• New Caledonia – Part One


    The door swung open into the night with a crash.  A tall silk top hat moved right and left, as the man who wore it cautiously looked out onto the street. He stumbled across the stone stoop, lost his balance, and then sprawled flat onto the wet cobblestones.

    Grasping his walking stick with a curse, he flung his red-lined black cloak over his shoulders and picked up the small bag at his knees; then he got his feet underneath him, finally leaning against the wall across from the door.  It was so dark he couldn’t see his boots, but in the distance there was a small gas lamp flickering at the end of the long alleyway.

    He gingerly slid forward, one foot at a time, his right hand on the brick wall, his left clutching the end of his walking stick—the brass head wet and sticky to the touch.  Stopping, he turned and listened, but no sound came from the opening behind him.  Down the alleyway he could see what looked like a pile of rags or tattered clothes under the faint light.  As he slowly stepped forward, a face of horror rose from the rag pile.  It may have been a woman, but the specter was so frightening that he wasn’t sure – slits for eyes, nose partially eaten away and thin lips pulled over black stumps of teeth, and the cold beady eyes of a raven.  “Give me a few francs,” the crone hacked. But then she looked hard at his walking stick.  “That’s blood,” shrieked the woman, and began to cry out.  “Shut up”, the man said, but she continued to shout.  He took his stick and swung its brass end into the rags three times— hard—from high overhead.  Then he moved away again as quickly as possible;  but as he did, he looked back and heard the woman’s dying gasp.  She had risen from her rags; her head coming up like a viper from its coils, her hand raised.  “You will be dead before the year is out,” she rasped, and then made the sign of the evil eye before sinking down to her final bed on the cobblestones.

    *****Augustin Fresnel Jr. looked down with satisfaction at the signed proposal in front of him.  He would have jumped up and clicked his heels, but with his portly figure he wasn’t sure he could clear enough ground to bring his heels together.   Instead he took another sip of brandy, his fifth of the afternoon.  It was the most lucrative contract he had ever received—ten times his usual price—with government-guaranteed financing.  Of course the installation was in New Caledonia, and would present some difficulties.

    After another sip from his snifter, he walked out to the factory floor and into the office of his engineers.  He had two very able men whom he could count on to fulfill this contract – Marcel and Adrien Rousseau. They had developed the process for installing the largest Fresnel lighthouse lens his factory produced.  The men were identical twins, five foot ten, dark hair, brown eyes, now in their thirties.  They still looked somewhat alike, but Augustin had to look only once to make sure he had the right one.  In some ways Adrien still looked like a boy, even though he was thirty-three; his hairline had just started to recede, and he wore gold-rimmed glasses.  He had a kind open face, an easygoing manner and the faint beginnings of a stoop.  Marcel had more wrinkles in his face, and just the touch of cruelty, or maybe it was atrophy around his mouth—if you looked closely you could see there was a small scar in one corner—he looked as if old age already had a grip on him.  He had a disconcerting habit of looking a person right in the eyes when he addressed them, like an unblinking bird.

    Augustin knew that Marcel’s life had been somewhat chaotic—starting with fights as a youngster and unsportsmanlike behavior on the playing fields when he was in school.  Then in college his brother had to bail him out several times, usually for fighting, drinking or gambling. He was deceitful and unreliable, and finally got kicked out of school.  Marcel liked to live the life of an aristocrat, even though he wasn’t one. He had his clothes made at the finest tailor in Lyon, and went out in the evening with a red-silk-lined black cape, top hat and starched white shirt—and patent leather shoes, of course.  In his left hand he held an ebony walking stick with a cast brass head in the shape of a fist.

    Their father finally had to sell part of his estate to settle Marcel’s debts and paternity suits. Since then the two had rarely spoken.  Finally Marcel settled down and finished an engineering degree at École Polytechnique, two years behind Adrien.

    There were many times during those days when the family had no idea where Marcel was or what he was engaged in.  He came to Lyon to work at Adrien’s insistence, mainly so Adrien could keep an eye on him.  Marcel was charismatic, and charmed almost everyone he met, especially pretty girls.  But then as time went on, the friends he made found he was unreliable, a spendthrift, quick to make bad decisions, and mean-spirited.  He also had an annoying habit of borrowing sums of money that he never returned.  He made friends easily, but the friendships never lasted.

    Always the first to come up with new ideas for improving the lenses, or anything else that would increase his salary.  He chided his brother for being a plodder, although Marcel thought his offhand jests were generally in good fun.

    Adrien was an expert in design and implementation—very meticulous.  He had great affection for Marcel, but he knew his brother was not to be trusted.  In the last two months, Marcel’s eyes had reddened, with dark hollows underneath.  Sometimes Adrien noticed that his brother’s pupils were constricted to pinpoints, and his nose constantly dripped.  When asked, his brother assured him it was a reaction to some impure laudanum that was prescribed for the cough that continued to plague him.  He assured Adrien that he would be well soon.

    “Come up to my office.” Fresnel said.  The two men came in through the eight-foot door and respectfully took seats in front of M. Fresnel’s massive mahogany desk.  “As you know, I consider the two of you to be some of the best engineers in our company. Now I have the opportunity of a lifetime for you.  Do you know where New Caledonia is located?”

    Marcel shook his head, but Adrien said, “It’s in the south seas—east of Australia, north of New Zealand.”  “You are correct.  Beautiful beaches, gentle people—only about 20,000 of them—ruled benevolently by our government, who annexed the islands in 1853.  The native Kanak people were glad to have France take over the country and use its authority to end the tribal conflicts.”

    Augustin didn’t add that cannibalism was still practiced on the islands—nor that just six months ago five missionaries had been abducted, and were assumed to have been eaten.

    In 1862, Emperor Napoleon III had decided that New Caledonia was a good destination for deported convicts. France’s other penal colony was in French Guyana, the home of Devil’s Island, but there were so many political prisoners dying in Guyana from malaria, yellow fever, leprosy and solitary confinement, that the decision had been made to deport all newly convicted convicts to New Caledonia. These prisoners ranged from murderers to political agitators to prostitutes.

    The sentences were almost always the same—eight years of hard labor and then eight years working free land, before being able to return home to France.  The prisoners were encouraged to have their families emigrate from France and become settlers on the free land the government eventually offered them.  Over the years, few returned to France; this served the Emperor’s plan to permanently settle the islands with French Nationals.

    Augustin’s father, Augustin-Jean Fresnel Sr., was the inventor of the Fresnel lens, which began to be installed in lighthouses all in 1823. The Fresnel lens reduced the amount of material required compared to a conventional lens by dividing the lens into a set of concentric annular sections. An ideal Fresnel lens would have infinitely many such sections. In each section, the overall thickness is decreased compared to an equivalent simple lens. This effectively divides the continuous surface of a standard lens into a set of surfaces of the same curvature, with stepwise discontinuities between them.  The gain in candlepower was of a magnitude of twenty.
    The lenses needed to be installed by experts—very carefully, as the glass would shatter easily.  The largest lens, almost 13 feet tall, was called a type 1.  The flame to light this huge lens was fired first by wood, then coal, oil, and finally gas.

    After Augustin Sr. died at age 39 of tuberculosis, his son Augustin Jr. turned his father’s invention into a worldwide business. By 1860, the majority of the world’s 11,300 lighthouses were using Fresnel lenses.“I will pay you triple wages the entire time you are gone and pay all expenses,” said Augustin.  “The two of you will depart on June 1st for New Caledonia with six of our largest lenses—three to be installed, and three for spares.

    “Until recently, a voyage by sailing ship to Noumea, the capital, took more than three months; but now screw-driven steamboats have cut the time by two-fifths, so it should take no more than two months to get to the island, going around the Cape of Good Hope—and less than six weeks to return, because the Suez Canal should be finished this October.  I’ve scheduled six  weeks for the installation, which should be more than ample—you will be gone for no more than five months.

    “So what do you say, young men, are you up for the adventure?”The two looked at each other with amazement.  They had good working circumstances and salaries; they had lived in Lyon for over six years, and had established comfortable lives. Adrien had a wife, and neither had traveled out of France except to install lenses in Germany, Britain and Scandinavia.

    “It would be much like a vacation,” Augustin said.  Marcel immediately spoke up, almost shouting. “Yes, I want to go.”  But Adrien said, “Wait, we need a day to think it over, and I shall need to talk to Antoinette.”  They spoke between themselves the rest of that afternoon.  Adrien was very concerned about leaving his wife of only a year and knew she would object no matter what the monetary reward.  Marcel looked at this opportunity as a way to save his life.  There were dark secrets he had not disclosed to his brother.

    The next morning, the two met with the owner.  Adrien said they would have to have five times their yearly salary to take on the journey and installation, and that his wife had refused to stay at home and absolutely insisted on accompanying them.

    Augustin frowned and said, “What about you, Marcel?”  “I am still eager and ready to go, but I agree with my brother on our compensation.  I have type III lenses to install outside Kullen in South Sweden, but that should only take two weeks, so I should be back a day or two before we sail.”

    “Alright, I agree to your terms; although I believe it a mistake to take your wife, Adrien.  You may want to talk to her again about such a long voyage.  You will leave from Marseille, then head for the Canary Islands, then to Cape Verdes, to Monrovia in Liberia, Loango in the Congo, and to Cape Town.”

    “I am surprised that we will be on just one boat the entire time.” said Adrien. , “The government is anxious to send other cargo besides the lenses; and so they have chartered the frigate both going out and coming back.” Augustin said.“Why not go around Cape Horn, wouldn’t that be faster?” asked Marcel.

    “Are you mad? It will be winter in the Straits of Magellan! If you tried the Horn, the gales would be roaring and the seas cresting at forty feet.  At this time of year, either the ships wreck, or sink, or the crew finally have to give up and run for the Cape of Good Hope.  I’m not taking any chances, men; believe me, this is the easiest route.

    “You will start your return in less than four months; west to Cairn in Australia, then over to Darwin, then a long haul up to Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies, Colombo in Ceylon, to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, then up through the Suez Canal to home, much richer both in francs and in experience.  Since you will have no expenses, I will deposit half of the money into your accounts now and you will receive the balance upon returning to resume your work here in Lyon.  Think of it men—you will have a fortune awaiting you!”

    “The lighthouse is going to be built on the island of Amedee, just thirteen miles from Noumea.  The framework is iron, and has already been shipped six months ago by Blaenavon Ironworks so that it can be constructed before you get there.  It will be 184 feet high, one of the tallest in the world.  The flame will be produced by palm oil; the light should be visible for 30 miles once the lenses are installed.  It will guide ships through one of the three channels breaching the reefs around the island.  Should be a simple installation.  I have arranged for military as well as civilian help.”

    Augustin did not tell the two brothers that the civilian help would be criminals that were on the island, as well as some who had just been sentenced, who would join them onboard the Junon.  He also neglected to mention yellow fever, malaria, giant spiders, leaches that swarmed in every stream and lake, and venomous sea snakes that could kill with one bite—death within a minute. Also it was best to stay out of the water, since 300-pound, eight-foot Bull Sharks liked the shallows.  In promising the brothers a vacation-like voyage, Augustin thought to himself, “Perhaps I have been somewhat economical with the truth.”

    Adrien decided he really should research the history of the New Caledonia Islands and some of the ports of call that they would touch to pick up coal or wood for the ship’s steam boiler. British explorer James Cook sighted the island in 1774. He named it New Caledonia because it reminded him of the northern area of Britannia—today’s Scotland (Caledonia).  From then until 1840 there were only sporadic contacts, but with the discovery of sandalwood, the islands became a trading destination.  When that trade faltered, “blackbirding” took over, a euphemism for enslaving people to work in the sugarcane plantations in Fiji and Australia.  In 1849 the entire crew of the American ship Cutter were killed and eaten by the Pouma clan from the north.  Cannibalism was widespread on the islands and accepted behavior among the Kanaks (natives).   In 1853, France took formal possession of New Caledonia from the British, and founded the capital of Noumea.  It was a wild country with suspicious Kanaks, and not easy to control—due to tribal rivalry, attacks were commonplace. Eventually the indigenous peoples were confined to reservations.  The population was thought to be down to around 19,000 Kanaks, after years of enslavement, disease, and killings of tribal members.

    Marcel stayed in Sweden until the last moment; when he returned to Lyon, he went to a small hotel not far from the Fresnel factory.  He showed up the day they were scheduled to depart.

    Augustin told the two men that everything was set.  They were to take the train that night to Marseille and to board the Junon at six pm, just before the tide turned.  He wished them well, gave them a large amount of francs for expenses and a letter of credit, and then went upstairs to re-count the money he had been paid in advance from the government.

    He neglected to tell Marcel that a Prefect from the gendarmerie had come by two days ago, looking for him in conjunction with the death of two people in slums of Lyon. The man  also wanted to ask him about the beating of a prostitute in Kullen.  Augustin had told the uniformed policeman that Marcel wouldn’t be back for another week. No reason to tell Marcel, as nothing could be gained by scaring him, and this would have long blown over before he returned—besides, anything could happen.

    Adrien’s wife Antoinette was strong-willed and used to getting her own way—almost a nag. Adrien was actually glad she went to visit her mother for a week in Grenoble each month.  Antoinette was a beauty—porcelain skin, cornflower blue eyes, blonde hair and very curvy.  Quite the coquette, she made use of her physical attributes to attract men.  Adrien talked with her about the way she acted, especially kissing attractive men as a greeting, but she was indignant, claiming he just wanted her to be subservient.  Even when she embraced Marcel, Adrien thought it was too intimate, that his wife pulled Marcel much too close.  She would subtly remind Adrien that she could have had her choice of suitors; already he was starting to wonder about having decided to marry her.

    Antoinette wanted to know all about the journey before they left, but Augustin was unavailable, and Adrien and Marcel knew nothing other than that their employer had promised them great accommodations, good food, and a chance to land for a day or so at each of their stopping points – plus a fortune.  As the three talked among themselves, they had concerns, but concentrated on the great turn of fate they were about to experience.

    Marcel looked much worse than before, as if near death, and he was extremely nervous.  Antoinette assured him that the sea air was just what he needed to bring back his health—although in her heart she thought, “Maybe he will not make it back, and then we would have all the money to ourselves.”

    After they arrived in  Marseilles, they took a carriage down to the dock. The ship looked much smaller than they had imagined – no more than 35 meters in length.  The three were unsettled, knowing that this was going to be their home for the next two months, traveling almost 15,000 miles. The return would take six weeks and span 11,000 miles; in total, their journey would cover a distance equal to once around the earth.  The daunting prospect of a journey of this magnitude had started to sink into their minds. And as they embarked, it was raining and blowing so hard they could barely see.

    On deck were several block-like structures covered with sailcloth.  “What are those for?” asked Antoinette of the Captain. Captain Fortier shifted his eyes and said, “I believe that they are cages to be dropped off as we sail down the western coast of Africa.  They are in the charge of a government officer who is on board.”  Then he urged them to go down to their cabins and get out of the weather.

    They found the two cabins smaller and sparser that they had anticipated.  There was little furniture other than a bed and two chairs in each.  Antoinette wanted to protest, but before she could say anything, the steam engine began its thump, thump, thump and they pulled away.  The next two days were miserable.  The weather was such that they couldn’t go on deck and were confined to their cabins—food was brought, but it was nothing like what they had at home, and they were too seasick to eat anyway.  The two brothers did examine the lenses and verified they had been secured per their instructions.

    Finally, on the morning of the third day, the wind settled down and the sun came out.  During the previous night, Adrien thought he had heard shouts from somewhere on board, but he couldn’t be sure.  The three went up on deck around 10 am, after a porridge breakfast.  The cages were filled with men dressed in red-and-white striped pajamas.  “What is the meaning of this?” yelled Marcel.

    The captain came forward with a satisfied look in his eyes.  “Surely you were told that this was a prison ship,” he said.  The three looked at each other with amazement.

    “Turn the ship around immediately,” said Antoinette. “This is not what we bargained for.”

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