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After the Wreck: On Historical Fictions and Fictional Histories

October 1, 2013 by Naomi J. Williams

Everyone likes a shipwreck story. I’m certainly not the first writer to be drawn to the La Pérouse expedition, an ill-fated voyage of exploration that left France in 1785 with two frigates under the command of Jean-François de Galaup de La Pérouse, and disappeared three years later in the South Pacific. Part of the early mystique of the La Pérouse story, of course, was that for almost forty years no one knew what had become of the expedition. It’s always a boon to fictionalizers when people disappear into thin air.

La Péouse and his men had not been missing ten years before fictional speculations about their fate began to appear on stage and in print. One of the earliest and most successful of these was La Peyrouse, a Drama in Two Acts, written in 1797 by the popular and prolific German playwright August von Kotzebue. In the play, La Pérouse is the lone survivor of the wreck. He’s on a small island in the South Pacific with Malvina, a native woman who has forsaken her violent family to be with La Pérouse and their son, Charles. The play takes place on the day when a French ship shows up and finds La Pérouse. Awkwardly, the ship’s passengers include La Pérouse’s wife, Adelaide (not her name in real life), and their youngest child, Henry (in real life, the La Pérouses had no children). Melodramatic hijinks ensue, with each woman trying to claim her man, each character threatening suicide, and each woman then trying to renounce her claim. Then Adelaide’s brother Clairville turns up. (In real life La Pérouse’s brother-in-law was named Frédéric Broudou; a member of the expedition, he presumably perished with La Pérouse.) The fictional Clairville suggests they all remain on the island, with the two women living as “sisters” in one hut and La Pérouse living in another as their “brother.” Clairville, meanwhile, goes to England to fetch the rest of La Pérouse’s family, who have fled France and are only too delighted to settle on this tropical island (in real life they weathered the tumult of the Revolution unscathed).

Here’s a discomfiting fact: the real Madame de la Pérouse was still alive when this play was having its successful run in Europe.

In 1801, a year after Kotzebue’s play appeared in London, an English rebuttal, Perouse; or, The Desolate Island by John Fawcett, came out. The first page of the published edition of this play acknowledges the debt to Kotzebue, but complains that his ending is “by no means likely to satisfy an audience of this or probably any country,” and proposes that this version of the story will be more “suited to an English taste.”

In Fawcett’s Perouse, La Pérouse is still the only survivor of the shipwreck, and still ends up in the company of a native woman on an island (located somewhere “north of Japan”). As in Kotzebue’s play, a ship arrives to rescue La Pérouse, and again, just as in Kotzebue, Madame de la Pérouse and her son are on board. But instead of being compassionate and generous, Umba, the native woman with whom La Pérouse has been living, is jealous and violent. She betrays him to her hostile countrymen, who swoop in and capture La Pérouse, his wife, and their son. They are all about to be killed, but are saved—first, through the intervention of a loyal and savvy chimpanzee (played on stage by a man), and finally, by the timely arrival of a group of marines, who kill all of the natives. There are huzzas all around, and La Pérouse and his family return to France. Judging from its continued appearance in English theater notices well into the 1820s, Perouse was a great success.

The mystery of what happened to L’Astrolabe and La Boussole and their crews was eventually solved by an Irish sandalwood merchant named Peter Dillon. In 1826, almost forty years after La Pérouse’s disappearance, Dillon went to Tikopia, a tiny island that today is part of the Solomon Islands, and was astonished to find the islanders in possession of European sword guards, teacups, silver utensils, and glass beads. They told him that the items came from the neighboring island of Vanikoro, where two large ships had been wrecked some years before. Dillon eventually made his way to Vanikoro and then to France, where his finds—the items mentioned above, plus numerous iron and copper pieces, guns, a boat tiller, a millstone, and a French ship’s bell—were positively identified as belonging to the La Pérouse expedition.

Dillon’s discovery launched a new round of storytelling about La Pérouse in Europe, but it also uncovered conflicting stories about the wreck already in circulation in the South Pacific. In hisNarrative and Successful Result of a Voyage in the South Seas, Dillon describes in sometimes unintentionally humorous detail the trouble he goes to to try to pin down what might have happened to La Pérouse and his men. Most of the islanders agree that the two ships were driven onto the reef at Vanikoro, most likely during a storm, and that some survivors made it to shore, where they barricaded themselves behind a palisade (À la Robinson Crusoe—the one novel they had on board). There they built some sort of boat out of the wreckage of their ships and sailed away, leaving two men behind, both of whom were gone by the time Dillon showed up. But then the stories diverge, with the Tikopians claiming the Vanikorans killed many of the survivors, and the Vanikorans either denying it outright or blaming the next village over. All of this comes to us through layers of unreliable narrators and interpreters: the various islanders, strongly motivated to exculpate themselves, of course; Rathea, a Tikopian who claims to be able to speak with the Vanikorans but really can’t; Martin Bushart, an Austrian beachcomber Dillon finds on Tikopia who can speak with Rathea but can barely speak English; and then Dillon himself, whose self-aggrandizing account would have one believe he is the only competent and sane person involved in the enterprise.

Although he never suggests the Vanikorans are cannibals or that La Pérouse’s men might have been cannibalized, there is cannibalism—and a lot of it—in his book. In fact, his Narrative and Successful Result begins with a long, grisly, and not very credible tale of how Dillon barely escaped a cannibal feast in Fiji some years before his adventures in Vanikoro.

It took a novelist playing at being a biographer to turn the association into a fact. The English writer Charlotte Yonge, largely forgotten today, enjoyed enormous popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century. She was also a devout Christian and generous supporter of missionary work in the South Pacific, and in 1875 wrote a biography of John Coleridge Patteson, an Anglican missionary (and relative of Yonge’s) who had been killed a few years earlier in the Solomon Islands. Yonge briefly acquaints her readers with the sad history of La Pérouse, then relates that when Patteson visited Vanikoro, his party met no islanders, but found moldering human remains buried near a native oven. This trip is well-documented, but I cannot corroborate anywhere this claim that the missionaries found evidence of cannibalism in Vanikoro; it appears to be pure invention. Yonge was primarily a fiction writer, after all, and one who was personally, ideologically, and financially invested in painting the South Sea islanders as desperately in need of missionizing.

It was a most effective invention, as text after text published since takes this charge of Vanikoran cannibalism to be established truth. The poet and essayist W. S. Merwin repeats this claim in an otherwise quite nuanced piece on La Pérouse which appears in his 2005 essay collection, The Ends of the Earth. Other, less careful writers seem content to apply a kind of transitive property to the question, whereby, if the Vanikorans were cannibals and the La Pérouse expedition was wrecked in Vanikoro, then it follows that La Pérouse and his men must have been cannibalized. Some of this supposition reaches fulsome and silly proportions, as in this passage from an 1885 book about famous shipwrecks:

To perish so far away! To perish so full of life and talent without having completed his work! When, O Pérouse, it seemed so much glory awaited thee on thy return! To perish, perhaps devoured by monsters with the semblance of humanity, whom thou hadst visited to endow them with the benefits of civilisation, and, it may be, after having seen all thy comrades—whom thou didst look upon as thy brothers—carried, one after the other, in bleeding morsels to the horrid orgies of cannibals! *

Monsters, bleeding morsels, cannibal orgies—the stuff of horror movies. And indeed, just such a film is in the works, a cannibal flick called “Vanikoro” to be written and directed by the French filmmaker Xavier Gens. Internet rumors have attached the actors Viggo Mortenson and Philip Seymour Hoffman to the project as well, apparently to play the two Frenchmen who get left behind with an islandful of hungry cannibals when the rest of the survivors sail off in their makeshift boat. Gens, the brains behind the video game spin-off “Hitman” and the gorefest “Frontier(s),” has said in interviews about “Vanikoro” that he wants to make a film that respects the La Pérouse story and “historic reality,” whatever that means.

*Stories of the Sea in Former Days: Narratives of Wreck and Rescue. London, Blackie & Son, 1885.

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