An Unwanted Rescue

The story of a French cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier - shipwrecked, left to die, rescued and adopted by an Aboriginal family, and then ‘rescued’ again by European sailors 17 years later.

By Queensland State Archives

Narcisse Pelletier

In 1844, Narcisse Pelletier was born in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, France and embarked from Marseilles aboard the Saint Paul as a cabin boy in 1857. 

An illustration of early European ships sighting the Cape York area (1880-01-01/1920-12-31) by Premier and Chief Secretary's DepartmentQueensland State Archives

The ship made for Bombay (now Mumbai) and then Hong Kong, where it picked up just over 300 Chinese labourers heading to the gold fields of Australia.    

In September 1858, the Saint Paul struck a reef in the Louisiade Archipelago near New Guinea and was wrecked. Captain Emmanuel Pinard, the crew and emigrants managed to reach an island near Rossel Island using smaller boats.

Queensland Electric Telegraph Lines (1866-01-01/1866-12-31) by Surveyor General's DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Five of the crew decided to abandon the Chinese workers. Pelletier overheard the scheme and followed the sailors to the boat. They set out for the mainland and twelve days later landed somewhere near Cape Direction on the Cape York Peninsula.

Pelletier was ill by that time and when he got out of the boat to lie under a tree, the crew deserted him.    

Narcisse Pelletier (1875-01-01/1875-12-31) by Premier and Chief Secretary's DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Left for dead, Pelletier existed on the fruit and berries he found nearby. Three days later, a small group of Aboriginal men and women discovered him and fed him coconuts. 

They took him to their people: a family of Uutaalnganu speakers, the Sandbeach People. Renamed ‘Anco’ or ‘Amglo’, Pelletier was initiated into their traditional lifestyle and marked with scars over his chest. 

A page from a Letterbook - Somerset settlement (1875-01-01/1875-12-31) by Magistrate's Office, SomersetQueensland State Archives

In 1875, Captain Joseph Frazer of the brig John Bell discovered Pelletier living among the Aboriginal people of the north-east coast near Cape Sidmouth and negotiated for him to return with them to Somerset.      

Narcisse Pelletier stated that "the sailors laboured under a misconception, and that neither did the natives wish him to go, nor did he himself wish to leave."

Narcisse Pelletier (1875-01-01/1875-12-31) by Premier and Chief Secretary's DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Pelletier eventually returned to his hometown in France, arriving in 1876, almost twenty years after he had left as a young boy. Pelletier was offered employment in a travelling show as the ‘huge Anglo-Australian Giant’ but turned it down to instead become a lighthouse keeper in Western France. In 1880, he married seamstress Louise Désirée Mabileau with whom he lived childless until his death on 28 September 1894.    

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