[MANUSCRIPT] Campagne de la Corvette à Voiles l’Alcméne. Commandée par Mr. Coudein, Capitaine de Frégate, à destination des Mers du Sud et Océanie.
An important, unpublished first-hand account of the voyage of the French naval corvette Alcméne in the South Seas, 1848-1852, including extended descriptions of the loss of crew members to cannibalism in New Caledonia in 1850, and of the vessel’s infamous shipwreck at Kaipara on the west coast of New Zealand in 1851, whilst en route from Hobart Town to Tahiti.
[Libourne, France, between 1882 and 1887]. Folio, 270 x 215 mm, manuscript,  pp, in 4 stitched sections of 23, 38, 48 and 50 pages respectively, the third section with 2 pencil and wash drawings in the text, the fourth section with 3 pencil and wash drawings in the text and one laid down on thick paper (a depiction of the wreck of the Alcméne); the manuscript is very well preserved and complete; [together with] Certificats de mes services à l’État. Signed autograph manuscript, Challans, 22 August 1887; folio,  pp, being the complete maritime service record of Ernest Gendron, author of the Alcméne manuscript.
Born in Bordeaux in 1833, Ernest Gendron embarked as a “mousse” (equivalent to the Royal Navy’s rank of “boy”) on the three-masted corvette Alcméne in July 1848. Gendron’s impeccably handwritten account of the voyage was evidently set down by him at some point in the 1880s, and is drawn from his original shipboard notebooks. The vessel departed the west coast of France for the Marquesas and Tahiti on 15 July, with a complement of 262 crew and 122 passengers, mostly soldiers, missionaries and Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul. It reached Rio de Janeiro on 4 September, Valparaiso on 10 January 1849 and Callao on 18 February, where it remained for almost a month before sailing westward. The Alcméne arrived at Nouka-Hiva in the Marquesas on 3 April 1849, where it relieved the corvette Galathée. Gendron’s account includes his observations of the Marquesans, whom he describes as “half-savage”, despite the fact that cannibalism is no longer practiced in the islands. Some of the ship’s crew participate in the construction of a barracks next to the church. After almost a year’s sojourn at Nouka-Hiva the Alcméne departed on 30 March 1850 for Tahiti, where it arrived on 12 April. Its duties there included ensuring the supply of provisions to the missionaries living on the various islands, as well as conducting hydrographic surveys. On 4 July 1850 the ship left for Port Jackson, where it arrived on 8 September after calling in at the Gambier Islands and Wallis Island. The Alcméne did not remain in Sydney long, however, as on 4 October it received orders to sail to the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, where it was to carry out more hydrographic survey work. The greater part of the manuscript is devoted to episodes in this part of the voyage, including revictualling the missionary communities, visits to the smaller islands, topographic surveys, encounters with the indigenous inhabitants, and the discovery in the jungle of the lost headstone of d’Entrecasteaux. On the 14 November 1850 14 of the Alcméne‘s crew were sent to explore the islands off the northern tip of New Caledonia in the ship’s cutter. When they did not return a search was mounted, but only three of the sailors were found. Gendron, who had remained on board the Alcméne, recounts in great detail the gripping eyewitness narrative of one of the survivors, Lafitte. On 2 December 1850, while collecting fresh water on the island of Yenghebane, the sailors had been attacked by natives, who massacred 11 of their number and captured the other three, bringing them before the chief of the village. The three were then compelled to watch the preparations for the ensuing cannibal feast, as their companions were mutilated and then cooked over hot coals for two hours. Their body parts were distributed amongst the villagers and consumed to the accompanying sound of the enormous slit drums. Having witnessed this terrifying scene, the three survivors were led away to a nearby ravine, where they were held hostage under heavy guard for nine days, before their fortuitous rescue by members of the search party. After erecting a memorial stone to their comrades, the sailors carried out a punitive operation which showed the island’s inhabitants no mercy: they were shot on sight and their villages were razed to the ground. (One of the repercussions of these events was that the island of Yenghebane was annexed by France in 1853).
The voyage of the Alcméne continued regardless, and on 15 January 1851 she arrived at Hobart Town. Here orders were received to return to Tahiti via New Zealand, where she was to collect a cargo of kauri spars at Whangaroa on the east coast of Northland – often referred to as the shipwreck coast. The Alcméne left Hobart on May 22 with a crew of 229 and one female passenger (the Comtesse d’Ehrensvard, who was none other than the granddaughter of the Governor of Tasmania, Mary Bell Scott, the new bride of Comte Carl Augustin d’Ehrensvard, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Swedish Navy on loan to the French Navy). On 3 June 1851 the Alcméne lost her bearings in a heavy storm and ran aground at Kaipara. Gendron provides a blow-by-blow account of this dramatic event and its aftermath, which sees a party strike out overland to find help, while the other survivors fend for themselves as best they can near the site of the shipwreck. His drawings, in particular his spectacular depiction of the Alcméne coming to grief in the storm, make his narrative all the more immediate. A group of Māori from a village 35 nautical miles distant eventually come to their rescue, transporting them in canoes as far as Akaroa, where they are met by British officers.
The wreck of the Alcméne was a sensational event in early colonial New Zealand history. Gendron records that 33 sailors were drowned, although other sources give a lower number. In Auckland the survivors were feted, and a monument commemorating the loss of the French ship and crew was erected. Many of the survivors, including Gendron, were transported back to Tahiti on an American vessel. On 28 January 1852 they finally arrived back in Brest, after a three-and-a-half year voyage that had seen 87 men lose their lives.
Gendron’s manuscript is completed by brief accounts of his later campaigns, including the Crimea (1854-56) and Mexico (1861-63).
For printed works on the voyage of the Alcméne, see O’Reilly, Patrick. Bibliographie de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, 117.