Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2021 Issue

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

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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

  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Bibliothèque littéraire<br>Hubert Heilbronn<br>11 May 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s May 11:</b> Breton, André. <i>Nadja.</i> Paris, N.R.F., Gallimard, 1928. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s May 11:</b> [Stendhal, Henri Beyle dit]. <i>Le Rouge et le Noir,</i> chronique du XIXe siècle. Paris, Levavasseur, 1831. €20,000 to €30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s May 11:</b> Dumas, Alexandre. <i>Les Trois mousquetaires.</i> 1844. 8 vols. In 4. Paris, Baudry, 1844. €30,000 to €50,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s May 11:</b> Mallarmé, Stéphane -- Edgar Allan Poe. <i>Les Poèmes d’Edgar Poe.</i> Bruxelles, Edmond Deman, 1888. €18,000 to €25,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s May 11:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Le côté de Guermantes II. Sodome et Gomorrhe I. [and] Sodome et Gomorrhe II.</i> Paris, N.R.F., 1921 et 1922. €20,000 to €30,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> <i>Westvaco–Inspirations for Printers,</i> 3 volumes, 1938-61. $200 to $300.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Proef van Letteren, <i>Welk gegooten worden in de Nieuwe Haerlemsche Lettergietery,</i> 1768. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Paul Klee, <i>Bauhaus Ausstellung Juli – Sept.,</i> Weimar, 1923. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Michel Seuphor & Jozef Peeters, <i>Het Overzicht Nos.</i> 22-23-24, Antwerp, 1922. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Wolfrum & Co., <i>Modern Graphik, Serie I…,</i> complete portfolio, 1909. $1,200 to $1,800.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> <i>Gravure et Fonderie deC. Derriey: Specimen-Album,</i> Paris, 1862. $5,000 to $7,500.
  • <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>12/13 May<br>Printed Books, Maps & Prints, Numismatic Books from the Milne-Henderson Collection</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Mariette (Pierre-Jean). <i>Traité des pierres gravées / Recueil des pierres gravées...,</i> 2 vols., 1750. £1,000 to £1,500.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> [Bryant, Jacob & William Cole]. <i>Gemmarum Antiquarum Delectus, [Marlborough Gems],</i> 2 volumes, [privately printed, 1780-83], £800 to £1,200.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Caylus (Anne Claude Philippe, Comte de). <i>Recueil d'Antiquités Egyptiennes, Estrusques, Grecques et Romaines,</i> 7 volumes, Paris, 1756-67, £700 to £1,000.
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>12/13 May<br>Printed Books, Maps & Prints, Numismatic Books from the Milne-Henderson Collection</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Devonshire Gems. <i>Duke of Devonshire's Collection of Gems,</i> privately printed, c. 1790, [one of 8 copies], £1,500 to £2,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Goltz (Hubert). <i>Le Vive Imagini di tutti quasi gl'Imperatori,</i> Antwerp, 1557, £500 to £800.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Manuscript. <i>An Explanation of Dassier's Medals, by Charlotte Hanbury,</i> c. 1795-1800, £700 to £1,000.
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>12/13 May<br>Printed Books, Maps & Prints, Numismatic Books from the Milne-Henderson Collection</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Paoletti (Bartolomeo and Pietro). A collection of 300 plaster cameos presented in 7 leather-bound double-sided faux book boxes, Rome, c. 1820, £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Mayer (Luigi). <i>Views in Egypt, from the Original Drawings, in the Possession of Sir Robert Ainslie,</i> London: Thomas Bensley for R. Bowyer, 1805, £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Blaeu (Willem Janszoon & Johannes). <i>Theatrum orbis terrarum, sive Atlas novus, pars quarta</i> [England and Wales], Amsterdam: Johannem Blaeu, 1648, £6,000 to £8,000.
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>12/13 May<br>Printed Books, Maps & Prints, Numismatic Books from the Milne-Henderson Collection</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Reuter (O.M. & Mela, A.J.). <i>Finlands Fiskar. The Fishes of Finland,</i> 12 parts (complete), Helsingfors: G.W. Edlund, 1883-93, £500 to £800.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> Lunardi (Vincenzo). <i>An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England,</i> 2nd edition, London: Printed for the Author, 1784, £700 to £1,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter, 12/13 May:</b> North America. Jansson (Jan). <i>Virginiae partis Australis et Floridae partis Orientalis,</i> circa 1641. £400 to £600.
  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts,<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>May 12, 2021</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> CURRIER and IVES, publishers -- After Frances F. Palmer. The Rocky Mountains. Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1866. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [BIBLE, in English]. <i>The New Testament of Jesus Christ, translated faithfully into English.</i> Rheims, 1582. $6,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [BIBLE, in Latin]. <i>Biblia latina.</i> Venice: Franz Renner of Hailbrun [Heilbrunn], 1483. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts,<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>May 12, 2021</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> SHELLEY, Percy Bysshe (1792-1822). Autograph letter signed ("P. B. S."), to Charles Ollier. Florence, Italy, 15 December 1819. “MY PROMETHEUS IS THE BEST THING I EVER WROTE.” $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> RAMSAY, David (1749-1815). <i>The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina…</i> Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [BINDINGS]. MUIR, John (1838-1914). <i>The Writings of John Muir.</i> Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916-1924. 10 vols. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts,<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>May 12, 2021</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [CHICAGO] -- <i>Park & Guide Map of Chicago.</i> Chicago: Jas. Van Vechten, 1873. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> CURRIER and IVES, publishers -- After Frances F. Palmer. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [ALLEN PRESS]. SHAKESPEARE, William (1564-1616). <i>Romeo and Juliet.</i> Greenbrae: Allen Press, 1988. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts,<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>May 12, 2021</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> BEMELMANS, Ludwig (1898-1962). Pencil drawing on paper. 247 x 198 mm, sight, matted and framed. Showing a child shooting at a baby's balloon. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [LOGAN ELM PRESS]. HARVEY, Rebecca. <i>Any Number of Things.</i> Ohio State University, 2013. Single sheet paper scroll. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> BINYON, Laurence (1869-1943). A small archive of letters and pamphlets. $200 to $300.

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