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The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil
Francois Pyrard de Laval
translated into English in 1887 from the third French edition of 1619 by Albert Gray assisted by H.C.P. Bell
Ship graphic from cover of 1887 translation
Maps added by Maldives Culture

Vol.1 Chapter 5

Pitiable wreck of the ship Corbin on the reefs of the Maldives. How the men were saved at an island with much trouble, and the miseries endured by them.

engraved ship on cover of 1887 edition of translation of Francois Pyrard de Laval's 1611 book on Maldives and his other travels
From the cover of the 1887 English edition

Confusion caused by non-existent islands of Deigo de Roys
What I have said of the discomforts and troubles of our voyage up to this point is as nothing compared with what happened after. I shall now describe misery, the greatest that can be imagined, and I am assured there are none in reading it but will deplore an event so sad and lamentable which ruined and completely overpowered us. This is how it happened.

The first day of July 1602, being 5 degrees N. of the equator, with fine weather, neither too calm nor too much wind, we perceived at break of day that the Croissant had lost her big boat, which she had towed from St. Laurence, where it had been made use of as a pinnace. It had been arranged at St. Malo, between our commander and the Merchant Company, that we should build a pinnace at the first land we touched on the other side of the Cape of Good Hope, and for this purpose we had brought all suitable timber, a mast and ropes, ready prepared, and requiring only to be put together. It is very necessary on long voyages to have a pinnace to reconnoitre with in unknown places, to land with on occasion, and to enter rivers where a big ship cannot or dare not venture.

I mention particularly the loss of the boat used as a pinnace, and our want of the latter, for with it the Croissant might have saved our men. Soon after, we sighted at a distance great reefs which surrounded a number of small islands, amid which we perceived a little sail. We approached our General, and let him know that we no longer saw the boat. But we were told that in the past night it had been filled by a heavy sea, and had broken the tow-rope and had gone to the bottom. After this our mate, who alone spoke on these occasions (the captain and lieutenant being both ill, and our English pilot speaking no French), asked what islands they were we saw. The General and his pilot replied that they were called the islands of Diego de Roys. In truth, we had left the de Roys Islands four and twenty leagues behind us in the west.

Map of Maldives, South India and Ceylon 1599 Gijsbertsz
1599 map giving directions from the non-existent islands of Diego de Roys. For hundreds of years, these fictitious islands were placed to the west of Maldives on European maps.

There was great dispute between those of the Croissant and ourselves as to these islands and reefs; for our captain, pilot, mate, and second mate held that they were the Maldives and that we must take care: the General and his pilot thought otherwise. We saw little boats which seemed willing to approach and pilot us - as, indeed, I afterwards learnt from the natives was the case; but our General would not wait and imprudently took no notice of them.

All day passed in this discussion; we continued our course, keeping near each other till the evening when our ship went down the wind to bid the General good night, and to get his orders for the night. Then our mate asked if the passage was open and the General said it was, and that he was certain they were the de Roys Islands, and no other; nevertheless, as these were unknown parts, and for fear lest there should be other rocks or reefs before us, the best thing was to put about after dark in the opposite course and sail towards the west until midnight, and after midnight to tack about and get the ship to her previous position, running east to arrive by daybreak where we then were, or a little further on, so that we should not make any more way in the night, and get lost before we knew where we were.

English Pilot 1755 Map showing non-existent slands of Diego de Roys west of Maldives
150 years after the wreck of the Corbin, the English Pilot 1755 placed the non-existent islands of Diego de Roys to the west of Maldives.

At nightfall, we obeyed the orders of the General. The captain, who was very ill, charged me to warn the mate and second mate to keep a good look-out ('bon cart', as the watch is called which is kept by the mariners every night, each in his turn, as by sentinels) for in his opinion we were in a dangerous part of the Maldives, notwithstanding the opinion of the pilot of the Croissant. Our General intended to pass by the north of these islands, between the head of them and the coast of India; but, on the contrary, we were running right into the midst of them, to our peril. The pilots said they would be careful; for all who have the duty of navigation in those parts must cautiously avoid the dangerous banks and reefs from a hundred leagues off, if he can, otherwise there is great risk in passing through these islands without losing your ship.

But misfortune was pressing close upon us, and notwithstanding the foresight of our captain, who could not set right the others' ignorance, that which had not happened once during the voyage now came to pass, namely, everyone was fast asleep that night even those on watch. The mate and second mate had been carousing and were drunk. The light usually kept on the poop for reading the compass was out, because the man at the wheel who had charge of the light and the hour-glass, had fallen asleep as had also the ship's boy that attended him; for it is customary for the man at the helm always to have a ship's boy by him.

Wreck of the Corbin on Goidhoo atoll
What was worse, the ship was steered to the east half-an-hour or three-quarters at most, too soon. So, while we were thus all asleep, the ship struck heavily twice, and as we started with the shock, she suddenly struck a third time and heeled over. I leave you to imagine the condition of all on board- what a pitiful spectacle we presented - the cries and lamentations of men who find themselves wrecked at night on a rock in mid-ocean, and await a certain death. Some wept and cried with all their might; others took to prayers; others confessed to each other; and far from having a captain to command and encourage us, we had one that aggravated our sorrows. For it was a month and more since he had left his bed; but the fear of death caused him incontinently to rise in his shirt, and, feeble as he was, fall crying among us.

The ship having half-heeled over, we cut the masts to prevent her going quite over and then fired a cannon-shot to warn the Croissant to keep back. But she was in no danger, as she was well behind us and was keeping a good look-out. We all thought that the ship must go to the bottom, as we could see nothing but heavy waves going over us; and that, in fact, must have happened if we had struck upon a rock. About three-quarters of an hour after, dawn appeared, and we sighted some islands at not more than five or six leagues distance beyond the reefs, and the Croissant quite close to us, but unable to help us.

map showing area where pyrard's ship corbin was wrecked in maldives in 1602
Area where Pyrard's ship Corbin was wrecked on Maldives in 1602.
Map sourced from Google Earth

Our ship remained firm on her side, and being on a reef, could still hold together for a while; for had it been on sand, she must have heeled over altogether and we should have been drowned to a man. This gave us some consolation, and the courage to endeavour to save our lives and to get to land, although in our present plight there was but little hope of that, seeing what a distance the land was off: and even then we ran the risk of being denied a landing or of being killed by the natives. We then decided to prepare some craft to carry us, as we could no longer expect to get out the galion or the boat. We took spars, rods, and those stout beams called antennes, which are at each side of ships, and are useful for spars and rods when occasion demands. And because they are only for use in case of need, they have this name antennes; but being in the shape of spars and rods, they are called materaux, or verges de beille - that is, extra. (According to Gray's notes, Pyrard is mistaken when he gives the meaning as 'extra'.)

These we bound together in the manner of a large hurdle, and on to that we nailed a number of planks and boards brought up from below. This kind of raft is called (by the Portuguese) a jangada. This was sufficient to carry us all easily and to save a large quantity of baggage and merchandise to boot. We were working at this raft or jangada all hands, and with all our power from daybreak until two or three hours after noon; but our labour was all in vain, as it was impossible to get it over the reef and afloat.

This made us lose all courage and hope; besides, as I have said, there seemed no chance of getting the galion, which was well forward in the ship below the second deck, and all the masts were cut, and there was no means of fixing a pulley to raise it; moreover, the sea was so heavy and stormy that the waves and swell were going right over the ship to the depth of a pike (long pole used as a weapon) and more, and we were every moment in danger of having them over us. In addition to this, the sea was so tempestuous (for we saw the waves break for more than two miles distance, with a horrible noise over the reefs and rocks) that the galion could not have resisted its violence.

Such being our condition, we perceived a boat approaching us from the island as if to reconnoitre, but it did not come within half a league of us. When we saw it, the best swimmer among us threw himself into the water and made for her, begging the men in her by all manner of signs and cries to come to our aid; but they would do nothing for all his efforts, so that he was constrained at his peril to return. We could not imagine the reason for this inhumanity and barbarism. But I afterwards found that all persons were strictly prohibited from boarding or approaching a wrecked ship, except by command of the king or by leave of the nearest king's officers, who in such case are allowed to save the men, giving information at once to the king.

For the rest, I could not sufficiently wonder that, in the midst of our misery, many of the sailors and mariners ceased not to drink and eat, and to consume the ship's victuals even beyond the necessities of nature, saying to the others of us who remonstrated, that we were all as good as lost, and that they preferred to die in that fashion. Then they swore and fought, and some broke open the chests of others whom they saw at their prayers (having ceased to think more of the things of this world), and no longer acknowledged their captain, making no more account of him than of their comrades, and saying that, as the voyage was at an end, they were no longer bound to obey him. I was horrified at this; and I make bold to say that seamen of this temper, of whom I have seen but too many, leave their souls and conscience on land, so irreligious, demoralised, and insolent have I seen them to be.

To return to my story. Though we despaired of our lives, we made an attempt to get out the galion, at which we worked our best, as we had done at the raft in the morning. Having got it out with vast trouble, we all did our best to equip it and put it to rights, all broken as it was by the waves; but darkness came on before it was quite ready, and we remained the following night on board in our evil plight, and amid great distress and danger, the ship being very full of water, while the waves frequently passed over our heads and drenched us again and again.

Next day, the 3rd July 1602, in the morning, we got the galion over the reefs with great trouble and risk, ourselves swimming the while. This done, we all got on board, taking with us swords, arquebuses, and small pikes, and pulled towards the islands. Our galion, being heavily laden, made much water and almost capsized several times by the violence of the winds and waves. At last,after much fatigue, we got ashore at one of the islands called Pouladou (Fulhadhoo).

The Fulhadhoo islanders
As soon as we reached the shore, the natives who were waiting for us would not permit us to land till we were first disarmed by them. So we having surrendered at discretion to the islanders, they permitted us to land and then pulled up our galion, and took out of it the rudder, masts, and other things necessary for its equipment, and sent them all to the neighbouring islands, whither also they pulled all the boats of their own island, leaving not a single one behind. I perceived from this first view that they were a spirited and quick-witted race. As their island was small (not a league in circumference), and its inhabitants numbered only twenty or twenty-five, they had to fear the arrival with arms of a greater number than themselves, lest we should make ourselves masters of their island and escape by aid of their boats, which would have been easy enough had we known their weakness; but, as I have said, they took the right measures.

On our disembarking we were all led to a building in the middle of the island, where they gave us some fruit, coconuts and limes. Thither, too, came the lord of the island, called Ibrahim and Fulhadhoo Kilage, who appeared to be of great age. He knew some words of Portuguese, by means of which he put many questions to us; after which his people searched us and took away everything we carried, saying that all that appertained to the king after a ship was wrecked. This lord of the island was a great lord, and, as I afterwards learnt, nearly related to the Christian king of the Maldives, who is at Goa. Seeing that we had a piece of scarlet, he asked us what that was. We replied that we had brought it to present to the king; and although all that was in the ship was his, yet was that brought to be presented to him whole and unspoiled by the sea water. As soon as they heard that it was for the king, not a man of them dared to take it or touch it, or even to look at it.

We were, nevertheless, minded to cut off a piece, about two or three ells (6-10 feet) for a present to the lord of the island, in hopes that we should be the better treated. He took it, and thanked us with effusive gratitude, but made us promise not to tell anyone, otherwise he would rather have died than taken it. Soon after, hearing that some officers of the king were coming, he changed his mind, and brought it back, begging us not to tell that he had so much as handled it. For all that, the king heard of it at least six months later, and was wroth against him, and would have sent for him, had he not been then in the last stage of a disease, whereof he died at the age of seventy-five years.

When we had been in this building for the space of a day, they took our mate and two sailors away to the king, forty leagues off, in another island called Male', which is the capital island (all the others being dependencies of it); and there the king resides. Our mate took with him the piece of scarlet and presented it to the king, and was well received, being lodged within the palace. However, this was done not so much by way of favour or honour, as to secure his person; for afterwards I came to understand the general distrust. The king soon sent his brother-in-law with a goodly number of soldiers in barques to go to our wreck and get from it all he could. This was the brother of the chief queen, and was entitled Ranabandeyri Takurufan, his own name being Mohamed.

When he came to the island Fulhadhoo where we were, we were treated better on the occasion of his arrival, and were taken often to the ship to help in getting out the merchandise, baggage, and all the wearing apparel. But they laughed at the advice we gave them, for they knew better than we. As it was impossible for the boats to go over the reef, they fastened a cable to the ship, while the other end was lashed to a big rock of the reef; and so, by holding on to this rope with one hand, we could go and come over the reef to the ship in safety; while so doing, the waves only passed over our heads, and could not overthrow us nor carry us off. For the rest, they had a very pretty contrivance for getting off the cannon and other heavy things, although these were all in the hold, as I shall tell in the proper place.

So for several days they got out our merchandise and took it away to the king, but before that, the king's brother-in-law, by virtue of his commission, separated us one from another and distributed some of us among the surrounding islands (the greater number remaining at Fulhadhoo), and on his return took with him our captain, ill as he was, and five or six others. He was presented to the king and was well received. The king promised to get a ship ready to carry him to Acheh, in the island of Sumatra, whither our General had gone; and I know not but he might have kept his word. Our captain, however, died at Male', the residence of the king, about six or seven weeks after (middle of August 1602).

In all expeditions to the ship they took some one of us in the same way. As for me, the king's brother-in-law, in separating us, took me away from those at Fulhadhoo and put me with two others on a little island called Fehendhoo (distant from Fulhadhoo a league only), where there were no more people than in the other. Here my two companions and I were well received from the very first, and, thanks to the lord who brought us, we had a sufficiency of food.

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