St. Paul Island
“If the smoke and fires of Amsterdam had excited our curiosity, the discovery of two or three human beings running along the shore, as our ships approached it, on so miserable a spot, and so distant from any other land except the little neighbouring island of St. Paul, caused a still greater degree of astonishment.” (John Barrow, A Voyage to Cochinchina, in the years 1792 and 1793, 155)
The volcanoes of St. Paul and Amsterdam drew the interest of passing sailors but they were equally fascinated with the people who chose to live on the islands. The plentiful seals there had enticed dozens of intrepid American, French, and British men to spend months or years in the isolated locales, much to the astonishment of other Westerners. These small communities survived off the food they had brought with them, supplemented by local fish, birds, and seal meat. They built shelters, killed thousands of seals, and spent months on end with only the other sailors for company.
Their goals: to kill seals and stay alive.
“There has not been on record, I believe, an instance of a period of near two years being spent by any European on an Uninhabited and Desert Island. This simple fact will perhaps obtain for this Narrative some interest with the general reader.” (Charles Medyett Goodridge, Narrative of a Voyage to the South Seas and the Shipwreck of the Princess of Wales Cutter, 1)
Despite Goodridge’s boast, he was not the only one to survive on the island for years on end. More than two decades earlier, in 1792, a sealing group led by Françoise Péron arrived at Amsterdam Island from Mauritius. When they arrived, seven men were already living there, although they were to depart shortly after his arrival. Péron and four sailors were instructed to stay ashore for the next fifteen months to collect as many seal skins as possible.
Péron provides a lengthy description of his time on the small island and his commentary is supported by Barrow’s description (above). Barrow noted the stinking conditions. The men lived in squalor, surrounded by the dead carcasses of seals and sea-lions. The five sealers had exhausted their provisions and were living off the eggs of seabirds until a passing American ship provided them with rice.
After two years on the island, their ship still had not returned. The resentment between the British and French sailors boiled over. After some visiting sailors plied the two British sealers with alcohol, the visitors stole eight thousand skins before departing. Péron was livid. Then one of the British sealers demanded equal shares in the sale of the seal skins, which Péron refused. After two British men seized the only weapons on the island, the three French men had to live in a cave for several days without food until they managed to return.
After thirty-two months on the island, the men learned that their ship had been captured by the British in the South China Seas. They took refuge on a passing ship but were unable to take the seal skins. Péron managed to return to Amsterdam Island later but the valuable skins had been taken by another sealer.
For the rest of the nineteenth century, small groups of men could be found living on the island. William Townsend encountered a “sealing party” of five men in 1820 who begged him for provisions by waving their only blanket. Townsend described their home as “a wretched hovel to be sure.” Their lifestyle presented “a real picture of human misery.” (Ship journal of the Panther, 1819-22, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 828)
In 1833 a British ship was destroyed in a storm and the survivors made it ashore on one of the islands. To their joy, a small party of sealers (one American, two Cape Verdean) welcomed them as they awaited the return of their ship. The captain who rescued them? None other than Captain Péron (John M’Cosh, Narrative of the Wreck of the Lady Monro).
As the relieved survivors left the island, one of the convicts from the shipwreck, originally destined for Australia, escaped. This convict, along with the sealers, had chosen to live on the islands. The frequency of residence increased throughout the nineteenth century. Amsterdam Island was claimed by the French in 1843 and was home to cattle herders by the close of the century. In 1857, when people on board the Congress passed St. Paul, over 24 men originally from Réunion lived on shore. (Ship journal of the Congress, Manuscripts Reading Room, Library of Congress)
The question remains: why would men decide to pursue such a bleak life?
“Nothing but the prospect of considerable advantage could be supposed to induce any human beings to reside fifteenth months together in a country so unpromising, and which their occupation in it rendered so disgusting.” (George Staunton, An Authentic Account of an Embassy…, 209)
Such a life would be unimaginably hard to us but this was an era when alternative employments included bloody whale hunting and the harvesting of guano. The opportunities and perhaps hint of independence offered by isolation must have appealed to some of these “voluntary exiles.”
The merchants who encountered these temporary islanders were shocked by their stench and lack of civilization. By the nineteenth century, Robinson Crusoe had become the by-word for isolation. His experience was seen as an experiment in (white male) ingenuity. Passers-by were curious: would these men succeed in recreating civilization or devolve into barbarism?
Most of the visitors decided it was the latter. Barrow noted that the men lived in a “small miserable hut, as dirty and offensive as that of an Hottentot.” (Barrow, A Voyage, 156) The unfavorable comparison suggested not merely a class distinction between the captain of a ship and the sailors forced to reside on the islands but also a racialized one.
Of course the overlap of class and racial hierarchy was typical of the nineteenth century. The shipwrecked British in 1833 even found the energy to degrade the lascar sailors for their laziness (M’Cosh, Narrative)
In 1877, Jules Verne used the islands as a vehicle for examining the real lives of Robinson Crusoes. One of his characters concludes that when a “little island is all his world,” a man suffers an unenviable death in the midst of loneliness (Jules Verne, A Voyage Round the World, 29).
After Verne’s characters explored the island, they said goodbye to one of the residents there. They left, “wishing him all the happiness possible on his desert island,” although the images included in the book suggest the limits of this possibility.
Of course Hollywood could envision a different future for the islanders.