WILD WHITE MAN
THE STORY OF NARCISSE PELLATIER
Cummins and Campbell Journal
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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