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From David Nash
Narcisse Pelletier1 (1844-1894) spent half his adult life (1858-1875) with Aboriginal people on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula. He learnt their language and had no contact with outsiders, and in time he lost command of his native French. His removal from the coast at Night Island was as out of his control and as sudden as had been his arrival there seventeen years earlier. He then regained command of French over subsequent weeks and months, and upon return to his birthplace in France, he was interviewed by Constant Merland (1808-85) a French surgeon-turned-savant. Merland's 1876 book Dix-sept ans chez les sauvages: Narcisse Pelletier is quite rare and apparently not held in any Australian library. It had been overlooked as an ethnographic source but last month it has appeared afresh and "Now, for the first time, this remarkable true story is presented in English, complemented by an in-depth introductory essay and ethnographic commentary" as the blurb accurately states.

The translator and annotator Stephanie Anderson has marshalled the help of anthropologists and linguists Athol Chase, David Thompson, Bruce Rigsby, Peter Sutton, and Clair Hill. Between them they show that the people who adopted Pelletier were speakers of a dialect of the language now known as Lockhart River 'Sand Beach' language comprising Kuuku Yaʔu and Umpila, probably the dialect known as Uutaalnganu, AIATSIS code Y211.


The full account is spread through Pelletier : the forgotten castaway of Cape York published by Melbourne Books. The volume includes an ethnographic commentary by Athol Chase and an introductory essay by Stephanie Anderson who you might have heard talk about this in mid July on ABC's Late Night Live.

Merland has a chapter on language. He had taken down some 70 words and a few longer expressions as recalled by Pelletier, but before he presents these, he starts from the general, "How thought is expressed":

one point on which most people agree is that the degree of civilisation of different peoples can be gauged from the degree to which their language has evolved (p185)

Merland found that the language he recorded from Pelletier did not have the primitive properties that contemporary theorists described. Merland refers to the view that

Man’s first words were necessarily imitative words, onomatopoeic words, as grammarians call them (p185)

then points out that, on the contrary, judging from Pelletier's vocabulary,

while there are still numerous monosyllabic words in our highly evolved language of French, these have completely disappeared from the language spoken by the savages of Endeavour Land. (p191)

Indeed, Merland records not one monosyllabic word -- just as we with hindsight would expect of a Pama-Nyungan language(!).

Merland's transcription (possibly influenced by Pelletier's own spelling suggestions) has a few words with syllable-initial tr. These words match up with phonemic apical stop (apico-alveolar or possibly -domal) in Kuuku Yaʔu as recorded by the Rev DA Thompson (1988):

Merland gloss Kuuku Yaʔu gloss
troutrou fowl tuutu scrub fowl
troucoullou turtle sp. tukulu green turtle
Traouais man in the moon taway moon
bomtreuille eye ?
atraba foot taʔu foot

Phonetically a French syllable-initial /tr/ is a coarticulated [t] and uvular [ʀ] -- and apparently the combination was used to capture a perceived quality of the Australian language's /t/, maybe retroflexion.

By way of contrast, there are some syllable-initial t in the Frenchmen's transcription of other words, and some of these might correspond to Kuuku Yaʔu interdental stop th but these matches (of form or meaning) are not straightforward: the clearest could be tallée 'stomach' if it is indeed Kuuku Yaʔu thulʔi 'stomach (internal)'. This fits with the finding that

The major linguagraphic class employed in stop production is apical in English and apicolaminal in French (Dart 1991:32) 4

There could also be misreadings of handwriting, but we don't have Merland's papers to check this (p132n2).

There are a few comments on gesture or sign language, notably a description of the signs for counting to ten across the upper body (p192).

So, the record is tantalising about the language Pelletier learnt, the more so when one learns of further primary records which are not extant:

  • Lt Ottley's vocabulary of about 100 words recorded on the vessel which first carried Pelletier away on 11 April 1875 (p33,307)
  • a separate vocabulary from Pelletier by linguist Léon-Jacques Bureau (1836-1900) (p69)
  • "notes taken by Pelletier himself" (p132)
  • Ottley's pencil sketches of two localities as indicated by Pelletier (p308n8,359)

Poignantly the information from Pelletier is apparently the only record of this particular dialect, which was absorbed into its neighbours in the 20th century at the Lockhart River missions. The linguistic detective work which has equated it with Uutaalnganu and part of the 'Sand Beach' language was also the clincher in pinpointing the location where Pelletier lived for those 17 years. Altogether this new volume has many concurrent threads and is a gripping read.

  1. The name Pelletier is pronounced [pɛltje] -- see the TLF entry.
  2. Thompson, David A. 1988. Lockhart River 'Sand Beach' language : an outline of Kuuku Ya'u and Umpila. Work Papers of SIL-AAIB A-11; also available as ASEDA item 0027.
  3. Dart, Sarah N. 1991. Articulatory and acoustic properties of apical and laminal articulations. Working Papers in Phonetics No. 79, UCLA. http://repositories.cdlib.org/uclaling/wpp/No79
  4. Thanks to Marija Tabain for the reference and helpful comments on the phonetics.


Thanks for alerting us, David. I’ll be getting of hold of this publication. I just thought I’d mention that I’ve been doing (over several years) some work on the manuscript left by Father Angelo Confalonieri in 1846. Confalonieri, a Jesuit missionary, was shipwrecked in the Torres Straits in the 1840s and ended up by accident at Port Essington on Coburg Peninsula in Northwest Arnhem Land, a shortlived attempt by the British to establish a presence on the north coast of the continent 30 or so years prior to the establishment of Darwin.

Like Pelletier, Confalonieri immediately set about learning the local language, Garig, and created a kind of thematic phrasebook in Garig and English, using an Italocentric orthography (e.g., gi = palatal stop, j = palatal glide). The text contains sections entitled, for instance, “Kitchen and Food”. Unlike Pelletier, however, Confalonieri only lived for a couple of years before succumbing to malaria. His grave is situated near the present-day Black Point ranger station.

I recently linked up on Cobourg with an Italian documentary team from Trento, Confalonieri’s home town, and was interviewed by them, along with David Minyimak, an elderly indigenous man with close associations to the area (it’s his mother country), who retains some orally passed-down knowledge of Confalonieri’s presence. I’ll be linking up with the author of the documentary, Rolando Pizzini, in Trento in October to discuss further collaboration. While there, I'll be taking steps to see what the chances are of publishing an annotated version of the manuscript, held now in the Propaganda Fide repository of the Vatican.

Towards the end of the interview I was asked what I thought was the significance of Confalonieri’s contribution. Among other things, what came to mind was the fact that (leaving aside consideration of his ultimate motivations) he’d seen language documentation and language learning as crucial first steps in forming a relationship with the local people, and that 160 years later mainstream Australia has failed to take this on (see, among many others, the excellent recent analysis of the indigenous education sphere by Simpson, Caffrey, and McConvell). The Italian team was shocked at this, and after a moment’s pause wanted to know why I thought this was the case, asking, “Is it white supremacy?”

What would you have answered?

“Is it white supremacy?”, asked by Italians - as unanswerable as Ali G's "“Is it cos I's black?”

The Confalonieri story is also gripping, but is not so parallel to Peltier's. Confalonieri wanted to be a missionary; he had writing materials and other equipment; he wasn't completely immersed in another society and dependent upon it. He had earlier been shipwrecked (in a group) but not stranded. No matter, glad to hear his manuscript is getting this attention.

Thanks for your great summary, David. Can I advise readers of this blog that the original text by Merland (1876) is held by the State Library of Victoria? AIATSIS have now digitised the only copy I have been able to procure of the book. It is not yet catalogued but should be soon. It will be available on CD to consult in the Library or online. I shall advise further when I have their catalogue entry. If any readers have any ideas about how we might track down Ottley's word list please let me know!

Thanks! Indeed, there it is in the SLV catalogue. (I relied on its absence from Libraries Australia.)

Thanks to the researches of Bruce Rigsby (via Trove) into the naturalist John MacGillivray’s articles “Wanderings in Tropical Australia”, published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1862, in which he describes his travels with master W. Banner on the brig Julia Percy (subsequent to his voyage on the Rattlesnake), and Athol Chase’s detection work, a new piece of information has come to light that seems almost certainly to refer to a sighting of Pelletier on the mainland opposite Night Island when a party landed there in 1860 in search of sandalwood. At the time Pelletier would have been 16 years old. MacGillivray describes their encounters with a large group of Aboriginal people. He notes that “One man was light enough to have been a half-caste, but he shunned observation, and got out of the way when I wished to examine him closely”. The behaviour of this noticeably lighter-skinned man tallies very closely with Pelletier’s avoidance, or enforced avoidance, of white visitors as Merland sets it down (Pelletier, p. 275). Merland writes:

"For fear that he might try to escape, the natives had long been careful to keep him away when they had dealings with the whites. On only one occasion had he seen other white men, who, on reaching land, gave gifts to the blacks in exchange for those they received from them. In vain had he wanted to approach them; he had been kept away from them. If, when the sea was calm, his brothers of the tribe sighted a foreign boat, they always made towards it with the same aim, but at such times Pelletier remained on land."

The encounter, in which MacGillivray took a leading role by his own account, could well be this one occasion. He notes that “We induced about sixty of the mob to accompany us along the beach to the boats, where we gave the elderly ones biscuit, strips of calico, fish-hooks, and a knife or two, and parted good friends”.

If so, in Pelletier’s recounting of the incident to Merland many years later he says that he wished to make contact with the whites but was kept from doing so. MacGillivray’s description of the light-skinned man shunning contact (if indeed it was Pelletier) suggests that the latter actively avoided contact, but this behaviour is also consistent with him being forbidden to approach the landing party.

MacGillivray’s full description of people he met and whom we can identify as Uutaalnganu from the location is as follows:

"They were generally well made for Australians. None of those we saw exceeded five feet seven inches in height. The moustache and beard were usually very scanty; the hair of the head had not been subjected to any peculiar treatment ; the artificially raised scars on the body and arms were few in number; circumcision or any analogous rite had not been practised; but the loss of an upper front tooth was universal among the men. One man was light enough to have been a half-caste, but he shunned observation, and got out of the way when I wished to examine him closely. The spears and throwing-stick were of precisely the same description as all those I have seen from Cape York to Cape Tribulation, and probably still further to the southward, for I have not my old notes to refer to. I saw no clubs or stone axes, although that they possessed the latter was evident from the marks in a tree where honey or an opossum had been cut out. None of them wore a belt or even fillet, and the only ornament (besides the white point on the face and chest) was a strip of mother-of-pearl shell hanging down between the shoulders by a string round the neck. The gin had neither paint nor mother of-pearl to enhance her natural beauty, and stood boldly forth in pristine Eve-like simplicity. We saw some graves of these people on the edge of the wood behind the beach. One was denoted by a good pile of skulls of dugongs and turtle, especially the former, and another was marked by a quantity of dugong ribs, symmetrically arranged, and radiating from a common centre." (Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, 10 January 1862, pp. 4-5)

I wonder about the "For fear that he might try to escape, the natives had long been careful to keep him away when they had dealings with the whites". It doesn't fit with what we know of the emphasis on personal autonomy in many Indigenous communities. But it would fit with poor Pelletier having to explain why he didn't make contact to people who would probably have found it difficult to accept that he might prefer the company of Aborigines to that of his countrymen.

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