The King of Patagonia

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Sat 30 Apr 2016 15:18
One morning a yacht with a black hull arrived alongside the Micalvi. The Chilean courtesy flag was flying from the starboard shroud as is custom, but on the port side was a flag neither Franco nor I recognised. We dug out our sailing encyclopaedia but it wasn't listed. Neither did it feature in the World Fact Book, a list of all the countries in the world compiled by the CIA. We could hear French spoken onboard and sure enough, at the stern the French ensign was flying ... alongside a very large blue, white and green flag, the same as the one on the shroud. Thinking this might be a club or regional flag, I asked our French neighbours Jacqui and Juliette if they knew what it was. "What flag?" they replied. 

A couple of years ago I read 'In Patagonia', Bruce Chatwin's lively account of his travels through Argentina. In his book Chatwin mentions Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, the King of Patagonia.

In the spring of 1859 the thirty-three year old lawyer Orélie-Antoine de Tounens left France with 25,000 francs which he had stolen from his family (thus making them bankrupt). The man had expectations above his breeding. He had added the 'de' to his name to make it sound posh, dressed as a dandy and wore his black hair long and flowing. 

He had heard about the native tribes of Patagonia and of their fight against the Chileans and Argentinians and was convinced they would elect him king.

He set sail on an English merchant ship and landed at Coquimbo, on the Pacific shore of Chile.
He wrote to the chief of the Auracanian Indians and soon set off to meet with them. He invented his first two subjects and pretended that they accompanied him on his journey; Messieurs Lachaise and Desfontaines, his Minister for Foreign Affairs and Secretary of State for Justice, both named after towns near his birthplace. 

When Orélie-Antoine and his two invisible ministers caught up with the natives, he learnt of the death of the chief and was led to his successor. He wasn't told that before dying the old leader had prophesied that the end of war and slavery would coincide with the coming of a bearded white stranger. The Araucanians welcomed the deluded Frenchman and he proclaimed a constitutional monarchy with a succession to be established within his own family. He drafted the proclamation, signed it, had it endorsed by the make-believe Monsieur Desfontaines, and sent copies to the Chilean President and the Santiago newspapers.

Soon after, the Patagonian Indians sent news that they too were keen to join the kingdom. Orélie-Antoine, with another document hastily drafted, annexed the whole of South America from latitude 42° to Cape Horn. Keen to progress the development of his realm, he settled in Valparaíso where he set to work drafting a constitution, recruiting for the armed forces (he hoped to raise an army of 30,000 men), and establishing a shipping route to France. He even commissioned a certain Sr Guillermo Frick of Valdivia to write a national anthem. 

The King returned to France where he tried, in vain, to recruit French colons to come and live in 'La Nouvelle France'. He had failed to mention that the lands were already populated by warrior natives. One newspaper ran an article about ‘La Nouvelle France’ questioning how Tounens' claims could be trusted when he had betrayed his former clients and bankrupted his family. 

Nine months later, disappointed and impoverished, he returned to Araucania with a horse, a mule and a servant. He travelled through the countryside visiting 'his' villages. His subjects were always welcoming though often they were very drunk. Modelling himself on Napoleon, he gave speeches about international law which were always well received, though the natives probably didn't  understand a single word. He unfurled the Tricolour (blue, white and green rather than the French, red, white and blue) and shouted "Vive l'unité des tribus! Sous un seul chef! Sous un seul drapeau!" 

The noise and the smoke signals from the camp fires put fear in the hearts of the white colonists nearby who appealed for help from the Chilean army. Meanwhile Orélie-Antoine's servant was plotting against him. 

One day, sat by a river eating his lunch, he was set upon by a group of armed men. They were Chilean soldiers and forced him to ride to the provincial capital Los Angeles. The Governor interrogated him. At first the captive stood his ground, after all he was the King of Auracania and Patagonia but soon he broke down and offered to return home to France. Ruthless, the governor had him tried as a common criminal to set an example. 

The Chilean jail was a terrible place; dark and damp. His bed was soaking and he feared death. He caught dysentery and all his hair fell out. During his despair he wrote the order of succession, the throne would pass to his father, then to his brothers and their children. Finally he renounced the throne and the French Consul intervened on his behalf and had him repatriated.

Exiled in Paris, his hair fully grown back, all Orélie-Antoine could think about, was to return to his kingdom. As often is the case with exiled monarchs, life wasn't too glamorous; ceremonies in cheap hotels, payment of meals with titles, but he did succeed in attracting a few mavericks to his cause.

He attempted to return to Patagonia three times but each time he was thwarted and sent back to France. The first, he was betrayed by Indians, the second he was caught by an Argentine governor who recognised him despite his pseudonym Jean Prat and his disguise. It isn't totally clear what caused his last attempt in 1877 to fail. Either he was poisoned or the gaucho diet of meat, meat, meat caused him such serious constipation that he nearly died. He only just made it to hospital in Buenos Aires where he was operated on. Recovered, he returned to France, only to die the following year, forlorn and penniless.

Chatwin continues the story:
"The later history of the Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia belongs rather to the obsessions of bourgeois France than to the politics of South America. In default of a successor from the Tounens family, a M. Gustave Achille Laviarde interposed himself and reigned as Achille Ier. He was a native of Rheims where his mother ran a wash-house known locally as ‘The Castle of Green Frogs’. He was a Bonapartist, a freemason, an ‘actionnaire’ of Moët et Chandon, an expert on barrage balloons (which he somewhat resembled) and an acquaintance of Verlaine. He financed his receptions with his commercial enterprise known as the Royal Society of the Constellation of the South, never removed his court from Paris, but did open consulates in Mauritius, Haiti, Nicaragua and Port-Vendres. When he made overtures to the Vatican, a Chilean prelate said: ‘This kingdom exists only in the minds of drunken idiots.’"

The story doesn't stop here though, the third king, a Dr Antoine Cros (Antoine II) only reigned for eighteen months. His claim to fame was that he had served as doctor to the Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil. He was succeeded by his daughter who then passed the crown to her son, Mr Jacques Bernard, a supporter of the Pétain Government who went to prison for the privilege. Bruce Chatwin travelled to France in 1974 to meet with the then king, M. Philippe Boiry, who had restored Orélie-Atoine's family house for use as a holiday home. Chatwin recounts:

"On a drizzling November afternoon, His Royal Highness Prince Philippe of Araucania and Patagonia gave me an audience at his public relations firm on the Faubourg Poissonière. (...) Also present was the Court Historian, a young and portly Argentine of French descent with royal buttons on his blazer. The Prince was a short man in a brown tweed suit who sucked at a briar pipe that curled down his chin. He had just come back from East Berlin on business and disdainfully waved about a copy of Pravda. He showed me a long manuscript in search of a publisher; a photo of two Araucanian citizens holding up their tricolour, the Blue, White and Green; a court order allowing M. Philippe Boiry to use his royal title on a French passport; a letter from the Consul of El Salvador in Houston recognising him as a head of state in exile; and his correspondence with Presidents Perón and Eisenhower (whom he had decorated) and with Prince Montezuma, the pretender to the Aztec throne."

Back here in Williams, it wasn't long before the French crews got together for fabulous three course meals 'watered' down with Pisco sour (the local brandy) and bottles of Chilean red. Somehow, Franco and I always manage to get invited, I suppose in small yachting communities, the ability to speak French is nearly as good as a passport. Usually at some point in the evening, our hosts and friends forget that we are only 'honorary' French and start slating the English. Then they start singing and the songs are always about how the French navy had their proverbial kicked by the Brits. On one of these occasions, we partook in an Argentinian "Fondue Savoyarde". Now, we all know that 'fondue' is a Swiss cheese dish. Yet the French from Savoy somehow claim it too. As for the Argentinians ... It was disgusting!

Half way through the meal, Bernard brought out the flag; blue, white and green. He is an emissary for the Kingdom of Patagonia which is alive and kicking ... That night there was much talk of revolution. Rebels were recruited and a daring mission organised - the reconquest of Patagonian soil in the depths of the night.

Bernard (right) with fellow conspirator Jacqui