Maritime Book Reviews

This book review appeared in Vol. 6, No. 1 of the Gulf Coast Historical Reivew - Fall 1990.

Robin F. A. Fabel, trans. and ed. Shipwreck and Adventures of Monsieur Pierre Viaud. Pensacola: University of West Florida Press, 1990, viii, pp. 137. $16.96. ISBN 0-8130-1000-4

In the role of historian as detective, Professor Robin Fabel of Auburn University has established the authenticity and exposed the embellishments of a bizarre eighteenth-century adventure story along the Gulf Coast of Florida. A Frenchman, Pierre Viaud, was the author and principal actor in an account first published at Bordeaux in 1768. The narrative was subsequently republished 'in France and translated into various languages including English.

Born in 1725, Viaud was a sailor by sixteen and a captain in the French merchant marine by 1761. By way of summary, the book, which proceeds like an old time Saturday movie serial, places Viaud at St. Domingue in late 1766. Before returning to France he made a business deal with one Desclau for a voyage from Caye de St. Louis to Louisiana. The brigantine Le Tigre's sixteen passengers also included Viaud's black slave, Captain La Couture and his wife and fifteen- year-old son, the mate, and nine sailors. The ship encountered bad weather, and on February 16, 1767, wrecked off Dog Island (directly opposite the present day fishing town of Carrabelle).

Amid much difficulty (one sailor was washed against a 'rock' and killed), they got ashore. During that time and throughout the book Viand portrayed himself as a larger than life hero. Although the mate died of sickness, the survivors managed to salvage some supplies from the ship. Soon, an Indian named Antonio appeared with his wife and family. They were from the British fort and trading post of St. Marks, some forty miles to the east. The Indians were camping on St. George Island, which lay west of Dog Island and was separated from it by a narrow inlet. The mainland was only a few miles away.

In a matter of days Antonio transferred the marooned to his camp and promised to deliver them to St. Marks. For whatever reasons, he took them island hopping, always within maddening sight of the mainland, but never to it. Oysters and roots were their main food supply, but they were constantly hungry. Antonio and his wife abandoned Viaud and the others. The survivors patched a leaky pirogue, and Desclau and Captain La Couture departed in it, never to be seen again.

Sub-plots relate how the rest of the crew scattered. Viaud, his slave, Madame La Couture, and the boy constructed a raft. The sick boy was left behind but the others made it to the mainland. From there they undertook a tortured trip toward St. Marks. Along the way, according to Viaud, they used fire to fend off wild amimals, including bears, lions, and tigers. They became so weak from hunger that Viand, with physical aid from Madame La Couture, killed his slave with a knife, and the deceased chattel became their main item of food. Readers, contemporary and modem, have recoiled from the cannibalism in the story.

Despite their human diet, supplemented with leaves, shellfish, rattlesnakes, and an alligator, which Viaud claimed to have killed with a stick, the unlucky pair wound up exhausted and dying. A kinder fate came in the presence of an English rescue party commanded by Ensign James Wright who found them. They also discovered the boy still alive, and the party was taken to St. Marks. There they were befriended by George Swettenham, the fort's commander. Later, Madame La Couture and her son returned to Louisiana. Viaud sailed to New York via a stopover in St. Augustine (where he was aided by James Grant, Governor of East Florida) and eventually home to France.

Professor Fabel's translation is excellent, and he has performed the added service of researching contemporary comments and opinions in England, Scotland, and France as well as the United States. He verifies that Viaud's story is based on facts. Yet he points out exaggerations, fictions (French novelist Dubois-Fontanelle co-wrote where literary license seemed called for), absurd topographical and geographical observations, and descriptions of animal fife based on residents of Africa and Asia.

The author has provided historians and general readers with the unique effort of a one-book author. Fabel's careful scholarship is never obtrusive, and he concludes aptly that the book contributes "to an understanding of the human experience beyond the farthest boundary of colonial civilizations" (p. 32).

William Warren Rogers - Florida State University

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