Cummins and Campbell Journal

December 1948

By Wm MacFarlane


        One of the interesting characters we used to meet in the Torres Strait islands was an old fellow named Johnny Maori. His father was a Maori who had served in one of the beche-de-mer vessels, and his mother was a South Sea Islander woman from Aneitym. As a lad he himself was on a beche-de-mer boat, but after his father was killed in an island episode in which women were concerned, Johnny found himself at Somerset, up at the top of cape York, where he experienced various adventures on land and sea.

        Frequently, in the later years of his life, he would recount some of these incidents; and it so happened that in more than one instance, his statements were fully verified, and perhaps given in greater detail, in the records in the old Somerset official letter books, set down by the men who occupied the post of Government resident.

        Such, for example were the story of the Tragedy of the “Sperwer,” of which the Captain and crew were killed at Prince of Wales Island, and the captain’s wife (Mrs Gascoigne), taken prisoner by the islanders; and the strange story which is here related concerning a young French lad who, escaping from the wrecked ship, “St. Paul,” lived 17 years with the aboriginals of the cape York area and brought into Somerset. At about the period that the “wild white man” was brought in, Johnny was associated with the native police at Somerset.

        It was one day in April 1875, that the community at Somerset watched a brig anchoring in the bay. She was the “John Bell,” commanded by Captain Frazer, a vessel of about 200 tons working down the East Coast in search of pearl shell. When her boat presently pulled ashore, seated in it but fastened so that he could not escape was a strange wild-eyed frightened creature. His skin was as dark as that of an aboriginal, a piece of sharpened wood ornamented one ear; his body was scarified with curious markings. He mouthed strange words, and tugged lean fingers through his ochre painted hair.

        The “John Bell’s” captain told the Magistrate that they had found the man when they were in the vicinity of Cape Direction (out from Lloyd Bay), cutting firewood. There was, of course, then no white settlement in this region of the coast 200 miles or so south from Thursday Island. But several thousand natives, some of whom were addicted to cannibalism, roamed the wilds. There were at least sixty tribes then, including the wild Yagulles, (who had been concerned earlier in the murder of Kennedy), the Gudango, and the Katchialaigas. It was amongst a tribe of friendly blacks who had come down to the coast that the white man was found.

At first the crew had taken him for an aboriginal. When they discovered that he was not, they induced him to get into the boat (much against the wishes of his native friends, and not altogether in accord with his own), and brought him up to Somerset in his stark nakedness.

It was some little while before Lieutenant Chester, the then Government Resident, could get much out of him. He seemed to have lost acquaintance with his own tongue. But it was found that he was a Frenchman, and someone on the station, who happened to know French, talked with him. Ultimately a remarkable tale was unfolded.

The refugee’s name was Narcisse Pierre Pallatier (in some of the records it is written as Pelletier). He was the son of a Bordeaux shoemaker, and had shipped as a cabin boy- in the year 1858 it was subsequently found- in the three masted ship “St Paul,” which had a charter to convey 320 Chinese from Hong Kong to Sydney.

Sailing from Bordeaux, they successfully embarked the Chinese, who were looking forward to walking the gold paved paths of Australia in those gold boom days. The ship’s captain decided to take a short cut to Sydney round the northern New Guinea coast and then down through the Solomons. Their troubles began, however, when they encountered a succession of calms, followed by heavy weather, then the navigation instruments were damaged, and the “St Paul” was found to be off her course, in what a supplementary report of the captain’s which I have seen described quaintly as “inhospitable country.” The report added that this knowledge, combined with what they had heard concerning the savage nature of the people, was “far from pleasant.”

It was in the midst of their distressful imaginings that the vessel struck a reef in the vicinity of Rossel Island, in the Louisade Archipelago, to the south-east of the lower tip of New Guinea. “Lions and tigers are not more bloodthirsty than the savages of these islands,” the captain of the “St. Paul” had declared; and later events proved him right.

Narcisse told the Government Resident that the shipwrecked company managed to reach a small island which appeared to be uninhabited. But the captain was faced with a new fear. If he brought the Chinese ashore there would be no means of keeping them in confinement as on board ship, and they might take things into their own hands, Accordingly, the Europeans proceeded to another island, telling the Chinese they were going to seek succour at the nearest British port.

It was then that misfortune met them again. Hostile natives attacked them and killed some of their men; so in all haste they returned to the Chinese, put together some food, filled three pairs of sea boots with water as drinking supply, and set off in search of aid. It was night when Narcisse and his companions set off in the open boat on the 600 mile journey to the Australian mainland.

Days later, after terrible suffering they arrived off the Great Barrier Reef, managed to negotiate one of the openings, and landed on the beach somewhere near Cape Direction. Eagerly they searched for water, and found a pool to slake their parching thirst.

But Narcisse wandered off into the bush- he says the others were so anxious to drink that he, being only a boy, was thrust aside- and when he came back on to the beach again, it was to see the boat in the distance. His fellows had gone off without him.

A party of keen eyed blacks came upon their tracks, found the exhausted boy, and took him into their tribe. And so for 17 years he lived with them, roaming the jungle, hunting with them, taking part in their ceremonies, and initiated as one of themselves. Many ships must have sailed up and down the coast during those years. Exploring parties were investigating the mysteries of the Peninsula. But Narcisse remained there with his black friends, hidden away until the day the “John Bell’s” people came upon him.

While he was at Somerset he made several attempts to get away. He wanted to be back amongst his aboriginal people who had succoured him. The strange new life was something he did not understand. He made a number of sketches, when given pencil and paper, of various types of aboriginal, native animals, and other things, as he awaited a ship that was to take him to Sydney and back to his Bordeaux home. Brisbane people made a subscription to assist him to return home. And one can imagine the wealth of adventure he would have to recount to the wondering people of Bordeaux when eventually he once more embraced his own family.

The men in the boat who had left Narcisse to his fate were picked up by the “Rose of Denmark,” bound for New Caledonia. There they narrated their story, and the French steamer “Styx,” was sent off straightaway to find out how the stranded Chinese were faring. She arrived at Rossel Island one day early in June 1859. It was then they learned the terrible fate that had fallen the unhappy Asian gold seekers.

Of the 320 Chinese, all but one or two had been massacred- not all at once, but killed off and eaten as their savage captors desired. The captain stated that he left arms and ammunition with them; but there was apparently some reason why the doomed men were unable to defend themselves.

In later years, there was a rumour that some other Chinese had escaped, and were alive on the east coast of Rossel Island. Sir William Macgregor, then Administrator of British New Guinea, accordingly visited Rossel Island to ascertain the truth of the stories, but could discover nothing further.

The natives themselves denied the story of the massacre, and said that the Chinese, after landing and obtaining water, sugarcane and coconuts, had left on rafts northward. But it was felt (after official enquiry), that the correct version was that given above.

What the Captain and men of the “St Paul had to offer by way of explanation for leaving young Narcisse to his fate is not recorded in anything that one has come across, although at the time the newspaper carried stories of the tragic events associated with the ship’s loss. And whether Narcisse set out again in search of further adventure one is also unable to say.