German cipher blogger/author Klaus Schmeh will be in London this weekend, so I’m setting up a Voynich pub meet in his honour. As long as he promises not to make Lego tableaux of the participants, as he did for Henry Debosnys


…and the Zodiac Killer (link in German)…


Not that we’re all, errrm, cipher-obsessed serial killers or anything. 😉

Anyway, the plan is to meet up around 7pm on Sunday (i.e. 30th October 2016) at the historic Thameside Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, not too far from where pirates were hung in the bad old days. (Though these days, the biggest pirates in London seem to get ever higher CEO salaries, please don’t ask me to explain how that works.) Princess Margaret, Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys all visited the Prospect of Whitby (says Wikipedia), a sleb list that is hard to argue with. 🙂

As to where we’ll be: if you go from the street into the pub, carry straight ahead then turn left just past the bar, then in front of you at the end, you should see a set of doors leading out to a pub garden / patio area. Which is where (if the weather is tolerably OK) we’ll meet up. Unless it’s all been redeveloped into chi-chi flats since we were last there.

Alternatively, if it’s raining so hard that it looks like the Gods want everyone in London to be washed into the Thames, we’ll be indoors somewhere, hopefully admiring someone’s shiny new copy of Yale University Press’s “The Voynich Manuscript” photo-facsimile, and arguing about exactly how bad/good/meh the essays are.

Hope to see you there! 🙂

By now, even occasional Cipher Mysteries readers may well know that Yale University Press is about to release a photo-facsimile version of the Voynich Manuscript, its $50 price-point rather less stratospheric than that of the schwizzy Spanish Voynich facsimile that so intrigued the media a few months back. (And for that, if you need to ask the price, you almost certainly can’t afford it.)

So, in anticipation of YUP’s version’s release on 1st November 2016, we now have the start of a mild flurry of promotional activity. For example, if you just happen to be near Yale Law School [it’s just across the street from the Beinecke] at 4pm-5pm this Wednesday (26th October 2016), there’ll be a talk focusing “on how the publishing process works”:

Beinecke Modern Books & Manuscripts Curator and Publications Director Timothy Young will talk with Joseph Calamia, editor at Yale University Press, about the challenges of creating a facsimile of an increasingly popular book and with Beinecke Early Books & Manuscripts Curator Ray Clemens on scholarship related to the Voynich.

And here’s an action shot of Ray Clemens, much more fun than the sub-passport-photo stuff you tend to find in online staff directories:


Oh, and here’s a photo of Glen S. Miranker having his brains vacuumed out while being shown the Voynich Manuscript by Paula Zyatz (it’s some non-disclosure clause, I think):


Not entirely relevant, but I thought you’d like to see it. 🙂

The Highs And The Lows

In most ways, a facsimile edition is – in these decorously digital days – an unnecessary slab of bourgeoisiana. The Beinecke has already released two completely independent sets of full-colour digital scans of the pages (both at reasonably good resolution), so I’d be one of the last people to argue that the YUP’s reproductions will themselves add anything of significant value to the overall Voynichological discourse.

(Sure, it’s annoying for Voynich purists that Jean-Claude Gawsewitch trimmed off many margins in his (2005) mostly-photographic-facsimile “Le Code Voynich”: but that was hardly fatal for what was effectively a coffee-table edition, and the Yale version’s plates – and even fold-out pages – seem unlikely to be ‘academically transformative’, let’s say).

Yet what of the essays at the front? Will these be enough to achieve the Beinecke’s goal of legimitizing the Voynich Manuscript as (a) a genuinely old object, and/or (b) an artefact worthy of serious scholarly study?

Personally, I don’t think so. Even though the Beinecke was given the Voynich Manuscript nearly fifty years ago, my opinion is that there is still painfully little genuine foundational research into it. For instance, we still have no idea what the original page order was; what the original quiration was; which paints were original (and which ones were added later); which parts of the various drawings were original (and which were added later); what the writing on the final (non-enciphered) page f116v originally said; nor even from which specific scribal milieu the main body of the writing came from.

Hence the core problem is this: even now, when academics approach the Voynich Manuscript, they do not have sufficient codicological factuality – i.e. about what happened to the manuscript to leave it in its current state – to build anything worthwhile on top of. All of which means that they might easily (but wrongly) be persuaded to place their trust in one of the numerous academic travesties currently being passed off as theories… and for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

One classic academic story used to be about the Professor of German who was well-versed in all the secondary sources, yet couldn’t actually speak German. But here, the scenario is arguably even worse: a whole host of academics trying to understand the Voynich Manuscript not through primary evidence, close observation and tight physical reasoning, but through the distorted funfair mirrors of Voynich theories.

All the same, I’ve ordered myself a copy (arguably with money I should be squirrelling away for Mauritian car hire, *sigh*), and I have little doubt that many Cipher Mysteries readers will be doing the same. Personally, I’d have been happier if the Beinecke had put the effort into getting the basic codicology and science right in time for the manuscript’s 50th anniversary in their curatorial hands than into producing what will probably be the tenth or maybe fifteenth coffee-table edition. But… you knew I was going to say that.

Here’s a link to a short video piece on the Moustier cryptograms from November 2015, courtesy of Belgian television network Notélé (Christophe M reminded me of this recently, but Etienne had also noted this here back in July).

Incidentally, I tried to grab the video stream so that I could transcribe the text for you here, but sadly Notélé’s online video streaming software proved to be too cunningly clever for the various Firefox add-ons I tried, so I gave up. *sigh*

Going through the film yielded two things that I didn’t previously know about the Moustier cryptograms:

(1) According to church records, the artisan who did the stonecutting (the film says in “1848”, but I’m sure the actual date was 1838) was a local sculptor called Pierre Brébant (?) from Tournai, a mere 15 miles away from Moustier. (However, I can find no trace of him, please let me know if you can do any better).

(2) Philippe Connart’s theory about the Moustier cryptograms is that their letter-shapes mimic the 10th century Merovingian-era palaeography employed by a monk in the Abbaye at St Amand les Eaux (formerly known as Elnon Abbey or Elnone Abbey), in a copy of works by the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople Gregory of Nazianzus.


I have to say I’m really not sure that Connart’s hypothesis really hits the spot: it’s a gigantic leap from the 10th century to the 19th century without any kind of obvious intermediary, or motivation, or need, or connection, or indeed boring churchy paperwork to support it. And of the two unusual letters that Connart highlights (a square-cut C and a zigzaggy S), only the first seems to appear in the Moustier carvings, which could easily be coincidental.

But what sits most awkwardly with me about this is that the Moustier carving simply doesn’t look like the work of a sculptor trying to emulate some high-class 10th century writing. Apart from the presence of a few unusual shapes, the carving looks rather amateurish and awkward: the letter-heights are inconsistent, while the letter-shapes also seem somewhat inconsistent.

Anyway, as always, opinions on this differ.

Namurois Crosses?

Incidentally, “La Belgique Mystérieuse” (1973) refers readers interested in the Moustier mystery to look at a number of ancient Namurois crosses whose inscriptions have resisted all interpretation. (“On connait également dans le Namurois plusieurs croix funéraires anciennes dont le texte mystérieux a résisté jusqu’à présent aux tentatives les plus ingénieuses d’interprétation.“). (p.119)

However, the best-known thing fiting that description was La Croix de Saint-Géry near Chastre, which is a 3-metre-tall cross without any trace of writing whatsoever. (Someone hit it with a car in 2013, knocking the top part of the cross clean off: but it has since been re-erected). Unlike Moustier’s curious carvings, the enigma there is simply that nobody has any idea where the cross came from (it was first mentioned in the 16th century, but seems older).

An 1875 letter by Camille Van Dessel (reproduced on p.284 [p.314 of the PDF] here) pointed to a notice by a M. Bamps in the Bulletin des Commissions royales d’art et d’archéologie suggesting two similar monuments:

L’une a été déterrée dans la plaine derrière Boekrak, l’autre à Zonhoven. M. Bamps prétend que ce sont des croix expiatoires, dont la première fut établie à la suite d’un abus de pouvoir du seigneur de Vogelzanck, la seconde à la suite d’un sacrilège commis en enterrant une statue miraculeuse.

Bamps’ note appears in full here (p.105 [p.119 of the PDF]): but both of the mysterious crosses whose histories Bamps tries to trace also have no inscription.

Hence my current belief is therefore that the Moustier set of inscriptions remains entirely unique in Belgium: but please feel free to leave a comment here if you can correct me. 🙂

Oh well! A great big thank-you-very-much-indeed to all those fabulous, brave, generous people who pledged their hard-earned money towards my proposed Mauritian pirate treasure documentary project: but – alas! – it was not to be. Cue oversized sad smiley:


I might try again in the future (and having experienced the whole Kickstarter ecosystem first-hand, I would of course do just about everything differently). But then again, solving the whole Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang pirate treasure mystery by my normal slow means could easily prove more practical than trying to fast-forward to the distant chequered flag of Historical Truth via crowdfunding a documentary.

As a result, I doubt anyone would be surprised if I were now to take my family on holiday to Mauritius and leave them on the beach while I just happen to accidentally sneak off to various historical archives for a day. (Or ten.) 🙂 And on the bright side, given that there can’t be many books on the topic left for me to throw scads of money at, I might now actually be able to start to afford it. 😉

Also: what emerged from the surfeit of Nageon de l’Estang posts here was that many of the relevant archives are actually in France rather than Mauritius. For example, details about Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang’s family are very likely to be in the archives in Lorient: while I would be utterly unsurprised if the Missing Corsair’s life story is to be found scattered through various French marine archives. So I may well have to engineer some way to get myself over to La Belle France for a few days too. 😉

I don’t know: the historical mysteries I try to cover are all genuinely fascinating stories that have ended up wrapped up in layer upon layer of misperception and mythology. And so initially the whole point of the Kickstarter project was to devise a way to try to sidestep the all-too-familiar walking-through-treacle research feeling for just one of these historical mysteries.

But as the project took better shape, what I came to understand was that pirate treasure has an unbelievably powerful resonance within Mauritius, something that people outside the island rarely grasp. Treasure hunting is something that has deeply permeated Mauritian culture over the last century, and even – I suspect – Mauritians’ idea of self.

And so what I ended up hoping to do with the documentary was something far closer to using pirate treasure as a mirror to hold up to Mauritius itself, to reflect back Mauritians’ collective idea of their own history. In many ways, I wanted to try to interview an entire country, something that has never been attempted (and may well never be attempted). But how can you sell that as an idea for a film?

Was I aiming to make a documentary about an actual pirate treasure; about the hopeful dream of finding pirate treasure that an entire country shared; or about how such dreams define a nation? In part, I couldn’t help but want to do all of them at the same time. As a result, it felt as though I finished the whole Kickstarter cycle with too grandly epic a conceptual narrative to squeeze into any small margin.

As a parallel, single-topic historical books have been in vogue for years – telling the history of sugar, of salt, of bananas, of wood, in fact of any damn thing you can name. The reason they’re interesting isn’t that general book readers suddenly want to become experts in what salt meant for Florentines in the Quattrocento (even though this is a genuinely interesting question), but because they open an interesting window onto a whole range of different (and apparently unlinked) histories. That is, these books offer up a kind of synthetic physical narrative that modern historians tend to eschew: and so they are innately romantic and old-fashioned, harking back to the days when historians were often closer to novelists than was genuinely comfortable.

This is just as true for difficult and contested objects such as the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers: there, you have to engage with whole swathes of history in order to put one apparently small thing into its correct set of contexts – the sinking of the St-Géran, the attack on Madras by La Bourdonnais’ fleet, the naval war between the British Navy and Napoleon’s fleet, the Légion d’Honneur and so forth.

So in many ways, you can’t tell a story about this kind of cipher mystery without telling a vastly bigger story about everything that it cuts across that gave it shape, or gave it external meaning: and that’s something that’s arguably beyond the reach of a blog, an article, a crowdfunded documentary, or even a book.

Really: for all the historical grind that I put into researching historical mysteries, I guess what I’m perpetually reaching towards are things that are implicitly romantic and yet forensically rigorous; that touch on deeper truths that even literature cannot reach, and yet require deft scientific precision; and that require off-the-scale intuition and logic to deal effectively with, yet perpetually sit just the wrong side of the limits of what we can know.

Ultimately, what I’m describing is neither a narrative nor a microcosm, but an eternal battle against the gods, against thermodynamics, against Time itself. Maybe I should learn not to be so damned impatient… 😉

One thing I’ve been trying really hard to do over the last few weeks is to identify the “Missing Corsair”, i.e. the person who (seems to have) owned the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers in mid-1811 (i.e. just after the Fall of Tamatave marked the effective end of France’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean).

This Missing Corsair claimed to have been honoured by the First Consul for a glorious feat of arms: which (in English) would seem to mean that Napoleon Bonaparte made him a Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur for some feat of bravery, presumably in the Indian Ocean.


Given that this Missing Corsair called his ‘commandant’ Captain “Hamon” or “Harmon”, my working hypothesis for the last few months has been that we should be able to narrow our search down to a small group of men: those rewarded by Napoleon for the part they played in the Battle of Grand Port, and even more specifically those sailing on La Vénus under Capitaine Hamelin.

But despite being so very specific, the list of names in this group has proved very hard to dig up. *sigh*

Finally, A Lucky Break

Though I had managed to identify some of these men (though in admittedly a very piecemeal fashion) via Google, the bulk of my searches had revealed nothing really substantial. Well, that was true right up until a couple of days ago, when I finally dug up the page in the Journal de Paris, Lundi 24 Decembre 1810, no 358, where the names of the new Légionnaires were all announced.

And then, having found that Journal de Paris list, I was able to use the names on that to dig up a further list of the same names by way of general confirmation.

Nicely, the people appear in strict numerical order: so my guess is that each ancien numéro reference is made up of a page number and a line, e.g. “28302” is page #283, line #2 of the ledger.

The biggest problem is that we often only have a surname to work with, and not every name has a corresponding entry within the Léonore database (i.e. of Légion d’Honneur recipients). However, I’ve managed to identify all bar three of the names (eventually), so we’re now hopefully much further along than we were before.


Les capitaines de vaisseau
(no ancien numéro) Jacques-Félix-Emmanuel Hamelin
(no ancien numéro) Baron Duperré


Les capitaines de vaisseau
28302 René Constant Le Marant de Kerdaniel
28303 Pierre François Henry Étienne Bouvet de Maisonneuve

Les capitaines de frégate
28304 Nicolas Morice
28305 Alexandre Louis Ducrest de Villeneuve
28306 Albin Roussin
28307 Thomas Julien Fougeray du Coudray

(Everything below here is a lightly-annotated set of notes relating to each of the non-captains made a Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur on the 20th December 1810. Only three remain completely unknown: Mauclerc, Vieillard, Ackman. We probably need not concern ourselves with Duplessis and René Decaen.)

Le chef de bataillon d’artillerie de marine
28308 Etienne-Elisabeth Mourgues, 22/08/1774 Brest – 24/04/1833 Sens.

Les lieutenants de vaisseau
28309 Henri-Felix Moisson, 14/01/1784 Caen – 03/12/1832 Brest

28310 Francois-Auguste Costé, 22/12/1770 Le Havre

28311 Bonnaventure [Bonaventure] Thirot, 21/6/1781 Le Faou – 22/9/1850 Lorient
Son of Guilleaume Louis Thirot, brigadier.
Married Cézarine COSMAO-DUMANOIR (b.1794), from which Caroline de la POIX de FREMINVILLE (born THIROT).

28312 Edouard Victor Longueville, 12/8/1784 St Servan – 3/1/1862 Brest
Son of Sieur Nicolas Jacques Longueville and Dame Marie Anne Dubois

28313 René Decaen (“frère du Général Decaen”)

Le capitaine des chasseurs des colonies
28314 Duplessis

Les enseignes de vaisseau
28315 Michel-Joseph-Guillaume De Rabaudy, 10/1/1784 Amiens – 24/7/1837
“Fils de François de Rabaudy, garde du corps du roi et de Aimée Latiez-Dumermon”
Père: RABAUDY (de) François Marguerite
Mère: LATTIEZ DE MERMONT Aimable Aimée
“Il était marié à Marie-Thérèse-Anne-Suzanne Desvimes”

28316 Roquefeuille
Camille Joseph de Roquefeuil-Cahuzac, 27/1/1781 Cahuzac-sur-Vère – 7/11/1831 Saint-Paul (La Réunion)

28317 Isaie Alexis de Longueville, 1788 – 1838
Son of Sieur Nicolas Jacques Longueville and Dame Marie Anne Dubois

28318 Mauclerc ?

28319 Vieillard ?

28320 Vincent-Marie Moulac, 2/3/1778 [1780?]Lorient – 5/4/1836 Callao

28321 Robert-Nicolas Lefebure, 18/4/1788 Cherbourg –
Son of Matthieu Lefebure & Julie Anne Marie Drouet
Married Louise-Eglantine Delabriere
Had a daughter Julie-Mathilde Lefébure: he was from a family which had owned “la terre de Gavatot pres d’Auzebosc et en avait parfois porte le nom au XVIIIeme siecle”.

28322 Jean-Baptiste Jardin, 23/6/1788 Dinan –
1819-1820 Falkland Islands, on the Victor

Le lieutenant d’artillerie de marine
28323 Ackman ?

L’aspirant de première classe
28324 Louis Augustin Médéric Malavoie [Malavoye], 31/8/1793 Seychelles – 28/12/1836 Saint-Louis-du-Sénégal. Was briefly Governor of Senegal.
Son of Louis Jean-Baptiste Philogène de Malavois (Scarr p.11).

Cipher Mysteries commenter ‘Chris’ has put forward an angle on the Somerton Man mystery that is quite different from the narratives that have immured so many of us for such a long time.

Chris was told that the Somerton Man died as “a result of him wanting to confess to his involvement in a murder in SA in 1943 […] he wanted to confess but the others did not want him to. He came back to SA after the war because he could not live with what had happen.”

The murder in question was that of young railwayman Clarence Keith Seckold on 7th October 1943, who was found dead on the grounds of Government House. While he had significant blunt force trauma to his head, his lower body had also been slashed and mutilated in a way that the Brisbane “Truth” (uncharacteristically finding itself short of words) described as “shocking and unusual”.

What Chris was told was that three people were involved in the killing, one of whom was directly connected to Government House. He suspects that this person may well have been Governor Charles Malcolm Barclay-Harvey, who (perhaps coincidentally) was admitted to hospital the following day, postponing all his engagements, at a time when his wife and daughter were (perhaps coincidentally) both away in Canada. Moreover, Barclay-Harvey (a well-known high-ranking Freemason, perhaps coincidentally) resigned from his post in the following April (“for health reasons”, according to Wikipedia) and returned to his 14,000-acre Scottish estate.


I say “perhaps coincidentally” a lot, because there is – as yet – not a shred of publicly available evidence to support this story.

Lady Muriel’s Horses

Malcolm Barclay-Harvey’s wife was Lady Muriel Felicia Vere Barclay-Harvey (née Bertie) (1893-1980), “Nurse and founder of the Lady Muriel Nurses’ Club; former wife of Henry Liddell-Grainger, and later wife of Sir Charles Barclay-Harvey; daughter of 12th Earl of Lindsey”, according to the National Portrait Gallery.

Chris was told that Lady Muriel owned a number of racehorses: and – oddly enough – that it was she who (allegedly) arranged with the South Australian Grandstand Bookmakers’ Association to make sure that the Somerton Man was buried properly.

[Note: it’s certainly true that Lady Muriel did own some racehorses – not only Waxwings (that she bought from Sidney Reid, according to the omniaudient Lady Kitty), and who famously won the Derby in 1940 in a record time), but also a less successful horse called Marble Hill. According to this article, she still had Waxwings in October 1946 (despite her having left Australia in 1944), but was thinking of shipping him back to the UK: and according to this article, she gave Marble Hill to Sidney Reid as a parting gift when she left Australia.]

Chris says he was told all this in 1970 by a soldier working in Army Intelligence (that most famous of oxymorons) in Northern Territory, (1970 was the year following Charles Barclay-Harvey’s death): but that though he didn’t believe it at the time, when he returned to the story nearly fifty years later (!), he was surprised to discover that many of the details did seem to check out.

Army Intelligence?

Naturally, I wondered what the connection with Army Intelligence might have been. But having gone through all the cuttings in Trove, this didn’t emerge until more than a year after Clarence Seckold’s murder, when the police announced they were looking for “a returned soldier in his early thirties”.

Their search (described by the Sydney Truth as an Australia-Wide Hunt For Insane Killer) was for a well-known Sydney criminal, who they believed was involved with four different murders: Clarence Keith Seckold (25), Francis James Davey (22), Phillip John Beattie (22), and [in Sydney] divorcee Mrs Mary Gwendoline Bakewell

The Adelaide Police were convinced that the same “sex pervert” was responsible for the gruesome deaths of Seckold and Davey: Beattie was shot at close range by a man on a bicycle – the cyclist was then seen by a Lieutenant Norman Munro. Beattie died a little while afterwards in a military hospital, before being able to give a more detailed account of his attack.

All in all, then, it is perhaps not surprising that Army Intelligence would take an interest in the case. However, what I do find odd is that the alleged connection to the Somerton Man cold case was – as I recall – never mentioned in Gerry Feltus’ book. If so, it would seem to be something that they have resolutely kept under their hats for fifty years. Perhaps it is time to ask them to take off those hats and let us have a look.

The Conspiracy of Three?

The Seckold conspiracy theory would seem to run along the following lines: (1) that Charles Barclay-Harvey was (supposedly) having some kind of after-hours dalliance or sexual activity in the park behind Government House, which (2) was observed (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not) by Clarence Seckold [there were many lurid accounts of homosexuals, ‘foxers’ and ‘gliders’ in the park from that time], leading (3) to Seckold being savagely beaten up by one/two minders/associates of Barclay-Harvey, leading (4) unfortunately to his death.

The Army Intelligence people might well have reasoned that whereas the police were looking for a single man, the deaths could equally well have been down to two different – but closely linked – people. In which case Army Intelligence almost certainly know the identity of one (if not both) of them, but were unable to prove it or close the file.

If this is even vaguely along the right lines, arguably the right place to start would be some kind of Freedom of Information request to Army Intelligence relating to the files surrounding this case – what the files say is what they say, and I’m not yet in any kind of position to second-guess what they do say. But am I the right person to be making such a request? I’m not sure. Something to think about, anyway. =:-o

A year back, I was as mystified by the whole story surrounding the letters linked to Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang as anyone else: no matter how hard I tried to fit the various historical jigsaw pieces together, nothing seemed to link up to anything else in any sensible way.

However, six months ago I took a fresh look at it all, and posted here about a new hypothesis that offered the possibility of explaining pretty much everything: my suggestion was that the evidence pointed not to one person but to two peoplea pirate and a Missing Corsair.

Since then, how close have I managed to get to the edge of this knowledge?

The Chevalier

I believe that the reason people started referring to Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang as “Chevalier Nageon” in the 1920s is that someone had noticed the following in the third (“BN3”) letter:

“With the benevolence the First Consul showed me after a glorious feat of arms…”

Here, the “First Consul” can only have been Napoleon Bonaparte: and the way that Napoleon rewarded people (after 1802) was by inducting them into the ranks of the Légion d’Honneur. Hence the ‘benevolence’ was surely at least the lowest ‘Chevalier’ rank of the Légion d’Honneur… ergo the letter-writer was a Chevalier. And if the letter-writer was Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang, then he would be “Chevalier Nageon”, Q.E.D.

However, even if (as I hypothesized back in April) we break the long-assumed link between Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang and the BN3 letter, the rest of the chain of logic still seems to be OK: that is, even if Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang wasn’t a Chevalier, the BN3-letter-writer very probably was. As a result, I firmly believe that we should be looking not merely for a Missing Corsair, but rather a Missing Corsair who was at least a Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur.

Furthermore, I think it extremely likely (95%) that:
* the Missing Corsair’s “Captain Hamon / Harmon” in BN3 was Jacques-Félix-Emmanuel Hamelin
* the Missing Corsair was on Hamelin’s 380-person-strong La Vénus
* the Missing Corsair was one of the marine captains and officers entered into the Légion d’Honneur on 20th December 1810
* the Missing Corsair was on one of the parlementaires carrying prisoners of war that arrived back in Morlaix in Spring 1811

But which particular parlementaire do I think he was on?

The Missing Corsair Returns To France

We already know that Hamelin arrived at Morlaix on the Bombay Merchant on 15th February 1811, and that Isaie Alexis de Longueville arrived on the Anna on the 14th April 1811: so we already have two possible ships it could have been

Moreover, I found out a little bit more about Albin Roussin’s journey in an 1887 article called “Les héros de Grand-Port” (in Review des Deux Mondes, 1887, volume 84, pp.101-123). Of course, having dug this up the hard way by trawling through Gallica, I then promptly found a plaintext version of the article in WikiSource. Oh well!

Regardless, this article says (p.113) that Albin Roussin was put on the parlementaire Lord Castlereagh on 11th December 1810, and arrived back in Morlaix on the 19th March 1811. When Roussin was presented to the Emperor (in the following May) in front of a large audience, Napoleon told him: “Je souhaite que vous ayez beaucoup d’imitateurs” (‘I hope that you will have many imitators‘)

So it seems that our Missing Corsair could plausibly have arrived at Morlaix in February 1811, March 1811, or even April 1811: which isn’t very helpful. However, I then found a mention in Biographie des hommes du jour industriels, conseillers-d’État …, Volume 3 that said:

Le capitaine Hamelin, transporté à bord de la Boadicea, fut conduit à Saint-Paul, où il obtint un bâtiment parlementaire sur lequel il s’embarqua avec son état-major et son équipage, et qui les débarqua à l’île de Bas, au mois de février 1811 ; de là le capitaine Hamelin se rendit à Paris, où il fut présenté à l’empereur, qui le félicita publiquement sur sa belle conduite à l’Ile de France.

…which I (freely) translate as…

Captain Hamelin, having been taken on board HMS Boadicea, was then taken to Saint-Paul [in Réunion], where he and his staff and crew were placed onto a neutral boat, from which he subsequently disembarked at the Île de Batz [near Morlaix] in February 1811. From there, Captain Hamelin went on to Paris, where he was presented to the Emperor, who publicly congratulated him on his exemplary conduct in the Ile de France.

Hence I think it highly likely that the Missing Corsair returned to France on the same boat on which his commander Captain Hamelin travelled back (i.e. the Bombay Merchant), and hence arrived at Morlaix on or just before the 15th February 1811.

A Spider In A Hole

Even though Captain Hamelin was taken on board HMS Boadicea, there were two other British ships specifically involved in the action against Hamelin’s La Vénus in September 1810: the Otter and the Staunch. (The Windham was also not too far away in Ile de Bourbon, but this was an East Indiaman rather than a frigate or a brig).

Hence I grabbed an hour in the National Archives in Kew this morning to look at the Captain’s Logs for these three ships: the Boadicea (ADM 51/2176), the Otter (ADM 51/2622), and the Staunch (ADM 52/4619). Unfortunately, even though all three logs did indeed gave an account of the specific day in question, there was nothing like a prisoner list or list of captured officers in any of them which we might cross-reference against the Légion d’Honneur records. Which is a shame, but it is what it is.

All in all, as far as historical archives go, I can do no better than pass on the Italian aphorism that Sergio Toresella once told me (freely translated): though I’ve crawled into dark holes many times, I’ve never yet caught a spider there.

So how do I plan to catch this particular elusive spider?

What About The Bombay’s Records?

Even though I’ve already contacted the French marine archives about the Morlaix prisoner of war list for the Bombay Merchant, I’m not honestly expecting a quick response: I guess it’s more likely to be a document I’d physically need to go to Brest to find myself.

But in the meantime, all is not lost, insofar as there are still a few more things I can check a little closer to home first.

The next set of historical resources I plan to go through is in the British Library. Oddly, the most effective way to find stuff held there to do with the East India Company is to use the National Archives’ Discovery document search engine, which covers the holdings of numerous UK archives. Doing this has revealed a whole load of files held there that might just answer the question:
* IOR/G/9/2 – ff. 152-236, 239-254, 393-409, 492-495, 506-507
* IOR/G/9/7 – ff. 138-144, 145-146, 183-188
* IOR/G/9/11 – ff. 84-169, 170-185
* IOR/G/9/25 – ff. 108-115
* IOR/H/701 – (covers the capture of Mauritius, just for the sake of completeness)

But I suspect the most intriguing set of documents at the British Library may turn out to be L/MAR/B/48 – “journals, ledgers, pay books, imprest books and absence books” relating to the “Bombay” East Indiaman.

Currently, it seems probable to me that the Bombay (Merchant) was the same ship sailed by Captain Archibald Hamilton (1778-1848), and about which the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has plenty of papers (HMN/60 through to HMN/70 and beyond).

Really, though, the bigger question with all this would seem to be: how close to knowing something do you have to be to actually know it? It feels as though I’m steering my research ship as close to the edge of what we know as can be sensibly maintained – I’m hunting a person for whom I have only indirect evidence, based on a set of letters that itself sits right on the limit of what can be worked with at all.

But perhaps all that is needed now is a single piece of external evidence and this whole wave-function collapses into a single fact, a single name to really go to town on. Wouldn’t that be nice, eh?

When the Conseil du Sceau des Titres met on 20th December 1810, it made a set of recommendations as to who should be rewarded for their bravery, honour, or long service by being entered into (or advanced within) the Légion d’Honneur.

As we have seen, Jacques Félix Emmanuel Hamelin was on this list (though he was, at this point in his career, merely one sea captain of many), along with an as-yet-unknown number of his marine officers: but many other French captains who had fought in the Indian Ocean also found themselves rewarded by the same committee.

Over the last few days, I have managed to squeeze a fair few names from the dried-up toothpaste tube of history. What got me started was the article starting on p.402 La France Maritime volume 1 (1837) (p.626 of the PDF), which I had in turn found quoted in this webpage.

The List So Far

And with that as a starting point, I uncovered several more valiant sea captains, yielding the following list:
* Pierre François Henry Étienne Bouvet de MaisonneuveLegion d’Honneur scans – ancien numéro 28303
* Alexandre Louis Ducrest de VilleneuveLegion d’Honneur scans – ancien numéro 28305
* Albin RoussinLegion d’Honneur scans – ancien numéro 28306
* Thomas Julien Fougeray du CoudrayLegion d’Honneur scans – ancien numéro 28307
* Isaie Alexis de LonguevilleLegion d’Honneur scans – ancien numéro 28317

According to Denis Piat, Roussin was presented to Napoleon in Morlaix in March 1811. There is a nice painting of Roussin in Versailles, which I took across from here:


Unfortunately, it currently seems that none of the people on my list had a brother called Étienne, so our shortlist of possible names for the Missing Corsair remains as resolutely empty as ever. But I keep looking…

Even so, it would seem that the original numbers assigned to these entrants into the Légion d’Honneur were all close to each other: so in theory, all we would need to do to find the name of our Missing Corsair is to dig up the ‘ancien’ list of Légion d’Honneur rewardees and examine everyone numbered from around 28300 to 28320 or so.

Alas! That list seems – unless you know better – not to exist any more, except in implicit form on the scans of the cards: and the Léonore database contains no field for ‘ancien numéro’, and I have found no trace of the original list anywhere in the archives. So once again, all I can do is keep looking…

Beneath Every Rock

And so it seems that I’m now back trying to track down the crewlist of La Vénus, so that I can cross-reference the names of its officers forward into the Léonore database. On the bright side, I now have several new leads to follow. 🙂

Firstly, thanks to a page on Henri Maurel’s site, I can see that The National Archives of Mauritius have a document called “GB 45” dated 1808, and described as “Rôle d’équipage de La Vénus, Cap Hamelin”. As is almost inevitable, GB 45 hasn’t yet been digitized (even though, for example, GB 40 has, *sigh*), but this is definitely something I’d like to look at in Mauritius.

I also realized yesterday that I haven’t yet had a chance to look at the logs for HMS Boadicea (ADM 51/2176), HMS Otter (ADM 51/2622), and HMS Staunch (ADM 52/4619). Of the three, my guess is that HMS Boadicea is the one most likely to have the prisoner of war list from La Vénus: but until I get to the National Archives in Kew once again, I won’t know.

And I continue to suspect that a prisoner of war list with Hamelin’s name on it must be somewhere in the French archives. The closest I’ve yet got is in Service historique de la Défense (SHD), Sous-série Yj. There, in the very last part of this page on arrivals at Morlaix in Section 10Yj is a section called “ETAT NOMINATIF DES OFFICIERS SUPERIEURS ET AUTRES ARRIVES A MORLAIX SUR LE CARTEL ANGLAIS « LE MARCHAND DE BOMBAY »”… “A Morlaix, le 15 février 1811”.

This, of course, initially got me hugely excited: but it seems that there’s nothing useful there as far as our hunt for the Missing Corsair goes – it’s hard to say whether the person transcribing the page only copied the parts related to the army, or whether that’s all there actually was in section 10Yj (it is the SHD, after all). Nothing’s ever easy, is it?

Incidentally, Isaie Alexis de Longueville’s records state that he was on the ‘parlementaire’ the Anna, arriving in the Cape of Good Hope on 10th January 1811, left on the 28th, and finally arrived at Morlaix on 14th April 1811: yet this doesn’t seem to be covered by this archive either.

Like a string of strangely distant pearls, details larded through Nageon de l’Estang letter BN3 seem to tell us a lot about its author (the person I call the “Missing Corsair”, who I now believe was not the person who wrote BN1 and BN2).

I’ll go through BN3 slowly, showing what I think we can infer from it:

BN3 Analysis

Beloved brother, I’ve been sick since the fall of Tamatave, […]

The Fall of Tamatave in 1811 was a hugely symbolic moment for the French: by then blockaded all too effectively in their European ports, this defeat marked the end of their ambitions in the Indian Ocean too. Effectively, Tamatave was where the French dreams of fighting on a world stage were finally shut down.

despite the care of my friend the commander.

The writer has a close personal relationship with his commander: which probably means he was an officier of some sort, rather than merely a matelot or (dare I say it) mousse.

I am weak, I fear death from one moment to the next, I wish to talk to you one last time dear Étienne and give you my greatest recommendations.

The writer’s brother is called Étienne.

When I am dead, Captain Hamon/Harmon will give you the little that I possess that I saved during my adventurous life at sea.

The people copying these letters obviously had some difficulty making out the name of the captain: however, I think we can infer from the rest of the letter that the writer’s captain was none other than Jacques Félix Emmanuel Hamelin (later appointed Rear Admiral and Baron), and that the ship was very probably La Vénus.

You know, dear Étienne, that my life’s dream was to amass a fortune to bring back our family’s splendour.

It seems that the writer was from an old French family, quite possibly aristocrats who lost everything in the French Revolution. Unfortunately, that’s perhaps not a particularly telling clue: numerous aristos suffered the same sudden reverse of fortune at that time.

With the benevolence the First Consul showed me after a glorious feat of arms, I had hoped to return.

The “First Consul” was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte: and by far the most “glorious feat of arms” that took place in the Indian Ocean was the Battle of Grand Port (this is even commemorated on the Arc de Triomphe). And the ship that played the most central role in that was (you guessed it)… Jacques Félix Emmanuel Hamelin’s La Vénus.

But as God will not allow me to perform this duty and I feel close to death, swear to me dear Étienne that you will execute my wishes. In my adventurous life before embarking on the Apollon,

The Apollon had a brief life as a corsair ship, doing well when commanded by Hodoul in 1797, before being captured in 1798. It would therefore seem likely that the writer of BN3 was on the Apollon when she was captured.

I was one of those corsairs 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

This has been hard to track down, but currently it seems likely to me that this was Captain Malroux’s Iphigénie, which blew up in a dramatic sea-battle at night. I have read (and transcribed) numerous accounts of this battle, and from these the captain’s whereabouts and manner of death are both not at all clear.

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.

It is not currently known whether Malroux was a Freemason (this is something I’d like to check in Mauritius!): but given that plenty of other corsairs active in Mauritius at the same time had not long before joined a lodge in Port Louis, this would (on the surface) seem to be quite a likely scenario.

But I abhor this wandering life, so I decided to enlist permanently and wait for France to calm down before finding these treasures and return back there. Swear to me that your eldest son will carry out my wishes and one day return to our house with the fortune.

The writer’s brother Étienne has more than one son.

What happened to Jacques Félix Emmanuel Hamelin?


This is best covered in this account from 1837:

Mais après trois quarts d’heure du combat le plus acharné, il se voit forcé d’amener son pavillon. Transporté à bord de la Boadicea, il fut conduit à Saint-Paul, où il obtint un bâtiment parlementaire sue lequel il s’embarqua avec son état-major et son equipage, et qui les débarqua à l’île de Bas, au mois de février 1811.

This is then followed immediately by a footnote telling the next part of the story:

Sur le compte rendu, par le capitaine general, de événements arrives à l’Ile-de-France, le ministre de la marine Decrès adressait au capitaine Hamelin la dépêche suivante:

Paris, le 27 décembre 1810.

“L’Empereur, monsieur, dans le compte que je me suis empressé de lui render des dernières operations de ses forces navales réunies à l’Ile-de-France, a donné une attention particulière aux details qui vous sont personnels.

“Sa Majesté a bien voulu remarquer que vous avez complété les succès que M. le capitaine du vaisseau Duperré avait obtenus dans les journées du 23 ay 25 août, et que vous avez ensuite attaqué et pris le frigate le Ceylan dans un combat corps à corps.

“Quels qu’aient été les événements qui ont suivi, Sa Majesté n’en a pas moins apprécié l’honourable défense que vous avez faites lorsque, désemparé par un précédent combat, vous avez été attaqué par des forces supérieures. Elle a daigné, en recompense de ces différentes actions qui toutes attestent votre habileté et votre bravoure, vous élever au grade de commandant de la Légion-d’Honneur.

“Sa Majesté a bien voulu également répandre ses graces sur les officiers qui vous ont si dignement secondé, et j’adresse à M. le capitaine general Decaen les décrets qui consacrent ces actes de satisfaction.

That is to say, Decrès wrote, His Majesty not only raised Hamelin to the level of “Commandant” in the Légion d’Honneur in honour of his “skill and bravery” (votre habileté et votre bravoure), he also expressed the wish that “the officers who assisted [Hamelin] so worthily” in the Battle of Grand Port should be similarly honoured (i.e. by entering them into the Légion d’Honneur). Hence his naval minister Decrès had written to General Decaen in Ile-de-France to ask him to make this so.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t actually going to be possible in the way Decrès hoped: unknown to him, Ile-de-France had already capitulated to the British on 3rd December 1810.

Hence at the time of the letter, Hamelin and his fellow prisoners of war were on a ship called the Bombay Merchant travelling via the Cape of Good Hope to drop them all off in France – they would arrive in early February 1811.

Which of Hamelin’s officers were inducted into the Légion d’Honneur?

Finally! We reach the most interesting question of the whole research thread.

And the answer is: I don’t yet know… but I’m trying really hard to find out.

I strongly suspect that if I could determine the names of all people who were inducted into (or raised a level) in the Légion d’Honneur on the 20th December 1810 (the specific date given in Hamelin’s file card entry there), we would find the names of all these officers. And one of those officers was – I now firmly believe – the same Missing Corsair who wrote the letter BN3 in mid-to-late 1811.

However, my current understanding is that the “Léonore” database in the Archives nationales has no index for date of honour. And so I suspect there is no easy or quick way to find the list of people entered into the Légion d’Honneur on any given date. (Unless you happen to know better, kind reader?)

(Incidentally, I aso trawled through the Bulletin des Lois looking for anything that might help with this search, but found nothing there either. Just so you know!)

As a result, I’m instead currently trying to identify documents in the English or French archives that might identify the list of prisoners of war carried on the Bombay Merchant, so that I can check these forward against the “Léonore” database’s well-used surname index. But this is proving very difficult too. *sigh*

Oh well: I guess if it was easy, people would have done this 10x over already. 🙂

To my mind, there are two basic types of Voynich Manuscript researchers: (a) those who view Voynichese as a language composed of clearly legible individual letters (and who therefore tend to treat it either as a confounding linguistic puzzle or as an exercise in pure cryptology); and (b) those who believe that you would first need to work out how to parse groups of glyphs into tokens before you can even begin to make any sense of the text.

Despite having made the case for (b) back in “The Curse of the Voynich” (2006), I don’t honestly believe that this second group’s camp has ever had more than my tent in it. (An occasional marauding bear, perhaps, but that’s about it as far as it goes, company-wise.)

Why is “Camp B” so empty?

Strongly-paired Glyphs

The argument starts with the difference between strongly-linked glyph pairs and weakly-linked glyph pairs.

In Voynichese, EVA ‘q’ is almost always followed by EVA ‘o’ (5186 times, compared with about 120 for all other occurrences of ‘q’). The strength of this link suggests the presence of an underlying orthographic rule (i.e. “q is always followed by u”), and also that a fair few of the other (non-qo) instances may well prove to be copying slips.

Similarly, if we see the first half of a strike-through ‘ch’ character (i.e. ‘c’) in front of a gallows character, it is almost always matched by the second half of a strike-through ‘ch’ character (i.e. ‘h’). This too suggests that c+gallows+h is following some kind of underlying orthographic rule:

* cth 905:33
* ckh 876:26
* cph 212:6
* cfh 73:6

However, it then turns out that Voynichese is full of families of strongly-linked glyph pairs, and that (though I don’t have precise statistical evidence for asserting it) it is these strong links that drive much of the structure and statistical behaviour of Voynichese.

* ‘qo’
* ‘ol’, ‘al’, ‘or’, ‘ar’
* ‘ee’, ‘eee’, ‘eeee’
* ‘aiv’, ‘aiiv’, ‘aiiiv’
* ‘air’, ‘aiir’, ‘aiiir’
* ‘ok’, ‘ot’, ‘op’, ‘oh’
* ‘dy’ (though I suspect dy works in a different way to the others)

That is, the amount of genuine information inside these groups is very small: which conversely, in my opinion, means that we should not be trying to look for information inside these groups at all. The real information in the text lies in the choice between these strongly groups, not inside each strongly-linked group.

Reading Jelly vs Parsing Foam

As a result, when I look at Voynichese words such as ‘olchedy’ and ‘olcheey’ (which occur a respectable 71 and 17 times respectively), I can only sensibly parse them as “ol-ch-e-dy” and “ol-ch-ee-y” before even beginning to try to make sense of what is going on with them. And even once you have parsed them, they remain just as inscrutable as before.

All of which is to say that I think we cannot yet parse Voynichese reliably, which is the starting point for the single-tent Camp B described at the top of the post. Yet this does not mean that all is lost: it just means that we are still trying to find a reliable and strong way to get started on a difficult road.

But linguistically, this isn’t how languages work. Orthography is driven by issues such as consonance and assonance: but what we appear to be seeing here is more like a jelly of letters (i.e. more structured than soup, but still quite plastic), joined together into words by deeper rules we are still unaware of.

Yet perhaps a more useful (and visual) way of viewing Voynichese is as a ‘foam’ of small glyph-group bubbles, (e.g. ‘ol’, ‘qo’, etc), empty of meaning in the middle but with all the semantic content on their outside at the point where they touch other bubbles. What I’m trying to do is to decompose the foam of words into its constituent bubbles.