The Forgotten of Saint Paul Island

October 11, 2019

In October 1929, the La Langouste Française fish company hired 30 Europeans to go lobster fishing in l’Île Saint Paul, a volcanic island in the Indian Ocean about 7kmsq. They worked from November to March and, at the end of the season, a boat came to collect them and bring them home to Concarneau in Brittany. When the boat left, seven people stayed behind to wind everything down for the winter. The boat would come back for them in 2-3 months. It never arrived.

Of “Les Oubliés de l’Île Saint Paul” – The Forgotten of Saint Paul Island – four died, including a baby girl born there, Paule Le Brunou, who lived for just two months. When a boat finally arrived on December 6th 1930, it wasn’t a rescue mission, but was delivering the new workers for the coming season. No one had any idea what had been happening to The Forgotten.

Words, promises and lies

The Bretons who signed up for La Langouste Française were promised 600 francs a month. They would be fed, housed and taken care of. The reality was somewhat different: high winds made it near-impossible to grow the fruit and vegetables needed to prevent scurvy and beriberi. Promised supplies never arrived. As survivor Louis Herléden wrote in his diary: “We are lulled by words, promises, lies.” They survived on penguin eggs.

Manuel Puloc’h, Francois Ramamongi and Victor Le Brunou died towards the end of July; Pierre Le Quillivic left on a boat in search of help and was never seen again. When a boat finally arrived in December, only Louis Herlédan left. Julien Le Huludut and Louise Le Brunou (mother of Paule, wife of Victor) decided to remain on the island with the new arrivals.  That season was to be the last for La Langouste Française; 44 more deaths from Beriberi sealed its fate.

The company, run by the Bossiéres brothers, was ruined by the disaster. A trial lasting six years found them responsible for the disaster and ordered them to pay compensation to the victims and their families. This was never paid.

Marooned in history

Just under 5kms across at its widest, l’Île Saint Paul is the top of an active volcano that last erupted in 1793 – a year after the first known exploration of it. It’s had a long association with marooning – both voluntary and otherwise. American sealer William Robinson spent almost two years alone there between 1819-21, returning for another stint in 1826. In 1871, 300 British soldiers from the shipwrecked HMS Megaera spent three months there, awaiting rescue – much to the surprise of two French fishermen living there. Charles Lightholler, who would later find fame as the Second Officer of the Titanic, was shipwrecked there for 8 days in 1889.

Just eight years after the Forgotten, in 1938, more French fishermen were stranded on the island. Their distress signals were eventually picked up 11,000 miles away by the U.S Coastguard;  12 year-old amateur radio enthusiast Neil Taylor made contact with the castaways to tell them help was on its way.

The scandal of “Les Oubliés de l’Île Saint Paul” continues to haunt the inhabitants of the Breton fishing town of Concarneau. One of the survivors, Julien Le Huludut, is buried in the town’s cemetery. A plaque on the sea front, overlooking the harbour, commemorates them. An identical one was placed on l’Île Saint Paul in 2015.

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