Wrecked on a Reef
If adventures resembling those of Alexander Selkirk, whom Daniel de Foe immortalized under the illustrious name of "Robinson Crusoe;" if a shipwreck on the coast of a desert island; a sojourn of nearly twenty months, with a few companions, on the uninhabitable rock; if the necessity imposed upon us of providing for all our wants and creating all our resources; of protecting ourselves against the rigour of the climate by building a dwelling-place and manufacturing clothes, against famine by hunting and fishing; of establishing in our midst a little hierarchy and a police force to maintain order and peace — in other words to recommence civilization under the most difficult conditions; if, finally, a happy deliverance, due not to accident, but to a resolute will and persevering efforts; if such facts as these should appear to the reader capable of exciting curiosity and interest, I have no need to enter into any long justification for taking up my pen to narrate them.
It seems to me impossible that any one should read my story without feeling more keenly how great is his happiness in living in his own fatherland, among his fellow-countrymen, in the neighbourhood of his kinsmen and his friends — without enjoying more fully and with profounder gratitude the inestimable benefits which society and civilization lavish upon us. If this be the case, I shall have the satisfaction of thinking that my book has done some good.
Before entering upon my narrative, it is indispensable, however, that I should bring the reader acquainted with the circumstances under which I quitted my family and country, and what adventures — by no means of an ordinary character — had preceded the great trial which has left its page 14ineffaceable impression on my life, and of which I cannot think without profound emotion, without a shuddering of my whole frame.
In this preamble I will be studiously brief, without, however, interdicting myself from dwelling upon some details which occupy in my recollection a more important place than others, and which, it may be, will not be found devoid of interest.
I was born at Moissac, in the department of Tarn-et-Garonne. I had scarcely entered upon my fourteenth year before an abrupt reverse of fortune changed the social position of my parents, and the ease they had long enjoyed was succeeded by anxiety. This misfortune was all the more severe, that it swept away in a moment all the projects they had formed for the future of their children.
It was with keen regret I found myself compelled to leave the college at Montauban, where I was prosecuting my studies; for I had already begun to understand the necessity of a good education, if I would make my way in the world. My brother and sister, also, were withdrawn from their schools, but were too young to grieve very long over the sad consequences of the disaster which had befallen us.
My father, who in his youth had studied law, and been intended for the bar, had been able, thanks to his little fortune, to abstain from the exercise of a profession, and to cultivate in seclusion his simple and modest tastes. But the moment had come when he must abandon his quiet life, and apply himself to productive labour. He resolved to take up his residence in Bordeaux, where it would be easier, than in a small town, to turn his talents and energies to advantage. My mother, gifted with an admirable firmness of character, set before all of us an example of resignation and courage.
As for myself, the life of struggle and privation which, as I saw, exhausted my parents, inspired me with an ardent longing to do something to help them. To lighten their present burden, and one day to re-establish their fortune, such was my constant preoccupation. To succeed in this object, I saw but one means — namely, to devote myself to a seafaring life; to go abroad, to seek, at the other end of the world if need be, the resources which France could not offer me. I had heard tell of persons who, after thus expatriating themselves, had returned loaded with wealth, or, at all events, in the possession of a comfortable income. Why should not a similar good fortune be mine? Perhaps this idea was all the more beguiling, because I had acquired, through the perusal of certain popular books, a strong yearning after voyages and adventures. My parents offered no opposition to my plans, whose prudence and wisdom I did not fail to demonstrate, page 15and it was agreed that I should embark as midshipman on the Virginia and Gabrielle, a three-masted brig of 400 tons burthen, which was bound for India, and was commanded by Captain Loquay, a friend of my father.
This excellent man promised to take every care of me, and to direct me in the career I had chosen: never was promise kept with more scrupulous fidelity. Captain Loquay became my best friend; and the recollection of his loyal kindness will never fade from my memory.
It was on the evening of December 23, 1844, that I went on board. What a date! What a moment! To bid adieu to a father and a mother whom I tenderly loved; to snatch myself from their embraces; again to fling myself into their arms, and again to put them aside; then, a few moments afterwards, to find myself alone, and, in the darkness of a winter evening, on the deck of a ship which was getting under weigh to leave the quiet harbour, to quit sight of land, to carry me, as it were, far away into the Unknown! No; my emotions it would be impossible to describe.
The dawn of day and the return of light brought new strength to my soul. The Virginia and Gabrielh, sailing her eight knots an hour, had made much progress; the coast was visible only as a thin white streak upon the horizon, which speedily disappeared; the limitless sea surrounded me; the celestial vault was for the first time displayed before my eyes in all its vastness; I was plunged everywhere into the Infinite. The grandeur of the spectacle raised me above myself; my soul was penetrated with a grave and solemn enthusiasm; the thought of the Supreme Being — of the Author and Lord of the universe — was present to my spirit, and I was irresistibly led to invoke His protection: I prayed with fervour. Since then, the feeling of God's presence and God's power has never abandoned me, has never ceased to be my support. It is impossible that the mariner, always in contact with the Infinite, always involved in, and sometimes struggling against, the formidable powers of Nature, should be devoid of the sentiment of adoration.
I quickly made acquaintance with the trials of a seafaring life. I do not speak of the nausea — not less ridiculous than painful — resulting from the ship's motion, and most always attacking novices — custom, and also the fear of being laughed at by my companions, enabled me to conquer it with tolerable quickness — but, before we had been two days out, we were caught in a gale. Old Ocean, it may be, was determined I should be initiated without delay into the caprices of his changeful mood, that I might escape unpleasant surprises at a later period. In a few seconds a black cloud enveloped us; the wind howled furiously; the waves rose in page 16monstrous billows, which washed our decks and carried clean away three of our boats, leaving us only the shallop. Clinging to the larboard shrouds, I saw, in a panic of terror, that the carpenter was about to cut away the mainmast. The crew was formed into relays, and kept at the pumps continuously. Driven before the wind, thrown on her broadside by incessant gusts which prevented her from righting herself, if only for a moment, our poor ship retraced her former course: we expected she would be dashed on the islands and reefs which fringe the French coast; we thought ourselves lost.
Fortunately the gale was soon over. We once more set every stitch of canvas, and resumed our voyage towards the Line, favoured by a long spell of delightful weather. One hundred and four days from our leaving Bordeaux, we made the Island of Bourbon (now called the Island of Réunion).* Thence we made in succession two voyages to Hindustan, during which we visited Pondicherry,† and the principal ports on the Coromandel coast; then we returned to France. As Captain Loquay put in to St. Helena, I formed the idea of collecting some relics of the tomb of Napoleon — a few fragments of stone, and a branch of the famous willow which overhung it.‡ I knew they would be regarded as precious relics by my grandfather, a good old man, who had fought in all the campaigns of the Republic and the Empire; who, in my young years, had frequently moved me to enthusiasm by his dramatic stories; and whose heart, in spite of the lapse of years and the inauguration of a new order of things, still clung closely to the grand memories of the Past.
You may imagine with what throbbing of the heart, after an absence of seventeen months, I saw once more the beautiful coast of France. Mounted at the masthead, I was the first to descry the beloved country where my parents awaited me. I found them, not at Bordeaux, but at Paris, where they had established themselves. Let me confess that I am wholly unable to describe their joy at my return, the caresses we exchanged, the emotions of happiness we experienced, and the rapid cross-fire of questions and answers in which we were soon engaged.
For six months I had the felicity of living at Paris, in the bosom of my family.
* This island was discovered in 1542 by the Portuguese, and named Mascarenhas. The French colonized it in 1642, and called it Bourbon. It has since borne the names of Réunion, Bonaparte, and Napoleon.
† Pondicherry is the only settlement the French now possess in Hindustan. It was occupied by them in 1674.
‡ Napoleon was buried at Longwood, in St. Helena, in 1821; but, at the request of the French Government, his remains were removed to Paris in 1840.
During this period of repose I resumed my interrupted studies. Nevertheless, I did not lose sight of my projects, and suffered no opportunity to escape me of pursuing them. One morning, M. Loquay wrote that the merchants who employed him had given him the command of a new ship, the Diana— the Virginia and Gabrielle not being fit for sea — and that he was about to sail for the West Indies.
I responded to his summons, and, six weeks afterwards, was at Guadeloupe,* where we remained but a short time. On our homeward voyage, I considered my position carefully. My apprenticeship to the sea was over, but I could not see, except in a very remote distance, any prospect of my promotion to a superior position, such as alone could supply me with the resources for which I yearned. I resolved, therefore — at least for some time — to give up a seafaring life and settle myself in a colony, where I should find more easily and more quickly the means of attaining my end. Three days after my return to Bordeaux, without having had time to visit Paris and embrace my parents, I took leave of M. Loquay, who approved of my resolution, and embarked on board the Siren, a fine three-master, newly launched, commanded by Captain Odouard, and bound for the Mauritius.*
I set out full of courage, full of hope. I was far from foreseeing how long a series of years — distinguished by numerous reverses and scanty successes, and terminating in a terrible catastrophe — would elapse before I should revisit my family and France. Oh, if I had known that during my absence Death would cut down the two youngest of our circle; that I should leave my father and my mother to wax old in solitude and desolation: for, receiving no news from me, they did not hope to see me again — they thought that they had lost me also! Let me give thanks to God, however, who, after so many sufferings, raised me, as it were, from the grave to soothe by my presence the last days of my parents, and to compensate them, by my cares and my tenderness, for twenty years of isolation and sorrow!
* Guadeloupe, one of the Lesser Antilles, was discovered by Columbus in 1493. In 1635 it was seized by the French. The British have several times conquered it; but since 1815 it has been recognized as a French possession.
* Mauritius, or Isle of France, discovered in 1505, colonised by the French in 1715, has belonged to Great Britain since 1810.
In spite of this fatigue, and in spite of some difficulties which I experienced with my coolies— a recalcitrant and insubordinate race; one day I was forced to struggle bodily with one of them to chastise his insolence; another time I had to defend my life against a band of rebels; and on both occasions I owed my victory, and the re-establishment of my authority, to the coolness and the resolution which I felt the necessity of displaying — in spite of these inconveniences, I was happy in my position. I saw with satisfaction the affairs of the plantation prospering; I was on the best of terms with the proprietor, the descendant of a noble French emigrant family, and a man not less distinguished for intelligence than generosity; in a word, all went well with me. At this moment two incidents occurred which — the first, by discouraging me with the present; the second, by dazzling before my enraptured eyes the prospect of a brilliant future — changed the current of my life, and precipitated me anew into the Unknown!
The event which altered all my prospects was an epidemic of typhoid fever, the most violent I have ever seen. It spread through the country with terrific rapidity, decimating the population. Our plantation was specially unfortunate. When the outbreak first took place, we lost, on an average, twelve men daily. At length the disease decreased, but, exhausted by the fatigue and emotion I had undergone, I was myself attacked. Though I recovered, I was for a long time very weak both in mind and body, and I page 19attributed my condition to the unwholesomeness of the climate of the Mauritius.
The other event was of a very different nature, and opened up to me a most entrancing prospect. At this epoch (namely in 1852, for I had been three years an overseer) great tidings spread throughout the world — the discovery of gold in Australia. The news was brought to us at the Mauritius by a ship from Sydney. Thenceforth, the Blue Mountains, Ophir, Victoria, became the subject of every conversation, the aim of all ambition and all covetousness. Men spoke of nothing but of immense fortunes made in a few days; of ingots of gold, weighing fifty and a hundred pounds, found on the surface of the ground, or at a very slight depth below it; of poor people, labourers, workmen, sailors, leading, on their return to Europe, the lives of great nobles, scattering their gold in all directions, delivering themselves freely to all kinds of extravagance — one ordering a foot-bath of champagne, another lighting his cigar with a bank-note which would have kept a whole family in comfort for many months; of a continuous human tide pouring into Adelaide from all parts of the globe; of magnificent ships rolling in the harbours of Sydney and Melbourne, because deserted by their crews, their officers, and even their captain, all attracted by the "diggings." It is true that men spoke also of bitter deceptions, of incredible sufferings, of mortal miseries; but these were only the few shadows of a dazzling picture which fascinated every eye.
After some little hesitation, I decided on resigning my post of overseer, on quitting the Mauritius, and going, like so many others, to tempt Fortune in Australia.
I set out in February 1853, on board an ill-found little brig, which, fifty-six days afterwards, landed me at Port Philip. As soon as I planted my foot on the Australian soil, I felt the necessity of learning English before permanently establishing myself; and I spent two months in studying the language on board a steam-packet which plied between Sydney and Melbourne. My landing in the latter city did not take place under happy auspices. Our ship, as she sailed into the harbour on a dark foggy evening, struck upon a reef, and, thrown on her beam ends by the violence of the shock, was unable to right herself. A terrible confusion immediately prevailed on board. The breakers dashed over us in foam and spray, and their whirling waters carried off the deck a sailor and the cook: both perished. Shock succeeded shock with breathless rapidity, straining the vessel to such an extent that she sprung a leak near the bow, and went down by the head. Happily the sea was not very deep on the rocks; a part of the main-mast, with the main-top, rose out of the water to the height page 20of some fifteen feet; we clambered up it, and clung to it throughout the night. Those few hours seemed to us ages: we contemplated with indescribable anxiety the weltering waters, which leaped and bounded towards us, fearing every moment that some billow loftier than the rest might pluck us from our place of refuge. At length day dawned; a steamboat caught sight of us, picked us up in one of her boats, and landed us at Melbourne. The second day after my disembarkation, I took the road to the mines.
I spent eleven years in Australia: the first three in the "diggings" of the colony of Victoria, the remainder in those of New South Wales, principally on the banks of the river Turon and its tributaries. I cannot complain of having been less fortunate than my fellow-diggers, or, at least, the majority of them: I found sufficient gold to defray my expenses, and even to lay by a trifle to meet "a rainy day." Nevertheless, my object was not attained, and I was loath to return to my family until I had gained wherewithal to keep myself and them in comfort. Sometimes I lost courage; but whenever this occurred I was certain to alight upon some better finding than usual — to discover a vein which promised inexhaustible treasures — and thus my hope was re-kindled, and I was induced to persevere. Mayhap I was too ambitious. Mayhap I had less wisdom than a brave Irish sailor, who, during the period of my sojourn at the mines of Victoria, was my faithful companion, my devoted friend. Honest Maclure! He had but one single aim, and that was to amass a sum of money sufficient for him to return to his country, to become the owner of a small farm, and to found a family. While we rested in our tent, roasting our mutton-cutlets on the red-hot ashes, or smoking our pipes, he would discourse to me of his projects: he would sketch the picture of his future happiness, when, in the winter evenings, seated in the corner of his fireside between his aged mother and his wife, he would relate his adventures to his children, clinging round his knee, while he sipped his nightly glass of toddy. And my brave Maclure has lived to realize his dream. Some years later, when I was toiling among the valleys of the Blue Mountains, I received a letter from him, written in Ireland, in which he informed me that he was in possession of the little farm so fondly desired, that his mother spent her days under his peaceful roof, that he had found a wife to his taste, that the glass of toddy was not wanting, and that he had every reason to hope the children also would duly make their appearance. He was fortunate! His moderation was rewarded.
The two first belong to the early part of my career as a miner. I had established myself with Maclure in the placer, or gold-field, of Forest Creek, at the foot of Mount Alexander; a vast valley, whose soil was covered with a multitude of little white tents, and excavated by innumerable "diggings," in which some forty or fifty thousand miners were at work. One day, after having exhausted myself in enlarging my digging, and in cleansing and sifting the earth, aflame with thirst, and having no more tea — our customary drink — nor even boiled water, I was imprudent enough to take a long draught of the muddy water of the "creek." I was immediately struck down by an attack of cholera, as if by a thunderbolt. The prey of unendurable torments, and thinking that a violent remedy would either save me or put an end to my sufferings; I swallowed a tumblerful of brandy into which I had flung a spoonful of pepper — I was cured!
A short time afterwards, both Maclure and I were threatened with a misfortune more terrible for us than even loss of life — we became nearly blind. While engaged in washing the auriferous earth, countless swarms of flies, of intolerable malignity and persistency, continuously stung us in the face, and especially about the eyes, and we were unable to prevent them by driving them away with our muddy hands. The mud, moreover, penetrating into our eyes, brought on so violent an inflammation that we were unable to open them. We were forced, therefore, to lie all day and all night upon our mattresses in a state of complete inaction. I cannot describe the physical and moral suffering I endured for the nine days that I was deprived of sight. I thought I was hopelessly blind, cases of ophthalmia being frequent among the diggers; and I saw myself abandoned to my own resources, helpless, friendless, incapable of gaining my livelihood, and lost in that vast and semi-savage country where, more than in any other of earth's regions, man has need of all his faculties. I longed for death; I prayed fervently for it. My frenzy grew so violent that at times I thought of putting an end to myself, and would feel for my revolver, which I generally kept under my pillow. Had not Maclure, who was afraid of the excesses of my wild despair, taken the precaution of removing it, I should probably have committed suicide. I thank God for having, through the anxious care of a friend, spared me the woe of appearing before Him loaded with so great a crime.page 23
The third accident, to which I myself am astonished that I did not fall a victim occurred towards the close of my residence in Australia. I was then engaged in exploring Palmer's Oakey Creek, an affluent of the river Turon. One day, the men in my employ left off work to take their usual noontide meal and I was about to follow their example, when the idea occurred to me that I would make my way into an excavation I had caused to be effected in the mountainside, to ascertain whether it would not be prudent to support the interior with additional beams and pillars. I had no sooner forced an entrance than a portion of the roof crashed in upon me. I was thrown to the ground, and half-buried under the mass of stone and earth. I cried aloud for help, but in vain, my men being too far off to hear me. I thought I was doomed to die there, imprisoned, suffocated, almost crushed. Fortunately, the soil which had fallen was loose and pliable: in struggling to release my limbs, I felt that it gave way; I redoubled my efforts, and little by little I succeeded in extricating myself, and emerging from what might have been my tomb. I hastened to rejoin my companions, dragging myself along as best I could, suffering keenly, half-dead! No limb was broken, but, undoubtedly, the heavy pressure had caused some internal lesion, for I was a long time ill. I was compelled to return to Sydney,* where I did not recover my health until after eight months in the hands of a physician.
Such, briefly related, are the different accidents that befell me prior to the terrible event which formed the episode in my life of romantic adventure; the episode which forms the subject of this book.
* Sydney is the Capital of New South Wales, and the oldest city in Australia, having been originally founded as a convict settlement in February 1788. It lies on the southern shore of Port Jackson, one of the most magnificent natural harbours in the world; and its growth of the late years has been surprising. Its population now exceed 110,000.