• New Caledonia Part Three



    This is the third and last part of the New Caledonia story. The convict ship, Junon, is just leaving Sydney and heading for the islands, some 1400 miles away. Her cargo includes the Fresnel lenses for the Amandee lighthouse.

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    With calm winds, full stores, and no threats from weather or pirates, the voyage went quickly in four days and nights; but the prisoners, knowing that the end of their journey was near, and that they would probably never see France again, were restless and noisy. No captives, not even the women, were allowed on deck during this time.

    As the ship neared the islands of New Caledonia, the two brothers could see the steel structure rising from the island of Amandee, just eleven miles south of Noumea. It appeared to be almost fifty meters tall (165 feet), still short of the full height needed before they could install the lenses. Adrien gave a curse —“Mon Dieu” —“the tower should have been finished before we got here!” Marcel just shrugged.

    A half hour later the deep-water harbor of Noumea came into view. The tropical palm fronds, a welcome sight, overhung the harbor, although for the convicts the dark jungle that came down to the water’s edge looked as impenetrable as the cages that still held them.

    As soon as the ship docked, the prisoners disembarked, men first. As the women followed, Marcel stepped next to Helene and told her he would find her in the next week. She was in tears, and looked as though she had given up all hope. Antoinette guessed that Marcel had no intention of helping Helene or Jeanette.

    The brothers and Antoinette were welcomed by Governor Guillain, the administrator of the New Caledonian Islands. He had a native servant for each, dressed in spotless white. Their quarters were adequate, but even with the shutters open at night, it was very warm. Adrien immediately wanted to know the status of the lighthouse and when they could start to install the Fresnel lenses. The Governor assured him that the structure would be completed in two weeks. In the meantime, they could occupy themselves with swimming, fishing, walking on the beaches, boating, and touring the island on horseback. Every afternoon a downpour blew in cooling the air.

    During their first day on the island, Marcel noticed that some of the existing prisoners had a ball and chain, and had to pick up the ball each time they moved. He also observed that many of the wardens seemed drunk, were dressed poorly, and used any excuse to abuse the prisoners. When he ask Governor Guillain about what he had seen, the Governor replied that the guards sent to him from France were the dregs and degenerates of the earth.

    “Some are former military men who were drummed out of the service; others are vagrants or retarded. Some even have minor criminal records and are not that much different from some of the convicts. Please don’t talk with any of them unless it is necessary.”

    Then he said, “Who would want to come to this place?—the term is three years, the pay is negligible, and there are no white women other than the female prisoners. But we must do our best, and deal with what the government sends. Many are escaping the life they had in France for one reason or another.

    “The maximum prison term here is eight years, and that sentence is usually followed by another eight years as a free man, so that the convicts can civilize the country. Shorter sentences are also doubled in this way, although the prisoners do not know about the policy until they arrive. As for those with a ball and chain, they are the murderers, rapists, and child molesters—it’s additional punishment for them. “There is no escape from this place—the only escape is death.

    ” I have assigned an assistant —Lieutenant Perault—for the three of you while you are here. You will find him extraordinary,” Guillain added (knowing that by now the three were unnerved by this talk of murderers and rapists guarded only by vagrants and petty criminals.) But they had graver concerns.

    “What about the rumors of cannibals?” Marcel said.

    “There are always rumors,” Guillain explained. “There may have been an incident or two, years and years ago, but now all of the tribes are civilized.” Adrien caught the same look that he had seen Marcel give a hundred times, and knew the man was lying. He thought to himself: ”This is a rough country, dangerous country, the sooner we get out of here the better.” He knew that their frigate would leave for France as soon as the lenses were installed and the ship’s hold loaded with sandalwood.

    He had been concerned that there would not be enough skilled carpenters and others to help set the lenses. To his chagrin, it was worse than that—only prisoners would be helping, with no incentive to hurry or do a decent job! Adrien thought, “ We are going to earn every centime of the five year’s salary awaiting us.”

    The next morning, he and Marcel were to sail over to Amandee to see the construction. But when Adrien went to get his brother, he found him still in bed, claiming that the opium withdrawal had reappeared and was still bothering him. “I’m too weak to go out on a small boat,” he said. And despite Adrien’s strong admonishment, Marcel steadfastly refused to go.

    Once Adrien had gone, however, Marcel sprung from his bed, dressed quickly and headed outside. He immediately called on Antoinette (she had lost about seven kilos on the journey, and was no longer voluptuous, but to him she seemed more beautiful than ever).

    “Let’s go see some of the island,” he said. She eagerly agreed, and they had lieutenant Perault fetch an open carriage. They didn’t think much about the two armed guards and armed driver who came with them. Heading south on the main road they began asking Perault questions.

    “What happens when one of the convicts murders another?” Antoinette inquired.

    “You must not have known about one of the pieces of cargo you brought here. In the past, when we needed to execute someone, there was a firing squad. But in the hold of the Junon is a Guillotine. We have seven prisoners slated for execution, waiting to test it out. We will execute the first of them in four days.”

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    “What about the natives?” asked Antoinette. “Governor Guillain says they are harmless.”

    Perault thought for a moment. He liked these three, and decided to not deceive them. “That is not exactly true, but please do not say anything to the Governor. The farther north you go, the more dangerous the island becomes. We have work parties go only about halfway up the island because, even with armed guards, the Kanaks will attack, dragging off some of the convicts. When we sent men out to try to track the missing prisoners, some of the trackers disappeared. We know exactly what happens—the natives kill and eat them, starting with the arms. All we find is the bones.

    “Lately the natives have been becoming more and more bold, even coming into our strongholds—killing and then dragging the victims away.

    “Last year we lost twenty-three men to the cannibals. I’ve made sure that there will be good men with you day and night. Just make sure you watch where you go, keep in the open, and stay close to your guards, and there should be no problem.

    “Fortunately for you, you will leave in about a month, when the lighthouse is finished—the rest of us have to stay here in this hellhole as employees of the French government. I myself cannot return for two more years.”

    Marcel had listened to the story with gleaming eyes, but Antoinette was quivering, with a look of horror on her face. “I-I-I’m assuming the women are s-s-safer?” she said.

    “No, actually it’s the opposite,” Gullian replied. “The natives prefer the tender flesh of a woman, so they come after them first. But do not be frightened—nothing has ever happened close to Noumea harbor.”

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    In the meantime, Adrien had arrived at Amandee island, a gem set in warm seas, surrounded partially by a coral reef. There were beautiful beaches, fish unending, and palm trees for shade. But Adrien was interested in none of these; only in getting the job finished and returning to France.

    He met with the supervisor on the job—Javier, a fat man with a nose like a pig, dressed in dirty whites. He was a trustee, having recently finished his eight-year sentence, and now had eight more years on the island as a free man before he could return home. The rest of the men were clad in the usual red-and-white pajamas. To his relief, Adrien discovered that the work on the tower thus far had been done to specifications (well, nearly), and that in two weeks the tower would be up to a sufficient height that they could start installing the lenses. Once those were in place and the flame was started, it would take another two days to calibrate the lenses to the required focal points and to train the lighthouse keepers. Then, as Captain Fortier had promised, they could immediately start for home.

    In the next two weeks Antoinette spent much of her time with Marcel, whose interest in completing the lighthouse had further waned after two trips to the island. Much of the time they were alone together, but Antoinette gave him no encouragement, and twice told him to keep his hands away. During this time Marcel also visited the still-imprisoned Helene (only for his own pleasure, making no effort to help her escape as he had promised.)

    Adrien went to the tower site every day to make sure the workers were making satisfactory progress . He rode Javier mercilessly, relying on either lieutenant Perault or the Governor to reinforce his demands. As long as they were alongside, the directions he gave to both Javier and the prisoners seemed to work.

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    Finally the tower was finished; the next day the installation of the lenses could begin. Three lenses were brought taken to the island in the Junon, then carefully unloaded under Marcel and Adrien’s supervision. The lenses were carried individually to the lighthouse, each hefted and steadied by three strong men, because Adrien did not trust the convicts to take them safely in a cart. Slowly, with three safety ropes, the first lens was hoisted up; then the second.

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    All went well until the third lens began to ascend. One of the knots had been incorrectly tied, and when the lens was about two-thirds of the way up, the knot came loose, and the lens began to sway. The other two ropes would easily have held the lens, but the convicts were afraid the glass would fall, and so they flung the two remaining ropes, scrambling away. The lens fell more than thirty meters, landing with a resounding crash and shattering into thousands of shimmering shards!

    Adrien began to curse, but then remembered he had three more lenses as replacements. He had one of these spares brought from the ship; and this time he looked over every knot and rope before they started to raise it.

    In two more days the lenses were fastened and calibrated, and the palm oil lamp was secured to the platform. When everything was finished, Governor Guillain presented to Adrien a certificate of completion for the Fresnel Lens Company.

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    The lighthouse’s interior, with its 247 steps, was spectacular, finished by two convicted art thieves (who had worked as artisans on several Paris cathedrals.) The outside was finished in white, blending visually with the white sands of the beach.

    The governor had planned a special ceremony for the next afternoon; everyone of any rank, plus some of the native chiefs, had been invited to witness the lighting of the flame. The lenses would amplify the light and cast it thirty miles out to sea, to guide boats through the main reef surrounding the islands. After the lighting ceremony finished, around five o’clock, the entire party of over 150 had boarded their boats and sailed back for the mainland, so as to see the light from across the strait after dark. As evening fell at six, and the light behind them began to cast shadows, fire could be seen onshore at Noumea. Concerned, the crews of all the boats made maximum speed. Approaching the town, they could see buildings ablaze. The crackling of rifle fire was echoing through the streets. Governor Guillain had his officers disembark first and secure the dock, then move into town. Marcel, Adrien and Antoinette huddled on the dock wondering what they should do; the flame from the lighthouse behind them eleven miles away illuminating the scene before them.

    Antoinette shouted, “What about the Junon?” They could see the outlines of the frigate, riding the gentle waves in the harbor,and heard its engine knocking out a rhythm. The ship had been moved two hundred yards out from its berth, and crew members were shooting at small boats that carried convicts, all would-be boarders. They could see the puffs of smoke at the rails as swimmers neared the Junon, then heard the rifle shots, followed by the hiss of the steam hose spraying those who actually reached the ship’s sides.

    As they moved along the shore , they began to hear what Captain Fortier was shouting through his megaphone: “We are ready to leave and will do so as soon as you are on board—get here immediately, any way you can—we’ll give you protection.”

    Lieutenant Prenault pulled them aside, next to a stone building and said, “It is imperative that we get you on the frigate immediately. While most of the officers were at the lighthouse, the convicts rioted, broke into the armory and tried to take over the Junon in hopes of escaping.
    Fortunately Captain Fortier moved his ship away from the pier and, as you can see, has been able to repel the boarders. But to make matters worse, some of the tribes have attacked – aided by convicts who speak their language. They are roaming the city, looting, and dragging off into the jungle anyone they can capture. You need to be especially careful—these southern tribes are still cannibals, though they deny it. Go quickly. I have assigned these four men to you, and they will fight their way down to the north end of the wharf where there is a rowboat. Now go!”

    They started off at a run, but Antoinette could not keep up, trying to hold her petticoats and skirts. The second time she fell, Marcel grabbed the loose garments and tore them off. Antoinette shrieked, but Adrien quickly said, “Do you want to live?”

    About a hundred yards from the small boat they turned a corner, only to be confronted by about two dozen convicts and a few natives. Their guards fired immediately, knocking down two of the red-and-white clad prisoners, who had started their charge. Then the mob was upon them, bowling them over. Fierce Kanak warriors seized Adrien and Antoinette and dragged them down the street. A Kanak hit Marcel with what looked like a human femur. As he crashed down, a dead guard fell on top of him. Then it was quiet. Marcel looked around after a few seconds, saw only the bodies of the dead, and seeing two men waiting in a rowboat at the end of wharf, he raced toward them.

    But as he got within fifty feet of the small craft, suddenly Marcel stopped, overwhelmed, as his whole miserable life loomed large in his mind—all of the people he had hurt, and the ones that he had killed. All the cheating and lying, addictions and stealing; the terrible behavior, the false promises. All of these had been his own fault, no one else’s. In that moment he believed that if he did something really, really good, he could offset all of these sins. He spun around and ran back to where his brother and sister-in-law had been captured. A little way up the dirt street, he found a wounded guard who pointed in the direction that the two had been dragged. In a few minutes he was at the edge of town, passing two dead convicts, impaled with spears, before the dirt road plunged into the dark jungle.

    Keeping up a steady pace, he soon heard the faint chatter of the natives in front of him. Now doubling his speed, he nearly caught up, and stopped when he could hear them clearly, and hid in the bushes—breathless, silent, his heart racing—without a clue wondering what he would do next. The group had paused in a clearing. Marcel looked in dismay through the foliage under the bright moon; he could see
    they were all natives, gathered in a circle, most of them armed with spears (apparently the convicts among them—those they had not killed— had fled.) Then, in the midst of the circle he caught a glimpse of Adrien and Antoinette—lying on the dirt, face up, their hands tied with vines.

    What could he do to free them? Again the memories of his past life confronted Marcel. In an instant, he made his choice. Silently stripping off his clothes, he rolled himself in the red iron-oxide mud, covering all but his face. He then shinnied up a climbed a tree that arced over the gathering, and with great dexterity and courage he swung into the circle, almost like a great ape. For a moment the Kanaks backed away, startled; he immediately went to Adrien. There were frightful yells from the natives as he pointed to his own face and then to the face of his brother. Contorting his features into a mask of rage, he voiced a hideous scream; Adrien answered him in the same voice. The natives fled, as if the two of them were vengeful twin gods. Marcel quickly tore off the vines that bound Antoinette and Adrien, and set them to running ahead of him, back toward Noumea.

    But the natives did not remain frightened for long; they regrouped and gave chase. Gaining every minute, soon they were only fifty yards behind the three fleeing Europeans. Marcel, still in the rear, yelled, “Keep going, I’ll scare them one more time.”

    Marcel turned back and ran headlong towards the throng, screaming and grimacing, but with no success—the natives by now realized that Marcel was just a man, covered with mud, who had loosed their two prisoners.

    Marcel knew this was the end for him—all he could hope was for his sins to be forgiven, and that he might have a quick death.

    Antoinette and Adrien stumbled ahead, but stepped off to the side of the trail when they heard others approaching from the town. Barely hidden in the bushes, they watched as these naked natives rushed by with more captives—nothing they could do but to silently gasp in horror, then sprint onward as soon as they had passed. Finally the two made it to the wharf, found the men with the rowboat, and pushed off, headed for the frigate. It was a narrow escape, with other small boats of would-be escapees jostling to beat them to the Junon; but Captain Fortier, true to his word, was making sure that rifle fire from the frigate gave them cover. They were rowed around to the port side and climbed the rope ladder. Captain Fortier immediately gave the order to cast off.

    “Wait, wait!” cried Adrien. “Marcel is still in the hands of the Kanaks.”

    “Then he is a dead man,” said the captain. “Look before you—the town is ablaze, the natives and convicts run amok; the guards killed or scattered. It would be suicide to attempt a rescue. Anyway, by now certainly Marcel is dead—God rest his soul.”

    But Marcel was not dead—not yet. His captors had driven him farther north, then to the east. Finally after two days, they stopped, throwing him to the ground among the village’s grass huts. It was then that the old crone’s curse came to his mind. “You will not live out the year.” Struggling to his knees, he put his hand on the small gold cross around his neck, closed his eyes and fervently begged God for a quick and painless death, and for forgiveness of all of his crimes.

    His first wish was granted almost immediately, as a sharp blow knocked him unconscious and the next blow knocked him into eternity. As for his second wish, that was in God’s hands.

    New Caledonia
    Joseph Ollivier
    September 2015

    Author’s Note:

    France sent over 22,000 deportees to New Caledonia, the last in 1897. As the government had planned, many stayed in NC and established their homes. Nickel was discovered there in 1864; all the miners were imported from France (the indigenous people were confined to reservations, but eventually were made French citizens.)

    In 1942 Noumea became the headquarters of the US Army and Navy in the South Pacific—50,000-plus troops eventually occupied the island, equaling the country’s population. The infrastructure that they turned over to the New Caledonians after the war became the basis for one of the strongest economies in Melanesia.

    The last death attributed to cannibalism was reported in 1942. But to this day, whenever someone goes missing in New Caledonia, it is rumored that the old ways are still being practiced.

    Next month a Halloween story from Siberia – The Vulcari

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