The Wreck of the ‘St. Paul’

The Wreck of the ‘St. Paul’


Through the strange by-ways of history, I recently came across a novel called What became of the White Savage by a Francois Garde, which was published in France in 2012 and which won a suite of French literary prizes before being translated into English and published in that language in 2015.  This novel was a fictionalized account of a true story about a young French boy, Narcisse Pierre Pellatier, who had spent seventeen years with an Aboriginal tribe on the Cape York Peninsula before being found by Europeans and returned to ‘civilization’— somewhat against his will, as he had been initiated into the tribe and was happy to live a tribal life. He later returned to France, marrying and settling down, of all things, to be a light-house keeper in that country!

The relevance to Papua New Guinea, you may well be asking?

Narcisse, as further research revealed, was a 12-year old cabin boy of a French ship wrecked off Rossel Island in the Louisiade Archipelago in the Milne Bay District in September, 1858.  That wreck and its gruesome aftermath will be the subject of this true, but now almost forgotten, story.

The news of the incredible riches being dug out of the Australian gold-fields in the 1850s reached as far away as China, causing thousands of young Chinese men to flee their now war-torn and poverty-stricken Empire in the hope of striking it rich in what they christened ‘Dai Gum San’ – the ‘Big Gold Mountain’.  So, a French registered sailing ship, the ‘St Paul’, under the command of a Captain Pennard, with a crew of 20 Europeans took on as passengers 327 young Chinese men and, leaving Hong-Kong, set sail on the long voyage down South.  The Chinese passengers would have had their first sight of the ocean and, more than likely—the landlubbers that they were—have experienced their first bouts of sea-sickness!

These ships would normally have kept well out to sea on the route to Australia, but the ‘St. Paul’, beset by inclement weather and fog, sailed too close to the unknown Louisiades and crashed into a coral reef in the dead of night, 30/9/1858.  Next morning, with the ship starting to break up in the pounding waves, the desperate passengers and crew scrambled onto a raised area of the coral reef.  So, there they were, in those pre-radio days, with no means of communicating their plight and, in those pre-Titanic disaster days, with no lifeboats to get them to safety.  To make things worse, only a few provisions could be salvaged.

Captain Pennard, jamming his crew and a few Chinese into the seven metre longboat, rowed across to Rossel Island, a kilometer or so away in a search for fresh water.  They camped by a small stream overnight but suddenly, in the morning, were attacked by an overwhelming force of islanders, which left eight of the Europeans and a number of Chinese dead.  The remainder, including young Narcisse, who had been hit on the head by a stone, managed to get into the life-boat and made a desperate retreat to the coral islet, followed by canoes filled with yelling islanders, brandishing spears and clubs, who were only kept from pressing home their attack by musket fire.

Desperate times require desperate remedies and Captain Pennard decided to leave the Chinese with one European who knew how to fire a gun, embark all the remaining crew and make for Australia, nearly 1,500 kilometres away, in the hope of reaching some European settlement.  In a remarkable trip, rivalling the far better-known voyage of Captain Bligh after the mutiny on ‘HMS Bounty’, the longboat avoided the unknown reefs and shoals of the now Milne Bay Province and the Great Barrier Reef to eventually make land near Cape Direction in the far north of Cape York.  It should be noted that, in this two-week voyage, the only supplies available were water-soaked flour, a few tins and what seabirds or fish they could catch—all eaten raw and uncooked as there was no possibility of lighting a fire in the longboat.

And this is where young Narcisse, whether by accident or design, was left behind with a kindly Aboriginal tribe to commence his own incredible journey of survival.

The longboat headed out to sea again where the Captain and his crew were sighted and   rescued by a schooner, ‘The Prince of Denmark’, in the middle of October.  It took yet another two months before French authorities in New Caledonia could be contacted and rescue efforts set in motion.  The French steamer ‘Styx’ set off from Noumea with Captain Pennard and his crew as guides and sailed North-West towards Rossel Island, where it was not until the first week of January, 1859 that it located the actual reef on which the ‘St. Paul’ had been wrecked and sighted the tiny coral islet on which they expected to find the marooned survivors.  But no living person could be found, only two Chinese bodies in a shallow grave.  Steaming across to Rossel Island, they came across somebody frantically signaling to them from the surf. When was rescued, he turned out to be a Chinese man who told the terrifying story of what had happened to his compatriots.

They had been left in peace for about a month, until the islanders again attacked in force, overpowering the one European who knew how to fire the musket.  The unarmed Chinese were completely demoralised and gave themselves up to the mercy of their assailants, who suddenly became friendly and started providing canoes full of food and water. By signs and gestures, the Rossel people then indicated that they would transfer the Chinese from their tiny, cramped outcrop across to the main island but, as their canoes were small, they could only take three or four at a time.

Little did the canoe passengers realise the horror of what was in store for them when they came ashore; each Chinese person was grabbed, stripped naked, had his traditional pigtail ripped from his head, was cooked and eaten. So, with each small group taken away, unknowing until their final moment of what was to happen to them, over 300 Chinese were slaughtered in about two months. The only ones to survive were five Chinese (including the one living witness) and the one European crew-member; I surmise that the only reason that they had been spared was, as common in other parts of PNG, they may have been recognised as the returned spirits of deceased islanders.

The ‘Styx’, puffing clouds of smoke and steam, must have appeared as something monstrous and alien to the islanders and they had taken to the hills with their captives, except for the one Chinese who had hidden himself until he was able to rush into the surf and attract his rescuers.  The French spent a few days trying to locate and save the missing, but, under attack from the locals and with reprisal shootings and burning of villages, this proved impossible and the ‘Styx’ crew gave up the task and steamed for Sydney, arriving at the end of January, 1859.  The horrific massacre was headline news in many of the Australian newspapers of the time.

But this is not the end of the tale, for in 1865, two Chinese were rescued from an island in the Loyalty group, over 2,000km kilometres to the South of Rossel; they turned out to be ‘St Paul’ captives who had been traded for steel axes!  The interesting thing about this story is the tremendous extent of the trading canoe voyages around these Coral Sea islands before the disruption caused by the white man and his artificial territorial boundaries.

Today the story of the wreck of the ‘St. Paul’ and the cannibalisation of 300 Chinese has morphed into legend on Rossel Island, though it is claimed that Chinese chants can be recognised in some of the island songs and Chinese coins of the period are incorporated into necklaces worn by the islanders.



Authorities:      What became of the White Savage by Francois Garde – English reviews

                        The Saga of the ‘St. Paul’ by Col Davidson – from Academia.Com

                        Trove extracts from Sydney Morning Herald 1859 article on the massacre

                        Trove extracts from Darling Downs Gazette, February 1859 on the                                     massacre

                        Encyclopedia articles on Narcisse Pierre Pellatier

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