Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Singular Tale of Narcisse Pelletier

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[1]:

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, occupied in 1858 the post of cabin boy in the good ship “Saint Paul”, of Bordeaux, during a voyage from China to Australia, whither she was conveying some 350 Chinese emigrants.

A contemporary view of Rossel Island

One moonless night the vessel struck on a reef in the Louisiade Group of islands[2], and soon became a total wreck, the captain, crew, and emigrants reaching an island[3], 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[4].

The view south from 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.[5]

And there we lose all news of the fate of 14 year old Narcisse Pelletier for 17 years.

The Chinese left at Roussel Island were, it was afterwards ascertained, gradually killed and eaten by the natives, with the exception of some 20, who ultimately escaped.

In 1875 a small group of sailors 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.

Drawing of the "White Savage"
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.[6]

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.

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.

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.

Handwriting of Narcisse Pelletier
Translation: “Narcisse Pelletier of St. Gilles. The captain left me among savages. 
I was boy on board. I do not know how to speak French. I know how to speak ‘savage’.
I am not dead, but alive. They would not give me to drink.” 

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 blacks 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.[7]

Photograph taken in France 
showing tribal scars & nose peircing
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 in European attire
and  sporting his stretched ear lobe

In Sydney, the French Consul arranged his repatriation to his homeland. 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.

After an absence of 18 years, Narcisse finally returned to his family.

Narcisse Pelletier returns to France (The Graphic 25.12.1875)

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.

[1] The Brisbane Courier 24.5.1875
[2] The Louisiade Archipelago is a string of ten larger volcanic islands frequently fringed by coral reefs, and 90 smaller coral islands located 200 km southeast of New Guinea. (Wikipedia)
[3] Rossel Island (also known as Yela) - the easternmost island of the Louisiade Archipelago, which itself is part of the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. (Wikipedia)
[4] Near the mouth of the Lockhart River on the east coast of Cape York.
[5] Times 21.7.1875
[6] Times 21.7.1875
[7] Times 21.7.1875


  1. I just finish the french novel "Ce qu'il advint du sauvage blanc" and I see the welcome by the natives is better in the report (and probably in the reality) than in the book where he is treated with brutality. Better! This proves that humanity is not bad in its origin.

  2. Ken Sbeghen has found some fascinating reports about Pelletier and I have been grateful to be able to draw on those from the Graphic to add new information about his recovery in the new edition of my book Pelletier: the forgotten castaway of Cape York which is an annotated translation of Pelletier’s original account in French as recorded by Constant Merland in his book Dix-sept ans chez les sauvages. Aventures de Narcisse Pelletier (Paris, 1876). Anyone who reads Merland’s book or my translation of it or the reports quoted in this blog will see that 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 clans, and he came to see the man who adopted him as his “second father” and his Uutaalnganu country as his “second homeland”. The novel that Michele refers to, Ce qu’il advint du sauvage blanc by François Garde, is a travesty of Pelletier’s experiences with his adoptive people, as she detects. The fact that the Aboriginal society Garde presents in his novel is fictitious is no justification for his misrepresentation and misuse of the cultural patrimony of an 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 take from them – something he himself always maintained was against his will – in 1875. I have published responses to the novel in French on the following websites:
    Stephanie Anderson