La Nouvelle France: Nineteenth century propaganda

Between 1879-1881 four ships carrying European colonists sailed for a remote island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, dreaming of a better life. Persuaded by smooth-tongued agents and a newspaper full of beautiful woodcut illustrations and “testimonials” from the colony, several hundred people signed up, eager to relocate to the “paradise” of the Free Colony of Port Breton, or “New France”. La Nouvelle France: journal de la colonie libre de Port-Breton, Oceanie was the propaganda piece used to lure the unsuspecting colonists and reassure them that the perilous journey was worth undertaking. They had no reason to think the scheme was anything other than legitimate. 

Title image from issues 1-10, Volume 1. La Nouvelle France : journal de la colonie libre de Port-Breton, Oceanie. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Sadly for the prospective colonists, the utopia of Port Breton did not exist. It was a scam manufactured by the self-styled Marquis de Rays, and as a result of this swindle, hundreds of immigrants lost their lives. Josephine Niau’s The Phantom Paradise: the story of the expedition of the Marquis de Rays traces the voyages and fates of the four ships the Nouvelle Bretagne, the India, the Génil, and the Chandernagore and their human cargo.  

Marquis de Rays, issue 13, Volume 2. La Nouvelle France : journal de la colonie libre de Port-Breton, Oceanie. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

The New Guinea Memoirs of Jean Baptiste Octave Mouton details Mouton’s personal experiences of the ill-fated venture. The young Mouton and his father joined the last expedition to the Free Colony of Port Breton, or New France. He describes seeing the newspaper called La Nouvelle France when the Marquis’ representative was in Brussels, saying,

this paper represented the new enterprise as a wonderful thing, picture showing, sceneries of unimaginable prospects, of course those sceneries were taken from quite a different part of the world, but we did not know, however, as we had nothing to lose and all to win, my father was quite taken by the prospect... 

The New Guinea memoirs of Jean Baptiste Octave Mouton. Page 36

Mouton and his father departed on the Nouvelle Bretagne, and arrived at Port Breton on the 15th August 1881. He says of the arrival,

what a delusion, our paradise become a hell rather than a land of promise, some of the passengers were so much affected they cried of disappointment...

The New Guinea memoirs of Jean Baptiste Octave Mouton. Page 49

Mouton and his father were among the few to stay in Papua New Guinea after the colony collapsed. 

Map of Port Breton, Issue 21, Volume 2. La Nouvelle France : journal de la colonie libre de Port-Breton, Oceanie. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

The colony was evacuated after failed attempts to secure supplies for the starving colonists. A handful resettled in Cairns, but the majority settled in New South Wales, forming the settlement known as Little Italy. The resulting publicity from the event kindled fears the French would secure the territory, impacting trade routes and the young Queensland colony quite heavily. In 1883 Premier Sir Thomas McIlwraith annexed British New Guinea for the colony of Queensland, a controversial action that had little support from the British government and was subsequently disavowed. In 1884 a British protectorate was proclaimed over the southern coast of New Guinea and adjacent islands, and in 1888 the British New Guinea protectorate was formally annexed. Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975.   

Le café, Issue 20, Volume 2. La Nouvelle France : journal de la colonie libre de Port-Breton, Oceanie. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

State Library has acquired two bound volumes of issues of La Nouvelle France published between 1879–1881. The volumes have been digitised and can be viewed online.  

Further reading: 

 

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