Starvation On The High Seas: The Ordeal Of The “Saint Le Jacques”

Perhaps it is well that the modern traveler remains serenely unaware of the extraordinary hardships endured by his itinerant ancestors.  For if he knew what travel in the pre-modern era truly entailed, he would be rightfully consumed by a sense of shame and inadequacy.  His concerns are whether he will have the chicken or the pasta aboard Delta Flight XYZ bound for one city or another; his ancestors, however, were grateful just to get a few moldy biscuits and rum during some miserable transoceanic ordeal.  Perspective is everything, or nearly everything.

We turn now to the topic of early Brazilian exploration and travel.  The Frenchman Jean de Léry (1534–1613) is a now-forgotten name from that age; but he was one of the first explorers of that dense, green land, and his name deserves to be better known.  Born in Bourgogne, he was a Huguenot minister who emigrated to Brazil in 1556 to establish the first Calvinist colony in South America.  He and his party set up a habitation on one of the islands off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.  Infighting and the treachery of the colony’s leader scuttled the plan, so Léry left to live on the mainland among the Tupinamba Indians.  He learned Indian habits and customs from first-hand observation, including the grisly practices of inter-tribal warfare and cannibalism.  He eventually returned to France and became a minister, although he apparently never was truly able to reintegrate himself back into French life.  His experiences in the New World had affected him permanently; he participated in some military campaigns but died of disease in 1616 at the age of 79.

Title page of Jean de Lérys 1578 account of his Brazilian travels

He left behind a valuable account of his travels and experiences in Brazil named History of a Voyage To Brazil, Also Called America, published in 1578.  Its Latin title was Historia Navigationis in Brasiliam, Quae et America Dicitur; a French translation appeared the same year, but it was apparently not available in English until the early 1990s when Janet Whatley published an excellent translation.  It is a wealth of ethnographic, geographic, and travel information; Léry describes the land of Brazil in detail, along with the customs and habits of the Indians.  He also provides his readers with shipboard details about his voyage across the Atlantic both to and from Brazil, a practice that was not common in his era.  During the trip from France to Brazil, he gives entertaining descriptions of how the crew harpooned dolphins, speared sharks, and used gaff-hooks to capture sea tortoises.  I have chosen to describe his terrifying experience with starvation aboard ship on his journey from Brazil back to France, which took place in the spring of 1558.

The ship Saint Le Jacques left Brazil in January 1558 with a cargo of lumber, pepper, monkeys, parrots, and various other commodities.  There were about 45 passengers aboard.  After a week at sea, the ship began to take on water; the captain permitted some of the passengers who feared the ship would sink to return to Brazil using a smaller vessel that was with them.  But the leak could not be completely repaired, and after about seven weeks at sea, the waterlogged Saint Le Jacques was not even halfway to France.  Some of the crewmembers advised eating the parrots and other animals aboard; others thought the ship should make for Cape St. Roch, where they might be able to replenish their supplies.

Things did not improve.  The mate and the navigator fought with each other, and forgot that their first responsibility was to bring the vessel safely home.  Things were so bad that in March 1558 the mate forgot to reef the sails while on watch during a storm, with the result that the ship capsized.  Most of the cargo was lost, and the crew were only able to right the ship by cutting away the rigging.  At this point the ship could only be navigated with extreme difficulty.  More disasters followed.  The ship’s carpenter negligently removed a wooden plug in the ship’s hold that was holding back the seawater, with the result that the hold flooded; the captain ordered a large quantity of Brazilian precious woods to the thrown overboard in an effort to lighten the ship.  The leak was eventually plugged.

As the Saint Le Jacques crossed the Tropic of Cancer, they passed through a very dense patch of seaweed; it was so thick that they had to practically hack their way through it.  Soon after this, another misfortune hit the ship when the gunner, trying to dry a batch of gunpowder on deck in a metal cauldron, caused it to burn; as the flames shot skyward, the sails and rigging caught fire, causing serious damage.  At this point Léry must have thought that the ship was cursed.  The worst was yet to come, however.  The best navigators have an instinctive “feel” for the sea, and can guide a vessel even without the aid of maps and charts.  Léry’s ship did not have a navigator of this caliber; by the middle of April, it was clear that they were far away from the Spanish coast, and their supplies were running out.  Biscuits were rationed, but these had become little more than lumps of crumbs by now.

Passengers hoarded what few parrots were left.  Two men died of starvation and were flung overboard.  Léry tells us that a seaman named Nargue went insane with hunger and thirst, and actually ate the eyeballs of the dead men before they had been thrown overboard.  Nargue himself died soon after.  Léry’s experiences in Brazil must have mentally prepared him for the horrors he witnessed aboard ship; he had witnessed war, killing, and cannibalism before, and this must have helped alleviate the shock of his predicament.

The weather did not cooperate with the doomed ship either.  Rough seas prevented the crew from fishing, and added the miseries of seasickness to their starvation.  The men scraped and boiled the skins of an animal Léry called “Tapirous sou,” and this seemed to give them some nourishment.  The cabin boys ate candles and boiled pieces of horn taken from their lanterns.  They boiled and ate every piece of leather they could find, even the bindings of books and the coverings of boxes.  They then set out to hunt down every rat they could find.  Rats, when caught, were boiled whole, and eaten in their entirety, including the intestines and bones.  The men were by now mere skeletons, lacking much energy to do more than lie around the deck and dream of nourishment.  Some men tried to gnaw on the Brazilian woods that were still on board, but this was of course useless.  The specter of cannibalism began to hover about the ship.  But salvation was close at hand.

On May 24, 1558, someone sighted the coast of Bretagne; it turned out that they were close to Rochelle.  At first no one wanted to believe that land had been sighted; by now no one had any faith in the navigator.  On the 26th of May, the burned, half-sunk vessel arrived at the port of Blavet.  We are told that some of the starving sailors, after putting ashore, ate to sudden excess and died of shock.  But most of the crew survived, and lived to tell the tale.



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