The Ship Persévérant

On the 11th June 1838, Le Persévérant was registered as a three-masted vessel of 335 tons, built in 1836 at Redon for the owner Mr Louis Marie of Binic, Côtes d'Armor, and registered as No. 60 at Binic on 6th September 1836. It left Binic on 29th June 1838 to fish for whales commissioned as No. 114 Saint Brieuc (the number relating to its commissioning or Armement) under the command of Captain Duval.

The First Voyage of the Persévérant to the South Seas

For Persévérant's first voyage it had a crew of five officers (including the surgeon Jean Marie Chaumont) and 28 men, 33 in total. All were paid by share, according to the tradition of commissioning the Binic whalers. These ranged from 1/14 for the captain to 1/300 for the ship's boys; going from 1/115 for Alexis Briand, harpooner from Saint Brieuc, to 1/150 for Saint Brieuc sailor and sailmaker Jean Claude Orhan. The crew were all paid an advance before departing on the voyage, the amounts again being variable. They ranged between 60 francs for the ship's boys and 300 francs for the second captain, first lieutenant and the surgeon. Both the owner, Louis Marie, and the Captain, Yves Marie Augustin Duval were required to sign a statement at the end of the roll acknowledging the amount of the calculated advances (5340 francs); that only the persons listed would embark on the ship; and, agreeing to certain terms and conditions for the voyage such as providing the crew with rations in the regulated quantity and quality, dealing with the sick or deceased persons, and so on.

Duval was 28 years old at the time of his appointment to Persévérant and came from Morlaix where he obtained his certificate of Master Mariner (Capitaine au long cours). This was his first command although he already had good experience of the whale fishery in the South Seas.

The Last Voyage of the Persévérant

Rumours about the loss of Persévérant were confirmed in Le Français de l'Oeust (23 October 1841, No. 55: 223), a political journal appearing at Saint Brieuc. The article deplored the loss of 'this beautiful ship'. The journal then quotes the account of the disaster as reported in the Journal du Hâvre:

"We have announced the loss of the whaler Persévérant on the coast of New Holland, and the arrival in Batavia, in early July of one of the four whale-boats in which the crew saved themselves.'"

Two people standing below a large sand dune.

Image copyright WA Museum

Duval's report and letter to the Ministry of Marine and the Colonies account for what happened. In March 1841 Duval had anchored his ship in Shark Bay and established a tent on the deserted island of Dirk Hartog in order to land some men to catch turtles and other refreshments when for three days a violent storm caused his ship to drag on the reefs where it perished.

They stayed on the island until 30th May hoping to see some ships appear in the large bay that could save them. But tired of useless waiting and privations, and having already lost five men since the wrecking of the ship, they took the decision to embark in the whale-boats to risk a journey of about 600 miles (over 1000 km) to the island of Lombok, the winds not permitting them to go and find a closer English establishment.

Of four whale-boats, one was rescued by an English ship Elisa. The one with the Captain and five persons on board arrived at Java at the NE of the island, from where they got to Batavia by land, after having exchanged their boat for arms for security, and finishing by selling their arms for food. Nothing was thus saved from this bel armament (beautiful ship).

Two decorated tobacco bowls on a sandy beach

Field photograph showing two tobacco pipe bowls with human face and head decoration
Image copyright WA Museum


The archaeological programme was comprised of survey and excavation components. The survey component included a visual survey of the site and lands further afield and a metal detection survey to investigate the potential for metal artefacts buried beneath the dune surface.

The excavation component involved the digging of a number of test trenches to investigate the vertical character of the site and specific features of the site as dictated by site observations and conditions. There are no descriptions of the survivors' camp, or how it was arranged or what privations the survivors went through during the ten weeks. Neither is there a mention of a look-out nor signal fire although doubtless such provisions were made.

Scientists marking an area for investigation

Recording the corners of the grid frame
Image copyright WA Museum

Scientists marking an area for investigation

Recording the corners of the grid frame
Image copyright WA Museum

Two scientists seiving soil for artefacts

Sieving of soil
Image copyright WA Museum

It is recorded that five crew died of scurvy on the island but neither their names nor the location of their graves are included in the first-hand accounts. It was considered to be unlikely that physical remains of a look-out or signal fireplace would survive even if the locations were guessed. Finding the graves would be difficult and reliant on chance unless they were marked with stones; or more likely in a dune environment eroding and showing bones on the surface.

With the crew becoming weaker and little prospect of rescue, and ten weeks marooned on the deserted island, they left in the whaling boats. It is likely that, in addition to provisions such as food and water, the crew would have taken valuables and personal items with them.

The wreck was salvaged by Aeline and possibly other whalers visiting Shark Bay. While it is not recorded in the Adeline's log, it is likely that they salvaged from the survivors' camp as well.

The Wreck Site

The wreck was seen by various ships for several years after the loss. The historical evidence suggested that the Persévérant wreck site might be on Levillain Shoals or possibly Levillain Reef. It was decided to carry out a magnetometer survey of the area. Levillain Shoals and Reef were thoroughly searched and no evidence of any magnetic targets was found. Since we know Persévérant remained above water for some time after the loss, it is certain that it finally came to rest in shallow water. A survey along the shoreline gave a single small magnetic target, directly opposite the Persévérant campsite and in the precise location of the magnetic targets recorded during earlier surveys.

The general conclusion, therefore, is that Persévérant, after its initial impact and stranding (at a site yet to be determined), bilging and unhinging of the rudder from the stern-post, drifted shorewards where it eventually became totally grounded and subsequently broke up. Given the circumstances of the loss as described by Captain Duval, the discovery of anchors or rudder fittings further offshore would help to identify the initial stranding site of Persévérant and assist in the analysis of the wrecking process.

The Survivors' Camp

The survivors' camp, located on the north-eastern coast of Dirk Hartog Island, is protected under the Western Australian Maritime Archaeology Act 1973 and lies within the boundary of the National Heritage listed place. It is, however, considered to be at risk from unauthorised metal detection and excavation and erosion both from four-wheel drive vehicles and natural factors. It is approximately 1km south of Cape Levillain and 500m north of a location known as Sammy Well on the north-east coast of Dirk Hartog Island.

The 2006 archaeological project found that all the remaining artefacts occurred in the surface layer of the site. Because few collectable or attractive artefacts were recovered during the excavation, it is thought that most of the material had been recovered by previous visitors. Two human teeth and a piece of human skull were found on the surface of the fore dune, but no graves were found. In one area complete barrel hoops were found which lay nearly horizontal, possibly indicating the original orientation of the barrels.

A small bone fragment partially consealed in sand

Possible human skull fragment
Image copyright WA Museum

A human tooth on a sandy beach

Human molar
Image copyright WA Museum

Barrel hoops partially covered in sand

Excavated barrel hoops
Image copyright WA Museum