did so after consulting with the Chinese and receiving their approval.   Leaving them with most of the food, firearms and the second boat, he and his men set off.   Years later, the cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier claimed the captain had fled in the dead of night leaving the Chinese passengers to their fate.

Pinard and his crew, including Pelletier, reached the Australian mainland near Cape Direction after a 12 or 13-day passage.   There they received assistance from the local Uutaalnganu people.   When Pinard and his men left, Pelletier remained behind and would live among the Aborigines for the next 17 years.   See the previous blog for his story.

The crew of the Saint-Paul attacked by natives of Rossel Island. Auguste Hadamard, Le Tour du Monde, volume 4, 1861.

Meanwhile, the Saint Paul’s men were picked up by the schooner Prince of Denmark.  Captain McKellar agreed to take the castaways to New Caledonia.   But before he could deliver them to the French colony he first had to drop off provisions to a party of beche-de-mer fishermen camped on a remote island.   By now the Chinese had been marooned for over a month and it would be mid-December before Pinard reached Port-de-France (Noumea) in New Caledonia.

When Pinard finally reported the loss of his ship, the French naval steamer Styx was immediately dispatched to rescue the Saint Paul passengers arriving at Rossel Island on 5 January 1859.    When Lieutenant Grenoult and his men went ashore they made a shocking discovery.   Of the 320 or so people left on the island, there was just one survivor.   Through sign language, he conveyed that everyone else had been massacred but the horrific details would only come to light when they arrived in Sydney a few weeks later and an interpreter could translate his story.  What follows is drawn from what the survivor reported in Sydney and Lt Grenoult’s official report.

For a little while the Saint Paul survivors were left unmolested.   Then some of the men went across to Rossel Island in the Saint Paul’s boat and were never seen again.   A few days later Islanders paddled over to the castaways and enticed some with offerings of food to return with them to the larger island.   When they too failed to return, the Chinese grew suspicious and no one else left the island despite having little to eat.   

Detail from an 1829 Marine Chart showing Rossel Is. Courtesy NLA.

Then, after about a month had passed and the survivors were in a greatly weakened state, the Islanders returned in large numbers.   Some of the castaways put up a fight, but they were quickly overpowered.   The Islanders ransacked their camp and forced everyone to return to Rossel Island with them.     The castaways soon learned the men who had previously left had been killed by the local inhabitants.

The Saint Paul survivors were kept in a large clearing and closely watched.   Over the next several weeks, a few men at a time were separated from their comrades, beaten to death, butchered, and the flesh cooked over a fire to be eaten   This grisly scene was apparently played out in full view of the dwindling number of survivors.    

By the time the Styx steamed into view, just half a dozen Saint Paul survivors were still alive.   The Islanders fled into the mountainous interior taking with them four Chinese and a European sailor but leaving one young man who was too infirm to bother with.   He hid among some rocks until the Styx’s boats landed and the French sailors stepped ashore.   

Lt Grenoult and his men spent three days on Rossel Island trying to find the others but without success.   The Styx then set off for Sydney to deliver Captain Pinard and his men plus the young Chinese passenger they had just saved, arriving there on 25 January 1859.   

 © Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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