THE WRECK OF THE AUGUSTE
James Buchan discovers an extraordinary 18th-century account
of adventure, disaster, survival and infamy
Aspy Bay AT Cape North, a village on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, there is one of those small museums you see all over North America where the bric-ii-brae of an entire district comes to rest. in among the friend- ship quilts, old soda bottles and salvaged ships' radios, I found a stack of xeroxed pamphlets bound in plastic, one of which I bought. It cost $3 Canadian. I took it to read on the vast beach at Aspy Bay.
The pamphlet was an English translation of the Journal du Voyage de M. Saint-Luc de La Come, Ecuyer, dans le navire L'Auguste, en l'an 1761. The original was published in Montreal in 1778, though I didn't know that till I came home and looked it up in the British Library. For a month this summer in Cape Breton, I car- ried the pamphlet with me till the plastic creased and the pages were gummed with dead mosquitoes and blueberries, while St -Luc de La Come flickered in and out of the spruces just ahead, maddeningly out of reach.
I'd seen the man before. In his famous history of the French in North America, the Bostonian Francis Parkman quotes an affidavit, taken before the Governor of Massachusetts on 17 October 1757, con- cerning the deplorable massacre of British and colonial wounded at Fort William Henry in upstate New York:
and that he the said Whitworth saw the French Indians about 5 o'clock in the morn of the 10th of August dragg the said seven- teen wounded men out of their Hum, Mur- der them with their Tomohawks and scalp them ... that several Canadian Officers par- ticularly one Lacorne were present and that none, either Officer or Soldier, protected the said wounded Men.
The next summer (according to other sources), a man called La Come, at the head of 400 Canadians and Indians, ambushed an English convoy on its way to Ford Edward just to the south and took 64 prisoners and 80 scalps: for this exploit, he was cited for the Cross. of Saint-Louis, a sort of ancien regime VC. The war went against France. Quebec fell. Montreal capitulated: most of the nobility and the merchants of the city, as well as the mili- tary and civil officers, accepted the British offer of repatriation to Old France. On 17 September, 1761, according to the Journal du Voyage, St-Luc set sail on the schooner Catiche with his younger brother, the Chevalier de La Come (also a leader of Indian irregulars and a cause of endless confusion in the sources); two sons and two nephews, all junior officers or cadets; the famous explorer Louis-Joseph de La. Verendrye, who had been a partner of St- Luc's in the fur trade before the war and was the first white Canadian to see the Rockies; five members of the Le Ber fami- ly, for years the richest feudal landowners in Canada; several married and unmarried ladies; other officers and Montreal mer- chants that I can't identify; and private sol- diers, women and children and domestics that St-Luc doesn't name. They were held up at Quebec until 15 October, when the
British at last made available the Auguste, with a crew of 19.
It was late in the year for setting off. As the Auguste sailed into the Gulf of St Lawrence, she ran into a violent storm. It blew for two days and several passengers were injured by tumbling trunks and valis- es. On 6 November, there was a calm dur- ing which she caught fire in the cook's galley; crew and passengers put out the fire but the ship was badly burned and there was nothing left to eat but biscuit. On the 11th, they came in sight of Newfoundland: everybody fell to fishing and they landed 200 cod. But off the coast of Cape Breton, they ran into another storm. Rounding a cape, they lost their bearings and tossed blindly. On the 14th, the exhausted crew took to their hammocks and would not budge even when cudgelled by the mate with a stick.
A conference was held on the bridge, with St-Luc present. They were in an immense bay, with land on both sides. The mate said they must run for shore: they could see the mouth of a river half a can- non shot away, which might be navigable. St-Luc went below to tell the passengers of the fatal decision, from which — though accustomed to command — he seems sub- consciously to distance himself, (The French is full of words of compulsion and destiny: le parti desespere, mais force . . . les capitaine et second . . . obliges de prendre . . . ii fallait le faire . . notre perte etait certaine . . . la main settle de la Providence . . .) Amid vows, screams and promises to heav-
en, the Auguste drove towards the shore, struck, and rolled on her side.
The sun was shining when I first read this. My wife and daughter were standing in the surf. Beyond them, the two great arms of Aspy Bay ran out into the bright Atlantic. An astonishingly rusty freighter swung slowly at anchor on the skyline. I thought: St-Luc is so precise, the wreck shouldn't be hard to find, if it hasn't been atomised by winter ice. I'd dive near the mouths of the Aspy River, half a cannon shot down the beach — say, three-quarters of a mile — in shallow water and between, as he says, 120 and 150 feet out.
What I didn't know was that in 1977, a diver from the town of North Sydney called Eddie Barrington found the remains of a wooden sailing vessel in about 12 feet of water off Middle Harbour Beach, some three-quarters of a mile from the mouth of the South Aspy river and a few hundred yards from the fishing harbour of Ding- wall. Because the wreck was so close inshore, he feared he couldn't guard it and brought in archaeologists from the Canadi- an Parks Service to help.
At Dingwall, the fishing has gone from bad to worse. First the swordfish were fished out and now even the cod is heading
that way. The mouth of the harbour has to be dredged all the time, which costs money. Talking to the fishing people, you'd think that the entire wealth of 18th- century Canada — all those bent fur monopolies and crooked army supply con- tracts — had been dumped in the sea off Middle Harbour Beach and then spirited away by the Parks Service. They are bitter. Even so, one man said that hundreds of thousands of dollars in treasure had found its way into people's houses; that gold coins kept being turned up on the beach below the Markland resort motel; and that St-Luc's Cross of St-Louis was lying in a safe deposit in Sydney.
I hope that's all true. All I ever saw of the Auguste treasure was the day-to-day junk of a colonial backwater: shoe-buckles, belt buckles, a medal, the hilt of a sword, moulds for making silver spoons, a pair of dividers, a Jew's harp.
The Auguste struck between two and three in the afternoon. There were two boats. The larger was swept away and dashed to pieces.
At the same instant, the smaller boat was thrown into the water. A servant of M. Laveranderie by the name of Etienne instantly threw himself into the boat; the captain and some others followed. I saw what was happening when one of the chil- dren that I had in my arms, and young Fiery [son of one of the bourgeois], who was fas- tened to my belt, cried out: 'Save us, save us! The boat is in the water.' With great pre- cipitation, I grabbed a rope and slid down to an opening; then with a violent effort, I threw myself out and landed in the boat; but lost my son and little Fiery, they weren't strong enough to follow me.
The French is precise and military, but you can just sense the shadow of Conrad's Lord Jim: the I-jumped-it-seemed. From now on, there seems something pathologi- cal in St-Luc's hyperactivity. By artificial respiration, he revives the six men who gained the beach. Having saved his flint and powder horn, he makes them a fire. Between five and six, the ship goes to pieces and the bodies begin to wash up on the beach. St-Luc counts 114 and lists their names and military ranks, including
those of his brother, sons and nephews. He keeps vigil all night. On the morning of the 16th, he sets everybody to burying the dead as best as they can.
On the 17th, they gathered provisions from the flotsam for eight days, except Laforet, Laforce and Monier, soldiers, who loaded themselves with plunder. The ship's captain thought they were in the region of the former French fortress of Louisbourg (which had fallen to the English in 1758), though this was, in reality, 150 miles away to the south. They walked to the end of the beach, waded the South Aspy in the bitter cold, crossed South Harbour and began to climb. There was no path and wasn't to be until the mid-1920s when a parkway called the Cabot Trail was built. In the Depres- sion, the spruce and fir woods were made into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park: at Black Brook, which must have been a nightmare to cross in November, there is now a picnic park; five miles on, at Green Cove, tourists in shopping-mall pas- tels or T-shirts with defiant retiree mes- sages (I FOUGHT THE LAWN AND THE LAWN WON) compare television reception by their Winnebagoes or move off at glacial pace on heavily laden Harley- Davidsons. St-Luc was probably 50 when he came by Green Cove in the winter of 1761.
On 21 November, it began to snow. There was little food left and three of the party wanted to lie down, but St-Luc kept them going. On the 25th, they came into the beautiful bay of Ingonish, where the Park has its headquarters and there is a hotel so stiflingly formal by Canadian stan- dards that men are encouraged to wear jackets, if possible, in the dining room (but not ties). St-Luc found some abandoned cabins in which lay the bodies of two dead men. Etienne fell sick of pleurisy; St-Luc bled him six times and sweated him three times during the night; but he refused to move and Monier offered to stay with him.
St-Luc left them four pounds of flour, two cooked chickens, a pound and a half of lard and half a pound of broken biscuits. They had no cooking pot, just a plundered gold goblet. St-Luc said he would send help `at the first inhabited region we reached' `Actually, business is booming, I sell fly posters!'
and 'would spare nothing in helping to res- cue them.' On the 26th, St-Luc, the ship's captain and the two other soldiers set off through 12 inches of snow up Smokey Mountain, which rears up like a hump- back whale from Ingonish Bay. St-Luc felt the deserted cabins were promising. I don't understand why he thought this or how he didn't know that, after the capture of Louisbourg, English raiding parties had destroyed every French fishing settlement on Cape Breton and the Gulf — 'a mea- sure of needless and unpardonable rigor', as Parkman calls it.
It took them eight days to go 25 miles. St-Luc made shoes for the others, often carrying their packs. At St Ann's Bay, they found another long beach all but closing in a large and beautiful harbour. At the end was a channel, which St-Luc correctly gives as 1,200 feet wide, where today a chain ferry called the Angus McCaskill will take your car across for 50 cents. They found only an abandoned boat of the kind called chaloupe or shallop. It lacked three planks and was rotten. The captain showed them how they could repair it, but a heavy snow- fall kept putting out their fire and demor- alised the men. They were down to 1V2 ounces a day of rotten provisions, apart from some rose-hips grubbed from under the snow and a seaweed he calls baudy, which might have been dulse. On 4 December, they got the boat into the chan- nel but the captain was feverish, in agony from lacerated feet, and refused to pro- ceed. The three others agreed.
I did not want to abandon them, and so we rested in Providence. A few minutes after we had made our desperate decision, two Indi- ans came upon us. Their coming was announced by the joyful cries of my compan- ions, who ran to them with outstretched arms, tears preventing them from speaking. One could hear only their sepulchral voices, choked with sobs, mumbling these words: `Have pity on us! Have pity on us!'
I smoked away at my pipe, looking quietly at this sad scene ...
The Indians recognised St-Luc from somewhere. Together, they conveyed the Frenchmen over the channel, lit a fire and left them the remains of the food. Then they set out for the Indians' cabin at the head of the bay. They returned the next day with two birch-bark canoes, embarked the others and set off, southwards, down the great sea-water lake called the Bras d'Or. On the 8th, they reached St Peter's at the base of Cape Breton Island, where there was a tiny settlement of five cabins. St-Luc immediately sent off the Indians to rescue the men left at Ingonish: he says he gave them 20 gold Louis, 80 pounds of flour, 50 pounds of lard, tobacco, powder, ball, a gold cup and many other things, though where he got these things, heaven knows.
St-Luc crosses into Nova Scotia proper. Through the ruined landscape, where everybody, white and Indian, is starving, he passes with astonishing speed: companions and guides fall away, victims of exhaustion, hunger or the agonising snow-shoe injury the French Canadians call mal de raquette: they are left at villages or army posts. St- Luc crosses into what is now New Brunswick. On 23 February, after 100 days of travelling in the worst country in the worst season, he arrives in Quebec and reports to the British military authorities. His violent physical therapy, if that's what it was, has worked: he ends the account with a reference to his expenses and this highly symptomatic sentence:
The hard experience of the shipwreck itself was almost forgotten in difficulties I encoun- tered in getting back to my homeland.
I thought I had seen the last of St-Luc, upright in his birch-bark canoe, vanishing into the brilliant expanse of the Bras d'Or, but he followed me to England. For some reason, he abandoned his plan to go to France and enlisted with the British. He keeps turning up in the British sources. He was an indifferent subject of George III. I found him stirring up the Indians at the time of Pontiac's revolt in 1763; involved in a highly questionable deal to hand over Montreal to the Americans, whose com- mander Richard Montgomery later described him as `a great villain and cun- ning as the devil'; in gaol in Philadelphia in 1775.
Released, he joined General John Bur- goyne's march against the American revo- lutionaries at the head of a big detachment of Canadian Indians. There were high hopes of these irregulars in London; but Burgoyne did not share them since, igno- rant of the American woods, he thought the colonists could be defeated by British regulars in open battle. There was the usual atrocity. On 29. July, 1777, a young woman called Jane or Jennie McRea, on her way to meet her fiancé in Burgoyne's army, was scalped and thrown in a ravine. Burgoyne wanted the murderer hanged. The Indians were on the brink of mutiny. Desperate, St-Luc persuaded Burgoyne to hold a conference of all the tribes on 4 August. The commander made a speech of which he was proud but the next morning, most of the Indians had vanished and with them, naturally, St-Luc.
I don't think Johnny Burgoyne forgave him. There was uproar in London. When the army surrendered at Saratoga, a com- ment attributed to St-Luc — it est brave, mais lourd comme un allemand — did the rounds of Burgoyne's enemies. Defending himself in the House of Commons, Bur- goyne said:
A gentleman has been in London great part of the winter, who I wish had been called to your bar. His name is St. Luc Le Come, a distinguished partisan of the French in the last war, and now in the British service as a leader of the Indians — He owes us indeed some service, having been formerly instru- mental in scalping many hundred British soldiers . . . He is by nature, education and practice, artful, ambitious and a courtier. I know, in private companies, his language has been, that the Indians might have done great services, but they were discharged. Sir, if to restrain them from murder was to dis- charge them, I take with pride the blame They were discharged. That circumstance apart, I should say that the Indians, and Mr St Luc at the head of them, deserted.
St-Luc replies with steely dignity. In a letter from Canada (fortunately published in the Scots Magazine, Vol. 40: 1778), he reminds Burgoyne that he has the right to be treated as a gentleman: this is 18th-cen- tury code for you want a duel, you got a duel. Burgoyne moderates his language. In his great apology for the campaign (A State of the Expedition from Canada, Lon- don 1780), he resorts to barely conscious innuendo: St-Luc begins as Mr. St. Luc, becomes St. Luc and ends as M. St. Luc.
Once you start reading shipwreck narra- tives, it gets hard to stop. In 1782, there appeared in London the account of anoth- er Cape Breton shipwreck, by a certain S. W. Prenties, ensign of the 84th Regiment of Foot (Narrative of a Shipwreck on the Island of Cape Breton in a Voyage from Quebec 1780). Prenties was wrecked on the west coast of the island: completely lost, the survivors set off for Louisbourg in the wrong direction, northwards. By the time they reached St Ann's Bay, they had only tallow and seaweed to eat — a diet so atrociously rich in sodium that their bodies couldn't evacuate water and swelled horri- bly. Reaching the end of the sand-bar, like St-Luc's party they were too weak to attempt the crossing. They had just decid- ed to kill and eat the ship's captain, who had been drunk at the wreck, stolen provi- sions etc, and generally had it coming to
we thought that we heard the sound of human voices in the woods; and soon after discovered two Indians, with guns in their hands, who did not seem yet to have per- ceived us. This sight gave us fresh strength and spirits; so, getting up, we advanced towards them with the greatest eagerness imaginable.
The Indians gave them food, and ferried them over to their camp at the head of the bay. Prenties continues:
As soon as I had done speaking, the old woman rose up, and after supplying us with some more broth, desired the interpreter to explain to us the shipwreck of the famous French partrisan St. Luc Lacorne on his pas- sage from Canada to France.
He informed us that this gentleman, of whose shipwreck I had already heard some- thing, was cast away directly upon the North Cape; that a great number of persons per- ished on the occasion, amongst whom were two of Mr. St. Luc's children, who were drowned in his arms as he was attempting to carry them on shore. He likewise informed me that, after his having remained five days there, and suffered much from cold and hunger, he himself had relieved him, and conducted him to Louisbourg; for which ser- vice, he said, Mr. St. Luc was indebted to him thirty pounds, which he promised to remit from Halifax, but had never performed it. Whether this part of the Indian's story be true or not, it is impossible for me to deter- mine.
Or me but I doubt it.
On 1 October, 1784, in the Rue St-Paul in Montreal, respectably, peacefully and at the age of 73 or 74, St-Luc de la Come died. I can't decide whether he was very tough or very lucky; or whether character and destiny might not be sides of the same coin, and it doesn't matter.