The South Sea Bubble of Charles du Breil by Louis Becke
Less than a year ago news was received of the arrival in Noumea, in New Caledonia, of the remainder of a party of unwashed visionaries, calling themselves the 'United Brotherhood of the South Sea Islands.' A year before they had sailed away from San Francisco in a wretched old crate of a schooner, named the Percy Edward (an ex-Tahitian mail packet), to seek for an island or islands whereon they were to found a Socialistic Utopia, where they were to pluck the wild goat by the beard, pay no rent to the native owners of the soil, and, letting their hair grow down their backs, lead an idyllic life and loaf around generally. Such a mad scheme could have been conceived nowhere else but in San Francisco or Paris.
In the latter city such another venture, but founded on more heroic lines of infatuation, was organised eighteen years ago by the late Charles du Breil, Marquis de Rays, and the results ought to have made the American enthusiasts reflect a little before they started. But having got the idea that they might sail on through summer seas till they came to some land fair to look upon, and then annex it right away in the sacred name of Socialism (and thus violate one of the principal articles of their faith), they started--only to be quickly disillusionised. For there were no islands anywhere in the two Pacifics to be had for the taking thereof; neither were there any tracts of land to be had from the natives, except for hard cash or its equivalent. The untutored Kanakas also, with whom they came in contact, refused to become brother Socialists and go shares with the long-haired wanderers in their land or anything else. So from island to island the Percy Edward cruised, looking more disreputable every day, until, as the months went by, she began to resemble, in her tattered gear and dejected appearance, her fatuous passengers. At last, after being chivvied about considerably by the white and native inhabitants of the various islands touched at, the forlorn expedition reached Fiji. Here fifty of the idealists elected to remain and work for their living under a government which represented the base and brutal institution of Monarchy. But the remaining fifty-eight stuck to the Percy Edward and her decayed salt junk, and stinking water, and their beautiful ideals; till at last the ship was caught in a hurricane, badly battered about, lost her foremast, and only escaped foundering by resting her keel on the bottom of Noumea Harbour. Then the visionaries began to collect their senses, and denounced the Percy Edward and the principles of the 'United Brotherhood' as hollow frauds, and elected to go ashore and get a good square meal.
The affair recalls the story of the ill-starred colony of 'Nouvelle France,' which was given the tacit support of the French Government, the blessing of the Church, and the hard-earned savings of the wretched dupes of French, Italian and Spanish peasantry who believed in it--until it collapsed, and many of them died cursing it and themselves on the fever-stricken shores of New Ireland.
Early in 1879 an enticing prospectus appeared, signed 'Ch. du Breil, Director and Founder of the Free Colony of Port Breton in Oceania.' In this precious document the marvellous fertility, the beautiful scenery, and the healthy climate of the island of New Ireland (Tombara) were described at length, while the native inhabitants came in for much unqualified praise as simple children of nature, who were looking forward with rapture to the advent of the colonists, and to the prospect of becoming citizens of the Free Colony, and being recognised as Frenchmen, and helping the settlers cultivate the vine, etc., and being admitted into the fold of Christianity.
Perhaps Du Breil believed in his impossible scheme--many people said so, when, some years afterwards, he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of thirty thousand francs for his share in it. But if he did not, the French peasantry did, and money came pouring in. Ignorant people sold their little all and gathered together at Marseilles and other ports, where ships waited to convey them to the new paradise; in all, nearly half a million pounds was subscribed. Then away went emissaries to the southern parts of Italy, where the ignorant agricultural labourers bit freely and were caught wholesale. In their case, however, the prospectus varied from that issued in France, which was specially designed to ensnare small capitalists, tradespeople and farmers, as well as the poorer peasants. The various religious fraternities in France, which hoped to benefit financially by their advocacy, boomed the scheme, and sermons were preached on the philanthropy of M. le Marquis, who, like Law and Blount, was nothing if not magnificent. By the time the Chandernagore, the first ship, had sailed from Flushing, elaborate plans were issued of the new city, with its parks and public buildings, and noble wharves and boulevards aglow with life and excitement; while the religious wants of the settlers had not been neglected, for cathedrals and churches figured conspicuously. Also, it was indicated by a carefully-prepared descriptive pamphlet, that gold and diamonds and such other things only wanted looking for in the surrounding islands, where they could be obtained in quantities sufficient to satisfy the most avaricious.
The Chandernagore carried only eighty colonists, all males, and, flying the Liberian flag, after a long passage she reached the Lachlan Islands, in the South Pacific, where sixteen of them elected to stay, charmed by the beauty of the place and the unconventional manners of the native women. Of these sixteen, five died from fever, and of the remainder two were killed and eaten by natives of other islands, and the rest were rescued by Australian and German trading vessels. The Chandernagore proceeded on her voyage, and Port Breton was reached at last. It is on the south end of the great island of New Ireland, and with, perhaps, the exception of the Falkland Islands, or the Crozets, or London in the month of November, the most sodden, dank, squashy and appalling place on the globe. The day after the ship anchored it began to rain, and, as it showed no signs of clearing up at the end of three weeks, the captain was besought to look out for another site for the city where it was not quite so wet. He took them to a better place, named Liki Liki Bay, near Cape St George, and, after a preliminary orgie on board, the enthusiastic colonists set to work house-building and clearing the primaeval forest for the grape and fig crop. But as there were about two thousand and ninety trees to the hectare, and every tree was joined to its neighbours by vines as thick as a ship's main-mast, the work proceeded but slowly. Considerable time was lost, also, by each man dropping his axe twice in ten seconds to kill the mosquitoes which stung him severely. After a few days of this the founders of New France decided to return to Europe, and, duly arming themselves, went on board and interviewed the captain. The captain, MacLachlan, was a Scotchman by birth, but a naturalised Frenchman. He was also a humorist in a grim sort of way. On the voyage out he and M. de Villacroix, who was the temporary Governor, found that the eighty gentlemen colony founders were a pretty rough lot, who wanted to take charge of the ship. MacLachlan, who was a man of energy, brought them to reason by tricing seven of them up to the rigging by their thumbs, and promised to 'deal severely' with them next time. So when they boarded the Chandernagore and informed him that he must take them back to France, he answered by hunting them ashore again, landing six months' provisions, and sailing for Sydney, according to instructions from the Marquis. On arriving at Sydney he chartered a schooner, loaded her with provisions and agricultural machinery, and despatched her to Liki Liki Bay. Rough and cruel as he may appear, MacLachlan was the right sort of man to master insubordination and mutiny. I knew the man well, and know that he knew the ruffianly element he had to deal with in the first lot of colonists, and dealt with it in a proper and summary manner. Had there been half a dozen more such men as himself and Villacroix to back him up, the tragic ending of the ill-fated expedition would have been averted.
But meantime the second contingent was preparing to leave, and the steamer Genii was bought by the Marquis to load another cargo of deluded emigrants at Marseilles and Barcelona. Like Villacroix and MacLachlan, her captain (Rabardy) was a man in whom he reposed implicit trust; and, indeed, Du Breil seems to have been at least fortunate in the choice of his sea-leaders to conduct his deplorable colonists to their Paradise. Under other and less determined men the loss of life would have been terrible. MacLachlan's letters from Sydney had warned him of one source of danger--mutiny--and Du Breil decided to send out with the second contingent a military guard. From the Italian and Spanish 'settlers' there was nothing to fear. Whatever they suffered they suffered in silence, like sheep; and the presence of several priests (going out to preach in the handsome stone cathedrals and churches before mentioned), whom they looked up to with simple reverence, was a surer safeguard for their good conduct than a company of troops. The married men among the French contingent of the second lot were like them in this respect; but, all through the course of the disastrous expedition, it was cursed by the inclusion of a number of unmarried man, whose ruffianism proved too strong to be checked; then there were a number of nymphes du pavi, recruited from the streets of Marseilles and Toulon. 'They came on board as unmarried women, but an "arrangement" in each case was made with one of the single men to play M. le Mari,' said one of the leaders, to the writer, when he lay dying of fever in the Genil's stifling saloon at Duke of York Island. Who can wonder at the collapse of the 'colony,' when practices such as these were tolerated? But it is typical of the system, or rather want of system, of French colonisation generally. On March 16th the Genii left Barcelona with over two hundred and fifty colonists--men, women and children. Some of the Italians were from the north--these were hard-working and intelligent--some from Calabria--little better than beasts of the field--and the Spaniards came from Valencia and Catalonia. The military guard consisted of a Spanish captain and lieutenant and an Italian lieutenant, while the rank and file were of various nationalities. Before the crazy old Genii reached Port Said the guard themselves made matters warm, and, with the first and second engineers and second officer, refused to proceed. Rabardy, the captain, gladly let them go at Port Said and made for the Maldive Islands, where he engaged thirty Arabs. Later on he put these ashore at Point de Galle. At Singapore the vessel remained six weeks, waiting for instructions, and then reached Liki Liki Bay fifteen days later--to find the place abandoned and the beach covered with the stores left there by the Chandernagore party, who had escaped to Australia; this he learned two days later from the white traders at Mioko, the settlement on Duke of York Island, twenty or thirty miles away. Rabardy was at his wit's end. He knew that another steamer was due in a month or two, and determined to wait and consult with the new Governor, who was coming out with a fresh batch of three hundred people. No work at settlement was begun, for Rabardy considered the former site could be bettered. Meanwhile, there arrived a barque of one thousand tons, the Marquis de Rays, deeply laden with cotton and sugar machinery, stores, provisions and medicines, and a large amount of trade goods for barter with the natives. These latter, although not cannibals like the people of the neighbouring Island of New Britain, were a very low type of savages, and their mode of life was disgusting in the extreme; whilst their wild and ferocious appearance was in harmony with their stark nudity. Still the Genil's people established friendly relations with them, and were supplied with fruit and vegetables, such as yams and taro.
On October 17th the steamer India arrived with her emigrants, and the new Governor, M. de Prévost, nothing daunted by the unfortunate previous experiences of the colony and its mismanagement, set to work with Captain Rabardy to get things in order.
A fresh site was chosen for the actual settlement, and the new arrivals, joining heartily with the Genil's people, began to clear and build. The Italians and Spaniards toiled, in happy expectation of future prosperity, with their French fellow-settlers, and hope ran high. But already the deadly malaria had begun its work, and ere long more than half of the many hundreds of colonists were suffering from fever, and soon some died. Then suddenly the Governor, who hitherto had cheered them up by his example and energy, announced his intention of going to Sydney in the Genii (the India had sailed for France) to procure cattle and a fresh stock of provisions. He never returned. Months and months went by, and the colonists waited and waited, while the fever carried off someone every few days; and then their hearts failed them, and they longed for the lands they had left for a chimera. A sad two months passed, and then one day another steamer--the Nouvelle Bretagne--came into Liki Liki Bay. She had brought out some three hundred more colonists, Spanish people, who listened, with doleful faces, to the tale of those who had preceded them to the Utopia of Charles du Breil. Rabardy, of the Genil, who, a month later, was to die of fever, game to the last, consulted with Captain Henry, of the Nouvelle Bretagne and, as they talked on the poop deck of the newly-arrived steamer, a cry came from the people on shore that another ship was in sight. An hour later a black-painted, unobtrusive-looking steamer came slowly into the bay and dropped anchor. She looked like a collier, and flew the red ensign of England; but Henry knew her. She was the Legaspi, Spanish gunboat from Manila, and had chased him from the Philippines. As her cable rattled through her hawsepipes, down went the red ensign and up went the Spanish colours, and a boat full of armed men dashed alongside the Nouvelle Bretagne, and in another five minutes Captain Henry was a prisoner, handcuffed, and on his way to the warship. What he had done at Manila was a daring deed enough, and is a story in itself, and nothing much to his discredit. His ship had been prevented from putting to sea by the Spanish authorities, and Henry, who had many sick on board, and was greatly harassed in mind, suddenly slipped his cable and steamed off, although there was a Spanish guard on board. These he landed on the coast of Luzon.
That evening the commander of the Legaspi called the Spanish emigrants together and addressed them. 'The colony is a failure; the French, Italian and Spanish Governments have repudiated it. Those of you who like to return with the Legaspi to Manila can do so; those who do not may remain here, to die of starvation or be eaten by the savages.'
Next morning the Legaspi steamed out of Liki Liki Bay with the Nouvelle Bretagne in tow, taking; all the Spanish colonists with her. Then, to the aid of the despairing French and Italian colonists, came one Tom Farrell, an English trader on the Duke of York Island. He gave them provisions, advanced them money, and treated them well, taking care to get possession of the Genil and the barque Marquis de Rays. The Genil he sent to Australia under command of an English captain (Rabardy was dead by then, and his dying words to the writer of this sketch, as he grasped his hand for the last time, were, 'I have tried--and failed. I had not one competent officer with me to help me to maintain my authority or shoot some of the ruffians who have ruined the expedition'). Her unfortunate passengers were generously treated by the New South Wales Government, who settled many of them on the Richmond River, in the northern portion of the colony. Here they founded a prosperous little settlement, and are to this day happy and contented, and thank their stars that they left a spurious Utopia to dwell in a country where the conditions of climate are like those of their own sunny Italy. Perhaps, however, they think sometimes of those of their former comrades who died out there in the savage 'colony' of Charles du Breil. At Liki Liki there died nine; at Duke of York Island, thirteen; at New Britain, twenty-one; and six were eaten by the cannibals of the islands thereabouts. Of a score or so of others who remained in the North-West Pacific there is no record. Probably they succumbed to fever, or went down under the clubs and spears of the wild people of New Britain, New Guinea and the Admiralty Group. Such was the end of the vision of Charles du Breil and the Colony of New France.