I’m off to Switzerland today and as an Australian it’s fittingly symmetrical to introduce a Swiss adventurer who went to my homeland and who, as it happens, was born on this day.
Or was he? The self-written book Adventures of Louis de Rougemont begins with the statement “I was born in or near Paris, in the year 1844.” Disconcertingly vague, no? And anyway, didn’t I just say he was Swiss?
Actually there was no Louis de Rougemont as such. He was a creation of a certain Henri Louis Grin who was not, in fact, born to the French aristocracy as he later claimed, but rather in humble circumstances in Switzerland in 1847. And while he did go to Australia, this “nobleman” was actually a servant in the governor of Western Australia’s household and subsequently had, and abandoned, a wife and child in Sydney. He joined a pearling expedition to New Guinea and was shipwrecked, that much is confirmed, but the deadbeat dad’s account of his later escapades is, shall we say, generously padded with incidents whose plausibility levels are in the low-to-zero region.
As de Rougemont would have it, he was the only survivor of the wreck and was washed up on the kind of desert island beloved of newspaper cartoonists. His first contact after some two years of solitude was with a native (presumably Torres Strait Islander) family who welcomed him into their tribe and treated him as a deity. Having elevated himself to godhead de Rougemont can really go anywhere with the story, and he does. And so he wanders across northern Australia, wrestling alligators, riding turtles, leading his tribe into battle on stilts and dressed in an emu skin and finding (but for some reason not keeping) gold. Oh, and at one point it rained fish.
De Rougemont took a native wife who bore him two children and he spent in all (so he claimed) 30 years in the wilderness. His astounding story was first published in the London-based magazine Wide World in 1898. There were still enough blank spots on the map into which a man of wit and invention could project his own fantasies, and he found a ready audience. The age of adventure had not died and its chroniclers could make fortunes, and in the days before any old WiFi-enabled smart-arse could simply type “raining fish” into Wikipedia, there were economically valid reasons for embroidering the truth.
So what de Rougemont told weren’t lies as such, they were market-driven reality derivatives. Truth plus interest. And weren’t de Rougemont’s relatively innocent fabrications just as dishonest as the tableaux of happy, complacent colonials presented in the 19th century from the Great Exhibition of 1851 onwards?
The trouble was de Rougemont overplayed his hand. Confusing a crocodile for an alligator for instance – that’s an innocent enough mistake. But claiming that wombats can fly? Anyone who has seen the ungainly marsupials going inelegantly about their business would know they can barely run let alone take to the skies, as de Rougemont claims, “rising in clouds every evening at sunset.”
It was the wrong end of the 19th century to get away with that kind of hooey. De Rougemont’s stories started the Victorian version of a flame war, which furiously debated whether, for instance, monstrous octopuses really were capable of dragging a boat to the ocean floor, or the likelihood of growing corn on a desert island.
Like any true fabulist, when de Rougemont was caught out he just lied more, maintaining, this time as “Louis Green”, that de Rougemont was an impostor impersonating him. One newspaper generously suggested that de Rougemont had suffered a blow to the head which left him unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
In the end, de Rougemont’s tall tales brought him fleeting fame but a notable absence of riches. After a short career as a living curiosity in which he demonstrated, among other things, that you really can ride a giant turtle, he was reduced to selling matches on the streets of London and died in 1921.