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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 3
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part I
Chapter 5

Part One
Early Adventures

 p28  4 A Lost Naturalist

Aubert Aubert du Petit-Thouars was born in 1758 of a distinguished family in a château in the glimmering Loire valley. A scientific scholar, he planned in 1791 to join his brother Aristide, a naval officer, in research on the Île de France off the east coast of Africa — a project in which the ill‑fated Louis XVI had been interested.

While waiting for the expedition to sail from Brest, Aubert was arrested and imprisoned for botanizing with his suspicious green box in the fields and marshes of Brittany. After six weeks he was tried and acquitted. But Aristide, in view of the insecurity of the French aristocrats, had prudently sailed without delay. He took along his brother's botanical books and gear, and left a message for him to rendezvous on the Île de France.

They were never to meet again. Aristide was taken prisoner on a Portuguese island off the coast of Brazil, and sent to Lisbon. On his release he died a hero in the battle of Aboukir.

Aubert finally got passage for the long voyage in a tiny, scruffy craft of only a hundred tons. 'I,' he wrote, 'as passenger, made the tenth man on board.'

They were becalmed for weeks below the Equator, and the lack of drinking-water determined the captain to stop at Tristan da 'Cugna'.​a  p29 After anxious days, on January 2, 1793, a sailor cried that he sighted land.

In the next few days, in mild midsummer weather, the small craft anchored in turn off all three islands, of which M. du Petit-Thouars made naïve sketches. He joined landing parties on the main island on January 3, 5, and 7, and collected several hundred specimens of plant-life for his Herbier.

Flocks of seabirds enveloped the group on the beach, and clouds hid part of the mountain — as they usually do.

He also discovered 'with much pleasure' a little clearing where radishes were in flower and lettuces in seed: Captain Patten's, probably.

'It is to be feared, however,' the Frenchman warned, 'that this island is subject to violent gusts of air.'

He was the first naturalist to recommend colonization to his government, reporting that the part of the island which he saw was 'quite habitable'. He was also the first person known to attempt to climb to the top of the Peak — almost to his undoing. 'After escaping from the most imminent dangers, and nearly arriving at my goal, I found myself stopped by un escarpémentº horrible'.

No wonder. For the Tristan cone is shaped somewhat like a tiered wedding-cake. He presumably thought he had nearly scaled the top when he had only struggled up to the first of the two Bases. Moreover, he had not allowed for the fact that twilight lasts only half an hour in that latitude.

The descent was no less difficult than the ascent, 'the more since the night and rain took me by surprise. I was obliged to rest at the foot of a phylica and wait for dawn. Hunger and cold prevented me from closing my eyes, and I found myself left to my reflections.'

Worse still, at the beach he found an empty horizon. As he had feared, the bad weather had forced the ship to sail. 'Eh bien . . . I thought about the kind of life which — a new Robinson — I would lead. . . .'

Luckily the rickety little craft turned up again. The crew had been afraid that he was truly lost, and the captain had meant to pack up his belongings and leave them for him on the shore. 'On board, they reproached me, making me feel obligated for the anxieties which I had caused them.'

 p30  Some time after his return, in 1802, he read a paper on Tristan to the Institut de France. This, published in 1805, with a catalogue of the plants he had collected, was the first scientific article ever written about the archipelago.

Thayer's Note:

a ‑gn‑ is the normal French rendering of the ñ‑sound in mañana — the same sound that in Portuguese is written nh, as in Cunha.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20