Because the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers manage to combine specificity and vagueness in such a frustrating way, some people like to conclude that they must be outright fakes, or (at best) false elaborations woven from fragments of real events – and that we therefore stand no chance of ever getting to the truth, because whatever truth there is to be had is merely ethereal. Chasing this, then, would be not unlike trying to grasp a cloud.

Personally, I’m not even slightly convinced by this kind of reasoning, no matter how often I see it floated. The flaw in the argument is that historical evidence is rarely as neat and tidy as novelists would like: people don’t leave unambiguous digital trails behind them, real life is messy. And the more you work with the random evidential slurry to be found in archives, the more you’ll hold this to be axiomatically true.

The most genuinely productive stance to take is to instead assume that there is some ordering principle – some tangled, confounded rationality – in play, but that it just happens to sit beyond our current reach.

And so the best response is a combination of humility and patience, two hugely unfashionable qualities in these brash, attention-deficient days: persist with the specifics and keep on keeping on.

The Dying Captain

So: who was the unnamed corsair captain who handed the Missing Corsair the documents describing the location of the pirate treasure from his deathbed? The third (BN3) letter reads:

In my adventurous life before embarking on the Apollon, I was one of those pirates who did so much harm to our enemies Spain and England. We made many splendid captures from them, but at our last battle with a large British frigate on the shores of Hindustan, the captain was wounded and on his deathbed confided to me his secrets and his papers to retrieve considerable treasure buried in the Indian Ocean; and, having first made sure that I was a Freemason, asked me to use it to arm privateers against the English.

Until recently, the best candidate I had was Malroux, a corsair captain who died in a sea battle in the Indian Ocean at the right kind of time: but I had to admit that there were plenty of problems with him as a proposed match. For a start, the sea-battle where he died wasn’t really off the coast of India; and the ship Malroux faced (though English) wasn’t really a “large […] frigate”.

But perhaps I now have a better candidate…

François-Thomas Le Même

Because I’ve been reading Charles Cunat’s mentions of Joachim Vieillard in the last few days, I also took a look through his book on St Malo seamen’s derring do: “St. Malo, illustré par ses Marins”. And there I found a corsair whose story echoes that of the Dying Captain. And then immediately wondered why I hadn’t considered him before, despite having read about him in H.C.M.Austen’s “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean”. 😮

Though François-Thomas Le Même had made a fortune as an effective corsair, he then managed to lose the lot as an ineffective businessman. Which is why 1804 found him back as the captain of La Fortune (“18 guns of 8, and six carronades of 12”, says Austen), picking off a long series of easy prizes in the Indian Ocean. However, his ship was then run down off the coast of Gujarat by the large British frigate HMS Concorde (Captain Wood, 48 guns), and forced to lower its flag after one (Austen) or ten (Cunat) hours’ battle. The ship and its crew were taken to Bombay, arriving on 13th November 1804.

Incidentally, here’s a Mauritian stamp depicting him:


Austen continues (p.106):

“Lemême and all his principal officers were dispatched in the [East Indiaman] Walthamstow on 15th February, 1805, to England, under the escort of the frigates Concord[e] and Phaeton. Lemême’s career, however, was over. He died at sea on 30th March, in latitude 10 south and longitude 77 east.”

Cunat colourfully describes Le Même’s death throes (p.410):

“Appelant aussitôt près de lui ses intimes d’entre ses compagnons de captivité, il les entretint de sa famille, de deux filles chéries qu’il ne devait plus revoir, de celle surout qui devint plus tard l’épouse de capitaine de vaisseau [Vincent] Moulac. Il exprima ses regrets à quitter la vie avant d’avoir pu rétablir sa fortune, dans l’intérêt de ses enfants, puis, interrompu par une crise affreuse, il cessa de parler et perdit connaissance. On le crut mort… Il revint cependant à lui, assez de temps pour faire ses adieux à ceux qui l’entouraient, et rendit le dernier soupir avec le courage et la résignation d’un homme de bien.”

Gallois adds that Le Même’s officers also being taken to England on the Walthamstow were “Charpentier, Froussart, Bourdais et Baudot”: all of which pretty much concludes our romp through what is a fairly sparse evidential landscape.

Interestingly, though, La Fortune‘s prize papers are in the National Archives (HCA 32/1026/1859), as is HMS Concorde’s captain’s log covering the action (ADM 51/1529). In addition, the East Indiaman Walthamstow’s papers are in the British Library (L/MAR/B/196), so there’s still plenty of room for exploration of this research lead just yet…

“AFAHMAEP”, perhaps?

Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going with this.

What I’m wondering is that whereas the Voynich Manuscript needed an Emperor-sized fool to buy it to ensure its survival against the inquietudes of Time and Space, might it be that Le Même performed the same function for the Nageon de l’Estang papers?

That is, might someone have sold Le Même – during the couple of years in Mauritius when he was unbelievably flush with cash – the original set of Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers? Austen notes (p.104):

“Equipped with money [1,400,000 francs], but unfortunately without experience, he set up as a merchant-banker in Port-Louis. He very quickly discovered that he was no match for the local sychophants [sic] and sharpers who quickly surrounded him. In the year or two he had practically lost all his savings.”

The notion that a Mauritian sharper saw his chance to unload a “treasure map” on Mr Did-You-Hear-They’ve-Taken-Gullible-Out-Of-The-Dictionary does have an awful ring of truth to it. Which is not to say that the other BN documents are necessarily genuine or necessarily false, but rather that this might well have been the point when someone sold them to Le Même as if they were genuine.

Acronymically, “A Fool And His Money Are Easily Parted”, indeed.

Sources on Le Même

Austen’s account (pp.102-106) “is drawn up from the following sources : M. Gallois, Col. Malleson, St. Elme le Duc and [Charles] Cunat, and is believed to be as accurate as the lack of authentic information and variety of authorities permit it to be.”

* Charles Cunat. “St. Malo, illustré par ses Marins” (1857) [pp.403-410]
* St Elme le Duc. “Ile de France : Documents pour servir à son histoire civile et militaire” (reprinted 1925)
* Colonel G.B. Malleson. “Final French Struggles in India and on the Indian Seas” (1884) [pp.101-106]
* Gallois, Napoléon. “Les Corsaires français sous la République et l’Empire [Volume 2]” (1847) [pp.325-332]

I don’t believe that le Duc’s account is available anywhere online, but perhaps someone will point me to it behind a Geneanet paywall etc. 🙂

11 thoughts on “Was the Dying Captain François-Thomas Le Même?

  1. ‘ .. the best response is a combination of humility and patience, two hugely unfashionable qualities in these brash, attention-deficient days ..’

    Two things there, one of which neither of us has an abundant supply, the other enough to possibly get the job done.

    In the spirit of the season, Dome, good luck with l’estang, marrying fiction to fact is a devilish proposition.

  2. peteb: how nice, yet another snarky, unpleasant comment for me to moderate. Santa Claus must be delivering early this year.

  3. Pete bowes on December 6, 2016 at 9:11 am said:

    I tried .. and if what I said is interpreted as snarky, perhaps you should revisit the comment you made five years ago, when I started on the Somerton Man.
    So once again, good luck ..

  4. peteb: have no fear, whenever people leave snarky, dismissive, disparaging comments on my website I’m always able to trace the responsibility for that back to my own actions years before.

  5. Pete – Nick says, “I’m always able to trace the responsibility for that back to my own actions years before.”

    and you must admit that sort of statement shows a capacity for intellectual honesty and balance.

    Any lazy man can claim to be patient… he’s waiting on others who will do the work he is unable or unwilling to do.

    A plagiarist can claim humility – he admits that he can only imitate and parrot the work of better men.

    .. an empty character can make a reputation for himself by carefully and patiently undermining the reputation of those better at the work than he – the typical bureaucrat’s route to success.

    What makes the best truly the best is Intellectual integrity – which is the humility of the scholar.

    And Nick,
    I must have missed the post where you cited the evidence for the papers’ having at some stage changed hands for money. Would you mind giving the reference again?

  6. Diane: it was merely an interesting suggestion that nobody had managed to make in the last 200 years. 🙂

  7. peteb: oh, I’m sorry, I honestly didn’t know what had rattled your cage about this post. But please be completely reassured that when I referred to “novelists”, I genuinely wasn’t thinking about you at all.

  8. Pete bowes on December 6, 2016 at 9:12 pm said:

    Not rattled at all, just interested in your new project, you did write some time ago that other directions might be taken and I’m watching from the sidelines. You must admit, Dome, you do need a result somewhere otherwise all that’s left are years of wasted effort with nothing to show.

  9. Pete bowes: that’s actually quite interesting, because that identical argument has been thrown at me several times during the last few weeks – that because we haven’t completely cracked historical cipher/mystery X after Y years, then we must ‘therefore’ have made zero progress.

    I think the issue is that people confuse cracking the ‘code’ (which usually has a binary true/false cracked/uncracked status) with resolving the accompanying mystery (which is much more nebulous and unclear).

    For example, in the case of the Somerton Man, we now know a huge amount about Charles Mikkelsen’s life and death, and how that ties in with numerous long-standing strands (Kangaroo Island, Lawson’s visitors, etc). So I would argue that we can read Feltus’ book much more clearly than before and eliminate those parts that clearly refer to Mikkelsen, which I think amounts to genuine progress.

    In the case of the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers, I’ve created an interlinear transcription of numerous different versions, separated out the two tangled documentary layers, come up with pretty good candidates for the Missing Corsair and the Dying Captain, pointed out a whole load of archival references that would be good to look at, and done tons of other stuff as well. Just because I’m not sitting on a Mauritian beach on a solid gold deckchair drinking Pina Coladas doesn’t mean I’m not making progress. 😉

  10. Pete bowes on December 6, 2016 at 10:30 pm said:

    Fair enough .. although most of the progress I made was done sitting on a couch drinking rum.
    The comment you made years ago was to wish me luck, and since then both of us have exhibited lack of humility and patience in equal measures, in my poor view.
    So, as I said before, good luck.

  11. Pete bowes: I still wish you good luck, though you plainly don’t believe that such a wish is possible. And five years on, patience would seem to be something we both grudgingly possess.

    As for humility: for me, I’m talking about academic humility in the face of extraordinarily difficult research challenges. For example, I don’t look at the Somerton Man or the Voynich Manuscript and think that their mysteries should just dissipate under my intense gaze: these things are tangled beyond any normal measure, and there is (as far as can be determined) no royal road to the chequered flag – no microwriting, no melodramatic theses, no nothing.

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