• New Caledonia Part Two


    This is the second installment of the Short Story, New Caledonia. At the moment the twin brothers Marcel and Adrien, and Adrien’s wife Antoinette, have found out that the boat that is taking them to New Caledonia is a prison ship. They are going to NC to install huge Fresnel lenses in the newly built lighthouse on Amandee Island.


    “I thought that might be the case,” Captain Fortier said. “You are the only free woman aboard, but you are joining 231 prisoners, twenty-one of which are women. Mr. Augustin did not think any of you would board the ship if you knew the real circumstances. I kept the convicts quiet during the last two days, so you wouldn’t know the truth. Now that we are past Gibraltar and out into the open ocean, there is no possibility of turning back.”

    One of the prisoners saw Antoinette at this point and set up a howl, exposing himself. The mate immediately called for a crewman; and together they manhandled the prisoner to the rail and threw him over. Two others brought over a long hose, and under the direction of the captain, turned on its nozzle. Live steam shot out. The inmates screamed in agony.

    “Look—this is what happens when the convicts, or anyone else, evoke my displeasure.”

    There were ten cages, arranged amidships in two rows, back to back. In harsh weather, and at night, the cages were covered with sailcloth, which prevented undue weathering of the cage bars due to salt, wind and moisture. Only five men were allowed in each cage at a time, so fifty was the maximum. Below decks, there were fourteen more cages.

    Each convict was allowed to come up to the cages on deck once every four days, if his behavior below had been exemplary.

    “I demand that you reverse course this instance,” said Adrien. “You had no right to deceive us.”

    “I have every right, this is a charted ship under the control of the French Government, and as Captain my word is law. You are going to New Caledonia to do important work, and that is the end of it.”

    Back in their cabins the three tried to decide what to do. “We are French citizens, Adrien said, we cannot be treated this way. We’ll be in port at the Canary Islands in two more days; we shall make our escape there.”

    “But what about you, Marcel—are you too ill to try to flee?” Antoinette said. “You are in no condition to try to run or hide.”

    “No, I’ll be okay, I’ll rest before we get there. I know what is wrong and how to get well,” muttered Marcel.

    “Brother,” Adrien said, “You must tell us what really ails you – tell us straightaway.” Marcel started to protest that it was nothing, but neither Antoinette nor Adrien would relent. “Tell us this instant—no more lies!”

    Marcel slumped in his chair and then looked up. “It’s opium,” he said. “I started smoking about four months ago. You know Jacque in the glass grinding shop? He had a few grams and offered me a pipe. To my everlasting regret I did so. Within two weeks I was going to an opium hideaway every other night to smoke. The drug got me in its death grip. I felt I couldn’t make it through the day without smoking a pipeful.

    “My body is wasting away—but the craving is still there every minute. I stole enough to take to Kullen with me, thinking I could get more in Lyon, or certainly in Marseille for our trip, but I could not. Now I have none and the withdrawal is terrible. That is why I look the way I do, with my face like putty. I would kill right now just to have a pipe.

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    “And there is more. As my addiction grew, it was costing me more and more money. I borrowed against my wages, but even then it wasn’t enough—and our father turned me away. The moneylenders threatened to go to Augustin and get me fired if I did not come up with money for repayment. Finally I got the owner of the opium house alone, and told him I had to have a large quantity to tide me over until I got back from Sweden, saying I would have the money to repay him once I returned. He refused and told me not to come back to his establishment. We got into a tussle in his cubbyhole and he hit me with a bamboo staff, so I struck him with my walking stick—so hard it covered the end with blood, but I’m sure the blow didn’t kill him. I took all the opium in his supply and crept out the back, staggering under the influence of the pipe I had just smoked. As I was creeping away, an old woman accosted me, and I had to push her away, but she may have seen my face. None of this was my fault.”

    Adrien looked at his brother’s face to see if he was lying. Marcel returned the stare trying his best to look innocent. Adrien finally said, “Are you telling us the truth?”

    “Yes, of course, I would never lie to you.” Right then Adrien knew that the story was a lie or a half lie, Marcel had lied so many times in the past, he had forgotten what was the truth and what was a lie. “Marcel, I must be sure you are telling the truth about this, I want you to swear.”

    “Of course,” Marcel said.

    “Swear on the bones of our mother, and of the Cross of our Faith around your neck that what you have told us is true, and that you have held back nothing.”

    “Yes, my brother, I swear.” But as Adrien looked into the eyes of his brother, the eyes of a sociopathic liar, he knew he had not been given the truth.

    “Well then, we must help you get well and it appears that we have no alternative but to complete our project—the police will be looking for you and those to whom you owe money will try to trail you—we can’t go back.”

    “Thank you Adrien,” Marcel said, “With the money I receive after we return, and with the passage of time, I will be able to take care of all my problems. I have finally learned my lesson. You will see a new Marcel from now on.”

    The Junon began its journey to the south without event—the steam engine ran day and night, and aided by favorable winds, they sometimes made 300 miles in a 24-hour period. But on board there was plenty of turmoil. Each day 50 of the prisoners were brought up from below decks and put into their cages for eight hours—no matter what the weather. The prisoners had their head and body hair shaved to the skin every ten days to avoid fleas and head lice.

    Members of the guard treated the captives roughly, throwing them down on the deck for the smallest infraction. One convict who had obviously gone insane bit right through the hand of a guard. Without even consulting the Captain, the guards threw the man overboard, then shot at him for target practice, making sure the rest of the prisoners saw and understood. Two weakened convicts died of exposure while undergoing punishment during a storm, chained to the a mast.

    Antoinette remembered that she was not the only woman on board—there were the woman convicts, who came on deck every other day. They were separated from the men at all times, but at any appearance they were greeted by catcalls and foul language from the ship’s sailors.

    Marcel lingered by the cages when the women were on deck, becoming friendly with some of the more attractive prostitutes. He would give them tobacco and food despite the Captain’s warnings. Just after they had stopped at The Canary Islands, he went down to the women’s section and offered the jailer a bottle of rum, in exchange for allowing one of the women to go with him for an hour. The jailer refused, but Marcel gave him the bottle anyway. The next night he was back with two bottles. It was a mistake, since the jailer had notified the Captain.

    Captain Fortier commanded Marcel to come into his cabin. His eyes glared, his chin was thrust out, his mouth in a snarl. “If the government did not need the lenses for the Amandee lighthouse, I would throw you overboard. The next time there is any infraction of my rules, I shall do so regardless. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes Captain, please forgive me for this mistake. It is inexcusable. There will not be any more problems.”

    “If there is even one more difficulty, I shall take it out on you and also your brother.”

    But as Marcel left, his countenance changed and he became lighthearted. “We shall see”, he thought, “circumstances always change, and I shall be there to take advantage.”


    They paused for a day in The Cape Verde Islands, accumulating supplies and coal. No one was allowed to leave the ship.

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    As they approached the equator, the three spent more and more time on deck, even at night, to avoid the stifling heat in their cabins—and they were forced to join the Order of Neptune along with many of the crew and guards, who, like themselves, had never crossed the equator. The ship was brought into the wind, and then each person had to walk a plank then dive or jump into the sea. Even Antoinette was required to go, although there was a punt waiting to rescue her. Marcel of course did a perfect swan dive, while Adrien lowered himself from the plank and then dropped, hands above his head, immediately climbing aboard up a rope ladder.

    Adrien became friends with one of the political prisoners—Emile Robespierre, a man of his own age—who was being sent to the islands for demonstrating against the government. Specifically, he spoke out against the living hell that was French Guyana, particularly Devil’s Island. He had barely escaped the guillotine, and only through the influence of his father, a minister, was his sentence commuted to deportation. He was quite intelligent, and accepted his fate with resignation. The two spoke each time Emile came on deck, and eventually Captain Fourtier gave Adrien permission to visit Emile below decks.

    Antoinette became close to two women; one, named Jeanette, had murdered her abusive husband (with a laugh, Antoinette told her there were occasions where she would like to do away with Adrien, her own husband.)

    The other was Helene, a high-class prostitute, who had been caught in a compromising position with Alphonse James de Rothschild, a leading Jewish banker in Paris. But the affair was hushed up and she was bundled, tied and gagged, and delivered to the Junon. She vowed to return to France and throw acid in Rothschild’s face.

    Antoinette told the two that she would try to arrange their escape at Capetown, Perth or Sidney. In the meantime Marcel would sometimes press up against the women’s cages, supposedly talking to Helene, but Adrien suspected more than talk was going on. Whatever romantic interest Antoinette had in Marcel was beginning to fade rapidly.

    Day after day, under the beating sun, their monotonous routine continued. Meals were salt pork or salt beef—packed years ago in barrels,—complemented by fruit or vegetables from the last stop (at least for a few days.) When their hard tack rolls were served, the first thing each one of them did was to tear open a small section and then bang the bread on the table – knocking out the weevils. The Captain and his three officers usually joined them at dinner – the drink was vinegar-tainted water, sour wine or rum. The rising stench of the prisoners below made the meals even worse. Antoinette suggested that when the prisoners were in their deck cages they be sprayed with seawater from the pump to help with their hygiene. The warm water worked well, and Adrien and Marcel also used the pump once a week. Antoinette was given a half hogshead behind a canvas partition so she could bathe.

    Finally, Marcel was showing signs of a recovery; had gained five kilos, and his nose was no longer running constantly.

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    In Liberia they were welcomed by former slaves from the US, who had cords of hardwood stacked on the dock and were were eager to sell it at a premium. The three plus several officers went into Monrovia, the capital, and found Mayor Obutu, who had lived in the South as a slave but was then freed before the Union Army overran his master’s plantation on Sherman’s march to the sea. He was originally from the Monrovia area but had been captured by a tribe from the north and sold into a slavery. He was most gracious and supplied fresh meat, vegetables and even bread.

    Next it was a long haul to the Cameroons, but the port of Douala was in flames as they approached, and the Captain did not even want to risk sending in a launch. With their firewood nearly gone, they sailed without the engine for Cabinda at the mouth of the Congo. Again there was no coal, but there were cords of mahogany on the dock. Unrest was in the air; during their two days there, they watched the private army of Belgian officers beat and mutilate many of the black indigenous people. The entire country was the personal property of the King Leopold Foundation, and he ruled it with a vicious hand.

    Henry Morton Stanley had been engaged to survey the Congo as an agent of King Leopold, finally meeting Dr. Stanley Livingstone on the banks of Lake Tanganyika to the far east of the country with the famous quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume.

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    The King had petitioned other nations to let him have the country, so that he could provide humanitarian and philantropic help—but he did exactly the opposite, plundering the country for his own benefit. Rubber trees grew wild, and the personal army for Leopold’s supposedly benevolent society enforced unrealistic rubber-sap quotas. At one point, because ammunition was in short supply, for each bullet that had to be fired to make the natives work harder, the hand of another native would be severed—some days there would be baskets of hands. Marcel said he would like to take back a dried hand if he could get one. Antoinette, disgusted, chastised him for even thinking of the idea.

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    The Captain, crew, and even the convicts were glad to put this horrible place behind them.

    Now it was full steam and full sail down to Capetown—just over 2,000 miles. They did it in six days, and were grateful to pull into the safe harbor. For three days the ship lay at anchor while provisions and coal were loaded.

    But now came the longest and most perilous part of the voyage, in fact the longest run from port to port anywhere in the world. They were to steam and sail directly east to Perth, Australia, a distance of 6,287 miles. There was coal stacked everywhere, below and above decks until the ship’s freeboard was only four feet. Captain Fortier had not run this route before; and while it shouldn’t be particularly dangerous, there could always be storms and worse, the greybeard waves that traveled all the way around the earth with no dry land to block their power—some would be twenty-five feet high. But to take any other route would add two weeks to their trip.

    The Junon sailed with the night tide, the Southern Cross glowing above them in the heavens. Captain Fortier assured them that with good winds and no mechanical problems they should be able to make the crossing in fifteen days.

    But seven days out, they did have a mechanical breakdown. The main pushrod on the engine cracked; the chief engineer told the Captain that it would take two days to forge a new one. He had tried wrapping the shaft with steel bands, but repair was impossible. Still, the winds were favorable and the captain was not discouraged—they were continuing, under sail, to make good time in the right direction. Then a storm from the west picked up, and they were able to gain even more speed—they didn’t even need the engine to help drive the ship at full speed.

    Eventually the winds turned, now coming in gusts of fifty-knots from the Northeast. It became necessary to first shorten sail and then to drop all sails. As they did so, they were pushed off to the south, towards colder temperatures and bigger seas – three solid days and nights.

    Finally the engineer told Fortier he had tried everything with no success – the ship was yawing and pitching too much. “I need dry ground to make a mold.”

    In a rage, the captain said, “Do you see any dry ground, man? We are in the middle of the southern ocean, the roaring forties, three thousand miles from anywhere and heading farther south towards Antarctica, where the winds howl and the waves are tall enough to capsize any ship! If we aren’t lucky, you’ll see icebergs before long.”

    Adrien spoke up and said, “What about Amsterdam Island? It’s a French possession. As I remember the map, it is just slightly south of our original route.”

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    “It is deserted, and there are no facilities to help us there,” said Fortier, implying that Adrien was a fool. Jean, the engineer spoke up, “Just a place where there is no motion and some sand. I can cast a new rod.” The Captain got out his sextant and shot the sun right at midday and then went to his charts. He found they were about 750 miles west-southwest of the island, but were still moving toward the Antarctic seas.

    Fate intervened that night. The winds reversed and the Captain shot another azimuth. “Put on all sail,” he commanded. With a watch in the crow’s nest, under the blazing sun by day and under the moonlight at night, they finally spotted the island, about five miles to the west. It was now covered with snow, as it was mid-winter. The south side had huge rollers which crashed into the cliffs, leaving no place to land.

    They found a small harbor on the north with a good anchorage, but the frigate scraped going in. Jean had everything planned and they took a small skiff to the beach, carrying with them pig iron, charcoal to heat the small furnace and water kegs to replenish their supplies. While the pig iron was liquefied in the furnace Jean began to bury the cracked six-foot rod, packing hard sand around it. In fifteen minutes he withdrew the rod slowly and carefully. Now he had an impression in the sand that was a spitting image of the push rod, but with a long opening at the top. His helpers poured in the molten metal, gave it a half hour to cool, and then removed the new rod, shaking off the sand. His crew immediately started grinding and sanding down the metal to take off all of the burrs and imperfections and to true up the rod, especially where the sand had been open for the molten metal to be poured in. Four hours later they were finished and the new rod was installed and tested. It was such a relief that the Captain gave everyone leave to go on the island for two hours.

    All the prisoners were brought up in shifts for an hour at a time, even though there was a very cold wind from the southwest. Fortier told the captives that ten of them were to remain on the island. He arranged races on the sand with 50 of the prisoners lined up at a time—losers were to stay behind. There was pushing and fighting between the inmates as the races took place. Finally the slowest ten were crying and begging not to be abandoned.

    The captain looked sternly towards the losers and then broke out in hysterical laughter – telling them it was his little joke – get back on the ship. There were no curses but the looks from the convicts spelled murder if they had half the chance.

    The Junon overnighted in this safe harbor and left in the morning as the sun was just peeking over the horizon. There was just another small grinding noise as they passed over the reef guarding the inlet.

    “Thirty-two hundred miles to go”, said Pierre, the first mate.

    It was a hazardous journey. There were storms and rogue waves that pulled the bow under at times – terrifying everyone. Adrien was constantly checking the lenses. One string of waves went clear over the decks while some of the convicts were caged above – four of them drowned. They had to steam directly south for a day to keep the bow headed into the oncoming waves – more and more Humpback whales were sighted as they got closer to the 50th parallel . But the Junon was up to the challenge—that is, until she began taking on water. The bilges filled; and within a day, they were pumping 20 out of every 24 hours. The water was entering where the front of the keel had scraped—the battering from the storms had opened up the seams.

    The women prisoners, and even Marcel and Adrien, took their turn at the pumps. In eleven days the Junon limped into Perth, a quarter filled with seawater. They made landfall only because of trailing west winds the last three days. Since they were behind schedule, Captain Fortier ran the boat partially up onto the beach, then repaired and caulked holes, loaded supplies and left in two days—the prisoners were not allowed on deck, to prevent any chance of escape. From there, the captain hugged the coast of Australia, passing Adelaide and stopping at Melbourne, then turning the corner to Sidney.

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    There were three days’ rest at Sidney, during which time Adrien kept his promise and helped Emile escape. He had been allowed to take Emile outside his cell below decks, so their private conversations could not be overheard. The guards were so used to seeing the two of them together, that they didn’t pay much attention—besides, there was no way out of the ship. The two went to a dark corner that evening and started their muted conversation. Adrien was leaning against a bulkhead, his back to the guards, shielding Emile. In the first sixty seconds, Emile had shed his clothes, let Adrien dislocate his left shoulder, and covered his body with grease. He went to a small porthole and tossed his clothes out in a bag, then contorted his skinny body through—he hadn’t eaten in days to reduce his body circumference. Neverthelesss, he was cut in several places and left bloody streaks on the wooden porthole. Adrien could just barely hear the splash as he hit the water. He waited another twenty minutes, then hit himself over the head with a spar as hard as he dared. Almost loosing consciousness, he fell over, blood soaking his hair and a huge lump rising.

    In another ten minutes the guards noticed and shouted the alarm. Adrien was carried up to his cabin. Grease was discovered on the porthole and the cry went up. But it was too late and too dark. The next morning the Captain, in a rage, went to the Police Commissioner in Sydney to ask for help in finding his prisoner. Since over half the policemen in Sidney were once deported criminals themselves, the commissioner showed little interest, especially since it was known that the prisoner was a political agitator and not violent. But he told Fortier that he would look into it immediately—then of course did nothing.

    The Captain questioned Adrien intensely, but finally was convinced that he had nothing to do with the escape. He did double the guard on all of the other prisoners and did not allow anyone in on conversations. On the third day they steamed out of Sydney Harbor for the final leg of the journey—1255 miles to New Caledonia—with every convict locked down.

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    Next month: The Last Chapter
    Installing the lenses on the Amandee Island lighthouse

    Joe Ollivier – Talesuntold.net

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