Cannibals and tropical diseases: the curse of the Port-Breton colony

Lambom Bay (Papua New Guinea)

Captain Craig slips a few words to the two leaders of the humanitarian expedition, both of Breton origin. “You return to your lands”, he laughs. Faced with the incomprehension of his audience, the sixty-year-old Australian recounts that a century and a half earlier, hundreds of settlers got bogged down here, in the extreme south-east of the island of New Ireland, pushed by the promises of a story-telling Breton.

The story, little known in France, is a soap opera in Australia. Craig even learned it in school. In France, we prefer to pass it over in silence. It is actually one of the biggest colonial scams in history, according to some historians.

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At the end of the 19the century, a Quimper marquis named Charles de Rays dangled the dream of a rich and fertile land in New Guinea. At that time, all colonial ambitions were directed towards the Pacific Ocean, the last free and unknown space on the planet. Nearly 600 settlers set off for this promised land.

A slight lack of information

It is the eastern part of the island of New Guinea, with its many unoccupied archipelagos, which attracts the Breton marquis. Without ever having made the slightest reconnaissance trip there and relying solely on imprecise reports from explorers, he founded “New France”. The territory covers present-day New Ireland, but also the Solomon Islands, the island of New Britain and the eastern part of the island of New Guinea.

While looking for the location of his future capital in the travelogues of the Briton Carteret (1733-1796), Charles de Rays discovered The Irish Cove or “L’anse aux Irlandais”. The bay is described as “a paradise populated by birds, fish and healthy natives. The soil is fertile and the vegetation lush. Charles de Rays is enthusiastic. The bay is located southeast of New Ireland, a resource-rich island the size of Corsica.

The Breton aristocrat then came across the brief descriptions of the French explorer Duperrey and the scholar Lesson, who in turn approached Irish Cove in August 1823. The two Frenchmen stayed there nine days and described “an ideal place for ships”. Without further details, the Quimper noble decided that Irish Cove would be the future capital of New France and would bear the name of “Port-Breton”.

The shoreline of Port Breton Bay, now Lambom Bay, New Ireland Island, Papua New Guinea, in October 2022. | Theodore de Kerros

None of these eminent explorers had tackled the nine-month rainfall pattern at Port-Breton. Nor even the infertile land and the steep relief, covered with too dense vegetation for the installation of a colony. Not a word about the bay’s trough effect either. The high peaks of New Ireland and the island of Lambom deprive the cove of the benefit of the trade winds.

Despite everything, the Marquis de Rays bases all his hopes on the fantasized observations of Duperrey and Carteret. However, the French explorer Bougainville (1729-1811) offered a very different description of the place. He discovered the Irish Cove a few years after Carteret during his world tour and related more soberly: “It is raining heavily there. In this mountainous region, the ground is very light and covered with rocks.” A passage that the Quimper marquis surely preferred to ignore.

“Free colony of Port-Breton, rapid and assured fortune”

On July 26, 1877, even before receiving authorization, the Marquis de Rays put the lands of “New France” up for sale in the advertisements of the Petit Journal and La Petite République. under these terms: “Free Colony of Port Breton. Land at 5 francs per hectare, rapid and assured fortune. For further information, please contact Mr. du Breil de Rays, Consul of Bolivia, Château de Quimerc’h en Bannalec, Finistère.

Success was immediate, despite the lack of information about New France. With a reputation as an adventurer built by his travels in Africa, Indochina and Bolivia, the Marquis de Rays manages to raise more than 9 million francs. In just four years, from 1878 to 1882, the Finisterian chartered four ships loaded with French settlers, but also Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese, heading for New France.

The success experienced by the Breton Marquis took root in the context that France was going through at the start of the IIIe Republic. The country is more than ever divided between the republican camp and the legitimist camp, against a background of secularization. Charles de Rays does not hide his attachment to the Catholic religion. New France was then perceived as a land of hope, free and Christian, in the face of a France losing its bearings. Many subscribers finance the colony for the sole purpose of marking their opposition to the Republican regime. On the other hand, colonial enterprises were seen as reliable investments in the unstable period of the 1870s.

cursed hole

None of them therefore imagines that Port-Breton is actually located on the south-eastern and inhospitable tip of the island of New Ireland, populated by cannibalistic Papuans. Far from the promises of the Marquis de Rays, the colonists are decimated by tropical diseases or devoured by cannibals.

Doctor Beaudoin, doctor of the fourth expedition to Port-Breton in 1882, describes a “fever nest”. “Never, he writes, breezes and trade winds did not touch Port-Breton. A hot and humid mist stagnated in these places. The fresh and sea waters mixed together, stagnated and formed a dangerous feverish focus. The temperature was never higher than 30°C, never lower than 26°C. Storms erupted frequently and temperatures between day and night varied by only 1°C. This motionless temperature developed the atony of the organs, the almost zero ventilation made all hygiene useless, leaving any infectious principle to accumulate on the surface of the ground. Eight months of rain condemned the man to inaction.

The humanitarian boat is now at anchor in Lambom Bay [le nom actuel de la baie de Port-Breton, ndlr]. Craig reaches for the shore of a nearby small island across from New Ireland. “It’s Lambom! Over there, there is a French cemetery.” The curious eyes of the crew crash on the steep relief covered by an impenetrable jungle.

Hundreds of European settlers who came to find fortune, happiness and freedom died here, driven by the fables of a careless marquis. A small number of settlers managed to flee to Australia, then to France where they revealed the swindle of the nobleman from Quimper. Charles de Rays was sentenced to four years in prison and a fine of 5,000 francs for fraud organized by the tribunal of the Seine in 1884. After having served his sentence, he ended his days in Brittany, ruined and dishonoured.

All that remains of the Port-Breton colony are a few huts nestled on the edge of the jungle. | Theodore de Kerros

The heavenly setting of the bay hides a verdant hell where disease still lurks. Today’s Papuans have stopped their anthropophagic practice and suffer from diseases imported from the West: diphtheria, whooping cough, measles… The small village of Lambom, populated by a few hundred natives, has replaced the “free” colony of Port Breton.

But life on this piece of land remains extremely inhospitable, even for these seasoned human beings. Ungrateful land, malaria, a case of measles is even suspected in a child. Here, one in three children is not immune to this disease which threatens to spread.

The situation in the village has been particularly critical since the Covid-19 pandemic. On the coral beach, a resident watches with curiosity the small annex of the humanitarian team approaching his village. Lambom’s nurse has not received a medical visit for almost two years. All maritime and air links have been cut during the severe confinement imposed by the Papuan government.

Chance or destiny, as if to put an end to the Breton curse, these Bretons of the XXIe century arrive on the beach of Port-Breton with their arms full of vaccines, as if to repair a mistake of the past.

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