Etienne Bottineau And The Lost Art of Nauscopie

Sep 16, 2020 0 comments

Etienne Bottineau was a sailor and an employee of the French East India Company who possessed a remarkable skill. Bottineau could detect ships located beyond the horizon hundreds of miles from the coast and invisible to the eye. He would baffle anybody including his superiors by predicting the arrival of these yet-to-be-seen fleets up to four days in advance, and even correctly estimate the number of ships in the fleet.

One particularly famous anecdote involving Bottineau’s almost supernatural gift occurred during the American Revolutionary War. In 1782, Bottineau informed François de Souillac, the Governor General of the islands of Mauritius and Bourbon, that a fleet of eleven vessels were approaching Port Louis, Mauritius. Fearing an attack from the British, de Souillac hurriedly dispatched a warship to counterattack. Shortly after the warship left, Bottineau informed the governor that the danger had passed as the fleet had altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, the warship returned and confirmed Bottineau's predictions in every way possible—the presence of the fleet, their position and direction. The only error that Bottineau made was the fleet’s perceived intention. They fleet was not coming to attack Mauritius, but were British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

ship in the horizon

A large cargo ship in the distant horizon. In Bottineau’s time, he would have predicted the ship’s arrival well before it appeared in the horizon. Photo: Wendy Townrow/

Between 1778 and 1882, Bottineau made as many as 575 prediction for Governor de Souillac, many of them four days before they became visible.

“However incredible this discovery may appear, myself and a great many officers, naval and military, must bear testimony to the announcements made by M. Bottineau,” de Souillac wrote in a letter to Marechal de Castries, the minister of marine affairs. He continued: “We cannot treat him as an impostor, or as a visionary. We have had ocular demonstration for so many years, and in no instance has any vessel reached the island, the approach of which he had not predicted; those which did approach but did not touch the island, were in most cases proved to be foreign vessels.”

Etienne Bottineau was born in 1738 in the former commune of Champtoceaux in western France, and grew up in Nantes, where his fascination with the sea developed. At fifteen, he went on board a trading vessel, then on the ships of the Royal Navy and finally in those of the French East India Company. Bottineau began to observe the atmosphere around this time.

In 1762, Bottineau wrote:

It appeared to me that a vessel approaching land must produce a certain effect upon the atmosphere, and cause the approach to be discovered by a practised eye even before the vessel itself was visible. After making many observations, I thought I could discover a particular appearance before the vessel came in sight: sometimes I was right, but more frequently wrong; so that at the time I gave up all hope of success. In 1764, I was appointed to a situation in the Île de France: while there, having much leisure time, I again betook myself of my favorite observations. Here the advantages I possessed were much greater than before. First, the clear sky and pure atmosphere, at certain periods of the day, were favorable to my studies, and as fewer vessels came to the island, I was less liable to error than was the case off the coast of France, where vessels are continually passing, although the indications that I allude to may have been witnessed by me. I had not been six months upon the island when I became confident that my discovery was certain.

Bottineau called this newly discovered “science” nauscopie or nauscopy.

Bottineau frequently placed bets against his fellow sailors and naval officers, wagering that a vessel would arrive at a certain time, several days before she actually appeared above the horizon. He was rarely wrong. The officers attributed his success to sharp vision, even though they themselves used telescopes to scan the horizon and Bottineau never seemed to use one. It puzzled them immensely.

fata morgana

The phenomenon of Fata morgana could be a possible explanation to Bottineau’s wizardry. In this engraving, dated 1870, a fata morgana is depicted appearing off the coast of Mauritius. Photo: Yan' Dargent/Wikimedia Commons

After fooling around for years in Isle de France (now Mauritius), Bottineau decided to act, and in 1780, he wrote to the minister of marine affairs in France, Marechal de Castries, offering himself for service. Castries was skeptical, so he wrote to the governor François de Souillac instructing him to keep a record of all of Bottineau’s predictions for the next two years. It was in response to this request from the minister that François de Souillac wrote a detailed report to de Castries, attesting the authenticity of Bottineau’s uncanny ability.

At one point, the governor offered Bottineau 10,000 livres and a further pension of 1,200 livres a year to disclose his secret, but Bottineau declined, believing he could do much better.

In 1784, Bottineau went to Paris to try his luck, but was only met with ridicule. Marechal de Castries refused to offer him audience, and Abbé Fontenay, editor of Mercure de France, suggested that what Bottineau was seeing was not “ships at sea, but castles in the air”. Bottineau returned to Isle de France disappointed, before moving to India, where he died an obscure death in 1802.

Bottineau never revealed his secrets, although he did try to explain in vague terms how his technique worked. He wrote:

The very moment I discovered that a vessel at sea was always accompanied by a mass of vapours that preceded it, it was not difficult for me to conceive that several vessels being together, the mass must necessarily be increased and modified in a different manner. This circumstance infallibly occurs; each vessel produces the same phenomenon; the phenomena collect, without mixing with each other. From these individual pictures a general picture is composed, exhibiting the features appertaining to each vessel. There is scarcely a seaman who has not frequently observed this particular state of the horizon; but it has always been attributed to the whimsical freaks of nature, the necessary effect of capricious winds, and the lightness of the clouds without ever suspecting that there could be the slightest connexion between these appearances in the atmosphere and floating substances at a distance.

Did Bottineau actually see something that others did not? Or was he a highly successful fraudster? Whatever it was, Bottineau wasn’t the only one who practiced it. Twenty five years after Bottineau left Isle de France, there appeared an old Frenchman named Feilaffe, who began hanging around the harbor master’s office in Port Louis. Every morning, he made it his business to go down to the harbor and announce the approach of ships before they came within telescopic sight. It was said that Feilaffe rarely made a mistake, and in the cases where he clearly did, Feilaffe claimed, just like Bottineau did, that the ships had passed. Feilaffe never tried to profit from his skills nor made much fuss about his powers, but apparently he did try to teach one of his pupils, a lady, the science of nauscopie without success. Perhaps it was the lack of tutoring skill on the part of Mr. Feilaffe, or perhaps it was her own stupidity, for which Feilaffe’s lady disciple failed to pick up the craft, or perhaps because there was no science to teach at all.

Port Louis, Mauritius

The modern Port Louis, Mauritius. Photo: byvalet/

Nauscopie continued to aroused interest, mostly in Great Britain rather than Bottineau’s home country, until the middle of the 20th century. The Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster mentioned him in 1832 as “the wizard beacon-keeper of the Isle of France,” who he believed “must have derived his power from a diligent observation of the phenomena of nature.” Jean-Paul Marat, the French political theorist and scientist, also mentioned him with some skepticism but wondered, in view of the numerous testimonies in his favor, whether French authorities and scientists had neglected to study his technique. As late as 1928, Bottineau found a sympathizer in the former British officer of the Royal Navy, Rupert Gould, who wrote:

there can be little doubt that Bottineau was no charlatan–that he had made a discovery which would be of some interest even in these days of W/T , and must, in his own day, have been of much greater importance.

# Mike Dash, Naval Gazing: The Enigma of Étienne Bottineau,
# E. Littell, Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, Volume 23,
# Eneas Sweetland Dallas, Once a Week,
# J. Gregory Dill, The lost art of Nauscopie,
# Wikipedia,Étienne_Bottineau


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