- Noumea to Newcastle: The Story of an Escape
- Chapter 16
- The Newcastle Chronicle Saturday March 28th 1874 Escape of Six State Prisoners from New Caledonia
- The Newcastle Chronicle Tuesday March 31st 1874 The Escaped French Prisoners
- The Newcastle Chronicle Thursday April 2nd 1874 [Editorial]
Introduction, Translation and Notes © 2002 Kenneth R. Dutton
Online Publication by Gionni di Gravio © 2002 University of Newcastle
Henri Rochefort – or, to give him his full title, the Marquis Victor-Henry de Rochefort-Luçay – was born in Paris on 31 January 1831 into a family of ancient nobility. His early career, from 1851 onwards, saw him hold a minor clerical post in the Préfecture de la Seine and later the position of Inspecteur des Beaux-Arts at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, a post from which he resigned. He then undertook a variety of roles, from writer of light comedies in 1856 to political journalist, in which he followed in his father’s footsteps (his father, the Marquis Claude-Louis-Marie de Rochefort-Luçay, being a dramatic author and journalist of strong “legitimist” views, who wrote under the name of Armand de Rochefort). As well as writing theatre criticism for Le Charivari and La Presse théâtrale, Henri contributed to the satirical journal Le Nain jaune, founded in 1863 by Aurélien Scholl, and to the widely-read daily Le Figaro. His scathing criticisms of the government of Napoléon III (1852-70) brought about his dismissal from the editorial staff of the latter publication, as a result of government pressure. On 30 May 1868, with the financial support of J. Cartier de Villemessant, he founded a weekly newspaper of his own, known as La Lanterne, fiercely hostile to the Empire and marked by the wit and venom of its attacks. The historian Alfred Cobban, who describes the paper as “notorious”, points out that it “reached a sale of half a million by June 1868. After three months of calculated and brilliant, if irresponsible, insults against the whole Bonapartist establishment, it was suppressed by legal action.” Rochefort himself was prosecuted but fled to Belgium, where for a time he continued his paper and had it smuggled into France, its political attacks becoming even more violent.
On his return to France in 1869, he founded another newspaper, La Marseillaise. Elected as a Deputy for Paris that same year, he was implicated in a duel between Prince Pierre Bonaparte and Paschal Grousset (one of Rochefort’s colleagues). For this he was condemned to prison, but was saved by the Revolution of 4 September 1870 in which crowds filled the streets of Paris and demanded the proclamation of a republic.
In 1871, Rochefort was elected to the Government of National Defence which was established in the wake of France’s capitulation at the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the armistice which followed. He was one of a number of Deputies from Paris, including Louis Blanc, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Ledru-Rollin. But the new Assembly, under Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), was brought back from its initial seat in Bordeaux, not to Paris, but rather to Versailles. Republicans, many of them Parisians, were a decided minority in the Assembly, and in the eyes of the monarchist majority (who reflected the conservative attitude of the provinces) were quite intolerable : on the other hand, the republican Parisians feared that the Versailles-based Assembly would restore the monarchy. Rochefort’s attacks were now directed at both Thiers and the Assembly, and were made both within the Assembly and (after his resignation as a Deputy and member of the government in order to concentrate on journalism) in his newly-founded newspaper Le Mot d’ordre, which first appeared on 3 February 1871.
Thiers’ decision to disarm the Paris National Guard (composed largely of workers who had fought during the siege of Paris) led to resistance. The attempted seizure of the 400 guns in the hands of the National Guard by Thiers’ troops from Versailles was in fact the spark which set off revolution in Paris and led to the formation of the Paris Commune (18 March to 28 May, 1871). Though Rochefort did not participate in the Commune itself, the views he had expressed both in person and through Le Mot d’Ordre ended in his being tarred with the same brush as the Communards.
Often equivocal towards both the Commune and the Versailles Government, Rochefort had in common with the Communards mainly their enmity towards the National Assembly from which he had resigned. With enemies on both sides, he had to flee from Paris during the semaine sanglante in order to avoid reprisals. Leaving Paris on 20 May, he was arrested as soon as his train reached Meaux and was taken, handcuffed and under guard, to the prison at Versailles. Here he found, already incarcerated, his former employee from Le Mot d’Ordre, Paschal Grousset, as well as the painter Gustave Courbet.
The charges against Rochefort related to the attacks on the government made in Le Mot d’Ordre, which (along with the campaigns in his earlier newspapers and articles) led to his being tarred with the same brush as the Communards. He remained in prison until, on 21 September, he was sentenced to be deported for life, his sentence to be served in a fortified place. Victor Hugo pleaded with Thiers on his behalf, the latter agreeing that he should not be sent abroad but could be held in a French fortress where he could see his (illegitimate) children. Accordingly, on 9 November Rochefort was transferred, in leg-irons, to La Rochelle, then to Fort Boyard on the nearby Ile d’Aix where most of the prisoners – including Paschal Grousset, who was to be sent to New Caledonia – were awaiting deportation.
For the best part of two years, Rochefort was confined in various penitentiaries in the vicinity of La Rochelle: from Fort Boyard he was sent in June 1872 to a dungeon in the citadel on the Ile d’Oléron, and in August that year to the more comfortable citadel of Saint-Martin on the Ile de Ré, later to be the place of incarceration of two other famous Frenchmen – Dreyfus and Henri Carrère (known as Papillon). During this period he completed a novel (Les Dépravés, intended for publication in instalments by the Hugo set in Brussels in their journal Le Rappel) and was released for a short period to Versailles in order to marry his ex-mistress Marie Renaud and legitimize his children by her.
After 1871, political opinion within France began to shift in the direction of republicanism, though a monarchist majority still prevailed in the Assembly. Thiers had made up his mind that the republican cause would prevail at the next election, and began to throw his influence on that side. The reaction of the monarchists within the Assembly was to force his resignation in May 1873 and to replace him as head of state by Marshal Patrice Mac-Mahon (1808-1893); at the same time a leading Orleanist, the duc de Broglie (1821-1901), was installed as head of the government. The new government not being bound by Thiers’ commitments, Rochefort’s deportation again became a live issue. Victor Hugo once again pleaded on his behalf – this time, not with the President, but with his fellow-Academician de Broglie – , describing Rochefort as “one of the most celebrated writers of our day” and as a man by now in poor health. De Boglie’s sole concession on the latter point was to agree that Rochefort should be deported only if medically fit. A doctor having pronounced him well enough to travel, his personal possessions were sold and he was allowed to bid farewell to his children before embarking on the Virginie on 10 August 1873, his destination being the penal colony of New Caledonia.
His stay on the island lasted a mere four months, his escape (recounted here) taking place on the night of 19th -20th March 1874 in the company of five others. Of these, three were of sufficient significance to merit an entry in the Larousse du XXe siècle encyclopedia. Two of them in particular had held important positions in the Paris Commune. They were :
– [Jean-François-] Paschal Grousset (1844-1909), born in Corsica, who abandoned his medical studies for a journalistic career. In 1869, he worked on one of Rochefort’s newspapers, La Marseillaise, for which he wrote anti-religious and pro-revolutionary articles. For his campaign against the Empire in Rochefort’s paper, he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in 1870. Elected a member of the Commune for the 18th arrondissement, he became its délégué aux Relations extérieures and a member of its Executive Committee. In 1872 he was sent to New Caledonia on board the Guerrière. After his escape, he lived for various periods in Sydney, San Francisco, New York and London, making a living by teaching French. He returned to France after the 1880 amnesty, for a while abandoning politics for literature and physical culture, but eventually returning to politics and becoming in 1893 a socialist Deputy for the 12th arrondissement of Paris. He published a great deal under various pseudonyms.
– François Jourde (1843-1893). Having been a notary’s clerk and bank employee; in 1868 he opened a business which soon failed, after which he founded a journal (La Pipe en bois) of which only one number ever appeared. During the siege of Paris, he was elected by the 5th arrondissement as a member of the Commune, and in April 1871 was placed in charge of Finances. He was arrested on 30 May and condemned to deportation on 2 September. Arriving on the Isle of Pines in October 1872, he went to live in Noumea in October 1873 and worked as an accountant. Jourde lived abroad after his escape, first in Switzerland, then Brussels and finally London. He was granted amnesty in 1877. With Grousset, he published in 1876 (from Geneva) an account of the escape from New Caledonia (Les Condamnés politiques en Nouvelle-Calédonie : récit de deux évadés). On his return to France, he was editor of the journal La Convention nationale before attempting a career in politics. Unsuccessful in his attempts at gaining election as a municipal councillor in Paris and Deputy in Lyons, he died poor.
– Less is known about Olivier Pain (1845-1885), a journalist who had participated in the Commune. Born in Troyes in 1845, he worked on journals such as L’Affranchi and Rochefort’s Le Mot d’ordre. After his escape from New Caledonia he went to live in Switzerland , then went as a war correspondent for Le Temps and Le Figaro to follow the operations in the war between Turkey and Russia . After gaining amnesty in 1879, he returned to France , and was later to work on another of Rochefort’s newspapers, L’Intransigeant. His next move was to Egypt, then to Sudan where he died in 1885. Two accounts exist of his death : that of Bernard Noël (Dictionnaire de la Commune), which states that he either died of “fever” or was shot by the English who found his presence inconvenient; and that of the Larousse which states that he was a prisoner of the Mahdi (a Muslim messianic figure) “whom he had, to his misfortune, succeeded in approaching.”
Of the other two escapees, Achille Baillière and Charles Bastien Granthille, little is known. Granthille was a deportee and a military man. In accounts given in the Australian newspapers, his name is misquoted as “Charles Bostiere Grandhille, Commandant de Bataillon” (Newcastle Chronicle, 28 March 1874) and “Caven Grant Achille, ex-Commandant of the National Guard” (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1874). A letter to The Empire, Sydney, dated 3 April 1874, is signed “A. Balliere, Architect-surveyor”. This seems to be the only information available as to Baillière’s profession.
After his stay in Australia , Henri Rochefort was to go to the United States , on which he was later to include a number of chapters in the account, entitled Retourde la Nouvelle-Calédonie de Nouméa en Europe. , from which the extracts translated here are taken. As the political situation in France grew more stable under the Third Republic, the Chamber of Deputies returned to Paris from Versailles in 1879, opening the way to amnesty for those who had supported or participated in the Commune. In Cobban’s words, “La Marseillaise became the national song, and the Quatorze Juillet the national holiday. A long campaign which had been waged in favour of an amnesty for the Communards sentenced to exile or deportation had provided one of the chief lines of cleavage in the republican ranks. In 1881 the wound was healed, so far as it could be, by the grant, thanks mainly to an intervention by Gambetta, of a total amnesty.”
Although the total amnesty had to wait till 1881, individuals who had been deported had been the recipients of amnesties granted earlier, Rochefort being included in a group amnestied in 1880.
Back in France, Rochefort soon found himself editing yet another newspaper, this one entitled L’Intransigeant (founded in July 1880). Having begun his career as a supporter of the extreme left, he had gradually moved closer to supporting the right, and his campaigns in L’Intransigeant were conducted in support of the extreme Radicals. In 1885, he was again elected as a Deputy for Paris, but resigned the following year. By the later 1880s, discontent and disaffection with the republican government was growing, and many on both the left and the right focused their hopes on a popular general, Georges Boulanger (1837-1891), whom Clemenceau had appointed Minister of War in January 1886 but whose retirement from the army was forced in 1888. Rochefort, who as editor of L’Intransigeant had characteristically been conducting a guerrilla war against the Republic, contributed his clientele to a campaign to promote Boulanger’s political career. It was no doubt his dislike of moderate Republicans that led him to support a man like Boulanger, described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a “reactionary adventurer”. When the latter won overwhelming support in the Paris election of January 1889, a campaign was led by the Ligue des Patriotes for a coup d’état aimed at installing him as President. Momentum was growing and success looked likely, but Boulanger himself appears to have lost his nerve and when the government began proceedings against him he fled to Brussels, fearing arrest. [He later committed suicide there, on the tomb of his mistress.] Rochefort followed him to Belgium, incurring yet another governmental condemnation, this time in absentia (par contumace).
Returning to France in 1895 after a period spent in London, Rochefort continued to exercise a public voice, increasingly in support of the right. From London he had attacked what he called the chéquards (bribed backers) of the Panama Canal scheme. At the time of the Dreyfus affair (1894-99), he sided with the anti-Dreyfus forces – a certain anti-Semitism being already recognisable in the extract reproduced here ( in which members of the Montefiore family are described as “too Israelitish” – trop israélites – not to put their financial interests ahead of Captain Law’s career). During his final years, he wrote for the conservative and nationalistic press.
Henri Rochefort described his varied career, including his various arrests, his deportation, and the founding of his newspapers, in Les Aventures de ma vie (5 volumes, 1896-8). Other works written by him include Les Français de la décadence (1866), La Grande Bohème (1867), Les Dépravés (1875), Les Naufrageurs (1876), L’Aurore boréale (1878) and L’Evadé (1880).
He died on 30 June 1913 at Aix-les-Bains.
The account of his escape from New Caledonia to Newcastle was reprinted in 1997 by the Paris-based Atelier Littéraire Franco-Australien (ALFA) as part of the publication series known as «La Petite Maison». With Introduction and Notes by Jean-Paul Delamotte, the re-edition consists of the first and last chapters of Rochefort’s De Nouméa en Europe – Chapter 1 (arrival in Newcastle and impressions of the town as it was in 1874) and Chapter 16 (how the escape from Nouméa was planned and effected). Of the intervening chapters, Chapters 2 to 5 relate to Sydney and to Australia generally, Chapters 6 to 8 describe the crossing of the Pacific, and Chapters 9 to 14 deal with Rochefort’s time in the United States. Also included in the ALFA edition were relevant articles from the Newcastle Chronicle of the period.
Jean-Paul Delamotte entitled the edition «Henri Rochefort, De Nouméa à Newcastle (Australie) : récit de son évasion». As a former resident (with his wife Monique) of that city, where their daughter Guibourg was born, he dedicated the work to the City of Newcastle as a mark of his attachment to it on the occasion of the bicentenary of its foundation (1797-1997). The present translation is, in return, dedicated to the work of ALFA and of the Association Culturelle Franco-Australienne, created by Jean-Paul Delamotte and dedicated to the strengthening of cultural links between France and Australia on a basis of reciprocity.
My thanks are due to Jean-Paul Delamotte for bringing the work to my attention and for his permission to translate it into English. I also take this opportunity of thanking Denis Rowe for pointing out to me the need for an English translation of Rochefort’s account, and to Gionni di Gravio for his kind assistance in bringing it to fruition as an on-line document. I hope that it adds in a minor way to our knowledge of 19th-century Newcastle and of the reactions of those who visited it.
I have tried to keep my translation as literal as possible, consistent with naturalness. Not that Rochefort’s style is particularly “natural” : at times there is an annoying pretentiousness about the turns of phrase used, and he has a fondness for a display of erudition based on rare, esoteric or antiquated terms (a translator’s nightmare). I have not attempted to replicate 19th-century modes of expression in English : French having evolved far more slowly than English, the language used by Rochefort, notwithstanding his quirks of style, is closer to contemporary French than (say) the language of the Newcastle Chronicle in 1874 is to contemporary English.
Kenneth R. Dutton
I.e. He was a supporter of the Comte de Chambord as against the “Orleanist” Comte de Paris as the rightful heir to the French throne.
 La Lanterne had 74 weekly editions, several of them seized by the Government, before it was suppressed in November 1869. It re-appeared, though with Rochefort replaced as editor, as a daily in 1877, becoming a radical-socialist and anti-clerical magazine; it ceased publication in 1928.
 Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France, Vol 2 : 1799-1945, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 189.
 On Ledru-Rollin, see text, p.
 Le Mot d’ordre ceased to appear as from 20 May 1871. A re-created Mot d’ordre, not under Rochefort’s editorial direction, appeared in 1877. In 1892, it merged with La Bataille under the name La Marseillaise (not to be confused with Rochefort’s earlier journal of the same name).
 In Ile of Ré (Nantes, Artaud Frères, undated) Monique Jambut describes Rochefort as the most famous of the 400 insurrectionists of the Commune sent to the Saint-Martin citadel in 1872: he had been found “guilty of provoking by his writing […] with the aim of fomenting civil war”. I am grateful to Professor John Ramsland for this information.
 The chief members of the Hugo set in Brussels were Victor Hugo’s sons Charles and François-Victor, together with Paul Meurice and Auguste Vacquerie. These made up the initial editorial team of Le Rappel.
 Roger L. Williams, Henri Rochefort: Prince of the Gutter Press, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966) p. 133.
 On Pain, Grousset and Jourde, I am indebted to Jean-Paul Delamotte for the use of notes in his edition of Rochefort’s work. I have also used references from the Larousse du XXe siècle.
 Information from Larousse du XXe siècle and Jean-Paul Delamotte’s edition.
 The work was published in 1877.
 Cobban, op. cit., p. 218.
 L’Intransigeant continued after Rochefort left its editorship. From 1905 to 1932 it was run by L. Bailby, who made it the most important evening daily in France until the emergence of Paris-Soir. It kept on going until 1940, production being interrupted by the German Occupation. Resuming in May 1947 under the name L’Intransigeant-Journal de Paris, it merged with Paris-Presse in September 1948.
 See article “Rochefort, Henri” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed.
 Oxford Companion to French Literature, article “Rochefort [Rochefort-Luçay], Henri de”. The Larousse du XXe siècle gives the dates of this work as 1895-96.
Introduction Translation and Notes © 2002 Kenneth R. Dutton
Online Publication by Gionni di Gravio © 2002 University of Newcastle
NOUMEA TO NEWCASTLE:THE STORY OF AN ESCAPE
My voyage to the Antipodes naturally comprises both the journey out and the journey back. About the outward trip I shall remain silent, the lowest deck of a warship not affording particularly glorious views or leaving the traveller with especially idyllic memories. Nature is an attractive woman who is hardly seen at her best through a ship’s cannon-port or across the top of a hedge of bayonets. As an observatory, the half-open lid of a scuttle-hole is not only uncomfortable but deceptive : the eucalypts lined up along the hills look for all the world like soldiers exercising, and the coconut trees along the shoreline seem to be bearing explosive shells rather than fruit.
I shall simply observe that the New Caledonian guest-house in which the Government had cooped us up was signally at variance with what we Parisians had been used to : the food was insufficient, the service wanting, and comfort absolutely non-existent. In response to the lack of consideration shown us by our landlord and the unsuccessful outcome of our complaints, we developed a firm resolve to abscond from our lodgings and not pay the bill.
Nonetheless I promised myself that I would not allow politics any place in the accounts I would provide of our actions, for fear of letting myself make politics pay dearly for all it has cost us. I also beg any reader anxious to acquire information, cupidus videndi, not to rely too heavily on me to perfect his knowledge of geography. On that subject, I shall remain in that uncertain state of mind which was expressed so well by an old sailor who said to one of us:
“Don’t believe everything you are told about the navy. For instance, people always talk about degrees of longitude. I’ve been at sea for twenty years and never seen a single one.”
After a crossing which can sometimes take twenty-five days but in our case took only seven, urged on as we were by an overwhelming desire to see our families again and probably by a strong easterly wind as well, we found ourselves, on the 27th of March 1874, within sight of a land that had been conquered by man. It was Australia. In the course of the four hundred league journey from Noumea, the only distraction from the monotonous rhythm of that “symphony in blue major” known as the Pacific Ocean had been our passing by Lord Howe Island, which is overlooked from a height of five hundred metres by the dark shelf known as Ball’s Pyramid, which seems to threaten nearby ships but in fact warns them, thus combining the useful and the disagreeable.
As we passed by this monument, erected (as a Freemason would say) by the Great Architect of the Universe, and which is reminiscent of an enormous feudal castle once occupied by some sea-monster – perhaps Adamastor whose place of residence Camoëns has not revealed to us – the captain of the P.C.E. told us that in 1853 four men who were shipwrecked when their boat broke up on the coral surrounding Lord Howe Island had lived for two months on this block of granite. Their only food had been the eggs of seagulls, speckled kestrels and mallemucks which they would pluck from the crevices of the pyramid where these hardy birds had nested.
We saw what looked to be not so much a cloud as a winged waterspout whirling around the top of this Tower of Doom. By the look of things, however, the four above-mentioned travellers had not eaten all the eggs in the henhouse.
The town of Newcastle, which we were approaching, is terraced along a cliff whose barrenness we would have found depressing were it not for the profound joy that overtook us. The dangerous belt of coral that defends the entry to this harbour seemed to us to be the girdle of Venus herself. This fortress of ocean-level reefs, to which many of the islands of Oceania have long owed their independence, took on in our eyes, lit up as these were by the open blue sky of freedom, the flattering appearance of a corset whose laces our ship’s bow, as if it were a lover, was about to cut through.
Until this decisive moment, our journey had to some extent seemed like an escape. The good captain who had welcomed us aboard his ship was almost constantly testing the surrounding space, in case there should suddenly appear some government escort-ship with a mission involving us, and we looked with melancholy eyes at the eight old piston-action rifles banging about in their rack, these constituting the entire arsenal of the three-master the P.C.E. and looking as though they had never been loaded with anything except rust.
A final scare was in store for us. As we gazed like conquerors on this promised though unhoped-for land, we suddenly saw coming out of the harbour, which was about two leagues away, a steam-boat headed very obviously in our direction and proceeding full-steam ahead to meet us. This steam-boat was soon joined by a second, then a third, then a fourth. For a moment we entertained the notion, however preposterous, that the entire French fleet had been awaiting us at the harbour entrance and that it was now coming out to sink us or – an even more painful expectation – to snatch us as it came by.
These frenzied steam-boats were in fact ordinary tugs, the fear of competition being the cause of their alarming energy. Any ship about to touch land is soon surrounded by these supplicants, each trying to grab the “client”. They pester him, they flatter him, they make the most unbelievable effort to be the one to tow him in. You would think you were at the railway-station of some spa resort when the hotel bellboys come to harpoon the tourist as he gets off the train. The tugboat operators are not above agreeing to a reduction in price. Nonetheless, they could not possibly, without losing all self-respect, bring safely into harbour a four-hundred-ton ship like ours for less than eighty francs. Offer them seventy-five francs, and they withdraw their labour and leave your sailing ship in distress.
These semi-pirates, no longer being able to take ships’ crews captive, make up for this by attempting to fleece them. But as far as the P.C.E. was concerned, they might just as well have spared themselves their seductive coquetries. What, show Captain Law his way, a man brought up amongst reefs and familiar with every channel! A man who, more than two leagues off Ball’s Pyramid, had sniffed the air as if it were a pinch of snuff and told us :
“We’re getting closer, I can smell land.”
The countenance of this old sea-dog has remained vividly present in my mind as a symbol of whatever astounds and upsets human calculations. Short and stocky, with ruddy features, but a keenly sparkling eye and the set lips of a man of responsibility forever on the alert, whenever Captain Law came belting out of his cabin onto the deck at the merest sign of a squall, he seemed to become as one with the atmosphere and to give the word of command to the compass card. He would cast his piercing gaze at the depths of the horizon, take in the clouds with a glance upwards, and announce to us with chronological precision :
“It will last an hour”.
“This one will go on for two hours and a half.”
And, at the minute he had predicted, the wind would drop. Though a great lover of France, in the form of its wines – a fault which is not considered the least bit dishonourable in Australia, where intoxication is as fashionable as heart-shaped waistcoats are among us – he was aware of his weakness and all he took with him to drink on his journeys were barrels of fresh water. He reserved his thirst for his stay on land, and it would become more and more unquenchable as the time to embark grew closer.
Moreover, his easy-going directness and imperturbable nature were the outward accompaniment of a scrupulously generous heart. In payment for the rescue of all six of us, the sum of ten thousand francs had been, not demanded by him, but offered spontaneously by us, and when I thought I should offer him some guarantees as to payment, which might have seemed to him to pose a number of problems, he replied unhesitatingly :
“My best guarantee is your word.”
Now, in this expedition he was risking his job, and in consequence the livelihoods of his six children. The risk was so real that he did in fact lose it at a later date.
Having a special certificate which authorised him to enter any port in Australia without a pilot, he made straight for the entrance to Newcastle, the town of his birth. We sailed up the harbour at about ten in the morning, in magnificent weather and a sparkling sea, passing through a jumble of vessels of all types of sail and all nationalities. Their every mast was decked with flags, and their rigging festooned with pennants. This jubilation delighted us, though it also took us somewhat by surprise. The captain himself sought an explanation, which the “steward” (the ship’s cook) immediately provided. This unfortunate fellow, who had formerly worked as a clown on a fairground stall, found himself one fine day transported on board a ship, in one of those press-gang operations which in England take the place of a vocation to life at sea. In the course of our trip, there was not a single kindness that he did not lavish upon us, doing somersaults in the ship’s shrouds to take our minds off our seasickness, walking on his hands, and cooking for us, with the very same hands he had walked on, large numbers of pastries whose taste and colour, regrettably, consigned them to the category of rock-cakes in every sense of the word.
“You must have been recognised,” he told us with great conviction. “The harbour has been decked out in your honour.”
This base adulation did not even have the excuse of being flattering. If the people on the jetty looking through their spyglasses had thought we looked like deportees, they must have had a very poor idea of the workforce on the Ducos Peninsula. We were clad in outlandish clothes, pale from the churning of our stomachs due to the rolling of the P.C.E.; the latter had come back on ballast but we had rather horribly jettisoned ours; and we were at one and the same time as tattered as a Callot and as bristly as a Herrera the Elder. The only hope my costume afforded me was dependent on a shoulder-strap borrowed from the ship’s first mate : had it broken, it would have demolished the entire structure on which a strictly decent outfit is based. As to Olivier Pain, my fellow escapee and also my collaborator, for the role of his memories in this account is at least as great as my own, Olivier Pain had for shoes a pair of old army boots saved from a shipwreck, and of such enormous size that he could walk around in them without his feet even touching the sides. While still in New Caledonia, the escapees had seriously contemplated fitting a sail to them and returning to Europe inside them. They gave up this plan once they realised that the boots leaked.
Newcastle Harbour circa 1870 looking down from Perkin Street
As we were tacking in a veritable forest of clippers, brigs and schooners, we found ourselves for a short time alongside a French three-masted barque, the Saint-Jean. We greeted the commandant in his own language, and he returned our ‘Bonjour’ without any further attempt to discover the identity of these fellow-countrymen of his who were almost as little clad as his own skipper.
Our inflamed and feverish hands were on the brink of touching land, when we had to stop for a visit by Customs. We had one last meal on board the P.C.E. while awaiting the outcome of this formality, which was of some importance to us. The spontaneous generation of six men not listed in the ship’s log on departure might well have given the Australian authorities cause for some recrimination, which would have been awkward, to say the least.
A very young man, most distinguished-looking and dressed as if for a dinner in town, drew up in the Customs Administration’s boat, climbed up the P.C.E.’s ladder, and seated himself in Captain Law’s cabin. The latter brought him his log and engaged with him in a dialogue which was translated for the rest of us by the only one of us who spoke English.
“I had been at sea for about four hours,” the Captain related in a somewhat sardonic tone of voice, “when these six gentlemen emerged from the hold of my ship where, so they told me, they had taken refuge the previous evening. They have paid me their passage, but I have reason to believe that the names they have given me are not their own.”
We were paying anxious attention. Then, without a glance in our direction or the slightest curiosity concerning us, the young official – demonstrating once again that respect for individual liberty which is innate in the Englishman – replied with chilly indifference :
“Since these gentlemen owe you nothing, they are free to adopt whatever names they wish.”
Thereupon, he stood up, good back into his boat and returned to shore, without even mentioning the incident to his oarsman.
We lost no time in following this discreet Customs officer in the P.C.E.’s whale boat. We came ashore at the wharf, greeted by a crowd of beaming citizens obviously dressed in their Sunday best even though it was a Thursday. Each of the escapees, who the previous day had been merely “a nameless cipher in a pallid crowd”, turned back into a man once he reached dry land. We might even have willingly kissed that alma parens, had not our lips first been planted upon the blond head of one of those unbelievably beautiful children of whom we have since seen so many in Australia but whom we could never have imagined in our dreams. That English complexion, its lethargy cancelled out by the tropical sun; those eyes of turquoise blue, in which the shimmering Pacific mother-of-pearl seems to be reflected; that tousled hair framing the rosy cheeks over which it tumbled, called us back to the serenity of life.
Children are precisely what is lacking in prison life. Here and there, through the gaps in a fence, one might perhaps catch a glimpse of a laundress bringing the washing back from the penitentiary; but the “baby” side of things is completely lacking.
The reader can imagine how ardently we cuddled this wondrous little creature. The governess looking after him was young, and we would have thought her pretty were it not for her clothing, which looked as if it had been bought from one of the second-hand clothes dealers in the shabbiest area of Paris, and was topped off by a hat that might perhaps have belonged to the Duchess of Angoulême fifty years ago. She laughed at the sight of the infant being passed from one pair of arms to another, no doubt considering us to be in all likelihood either travelling acrobats or itinerant musicians. We were certainly highly itinerant, though hardly musicians.
Captain Law, being anxious to introduce us to his fellow-citizens, enquired as to the reasons for the general rejoicing on the wharves. It was caused, not by our arrival, but by that of Sir Hercules Robinson, the Governor of New South Wales, who was expected from Sydney that very morning. As to the explanation that had been provided by our steward, we decided that he was a born courtier.
The view of Newcastle from the jetty reveals a town built higgledy-piggledy to meet the needs of a population which is daily growing at a rate unknown in Europe. With the exception of two or three hotels of fairly lavish appearance, the houses show every sign of improvised construction. Their owners have perched them, without any concern for order or proper alignment, on hills which could perhaps have quite easily been levelled. Still, this very incoherence has a certain agreeable charm about it.
Having once (“once” means the year 1850) been inhabited by shepherds and bushmen, the town of Newcastle, stranded on a steep sandbank between the Hunter River and the sea, would have had nothing to recommend it except the safety of its anchorage and the low cost of land, had not the discovery and extraction of coal made it par excellence Australia’s city of the “black diamond”. From fifteen hundred inhabitants, it quickly rose to twenty thousand.
The lack of drinking water is the main problem in the Hunter River district, of which Maitland and Morpeth form part. Everything that happens does so underground, and visitors are entertained in one’s mine just as elsewhere they are in one’s drawing-room. The only productive crop in this coal-bearing area is sugar-cane, which can be grown without watering. But the heat is so intense in the cane fields and the sun’s reflection from the ground so dangerous for European brains, that the cane farmers cannot employ any workers except natives. A Kanak woman sometimes spends eight hours a day in a plantation in fifty-seven degrees centigrade with her child on her back. The very idea fills you with admiration for beetroot.
But before inquiring further as to the fate of these natives of Oceania, we had to concern ourselves with our own. Our combined resources amounted to three hundred francs in colonial bonds drawn on the Bank of Noumea. Even the most trusting of shopkeepers would not have accepted our banknotes as wrapping for her hairpins.
The captain, who had himself now assumed the role of tugboat, towed us to one of those banks which accept paper-money from all over the world. But the world from which we had just come apparently extended beyond the limits of outlandishness, the teller hurling at us from deep behind his window :
“We don’t take that,”
which our strict sense of impartiality obliges us to translate as follows :
“As if I couldn’t guess that you produced these banknotes with your own hands this very morning.”
The bank next door extended to us a very different kind of welcome. This was where our incognito existence came to an end. As soon as we produced our “securities”, the whispering began. Could it be that the P.C.E.’s crew, as it mingled with the townspeople, had given away the story of our escape? Had the Customs officer been more communicative with others than he had with us? The fact is that, at the mere sight of the words “Bank of New Caledonia”, the entire establishment was abuzz.
“Are you the escaped French prisoners? You’ve just come in on the P.C.E. Tell us all about your escape.”
They crowded around us, calling out to one another to come and meet us and insisting we tell them everything. Although, like most financial establishments in such countries, the bank was unfamiliar with the mysteries of backwardation, contangoing and declaration of options, it did also operate as a commission agency.
They produced a sample cask of madeira, and proceeded to pour us each a glass, this giving the excellent Captain Law an even more exalted idea of who his passengers were. He related how, having seen my portrait and biography in an illustrated journal, he had recognised me at once. In consideration of our notoriety and our misfortunes, our money-changers discounted our bills by only a little over twenty-two per cent. Never have Bank of Noumea bonds been so dearly traded!
But business is business, and while we were unsuspectingly conversing, the chief associate of the bank was taking notes in the next room and dashing off a wire which reached Paris before we could transmit our own message from the Newcastle Telegraph Office to the Reuters agency. A most regrettable contretemps, since it had the effect of sending to France, along with news of our escape, a list of escapees’ names which was so garbled that their families could not begin to get confirmation of their identity until they had sent off a dozen or so telegrams of enquiry.
Our arrival was soon what is called in English “the day’s lion”. They say about a ship putting in, a roof blown off in a gale, or a locomotive exploding, “it’s today’s lion”. They also speak of “lionising”, meaning capturing public attention. So we eagerly lionised, since that is the term for it, our every step from then on being followed by an invitation. As deprived as we were of the barest necessities of life and depleted of pounds sterling, we could do no less than take lodgings in the best hotel in town, which is the Great Northern Hotel.
The commandant of the P.C.E. was the recipient of congratulations all round, which added to the flush of his visage by the minute. He had never imagined, when he undertook our liberation, that its happy success would create such a stir. Full of pride and joy at an act of generosity and courage whose significance he had not at first realised, not only would he not leave our side from now on, but he steadfastly refused to let us leave his. He linked arms with me and dragged me along through the streets, showing me off to all his acquaintances. Now, as the whole population was out-of-doors to welcome the provincial Governor, the aforesaid acquaintances had never been so numerous. Groups of people turned before one’s very eyes into hives of activity. And, each time, our story had to be told over again! After less than two hours ashore, we were already up to our thirty-second report.
However, we could not allow our lack of decent clothing to continue heaping dishonour upon Paris, our native city and the capital of supreme elegance. Although everything is sold at exorbitant prices in these new countries, where there is less merchandise than there is gold to pay for it, and although the unit of currency almost everywhere here is the twenty-five franc pound, we nonetheless felt obliged, even at the risk of bankruptcy, to withdraw sufficient funds from our nest-egg to buy Olivier Pain a proper pair of shoes.
In one of the arcades housing various types of shop selling books or linen or furs, he espied a shoemaker’s establishment which appeared to be well stocked and awaiting customers. He went in : the shop was empty, the counter unattended. He sat down, grew impatient and ended up banging on the floor with his famous army boots, which produced a cavernous noise. After a quarter hour of this castanet-like tapping, the crisp sound of a starched dress could be heard coming from the interior staircase that linked the shop to the living-quarters. A dark-eyed girl, who naturally seemed exquisitely beautiful to men who had spent three years cut off from society in a fortified enclosure, made her appearance on the bottom step.
“Miss,” said Olivier Pain, summoning up all the English he could muster, “I should like to try on a pair of boots.”
“That can be easily arranged, sir, but we shall have to wait until my master returns.”
“Will that take long?”
“I can’t tell you, sir; he left the day before yesterday for the goldfields. But if you are really anxious to speak with him, you can find him in the Blue Mountains district. It seems an excellent seam of gold has just been found there.”
Olivier Pain had no wish to venture into the blue yonder of those mountains, so he left still wearing his army boots. But it sums up the typical Australian : above all else, he is a seeker after gold – has been, is, and always will be. Any other profession he may adopt is temporary and aimed purely at diverting suspicion. What he is seeking in Australia is not social position but a vein of gold.
On leaving this highly peculiar shoemaker’s shop, we met up at the Great Northern Hotel with our companions, who were already deep in conference with the newspaper reporters of the region. We shook hands with Mr Bonnard, the proprietor and editor of the Australian Review, to thank him for having been so kind as to send us a copy of it from time to time (even though he was not acquainted with us) while we were condemned to our rock in New Caledonia – a place as lacking in news as it was in vegetation. Unfortunately, despatches from France were generally so distorted because of the six thousand leagues they had to travel along the wires of the transatlantic cable, that by the time they reached us they were veritable enigmas. Imagine our surprise when one day, sitting in our straw hut, we received the following telegram, couched in terms calculated to throw every deportee into a kind of daydream :
“M. Guizot has just proclaimed an amnesty.”
As Guizot could not possibly have proclaimed an amnesty unless he had been appointed President of the Grand Council of France, it was clear that the Count of Paris must have acceded to the throne. A few days later, we received an explanation of this misguided story : M. Guizot had merely declared, within the Protestant committee over which he presided, that an “armistice” currently existed between orthodox and liberal economists.
Cheering from the street interrupted our toasts. The townspeople, gathered along the shore, were welcoming the Governor of New South Wales as he sailed into the good town of Newcastle. He was travelling on the Kembla, a fifteen-hundred ton steamboat which came into the harbour at top speed. This steamer, which was considered the fastest in Australia, had entered into competition with the Coonambara, another steamboat of the same tonnage, and large bets had been placed on this steeplechase, in which the hurdles of Irish racecourses had been replaced by dangerous reefs.
If over-adventurous captains heat the steamers’ engines beyond their capacity, they are at risk of exploding, and this hazard had in fact been discussed, with unshakeable calm, by the punters the previous evening. Supposing the Kembla had blown up, then the Governor on board would have disappeared among the debris, and with that practical bent that never deserts the English, the name of Sir Hercules’ probable successor was already being suggested.
So the arrival of the colony’s leader, who had left Sydney, eighty miles distant, a few hours before, held just as much interest as the Paris Grand Prix. The Coonambara was beaten hollow, being a good hour away from the finishing line when the Kembla crossed the bar, to the frantic applause of ten thousand onlookers – applause which was all the more unanimous as everyone from the Queen’s representative to the ship’s stoker took part in it.
Sir Hercules Robinson, who had boldly punted on the steamer chosen by him for his journey, won a large sum of money and appeared unconscious of the danger to which his recklessness had exposed him.
The French Consular Agent in Newcastle had come to present his heartiest congratulations on our happy deliverance. This worthy chargé d’affaires combined the functions of State official and liquor merchant. Whenever his girded himself with his sash to receive a French national who was taking himself a wife under the protection of French law, once he had presented the couple with the marriage register he would always take the opportunity of recommending to them a “little domestic wine” he was sure they would enjoy. Before offering us a sample of his products, he proposed introducing us to the Governor, but we would have had to repeat the famous story for the thirty-third time. So we pleaded for a postponement, which we had some difficulty in obtaining.
The next morning, all the newspapers were full of stories about us. I have kept an article from The Newcastle Chronicle, from which I translate the following lines :
“Yesterday, the city was thrown into a state of some excitement by the arrival of the P.C.E. from New Caledonia, having on board six of the most prominent French State prisoners recently exiled to that colony.
It was widely noted that at the time of these men’s arrival all the vessels in the harbour were arrayed with a display of flags, as if to celebrate their return to freedom.”
We consumed a copious dinner, quite an ordinary event in these countries where there is an abundance of cattle and a bullock costs scarcely more than a gentleman’s long tie. After this dinner, to which we invited all those who had shaken our hands to mark their tender feelings towards us, we travelled with Captain Law at our head through the entire town, which was lit up by specially-erected lamps, and spent the rest of the evening leading what is called “the bar life”.
Bars are not even taverns, but common counters at which people have a bite to eat, washed down with a glass of whatever they fancy. These stopping-places, which in France would have given us a reputation for being habitués of the bal de la Reine-Blanche, neither infringe the proprieties in Australia nor detract from one’s good character. Members of Parliament come into them to chat about the country’s future and the bills being debated, without their prestige being in the least diminished.
Young women, almost invariably charming, serve the customers, whose familiarity always remains within strictly-observed bounds. Despite her continual contact with the public, a barmaid is on the same level of respectability as the most genteel of young ladies. If there were a slight difference to be discerned, it would be to the advantage of the former : being generally more attractive and more seductively displayed than the latter, they more easily end up making a lucrative marriage. Two Ministers in the Australian Parliament had in fact married barmaids from the bars at which they stopped on their way to the House, and this outcome had not elicited any comment. Between the legislators drinking and these pretty young women pouring their drinks, public opinion made no distinction.
In one of the bars, we admired a young woman of seventeen, of Swiss origin, whom we had seen riding by on horseback during the afternoon; from her distinguished appearance and elegance, we had assumed her to belong to the highest aristocracy of the region. Imagine our surprise that evening when we saw this princess, as in a scene from the opera Martha, drawing pint after pint of beer from a barrel, gracefully serving slices of ham to visitors who called her simply Kitty, showing her teeth in all their pearly whiteness whenever she laughed confidently at our jokes, which were perhaps not always in irreproachable taste.
The fact is that equality in that country is not merely something written into the Code by recalcitrant legislators, as it is in Europe. It has to do with the necessities of personal relations and it springs, as it were, from the very soil. Traditions of nobility, class privileges and feudal legends cannot exist on a continent which has been opened up for cultivation for scarcely a hundred years. The memory of the Crusades has left no trace in families where it is more important to take a husband or wife than to take the Cross. The axiom “Happy those peoples who have no history!” cannot be too often repeated. In fact the aristocracy of wealth, the only sort which is known here, can have but a purely material influence amongst people who are disreputable one day and wake up millionaires the next, only to fall back into a state close to destitution a few months later. The veneration that we feel, however reluctantly, for a major capitalist is unknown among the colonial people of Oceania. They admit the efficacy of wealth, but not its superiority. The poor man no more respects the rich man in Australia than the rich man despises the poor man.
Many fatalists are unable to find themselves out of doors wearing a new hat and being caught in a sudden shower, without complaining :
“These sorts of things only happen to me!”
Nonetheless, it was true that the mistake which was to mark our evening could only have happened to us. All the windows in town were open to the sea breeze; the sounds of pianos, their keys tinkling beneath the delicate touch of young “misses”, came wafting through the air towards us. (In countries that are still savage, the piano is the first step towards civilisation.) Barrel-organs, having been banished from the mother country, had crossed the seas and now sought noisy hospitality in her fairest colony. But both organs and spinets seemed to have conspired to play the same tunes. As soon as a phrase died away on one instrument, it was taken up by another. The music was cheerful and lively, though without much variety of texture.
“There are some delightful pieces among this suite of English airs,” said one of us. “Just listen to that waltz.”
“What?” replied Mr Bonnard, “You take that for an English tune?”
“What is it, then?”
“You must be joking! It’s the waltz from La Fille de Madame Angot.”
Washed up by the storms of life at the farthest end of the earth, we Frenchmen, we Parisians, in the midst of all the foreigners around us, were the only ones who had never before heard this music, the work of a fellow-countryman of ours. Why, the Aborigines themselves knew it by heart.
This episode led us to the observation that no glory is as enviable as that attaching to the musician. The success of the finest book cannot be compared, in terms of universality of distribution throughout the world, with that of an opera or love-song which achieves popularity. The Barber of Seville is sixty years old, and for sixty years not a day has gone by without it being played by thousands of fingers or emerging from a thousand throats. The fact is that music finds a place in every home without the need for examinations or diplomas. It enters every ear without distinction of education. Whoever has once acquired this special glory comes across it everywhere; he meets it at every street-corner, he bumps into it every step he takes; it comes to meet him, accompanies or pursues him. Even to the point at which, in the case of a work like La Fille de Madame Angot, one might add that it obsesses him.
Back in our hotel rooms after this explosion of Angotmania, we examined the state of our finances. It was quite simple : a void. If we paid the hotel bill, we would not be able to go to Sydney, the only town that offered us some hope of escaping from our predicament; but we could not leave for Sydney unless we had paid our account at the hotel.
A number of unscrupulous tourists are in the habit of leaving behind very heavy suitcases by way of payment; after their departure, it is discovered that the cases are full of pebbles gathered at the seashore. But even this dishonourable course of action would have been denied us, in the unthinkable eventuality of our having contemplated it, since we did not even own the indispensable suitcase. Shipwrecked as we were of our own free will, we had plunged into the waters of Noumea in the garb of expert swimmers. It was not so much a case of “poverty clad in genteel dress” as of “poverty clad in bathing suits”.
We decided that three of us escapees would stay in Newcastle as security, whilst the other three would travel to Sydney and send to the Great Northern Hotel the sum required in order to “redeem” their companions. Above all, we were determined to keep the promise we had made to Captain Law and obtain the ten thousand francs we owed him, even though that honest and cordial mariner had completely overlooked this commitment on our part. I knew that, in that respect, I could count on my friends in France; but if a letter takes two months to get there, a telegraph message costs four hundred francs to transmit. And we had at our disposal neither the two months nor the four hundred francs.
I boarded the Kembla, which was returning to Sydney that very night; its victorious propellor was already churning the water in impatience. The captain, first mate and also the steward of the P.C.E. showed the passengers to their cabins. We embraced one another on the steamer’s deck, and promised to send one another photographs, since photography – like music, of which I spoke above, and also like love – can be understood in any language.
Olivier Pain stayed in Newcastle, in charge of our imperceptibly small finances. But although something of a prisoner, he knew that those on their way to Sydney were working to ransom him, and he philosophically allowed himself to accept an invitation to visit a coal-mine the following day.
The train from Newcastle to Maitland picks up and sets down passengers at about fifteen stations, taking an hour and a half for the journey. The only sign that one has reached Maitland is that the train has stopped. The slowness of the railways is so extreme that one might almost think it deliberate.
Coal has such commercial value for the district that people economise on it in their personal use. Just as cobblers are always the worst-shod of people, so the worst heated may well be coal-merchants. After gold, which is mined throughout Australia, in New South Wales coal is the largest export and the most sought-after component of the economy. At the time when we were there, the most recent statistics relating to the wealth of the area quoted the following figures for the previous year :
Gold : 18,075,000 francs.
Coal shipped from Newcastle : 7,900,000 francs.
This huge output is due to the extreme ease of drilling in a soil where coal is almost always close to surface level.
Our friends who had been expecting a dizzying descent down mine-shafts of which Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth can give only a mild idea, were extremely surprised to find themselves walking straight into a ground-level tunnel which went right through the mountain, at the base of which a vein had been discovered reaching from one side right to the other. On leaving this tunnel, whose length increases daily as mining continues, they found themselves back in the open, only to enter another horizontal gallery shortly thereafter. This latter continued as far as the cliff-face overlooking the ocean, such that the mine’s output can be loaded through the hole in the rock directly onto the ships that are waiting to take it on board, without incurring any additional transport costs.
This simplification of operations, moreover, had been plain for us to see. As we approached Newcastle, even when we observed it from the ocean we were struck by the appearance of the coastline, which was marked by large black patches. On the other hand, approaching the coast is generally impossible because of the coral reefs which oblige ships to keep their distance and necessitate the concentration of coal-loading at the least dangerous points of access.
These outcrops are so common at ground level that men ploughing often come across them beneath the ploughshare, scattering them far and wide. We are in Australia and not Greece, where the wielding of a pickaxe is likely to damage the torso of a buried Venus or the shield of some anonymous Epaminondas. Nor are we in France, where the digging of a furrow may uncover old helmets that have lain buried since 1814, or the last cannonballs to have been fired at Montmirail.
Each of us takes his myths where he finds them. These sabre-hilts, parts of swords, Roman camps and other remnants of death, cause the European who comes across them to reflect on those who must have left them there. The colonist in Oceania is both less violent and more practical. Discoveries of a mineral order do not take his mind back to Bouvines, Agincourt or Poitiers : they simply remind him that coal sells for fifty francs a ton.
Let us not forget that we were travelling through a part of the world where a man’s importance is appraised like that of a ship, where each individual merely represents the cargo it has on board, and where every biography is summed up in a dialogue which runs as follows :
“What is he worth?”
“He’s worth ten thousand pounds sterling.”
In the exceptional conditions in which the coal-mines are worked, it is no exaggeration to say that one has only to bend down in order pick it up. One no longer has to deal with underground diggings that stretch into the unknown; with retaining walls, props and constructions of all kinds which are meant to guard against the caving-in of quarries but in fact cause the collapse of fortunes.
As if they were beneath the vaults of the catacombs, our friends suddenly found themselves proceeding along galleries that ran underground like the streets of some city suffering an eternal eclipse of the sun. Railway tracks are generally laid along the main thoroughfares, and the streets themselves are given their own names. One of them displayed on the wall to the left of its entrance a plaque reading Victoria Street. There is constant and frenzied bustle in these channels, which one might imagine to have been dug by prehistoric moles.
Never has Darwin’s theory of environment produced more striking results than the difference in customs, behaviour and even in type which are clearly observable between the coal miner and the gold miner. The former is a worker, the latter merely a gambler. Workers in the coal-mines rely entirely on their strong arms and their energy; the others merely take a punt on chance. Whereas the profession of one group is based on normal and more or less unfailing production, the fate of the other group is determined by the chance outcome of a game of trente et quarante.
The coal miners have brought with them from the Mother Country their love of cottages and a passion for comfort. Almost all of them married, they lead the regular life of the family man who comes home at the usual time each evening. They have set up libraries for their own use, established canteens and even founded newspapers to report on matters relating to their industry. The frenetic activity of the gold-digger, on the other hand, is comparable only in the ill-kempt style of his existence. There is no question for him of a household to keep, children to bring up, or a future to be provided for. The female population of a gold-diggings consists almost exclusively of four or five suspicious-looking creatures who – given the often large size of the male population – achieve a predominance in that place whose effect can easily be guessed at. All one hears of are knife-wounds suffered in their honour and migrants killing one another over them. On days when ore has been unearthed, indescribable dramas are played out, being best summed up in the phrase of a character from La Dame aux camélias:
“You speak to me fondly when I win.”
The unattached women of Australia do the “Goldfields season”, just as those on the European Continent used once to do the Baden or Homburg season.
It is not exactly on a whim or out of fondness for travel that these women venture into regions that are almost always uncultivated, where the lack of water, the pestilential fumes and the snakes would need a great deal of compensation. When I relate the story of my stay in San Francisco, I shall return to these bizarre scenes, in which a man will sometimes throw away in an orgy of spending lasting a few hours the fruit of three months’ hard labour and heroic privation. The fact is that, not only does gold fever lead to other fevers, but that these special kinds of hunter are more attached to the hunt than they are to the quarry. Finding gold is the main thing; after that, you spend it how you will.
It was in Maitland that we first saw, in all its astounding growth, the great Tasmanian gum-tree, better known by the name of Eucalyptus globulus. Protected by bark which can be peeled off like a bandage, its trunk thrusts itself out of the earth with the vigour and zest of a firework rocket. Only at the summit does the rocket open out into a canopy of dark green leaves, somewhat reminiscent of those of the olive tree. Although its circumference is often huge at the base, its height is normally so phenomenal that it still retains the appearance of an enormous artichoke gone to seed. It easily grows four or even five metres a year in that country, which almost makes one prepared to accept the claim made by the hero of a certain fantastic tale that he could actually see the grass grow.
M. Louis Figuier mentions some eucalypts growing to a hundred and fifty metres in height, in other words eight metres higher than the tallest pyramid, which rises to a hundred and forty-two metres. It is hard to imagine anything surpassing this; yet examples growing up to a hundred and sixty and even a hundred and sixty-five metres are by no means rare, and there is no more gripping spectacle than that of natives climbing, as a man climbs a pole, that is, pressing himself up against it, the length of those smooth trunks that sway in the wind like the masts of some gigantic ship.
Modern science attributes to this remarkable tree anti-febrile properties which I am not competent to dispute. There has been, and still is, in many quarters a proposal to plant eucalypts in the Roman campagna, the alluvial plains of the Sea of Azov and the African marshlands. I do not wish to discourage anyone, but it is impossible not to observe that the Australian inland, the native region of this great plant which one comes across at every step, is the home of a continual marsh-fever which very few travellers have been able to withstand. In 1860, Burke, Wills, King and Gray attempted to cross the Continent from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpenteria. Three of the four explorers died as a result of endemic illnesses which they contracted at the edge of swamps, accompanied, it is true, by a frightening dose of hardship and fatigue.
The Aborigines are fond of eucalyptus resin, which feeds them and – where drinking water is not available – also serves to slake their thirst. They dig a deep hole in the tree at the exact spot at which the trunk emerges from the soil, and it is through this artificially-produced ulcer that the sticky sap flows. They lie flat on their stomachs and drink from the tree as if from a stream. But, if the hole is not plugged after a certain time, one can see the life of the condemned plant ebbing away through this deep gash; its branches dry out like the limbs of someone dying of consumption, its variegated colours take on that onion-skin hue which is the mark of decay in plant-life just as white hair is in man. We were shown one of these giants that had been shockingly torn open. It seemed to be growing more and more wrinkled and straggling before our very eyes. At the slightest breeze, it quivered like an old man. And yet it still struggled and held on to life
“Like a wounded soldier determined to die on his feet”,
as Théophile Gautier has put it in a wonderful sonnet entitled The Pine of the Landes.
While we were in New Caledonia, we had attempted to plant a number of eucalypts around our straw hut, which was situated on the eastern slope of the mountain range that cuts the Ducos Peninsula in two. The seeds from which this impressive product grows are scarcely one-eighth the size of a millet seed. Never did anything rise so high from such lowly origins. We would have been keen to inspect for ourselves the rapid growth of our plantation, but we had so many other things to see to that we had no hesitation in abandoning our newly-sprung eucalypts to the care of Providence. Did they adapt to that country better than we ourselves had been able to? We are proud of having planted them, but as the reader can imagine we have no regrets about having seen so little of their development.
On leaving the mine, the escapees went to visit M. Terrier, a Frenchman who had been banished as a result of the Coup d’Etat. Since those happy days he had settled in Lochinvar near Maitland. M. and Mme Terrier received them cordially, the sincerity of their greeting being proved when they showed their guests my portrait displayed in the same frame as those of Gambetta and Ledru-Rollin. They offered their fellow-countrymen an excellent colonial wine made from grapes grown on the property. Although it originated from vine-stock that had been brought from the Bordeaux district, the Australian sun had lent it the warmth and bouquet of the best burgundies. Their host had also experimented with champagne-making, but that drink of heterogeneous ingredients, whose tricks are usually limited to sending the drinker’s cork flying up to the ceiling, loses its verve in the fiery tropics, so that out of ten thousand bottles M. Terrier was able to save only nine hundred at most.
Although the morals of the colonists, who are mainly Protestants, are generally refined, English Puritanism had a little surprise in store for us – one which might have provided less discreet men with the elements of a good vaudeville sketch. After visits to churches and the hospital, our friends were presented to the director of a boys’ boarding-school, who insisted on showing them everything down to the last penholder. They were taken to the dormitory, the refectory, the bathroom. Although the school consisted of only about fifteen pupils, it appeared to be thriving. But the headmaster’s tender care was conspicuously lavished on a fair-haired lad whom nothing in particular would have singled out had it not been for these special marks of attention.
“Toby, did you sleep well last night?”
“Toby, did you enjoy the pudding at lunch?”
“Toby, if you’re good, I’ll take you for a walk this evening.”
Then, able to restrain himself no longer, the headmaster drew Olivier Pain aside in a window-recess and confided in him as follows :
“Young Toby is a lad whom we value highly. You would never believe it, but four of the wealthiest property-owners in the town mysteriously come and see him at least once a week, and each of them pays me Toby’s entire boarding fee, requesting me to keep it a secret.”
“What about his mother?”
“She comes less often.”
“She is probably very busy. All the same, having her son’s boarding-school fees paid four times over, by four different friends, is something that couldn’t be bettered even in the heart of Paris.”
The P.C.E., which had taken us on board, belonged to the Montefiores, the biggest merchants in Sydney. Though full of admiration for the courage shown by Captain Law, they were too Israelitish not to work out straight away what its consequence would be in terms of their relations with the government in New Caledonia. So, without hesitation, they distantly imitated Abraham and sacrificed the skipper of their three-master.
Our deliverer received the notice of his dismissal without apparent emotion. Financial catastrophes are too frequent in this reckless society for a falling from favour to be of any more importance than a hand at cards. The director of the Argus, the largest newspaper in Melbourne, one day found himself abandoned by his editors and printing staff, all of them having gone off to the gold-mines. The very natural idea of making an announcement that the Argus would not appear next day did not even enter his head. He went to the printery, sat down in front of a deserted typesetting machine and put together the newspaper himself. In it, improvising with lead type, he related the misadventure which had obliged him to become a typographer on the spot.
The firm of Montefiore, in removing the captain from his command, pleaded the impossibility of his going ashore in a New Caledonian port from now on without running the risk of being arrested as chief perpetrator of an offence which would be all the more severely punished in France because of the annoyance caused to those who had allowed it to be committed.
Our friend fortunately did not have to reflect for long on the situation in which this deprivation of office placed him. He was known as the most skilful “old salt” in the region, and his bold stroke had just given a fresh boost to his popularity. A number of ship-owners came to him that very day to invite him to enter their service.
This commercial death-sentence went directly counter to its aim. The first journey undertaken on the P.C.E. by Captain Law’s replacement was unfortunately the last. Manned by an entirely new crew, since everyone down to the last sailor had been replaced, the ship probably went aground on a reef because of an error in handling. The fact is, as soon became certain, that she was lost with all hands.
If the same event had happened to us, our enemies would have been quick to attribute to Providence the entire honour of our being swallowed up by the sea. I see things, however, with less superstition and more logic. The P.C.E. had kept the sea for as long as she had a capable man in command, and she sank because Captain Law’s successor was an incompetent.
[The abbreviation R refers to Rochefort’s original text.]
Introduction Translation and Notes © 2002 Kenneth R. Dutton
Online Publication by Gionni di Gravio © 2002 University of Newcastle
I dedicate this final chapter to all those who, on my arrival in London, requested details of my escape which I dared not give them for fear of compromising a number of good people whom the slightest suspicion of complicity would have exposed to very serious danger.
Noumea in the 1870s
When I landed on New Caledonian soil after a hundred and twenty days at sea, it was already fourteen months since the frigate La Danaé had brought the first convoy of deportees there. Without instruments or tools of any kind, the Parisian workers who had been expelled to this place – a land more featureless, though less green, than the top of a billiard table – had nonetheless managed, using their bare hands, to build a number of dwellings out of tree branches and earth mixed with tufts of grass.
The house in which Olivier Pain and his companion awaited me was built in these inadequate conditions; but, being situated half-way up a hill, at the far end of the Bay of Numbo, it had the great advantage of isolation, thus allowing the three convicts to hatch their plans far from any inquisitive ears, as well as keeping their escape secret for longer after their departure.
The Deportees on Ducos Island
The three of us were classified as “big guns” among the deportees, as they say in the navy, and as a result were kept under heavy surveillance. The very day when I disembarked, despite the fact that I was exhausted after four never-ending months at sea spent in steerage where I was constantly ill, I was taken hold of by two guards and placed in the prison on the Peninsula, where I spent twenty-four hours lying with no mattress on a wooden plank – of island wood, which made it all the harder.
One of my fellow-deportees, having protested against this system of colonisation, was sent to prison just after me. The administration could not have done us a greater service. It was in our dungeon that the unshakeable resolve to escape at whatever risk first entered our heads, not leaving them until we ourselves had left. We tossed around several escape plans. The boldest was to have weapons sent to us secretly from Nouméa, then to equip ourselves with fishing tackle, nets and ledger lines, and to set off one fine night by way of the mainland, following the coastline of New Caledonia to the northern tip which is only twenty-five leagues from the New Hebrides. We would live on fish all along the way, trusting to our revolvers in the event of an attack by Kanaks and swimming past any gendarme posts that might be placed along the shore-line. Once we had reached the tip of the New Caledonian continent, we would buy a dugout canoe from a native and force him, if necessary, to take us to the New Hebrides – a country which, by the way, is inhabited by cannibals quite beyond redemption.
But this remarkably risky plan was to be adopted only in the event that we found it impossible to discover among the captains plying in and out of the port of Nouméa a man generous enough to take us on board his vessel clandestinely. The problem was how to track down such a rara avis and, secondly, how to make contact with him. We had noticed a certain fellow-feeling shown towards us by a very decent New Caledonian man, a fruiterer with whom we had struck up an acquaintance as a result of our appetite for somewhat more copious and varied victuals than the manna from on high provided by officialdom. I ventured to make overtures to him.
“I am expecting to receive from France,” I said to him one day, “the sum of fifteen thousand francs. But if the administration gets its hands on it, it will make sure that the money is not paid over to me, for fear that I might use it to bribe the prison guards. So I thought I might have it addressed to you. What do you think?”
“Why do you need fifteen thousand francs?” he asked. “You must be intending to escape.”
“I don’t deny it.”
He agreed quite heartily with my views and offered to deduct a commission of fifteen hundred francs from my bank-draft, money being the heart and soul of any escape, and to look for a determined mariner in Nouméa who would take it upon himself to carry out a triple abduction.
He had hardly embarked on his quest when we had a visit from an ordinary (non-political) deportee who had obtained permission to leave the Isle of Pines and come to live in Nouméa itself. We informed him of our scheme, and he promised to make enquiries on his part, while our friend would reconnoitre down at the harbour. It was he who was first to single out Captain Law; but, in order to convince him of the seriousness of our intentions, he obliged that good coast-sailor to accept in advance the money that would come from the discounted bank-draft, in return for guaranteeing the passage of the escapees who were entrusting themselves to his honesty. New Caledonia’s banks, being established, it seems, on very liberal principles, allowed our friend to have my signature honoured, even though being deprived of my civil and political rights stripped my promissory notes of all commercial value.
Captain Law having accepted the ten thousand francs proposed, eight thousand of them on my word of honour, it still remained to determine the means by which we would reach his ship which was stationed in the harbour showing English colours. For the three non-political deportees, the difficulty was not great since they lived in Nouméa; but for the rest of us, who lived three leagues away in a fortified compound, it was almost insurmountable. To travel along the coast would inevitably mean running head first into a guard-post. To take to the sea and risk three or four hours swimming among the coral reefs with which the bays are teeming and among the sharks that explore them, would result in all of us going under.
So it was vitally necessary that those living in Nouméa should stretch their devotion to duty to the point of coming by boat to meet those who were on the Ducos Peninsula. It was equally necessary that the point at which the first group picked up the second should be far enough away for the latter not to be spotted by the guards on their rounds while they awaited the assistance needed for their embarkation.
But what boat-owner would lend himself to such a scheme? Nothing could be more dangerous than to let a new party in on our plans; so we fixed on the idea of going out by night, without forewarning anyone, and untying one of the little boats moored to the harbour piles. One of our fellow-escapees, who was employed by a food-merchant and delivered provisions to the Ducos Peninsula every day, naturally chose the boat belonging to his employer, an excellent man by the name of Dusser, who was subsequently accused of helping to plan our escape. After several weeks in prison, he was violently expelled from the colony, even though he was completely innocent of any part in our actions. The worst thing that can happen to a man when a plot is being hatched around him, is not being in on it. Having taken no special precautions on the day when the can of worms – which he knows nothing about – is discovered, he is sure to be the first one arrested.
The P.C.E., our ship, was to weigh anchor on Friday the 20th of March, at seven in the morning; consequently, we had to go on board on the Thursday evening, with the prospect of spending the night down in the hold in mortal fear – in the literal sense, since it is probable that if they had been discovered there, not one of the six escapees would have got out alive. The three preceding days were spent by us in a state akin to sleepwalking. We might as well have walked round our thatched huts with a candle in our hand. Finally, on the Thursday morning, there arrived a triumphant letter, addressed by one of the Nouméa plotters to one of his accomplices :
I shall send you this evening the eight volumes you asked me for last week.”
In Kanak language, the note meant : tonight at eight o’clock is when you are to enter the water and make for the rock from which the boat will pick you up.
We had just finished reading this vitally important message when the food-merchant, of all people, good Dusser himself, as if hoist on his own petard, presented himself in our straw hut accompanied by two natives bent down by the weight of foodstuffs and fine wines. He had come to lunch with us and spend part of the day in our company. The rowing-boat that had brought him was the very one we were to take a few hours later. Once we had left, it would have been hard not to have found him “guilty in fact and law” of having supervised our departure. We were unintentionally to have at his expense, not so much a joke as a trip around the world.
In the midst of our meal, which was a very happy one, a dreadful fear came over us. The sky was growing darker and the sea was starting to run high. If M. Dusser decided that, in view of the danger of returning to Nouméa, he would spend the night on the Peninsula, what would become of us? We would not have been able to leave him when the agreed time arrived, and our friends would not have found his boat in the harbour. It was appalling. Fortunately, the weather grew calmer and he was able to get back onto his boat. As the reader can imagine, we were loath to detain him. He bade us farewell, leaving with us a number of still-unopened bottles, and we went with him down to the shore, to be certain that he would get back home.
There was a deportee, more skilful in the culinary art than ourselves, who came every morning to prepare the day’s meals for us. It was essential to keep him away, since we could not let him benefit from our own good fortune. We invented the pretext of being invited to spend the next day in a hut some distance away, so that “his services would not be required”. We even took our Machiavellian ruse so far as to offer him the bottles that had not been broached, in the unpardonable hope that a few libations might prolong the sleep of this poor companion of ours, who for the last two years had had nothing but brackish water to drink. Then, without any particular show of emotion, we took our leave of those of our fellow-prisoners who had taken part in that morning’s banquet; after which, in order to avoid any further visitations, we left our hut and took refuge amongst the tall grass on the mountain.
At half-past seven every evening, a loud cannon-shot announced the closure of the military canteens. This precaution on the colonial government’s part was the exact signal we had agreed upon. Evening was falling as fast as a stage-curtain. The storm, which had held off since that morning, decided to break. A pitch-black night and no indiscreet appearance of the moon to be feared. We went back to our hut for our final preparations and, feeling our way around, since we feared that to light a lamp might attract a visit from one of our neighbours, we took off our clothes and replaced them with bathing costumes. All the possessions we had brought from Europe were left behind for the guards.
The sea, for which we were heading, was about two hundred and fifty metres from where we lived. We entered the water, having no difficulty in getting over the prison wall which reached down to the shore-line. A guard was on sentry duty, but the lapping of the water masked the splashing of our three bodies. A little further along the route of the guards’ rounds, three sentries were walking and chatting. We remained motionless for a moment, not even daring to breathe. We were unable to hear what the men were saying, but in any case our own silence was far more eloquent.
This danger having been overcome, we struck out to sea and, after what seemed like two hours, we reached the rock which was at that time almost completely covered by the high tide. All three of us had gashed ourselves on the sharp edges of rocks. Olivier Pain, in particular, had quite bad cuts to his legs, of which he remained unaware until later. For the moment, we were standing on this volcanic outcrop, peering out into the darkness and evaluating the sound of any wave that might have been the noise of men rowing. After thirty minutes of more and more desperate waiting, one of the lights shining on Nou Island disappeared as if hidden by something opaque, then it re-appeared, and soon afterwards the slap of a pair of oars on water could be heard. “It’s the boat,” I couldn’t help shouting – unwisely, as it might have been one of the prison boats on its rounds.
But it was the rescue boat. Olivier Pain jumped into the water and swam out towards our friends so as to indicate our position to them. We followed, and once hoisted aboard the whaler, we threw away our bathing costumes and put on the clothes that had been brought for us. We thought ourselves safe, or nearly so, but when we entered Nouméa harbour and had started looking for the English three-master, we saw coming towards us a craft manned by a number of individuals who seemed highly intoxicated and were laughing loudly. Instead of attempting to avoid them, we steered a course as though we were aiming directly at them. Perhaps they were guards meant to be on watch and anxious to avoid any encounters, as they turned the rudder so they could not be recognised. They missed a wonderful opportunity for an arrest which would have let them off any punishment their escapade might have brought.
After some time spent looking for the P.C.E. among the ships lying at anchor, we eventually found her. We tied the boat to her, and in a few strides we were all at the top of the ladder. Our arrival took place during a howling storm, in pouring rain, and with our clothes clinging to our bodies. Captain Law, who was fond of staying out late in the cafés of Nouméa, was not on board, even though we could hear midnight striking from the clocks in the town. The only crewman who was not yet asleep was the cook, whom this nocturnal invasion took greatly by surprise.
“What do you want?” he asked in startled English.
“We want to see Captain Law,” answered the only one of the six escapees who had some smattering of that tricky language.
“He’s on land.”
“When will he be back?”
“I don’t know. But at seven tomorrow morning we’re heading for Australia.”
“We’ve known that for the last three days.”
“Then you had better leave the ship if you don’t want to be taken with us.”
“Thank you for your excellent advice, but we won’t be following it.”
Law arrived while this conversation was taking place. He sent the cook off to bed and, once alone with us, shook hands affectionately with us. He had mentioned nothing to his sailors for fear of gossip. The plan was that we would go deep down into the hold and hide as best we could beneath coils of rope. Only when we were on the high seas would we emerge from this secret dungeon. We were standing gesticulating on the deck listening to the captain’s instructions, when he suddenly put a finger to his lips. “Sh!” he said, “don’t let yourselves be heard speaking French here. I’m tied up next to a French man-o’war, la Vire, which is guarding the harbour. If the officer on watch heard you, he might wonder why you are on my ship, and then all would be lost.”
We disappeared into our hiding-place where, despite our anxiety – by now, our escape from the Ducos Peninsula might well have been detected – we managed to sleep thanks to the fatigue brought on by the evening’s exertions. At seven the next morning, we were awakened by the sound of the anchor being raised. But the previous night’s storm had given way to a dead calm. We could hear the pilot who was to guide us as far as the reefs shouting impatiently at the captain, telling him repeatedly that it was impossible to get through the harbour channels, that he should take in the sails and defer his departure to the next day. We were beginning to blanch. To heighten our anxiety even further, every five minutes a little piece of paper would be dropped through the trapdoor leading down to our refuge. These would read as follows :
“Not a breath of air; we have to wait.”
“I’m insisting on leaving, but the pilot has ordered me to give up any attempt at going out via the normal channel.”
And then :
“Nothing new to report.”
And later :
“We have decided to leave via the Boulari channel. At the moment we are passing the Ducos Peninsula, with the wind behind us. The breeze is picking up.”
These pencilled words threw us into a state of agitation which was at once delightful and cruel. To be sailing a matter of metres from our fortified compound, so close to our former guards who had perhaps just discovered our escape and who could have given the ship, which at that moment was deep inside French waters, orders to stop! But we kept sailing on. After a further hour of increasing hope, we could hear the footsteps of the pilot leaving the ship to get back into his boat. At last, a final note – and we had never received a more delightful one – came fluttering down to land at our feet. It bore these glorious words :
“We have passed the reefs; you can come up on deck.”
Our friend Captain law feigned great astonishment on seeing us emerge from his ship’s hold. The sailors, in turn, pretended to believe in their captain’s astonishment; and from Nouméa to Australia, in a seven-day crossing, all was for the best in the most successful of escapes.
Introduction Translation and Notes © 2002 Kenneth R. Dutton
Online Publication by Gionni di Gravio © 2002 University of Newcastle
The Newcastle Chronicle
Saturday, March 28, 1874
ESCAPE OF SIX STATE PRISONERSFROM NEW CALEDONIA
Yesterday, the city was thrown into a state of some excitement by the arrival of the P.C.E. from New Caledonia, having on board six of the most prominent French State prisoners recently exiled to that colony.
The name of Henri Rochefort was in itself enough to cause excitement, on account of the important part he had taken in effecting the overthrow of the French Empire, and the position he occupied in the Government, which existed in Paris during the time it was ruled by the Commune.
How the prisoners escaped and got on board we are not informed; Captain Law does not appear to know how they got on board; but, once there, and he at sea, he had only to pursue his voyage, and an excellent one he had, having made the passage from Noumea in six days. It seemed as if the elements were in sympathy with these men, who, as their offences are only political, are free on British territory; and the people of Newcastle were quite as ready to accord them a hearty welcome, as was England to accord the perpetrator of the 2nd of December massacre a welcome, when driven from his Imperial throne in 1870. England asks no question as to the merits of the political differences that caused men who were in power to seek asylum on her soil. It is enough for her that men struggle for freedom – or what they may regard as their political rights – flee to her for refuge, and the protection of her powerful arm will be at once thrown around them.
The following are the names :
Henri Rochefort, journalist and member of the first Provisional Government.
Pascal Grousset, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Olivier Pain, Secretaire-General.
Francis Jourde, Minister of Finance.
Achille Bailliere, Aide de Camp to General Rossel.
Charles Bostiere Grandhille, Commandant de Bataillon.
It was somewhat singular that these men should arrive while all the vessels in the harbour were arrayed with a display of flags in honour of his Excellency the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, who was expected hourly at the time.
H. Rochefort and two of his compatriots left by the Kembla, last night, for Sydney.
. Sic. His name was actually Jean-François-Paschal Grousset.
Introduction Translation and Notes © 2002 Kenneth R. Dutton
Online Publication by Gionni di Gravio © 2002 University of Newcastle
The Newcastle Chronicle
Tuesday, March 31, 1874
THE ESCAPED FRENCH PRISONERS
M. Henri Rochefort, M. Pascal Grousset and M. Francis Jourde – three of the six State prisoners that escaped by the P.C.E. which arrived here on Friday from New Caledonia – arrived safely in Sydney, on Saturday morning. They were congratulated during the day by several of their countrymen, who waited upon them at the Hotel de France, corner of King and George streets. The other three, namely M. Olivier Pain, M. Achille Bailliere and M. Cavan Grant Achille [sic] still remain at Newcastle, where they will remain until remittances are received from Paris. They visited Maitland on Saturday and returned yesterday morning. M. Rochefort and his two friends that accompanied him to Sydney, will proceed by the first opportunity to London, where they will take up their quarters, and, assisted by others, will act as counsel of advice to M. Gambetta and the members of that section of French politicians who have not felt it prudent to take any very active part hitherto without such counsel. For this reason, it was not considered prudent that any other than a passive resistance should be offered until these arrangements could be offered [sic]. But on their arrival in London the plan to be adopted will be greatly influenced by the course the existing Government may take.
There are in New Caledonia, at the present time, 3600 Communist prisoners – 2800 are in the island of Ducos, and about 800 at Noumea. Of these, only about ten or twelve held distinguished positions in the Commune, and for whose liberation measures have been taken and funds raised. The expense attending the escape of the six prisoners that reached Newcastle is, we are informed, about £1000. The Government in New Caledonia finds the control and custody of these men a very perplexing business. Held as State Prisoners, they refuse to work, preferring to support themselves from their own private resources. Their custody is more irksome to the French Government than would be their liberation, while it is a source of irritation to the French people to have these men exiled for crimes which are as chargeable on M. Thiers, Marshall Mac Mahon and those who took part in the Government that superseded the Empire, as in these men. The escaped prisoners say that their objects and acts are greatly misrepresented. They assert that when the Republic was proclaimed and MM. Thiers and Mac Mahon accepted the position they took under the revolution, the people of Paris demanded as the compliment of that change, the right of corporate Government for the City of Paris, and the other cities of France, like our own City Councils such as had been enjoyed previous to the setting up of the Empire, and that it was when the provisional Government showed the same disposition as the Empire to act on the principle of centralization that recourse was had to arms and that the hostages were taken only with a view to stop the effusion of blood by Mac Mahon’s soldiery. The murder of the Archbishop of Paris with the others when shot, as well as the acts of vandalism which were committed when the public buildings were destroyed, was the work of an infuriated mob. They have called at our office to repudiate the imputations that Communes entertained the principles and objects imputed to that body. They are all men of property and always entertained a respect for property and the maintenance of society, with all the rights enjoyed by private individuals in civilized society.
Introduction Translation and Notes © 2002 Kenneth R. Dutton
Online Publication by Gionni di Gravio © 2002 University of Newcastle
The Newcastle Chronicle
Thursday, April 2, 1874
The escape of the six most distinguished Communist prisoners from New Caledonia has created a sensation in this colony rarely felt; but it is trifling when compared to what it must be in Paris, and throughout France – if not throughout all Europe. Men often escape in larger numbers from custody, and there is nothing thought about the matter. It is not an uncommon occurrence for prisoners to conceal themselves until the fit moment arrives when they can elude the vigilance of the guards, and get away, and nothing is thought about it afterwards. If the absconders are afterwards arrested, good and well; and if they get clean away, and are heard of no more, nobody cares one straw. It is not so, however, in this case, because the men who are now enjoying the protection of British law represent principles which may be regarded as either suppressed or in the ascendant, just as may be seen in the circumstances of the leaders that uphold them. It is this reflection that gives rise to the excitement which their escape from captivity has produced. It is not so much what these men have done, but what they will yet be able to accomplish in the political struggles that are now taking place in France, that causes the excitement.
The history of the third Revolution is not yet written; there are several events awaiting the pen of the future historian to depict. At least, this is evident from the conduct of these men, on their arrival at this port from New Caledonia. They earnestly desired that the fact of their escape should be communicated, by Reuter’s telegrams, to Europe. They have the fullest confidence that, while a large proportion of the population in Paris, and throughout France, would hail the event with frantic delight, the Government, and those to whom they were formerly political opponents, will be in a state of consternation not easily described, and they feel anxious to learn how the news of their escape will be received – not that they have any doubt as to the effect the intelligence will produce, but that they may have some compensation for their captivity in the alarm which their escape will produce among their enemies. Now, this expectation on their part seems to be justified, from the funds supplied to enable them to escape, and to enable them to travel on such a scale of respectability. To us, it appears as if the Government of France would be more likely to hail with satisfaction the escape of these men, if their designs have a tendency to loosen the bonds of society, and as the well disposed through the French nation would then be disposed to rally round the Government, in support of law and order, and influence those who are anxious to maintain the Republic to forego much of the freedom they are desirous of obtaining, rather than have the industry of the country once more paralysed by internal disorder. It is impossible, at this distance, to say what the state of public feeling is in France. It is a strange country, and the politics of its public men are still stranger. What direction the feelings of the people are taking during the calm that has prevailed during the past year, it is difficult for Englishmen to conjecture. But we rather suspect the sections with whom Rochefort and his companions are in league have been very busy, and their dispersion, on the taking of Paris by the troops sent to overthrow the Commune, has tended to disseminate the views of that party throughout the nation; and such is the fickleness of the people in that country, that the side which appeared to display most intellectual activity is the one the crowd will follow.
We cannot wonder at the present state of things there. From the time of Francis I, the rulers of that country have never scrupled to violate their most solemn engagements, and those who followed the overthrow of the Bourbons were, without exception, as perfidious as any that were before them. It was this distrust, this want of confidence in those that held the reins of Government during the period of the first revolution that led to the terrible acts that characterised that Reign of Terror. Napoleon the 1st violated his oath to the nation and every treaty with the other European Powers that stood in the way of his ambition. Charles X, who made such promises about toleration to the British Government, showed himself as faithless as his ancestors. His successor, Louis Phillippe [sic], after he appeared established on the throne, astonished Europe by his intrigues in reference to the Spanish marriage, by which he sought to disturb the balance of power in Europe, and gratify the ambition of his family. Then we have his successor, Louis Napoleon, who shamefully violated his oath to maintain the Constitution under which he was elected President. On being accused of entertaining a design of acting the same part as his uncle, he said to the assembled deputation, “You, who made the Constitution, can unmake it or amend it; but as for me, the oath I have taken obliges me to support it unimpaired.” The coup d’etat of the 2nd December 1851, showed how the elect of France observed that oath. Again, when his Government was overthrown, in 1873, while himself lay a prisoner in the hands of the Prussians, M. Thiers was placed at the head of affairs, and the course he pursued was one well calculated to excite suspicion, not only among the Parisians that placed him at the head of the nation, but even Europe felt some doubt as to the course he was about to take. Hence the setting up of the Commune, which, for ought we know, may or may not be as perfidious a crew as ever existed. There is, however, one man who, whatever his errors may be, will not stoop to dissimulation, in order to gratify his long-cherished desire. We allude to the Comte de Chambord. But his supporters are not so scrupulous. If there be any dissatisfaction with him, it is because he will not dissemble.
The instability of the French people is owing to the absence of high principle that has influenced the people of Great Britain and Germany for the last 300 years. England had its revolutions, but they were entirely owing to the perfidious dispositions of the two monarchs under whom they took place; and these would probably have acted very differently had they not been influenced at the time by the French Court. But the people, being guided by sentiments very different from those that obtained in France, knew how to use their power and secured a settled Constitution, which is the envy of the world, and places her first among the nations. The French are a noble people – chivalrous, intellectual and brave – but we fear there is no repose for the nation until those principles which have ever been cherished by Englishmen and which have made England what it is, be embraced by the French people, as the guide of their social and political conduct.
Introduction Translation and Notes © 2002 Kenneth R. Dutton
Online Publication by Gionni di Gravio © 2002 University of Newcastle