Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Wrecked on a Reef

His life and his book

His life and his book

The varied images of 19th century New Zealand projected in the fictions of such famous French writers as Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne and Leconte de Lisle have held a fascination for me over the years. Since none of these writers spoke English or ever visited New Zealand, they gleaned their information from occasional visitors to this country, through accounts from missionaries, doctors on whaling ships and travellers published in France. As first-hand accounts came to light, Dumas or Jules Verne transformed them into surprising fictions. Equally unexpected was the transformation of an old Maori chief, encountered on Chatham Island by a doctor on a whaling ship; the poet Leconte de Lisle made him the symbol of a so-called 'dying race' and the mouthpiece of his pessimistic philosophy.

When research uncovers a book as special as François Raynal's account of his unique experience of shipwreck and survival on a remote island, all hopes of discovering a literary treasure are fulfilled. The story, characters, and a typical 19th century New Zealand background are there to enjoy. It is a gripping tale with a hero who overcomes dangers, conquers illness, works out salvation for the group and finally returns to his homeland after years of travels. His odyssey reads like a novel indeed, though in this case, reality has surpassed fiction.

No wonder this book haunted Jules Verne's imagination to the end of his career — though Vernian scholarship has rarely underlined its seminal influence.1

page 230

Wrecked on a Reef; or, Twenty Months among the Auckland Isles, is not a novel, though it came out in 'Our Boys' Select Library,' Thomas Nelson Publishers, London. The subtitle reminds us that it is: "A true story of shipwreck, adventure, and suffering," thus expanding the French subtitle: Récit authentique. It comes as a surprise that the writer's name does not appear on the title page, nor even in the course of the introduction in the 1880 edition which we have republished. A brief note following the title page simply informs us that this is a translation from "a French narrative of much interest".

François Edouard Raynal, the writer of the narrative, is not a character in a novel, and the book's first English edition dated 1874 did mention his name. His identity as a real person is well documented in the introduction of his book which provides a detailed account of his background and career from the time he left his native France as a young man.

He was born in Moissac, in the departement of Tarn et Garonne, on 6 July 1830. Moissac is a small town in southwest France, between Montauban and Toulouse, and famous for its ancient Romanesque cloister and church. So far, research in Moissac has not provided any clue about the family circumstances which led Raynal to leave college and become a sailor, apart from the possibly relevant fact that between 1843 to 1847 a canal was built in Moissac through the land where his parents' property was standing. Whatever their cause, the family's economic difficulties prompted them to move first to Bordeaux, then to Paris where they settled.

François Edouard was the eldest of three children. His brother Romain Hubert was born in 1835 and his sister Anne in 1837. The French edition of his book contains a dedication to his mother in which we learn that both siblings had died before he finally returned to France in September 1867.

The introduction of his book gives a detailed account on his activities, first as a sailor, then as a sugar plantation overseer in Mauritius, and finally as a prospector in the Australian mines and Campbell Island, the southernmost island of New Zealand. He appears as a self-reliant and hard-working man, a pioneer eager to do well and to learn from experience. His talent for survival had already been thoroughly tested before his adventure in the Aucklands. After shipwreck he summoned up all his inner resources and skills to make the most out of the wreck and the meagre resources of the place.

In the second half of the 19th century, lands in the southern Pacific were offering their natural resources to exploitation and attracted countless adventurers. Raynal had the initiative, self-confidence and knowledge necessary to gain his share of the world's bounty. In this ascending phase of 19th century capitalism the emphasis was not on conservation but on exploitation — legally recognised since Raynal was hoping to get a mining permit to prospect Campbell Island for argentiferous ore, or failing that to collect seal skins on the Auckland Islands. To the modern reader such an enterprise based on mere hearsay through "an acquaintance of mine known in France years ago"2 seems rather foolhardy, but in those days rumours of that kind commonly led to similar expeditions.

After shipwreck, help failed to materialise and the story turned into an page 231illustration of the maxim Aide-toi, le del t'aidera'(Heaven helps those who help themselves; the original of this English version used 'Dieu' for the more usual 'le del'.)