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…
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. 🙂