Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2021 Issue

M. Pierre Viaud: Another Chapter in the “People-been-through-...it” Series.


Original in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

In the “People-been-through-..it” series, please welcome Pierre Viaud! In 1766, he survived a shipwreck off the coast of Florida only to go through 81 days of pain and hunger, being forced to kill and eat his Negro slave! Back to France, he published a relation of his ordeal: Naufrage et Aventures de M. Pierre Viaud (Bordeaux, 1770). A terrible tale, indeed—too terrible to be true?


This is not really a travel book, but rather a focus on an 81-day long nightmare. The preface of the second edition (Bordeaux/Paris, 1770) reads: “This book won’t tell you about Viaud’s life, but only about his shipwreck and his misfortune.” Straight to the point, then—when Viaud embarked on Le Tigre in Saint-Domingue, West Indies, with the intention to reach Louisiana. It wasn’t long before the ship hit a reef off the shore of Florida. And hell broke loose. Still aboard the wrecked ship, the crew had no choice but to try to reach the nearby shore—one bold sailor jumped into the raging sea only “to be crashed against a rock.” When they eventually made it to the shore it was like jumping from the frying pan—isolated in the wilderness, the survivors met a “Savage” by the name of Antonio, who pretended to help them out only to scatter them through various islets and to rob them of their last belongings.


The little group soon disbanded and Mr Viaud was left with Miss Lacouture and a Negro slave, whom he had bought in Saint-Domingue. Trying to reach the continent, they embarked on a terrible journey. At night, fierce beasts attacked them: “Several bears came so close that we could make them out in the light of our fire! We also spotted some tigers of considerable size—maybe fear showed them bigger than they were to us.” They were also swarmed by insects, and beaten so badly that “I could hardly open my eyes.” (Viaud). But the worst pain was hunger. They became so desperate for food that “we’d pick up a handful of sand and try to eat it up before spitting it away.” And then one night—“my lost eyes fell upon my Negro.” With Miss Lacouture, they jumped on him in the middle of the night and slashed his throat open. “As soon as the fire was ready, I cut my Negro’s head, tied it on a stick and placed it over the flames—I regularly turned it over so it would be well-cooked.” Then they spent the rest of night tearing out their victim’s flesh to smoke it while surrounded by the fierce roaring of wild beasts. Man against wild? Eat or be eaten.


At the end of the day, Viaud and Miss Lacouture were rescued—they even saved the latter’s son, whom they had to abandon, thinking he would die shortly. Back to civilization, Viaud wrote his story to a friend who allegedly insisted that he publish it. “In complying,” the publisher writes, “he was only hoping that honest and sensitive people would pity him.” His book enjoyed considerable success, and was translated into several languages, including English (Adventures of Monsieur Pierre Viaud...—London, 1771—coming with a nice frontispiece). Yet several readers doubted its veracity. Fake travel books were fashionable and notwithstanding the mention “A true story...” on the title page, Viaud’s story seemed weird. The preface was a bit clumsy: “One would hardly believe that a man could go through such hardship—and in this we can say that truth is not here plausible. But everything reported in this relation has been verified.”


But what did the publisher verify exactly, he claimed that Viaud was hailing from the city of Bordeaux, France, while he was actually born—as corrected in the next edition—in Rochefort? There are some surprising passages as well; the act of cannibalism therein described was a sure way to sell the book—and did Viaud really start by eating his victim’s head? That sounds unlikely, as almost all relations of cannibalism insist on the fact that people who were forced to eat another human being would rather start with unidentifiable parts. At one point, a bear climbs at a tree to catch Viaud’s Negro—but Viaud chases it away with kindled branches, just like in a children’s storybook. What about Miss Lacouture’s son, then? About to be buried, he is suddenly declared alive! A wonderful happy ending. To make it short, there’s something fishy about this relation.


At the time, it was attributed to Dubois-Fontanelle (1727-1812), a journalist and a writer. It was even published in the series Imaginary Voyages, Dreams, Visions and Cabalistic Novels (1787—with a full-page engraving depicting the murder scene)! The compiler warns: “Some may be surprised to find this relation in a series dedicated to imaginary tales (...). We do not contest the veracity of Mr Viaud’s adventures (...) but they are so extraordinary it seems they’ve been invented.” Yet, thanks to various and modern researches, we know that Pierre Viaud did exist—he’s the ancestor of a well-known French writer, Pierre Loti, born Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923). He was a sailor, and he actually embarked from Bordeaux to Saint-Domingue in 1765, as stated in his book. Plus, James Grant, then Governor of Florida, officially attested the shipwreck of Le Tigre. The publisher even added the certificate given to Viaud by Mr Sevettenham, Commandant of Fort Saint-Marc, in the Appalachians. It reads: “I therefore testified that Mr Wright (who rescued Viaud—note of the author) introduced me to Mr Viaud and a woman, whom he had found on a desert island in a state of despair, almost dead from hunger, and who had nothing to eat but a few oysters and the remains of a Negro they had killed in order to save their own lives.” Sevettenham also partly confirms the story of Miss Lacouture’s son.


So, real or fake? Viaud’s relation is believed nowadays to be a true story rewritten by a novelist who gave in to sensationalism. Notwithstanding, the “People-been-through-...it” series is a bottomless pit, and the shipwreck of La Méduse that took place a few decades later, and which gave birth to one of the most terrible relations ever, is here to remind us that even the most fertile imagination will never beat reality. No matter what you may imagine in your worst nightmares, “People-been-through-...it” already.


Thibault Ehrengardt

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Doyle<br>Stage & Screen<br>Auction April 28</b>
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 12. OKLAHOMA! Celeste Holm's vocal score for Oklahoma! inscribed by Richard Rodgers. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 20. WILSON, DOOLEY. Fine inscribed photograph to Celeste Holm with Casablanca reference. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 79. Original production script of the Broadway musical CATS with notes written by Claude Tessier. $600 to $900.
    <center><b>Doyle<br>Stage & Screen<br>Auction April 28</b>
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 139. STEPHEN SONDHEIM. Autographed musical manuscript signed for "Broadway Baby" from Follies. $500 to $800.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 180.<br>Cecil Beaton. Headdress for Liza at the Ball, from My Fair Lady, circa 1962. $700 to $900.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 177.<br>Cecil Beaton. Set Design for The Gainsborough Girls, 1951. $2,000 to $3,000.
  • <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 54. Fanciful engraving of earth's interior with magma core and errupting volcanoes (1682). $1500 to $1800.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 165. Rare state of Jefferys' influential map of New England in contemporary color (1755). $8000 to $9500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 177. Mouzon's foundation map of the Carolinas (1775). $10000 to $13000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 183. Very rare first state of De Fer's map of the Lower Mississippi Valley (1715). $20000 to $25000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 253. Scarce Scottish edition based on Ellicott's plan of Washington, D.C. (1796). $2400 to $3000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 313. Stunning view of Philadelphia by John Bachmann (1850). $3250 to $4250.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 338. Rare Civil War map based on Bucholtz map of Virginia (1862). $9500 to $12000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 667. First map to accurately show Luzon in Philippines (1590). $6000 to $7500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 682. Rare map of Shanghai International Settlement published just after WWI (1918). $7000 to $9000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 738. Coronelli's superb map of the Pacific showing the Island of California (1697) Est. $2400 - $3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 743. A cornerstone piece in the mapping of Australia and New Zealand (1726) Est. $6000 - $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 781. An uncommon signature during Jefferson's Governorship of Virginia (1779) Est. $9500 - $11000
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.
  • <center><b>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>Timed auction, April 29</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1032. RATZER, BERNARD. Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1011. [BROADSIDE]. Life, Last Words and Dying Confession, of Rachel Wall... $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1055. BEATON, CECIL. Scrapbook prepared by Cecil Beaton over the period 1935-1944, with some later inclusions. $800 to $1,200.
    <center><b>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>Timed auction, April 29</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1051. ADDAMS, CHARLES. Original drawing "I hope the power doesn't go out until after Masterpiece Theatre." $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1037. The Campaign Speeches of Nixon of Kennedy, inscribed to William Safire by Richard Nixon and secretarially for John Kennedy. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1036. Celebration of the Commencement of Work on Rapid Transit Railroad. March 24th 1900, one o'clock, City Hall Park, New York. $200 to $300.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1005. 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers signed baseball including Jackie Robinson. $3,000 to $5,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.

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