Pelletier - The Forgotten Castaway of Cape York
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This book tells the story of a French cabin boy, Narcisse Pelletier, and his life with the Uutaalnganu people of north-east Cape York from 1858 to 1875. Even though it is all but forgotten in Australia, and in France is known only in its broad outlines, Pelletier's story rivals that of the famous William Buckley, both as a tale of human survival and as an enthralling and accessible ethnographic record.
Narcisse Pelletier, from the village of Saint-Gilles-sur-Vie, was fourteen years old when the Saint-Paul was wrecked near Rossel Island off New Guinea in 1858. Leaving behind more than 300 Chinese labourers recruited for the Australian goldfields - believed to have been subsequently massacred by the Rossel Islanders - the ship's captain and crew, including the cabin boy, escaped in a longboat. After a gruelling voyage across the Coral Sea, they landed near Cape Direction on Cape York, where Pelletier found himself abandoned when the boat sailed off without him. He was rescued by an Aboriginal family and remained with them as a member of their clan until 1875 when he was sighted by the crew of a pearling lugger. 'Rescued' against his will, Pelletier was conveyed to Sydney and then repatriated to France.
The author, Stephanie Anderson, came across Pelletier's story by chance in an old French anthropological journal. As she started researching it, her fascination with the story grew. She found that Pelletier had left an account of his experiences, first published in 1876, that had never been translated into English.
Now, for the very first time, this remarkable story is available to read in English, complemented by an ethnographic commentary by anthropologist Athol Chase and an in-depth introduction by Anderson. Pelletier: The Forgotten Castaway of Cape York is required reading for anyone with an interest in Australian history, anthropology, or the intriguing world of pre-colonial Aboriginal life.
in the moonlight is believed by the natives to be the cause of premature greyness.’66 Rigsby and Chase note that another method of dugong hunting by night, not mentioned by Merland, was from platforms built over shallow feeding grounds.67 Thomson observed one of these platforms, at Cape Direction, but believed that the technique had been recently introduced from the Torres Strait.68 * * * One evening when Pelletier and Sassy were fishing, and had taken a very large turtle, a storm burst
with a sharp movement, returns to its original position;13 the arrow is then released and thrown into the distance. The different pieces which are used in the making of an arrow adhere together by means of a material that is so adhesive that, even though it might break, the pieces will never come unstuck. [This is most likely the resin from Canarium australasicum (yinchanyu, ‘gum tree’) which is the favoured spear adhesive in this area.14 Thomson describes the use of this resin in weapon
knife (tahweer) [thawura, ‘knife’][,] throwing stick (kalkah) [kalka, ‘spear’ (generic)] and a three pronged harpoon (tayah) [thaya, ‘spear, for dugong’]. I append a list of words in Mukkudumah [sic] language that I was able to obtain from Pelletier. They may prove of use to some one going into their country. This ends Sir John Ottley’s narrative of his knowledge of Pelletier but in his letter to me [i.e. to H. J. Dodd] that gentleman writes, ‘Now for a word about the alleged return of Pelletier.
Describing how the French consul observed the slow reawakening of the memories of Pelletier’s early life, Letourneau argues that this ‘extraordinary fact would be sufficient to prove the extent to which the mental state of the civilised man is still artificial, the extent to which, to be maintained, it needs to be supported by the social environment’.161 Letourneau takes no account of Pelletier’s successful integration into an Aboriginal society and his acquisition of its language and culture,
favoured racial groupings having separate origins. Broca, and most of his colleagues, placed Aborigines at the bottom of the racial hierarchies they devised to classify human beings.39 And by comparison with literary and popular stereotypes of Aborigines Merland’s book was also less disparaging. Jules Verne’s Les enfants du Capitaine Grant (1868), for example, gives as unflattering and ill-informed a portrayal of Aboriginal people as any one might find in this period, even as he castigates the