Narcisse Pelletier: The French Boy Who Lived 17 Years With The Aboriginals

Jul 9, 2024 1 comments

On April 11, 1875, a pearling schooner named John Bell anchored off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The captain, Joseph Frazer, sent some of his men ashore to find water. Upon landing, they encountered a group of Aborigines and noticed a white man among them. Believing the man was being held against his will, they reported the situation to the captain.

Captain Frazer quickly organized a rescue. He sent his men back to barter with the natives, offering valuable goods in exchange for the white man. The natives accepted the trade and released the man. Frazer took him aboard and transported him to the Government outpost at Somerset, located at the tip of Cape York. Although the man did not understand English, he spoke some broken French, and the sailors learned his name was Narcisse Pelletier.

Portrait of Narcisse Pelletier published in L'Univers illustré, 14 August 1875.

Pelletier stayed at Somerset for about two weeks before boarding the steamer Brisbane to Sydney. During this time, he spoke little. However, during the journey south, he became friends with Lt. John Ottley, a British Indian Army Officer of the Royal Engineers. Using his limited schoolboy French, Ottley persuaded Pelletier to share his remarkable story.

Narcisse Pelletier, the son of a shoemaker, was born in 1844 in Saint Gilles, near Bordeaux. When he was only 14 years old, Pelletier departed from Marseilles aboard the ill-fated vessel, the Saint-Paul, as a cabin boy. The ship had a cargo of wine, which was delivered at Bombay, and the journey was continued eastward towards Hong Kong where some 350 Chinese laborers were picked up to work in the Australian goldfields.

Perhaps due to the sudden increase in passengers, or perhaps due to poor planning, provisions began to run low. To save time, Captain Emmanuel Pinard decided to cut across the Louisiade Archipelago rather than going around the Solomon Islands. This route was shorter but fraught with peril, as it was filled with dangerous reefs. The situation worsened with bad weather and heavy mist, making the journey even more treacherous. While threading through the reef-laden waters, the Saint-Paul struck a coral reef near Rossel Island and was completely wrecked. The crew and passengers managed to reach a small, waterless island about a kilometer from the wreck.

A party was sent to Rossel Island to search for water, but they were attacked by natives, resulting in some men being killed or taken prisoner. Pelletier himself narrowly escaped death after receiving a violent blow to the head from a stone. With their attempts to find water on Rossel Island failing, the captain and his crew boarded a longboat during the night, abandoning the Chinese laborers to their fate. The cabin boy, Pelletier, was not part of the crew's escape plan, but having overheard their discussions, he managed to jump into the boat as they were leaving.

Photo of Narcisse Pelletier taken in 1875 after his rescue.

Pelletier later claimed that the decision to abandon the Chinese was made because the crew believed it was their best chance of survival. This account differed from Captain Pinard’s version, in which he insisted that he had gone in search of help, leaving most of the provisions and firearms with the Chinese. Unfortunately, most of those stranded would be dead within a few months, not due to the harsh elements but because they were killed and eaten by cannibals. The gruesome account of a Chinese man who was rescued by a passing ship four months after their marooning was published in the Freeman's Journal in January 1859 and widely reported in Australian newspapers.

Pelletier and the men faced severe hardship as they drifted in their open boat. Without fire, they survived on uncooked flour and a few raw birds they managed to catch when the birds flew too close to the boat. About three or four days before reaching land, they also ran out of fresh water. Eventually, after approximately two weeks at sea and a journey of 1,200 kilometers, they landed on the Australian mainland near Cape Direction.

The men immediately set off in search of food and water, with a weak and malnourished Pelletier trailing behind. According to Pelletier, the first water hole they found was so small that by the time everyone else had drunk their fill, there was none left for him. Now half-dead from hunger and thirst and suffering from a lacerated foot, Pelletier was told to stay and rest while the water hole refilled. The men promised to return for him after searching for fruit. The next morning, Pelletier discovered to his dismay that he had been marooned—the longboat and the men were gone.

More castaway stories:
Leendert Hasenbosch: The Gay Soldier Who Was Marooned on a Deserted Island
The Mysterious Jerome of Sandy Cove
Philip Ashton
The Slaves of Tromelin Island

Pelletier was eventually discovered by a local Aboriginal clan known as the Ohantaala. They took him in, fed him, and nursed him back to health. A man named Maademan adopted him as his son and gave him a new name, 'Amglo'. For a long time, Pelletier missed his family and longed to return to France. However, as the years passed, these longings faded, replaced by a deep affection for his adopted family.

By the time he was 15, Amglo was fluent in the language and customs of the Ohantaala. The Aboriginal people of Cape York did not build houses; although they sometimes constructed simple shelters, they mostly slept out in the open, completely naked at all times, regardless of the weather. They did not farm or grow food, nor did they keep livestock. Each day, they hunted, fished, and gathered whatever they needed for that day and, at most, the following day. Amglo became skilled in using spears to catch fish. He would stand in shallow water and spear fish with sharp-tipped, barbed spears or go out to sea in an outrigger canoe to hunt for larger fish, turtles, and dugongs.

Fearing that Pelletier might try to escape, the natives initially kept him hidden whenever European vessels came ashore. In 1860, two years after Pelletier began living with the Aboriginals, John MacGillivray, a naturalist traveling on the Julia Percy, almost discovered Pelletier while visiting Amglo’s tribe. MacGillivray wrote, “One man was light enough to have been a half-caste, but he shunned observation, and got out of the way when I wished to examine him closely.”

Photograph of Narcisse Pelletier showing his initiation scars and piercings.

Pelletier remained with the Ohantaala for seventeen years, fully assimilating into their social group and undergoing many of the initiation rites reserved for adult men within the tribe. He married a local woman and fathered several children.

When Pelletier was discovered by the crew of the John Bell in April 1875, he was found stark naked, like the rest of the tribe. His body was tanned to a rich red color from the sun, his chest adorned with ceremonial scars, and the lobe of his right ear was ornamented with a piece of wood.

Pelletier said he did not want to leave his Aboriginal family and only did so because he feared the sailors would shoot him if he did not comply. During his first two weeks in Somerset, he was reportedly restless, "sitting like a bird on a rail watching everyone in a frightened way."

After what he insisted was a kidnapping rather than a rescue, Pelletier returned to France and reconciled with his family. He was warmly welcomed by his hometown and initially offered a job in a traveling show, which he refused upon learning he was to be displayed as "the huge Anglo-Australian giant." Instead, he found work as a lighthouse keeper near Saint-Nazaire and married a few years later. Pelletier never returned to Australia and passed away on September 28, 1894, at the age of 50.

# Narcisse Pelletier: An Extraordinary Tale of Survival, Tales from the Quarterdeck
# The Narrative of Narcisse Pelletier, The Brisbane Courier, 24 May 1875
# From French boy to Aboriginal man: the story of Narcisse Pelletier, Tales from the Northern Frontier


  1. "[Pelletier] was taken in by the Kawadji/Pama Malngkana, with linguistic and other evidence pointing to the area of the Uutaalnganu." - Wikipedia

    The tribe Pelletier was with apparently still exists today. Also he had no children after returning to France, so his only descendants are in Australia.


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