“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Did you ever have a wild talent that nobody would pay for? Mine is arguably blogging about historical strangeness. No worries. I do think of this as a public service, not for you specifically. Okay, so I do it for you too, it’s just I don’t know you, there is no money involved, and when they find half-eaten human spleens in your refrigerator, I don’t want them thinking its an activity of which I approve. I mean, I’m ambivalent (as in “you do you”), I just don’t want the authorities drawing any conclusions. One is led to wonder how many individuals have had some preternatural ability, but remained relatively anonymous and historically forgotten, because they could never make a living off it (or in simpler times, they just got burned at the stake). Case in point, Étienne Bottineau of Île de France, which nowadays we refer to as the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius (incidentally, the only known home of the long extinct Dodo bird). Bottineau had some mad skills at detecting ships way over the visible horizon which he referred to as “nauscopy” (or rather “nauscopie” as he was French), a fairly useful trick, particularly when your government is at war all the time. Sadly, he was never able to turn this into something marketable and in fact claimed no supernatural abilities despite his nickname, “The Sorcerer of Mauritius”. He died in obscurity. I feel you, brother.
Bottineau was born on May 14, 1738 in the Loire Valley of France, but had a hankering for the life of a salty seafarer, enlisting as a sailor with privately owned ships at the tender age of 15, and according to extracts from his memoir (in which he fails to explain in any great or reproducible detail the mystery of Nauscopy), even as a youth he was fascinated by observable atmospheric phenomena. After a stint with the French Royal Navy, he was hired by the French East India Company in 1764 for their local engineering corps at Port Louis, Île de France. At this point, detecting ships that nobody else could see was a nascent skill, and he appears to have spent many years observing the atmosphere and trying to confirm his assumptions. He won a few bets at waterfront taverns, but rumor is he lost a fair amount of money as well. Over the years, it seems his accuracy improved, but the publicity that followed appears to have annoyed then Governor Antoine de Guiran, chevalier de La Brillanne, who sent him into effective slavery in Madagascar. After a few years, and the installation of Viscomte François de Souillac as Governor, Bottineau was allowed to return to Mauritius, where he immediately resumed his nauscopic inquiries.
The island’s administration and naval officers were suitably impressed, and figured Bottineau could be of some use. Bottineau was starting to think about how to capitalize on his talents, the way any good defense contractor would. In 1780, Bottineau sent a letter to the French Minister of Marine Maréchal de Castries offering the secrets of nauscopy in return for a substantial payment. The skeptical minister, in response, ordered Mauritian authorities to conduct an eight month study of his predictions, recording them, and comparing them to actual arrivals.
A register was kept at the Post Office in which each of his prophecies was recorded immediately it was uttered, and on the arrival of ships in port their logs were compared with this document and the exact spot where the ship was when seen by Bottineau was located. It would appear that in eight months and in sixty – two reports he foretold the arrival of a hundred and fifty ships (Neill, 1921, p291).
By 1782, Port Louis was in a frenzy. It was the height of the American Revolution, and the French expected a British attack on Île de France. Bottineau stepped forward and warned the Governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, that a flotilla of 11 ships was approaching. No lookouts or signals were sent from ships at sea. To be on the safe-side de Souillac dispatched a sloop over the horizon to investigate. The sloop returned and told everyone to relax. It was just a fleet of 11 British East Indiamen headed for India and they had altered course around the island. This of course means that Bottineau saw them, but they just weren’t planning on visiting Mauritius. Governor de Souillac, along with most of the senior military officers on Mauritius, signed affidavits as to Bottineau’s abilities, and Bottineau set sail for Paris in an attempt to persuade the Ministry of Marine of the military and monetary value of nauscopy.
Arriving in Paris in June 1784, things did not look good. Minister of the Marine de Castries refused to see Bottineau and leading journalists mocked him as a charlatan. Then the French Revolution happened, and while the infamous Jean Paul Marat actually supported Bottineau, Marat quickly got himself an unpopular reputation and subsequent death by stabbing. Bottineau apparently “died in great misery” in Pondicherry.
The vast majority of the human race lives a life of toiling in obscurity. Fame and fortune are out there for a vanishingly small number of people. At least we’ve advanced to the point where bizarre superpowers might garner you a bunch of followers on social media, and the consequent ability to pull in some advertising dollars and sell merchandise. Until our decidedly post-modern era, you had two ways to go (if you were not an independently wealthy aristocrat) – carnival or government contract. Poor Bottineau got himself neither, as he did not claim anything preternatural about his observational methods, in fact regarded nauscopy as based on scientific observation, which we’ll never be quite sure of, since the secrets died with him. He probably needed a better agent.
Neill, W.N. “Nauscopy in the Mauritius”. Occult Review: [a Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Investigation of Supernormal Phenomena and the Study of Psychological Problems] v33. London: W. Rider and Son, Ltd., 1921.
Maty, Paul Henry, 1745-1787. “Extrait du Memoire de M. Bottineau”. A New Review: With Literary Curiosities and Literary Intelligence v9. London: Printed for the author, 1786.
Shore, Henry N. “Signaling Methods Amongst Ancients”. The United Service Magazine: With Which Are Incorporated the Army and Navy Magazine and Naval and Military Journal v52. London: H. Colburn, 1916.
Interesting, as is the telling of the tale. Had Bottineau told his secret, someone might have capitalized on it later, without crediting Bottineau.
Some secrets fare better if they remain mysteries.
This is another example of the mislabeling of historical periods. Bottineau’s experience suggests that “age of reason” and “enlightenment” were at best only loosely applicable to his era. My expatriate Parisian colleagues would argue that reason and enlightenment have yet to penetrate French bureaucracy. Of course, France is hardly unique in this regard. Institutional bureaucracy favors the maintenance of the status quo (or restoration of the status quo ante if it can be managed).
I agree that we all need better agents, especially (as in my case) in the absence of skills and powers.