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Saturday, July 18, 2009

An Australian Robinson Crusoe

This book tells the story of a French cabin boy, Narcisse Pelletier, and his life with the Uutaalnganu people of north-east Cape York from 1858 to 1875. Even though it is all but forgotten in Australia, and in France is known only in its broad outlines, Pelletier's story rivals that of the famous William Buckley, both as a tale of human survival and as an enthralling and accessible ethnographic record. Narcisse Pelletier, from the village of Saint-Gilles-sur-Vie, was fourteen years old when the Saint-Paul was wrecked near Rossel Island off New Guinea in 1858. Leaving behind more than 300 Chinese labourers recruited for the Australian goldfields, believed to have been subsequently massacred by the Rossel Islanders, the ship's captain and crew, including the cabin boy, escaped in a longboat. After a gruelling voyage across the Coral Sea, they landed near Cape Direction on Cape York, where Pelletier found himself abandoned when the boat sailed off without him. He was rescued by an Aboriginal family and remained with them as a member of their clan until 1875 when he was sighted by the crew of a pearling lugger. 'Rescued' against his will, Pelletier was conveyed to Sydney and then repatriated to France.

Even though it is all but forgotten in Australia, and in France his Cape York experience is known only in its broad outlines, his story rivals that of the famous William Buckley, and is now for the first time presented in English, complemented by an in-depth introductory essay and ethnographic commentary.

This book is required reading for anyone with an interest in Australian history, anthropology, or the intriguing pre-colonial world.

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