The little prince

Here I hope to bring to a wider audience the tragic and compelling story of a Topass “prince” from the island of Timor who was essentially kidnapped by a Dominican priest and abandoned in France in 1750.

Pascale Balthazar, the 12 year old son Topasse ruler Gaspar da Costa was taken with a couple of dozen slaves to Macau. There his charlatan “protector” Dominican Father Ignácio sold most of his slaves in Macau and his nice clothes in Canton, after which time they continued on to France, in a journey which took about nine months. During the journey, the priest convinced the boy not to reveal his status or walk around freely on the ship, as the French sailors were monsters and would eat him.

Upon arrival at the port of Lorient, Ignácio promptly unloaded the boy’s riches and ran off. Pascale refused to leave the ship, waiting as a 12 year old would for his guardian. After three days, the Captain informed him that Ignácio was long gone.

Parenthesis: at this point, this story sounds a little like an email scam. I have actually had a couple of Timorese friends – one is even a diplomat – whose emails have been hacked and I have received similar scam appeals for me to wire money.

Alas, this was the 18th century, and there was no email, no Western Union, and young Pascale’s only salvation was one of the ship’s cooks, an older man who adopted him. The young Timorese prince traveled as a ship’s cook to Quebec and back. After years at sea and the death of his cook-adopted-father, Pascale could speak French, and began his quest to find a way home.

To put this into context, Lombard-Jourdan suggests the Pascale was one of a number of princes and heirs brought to France to be educated and become future “friends” of the Compagnie des Indes and the French crown. She also suggests that a number of people pretended to be princes who were actually impostors.

Piece by piece, after years of hard work, Pascale was able to convince French nobles and even the Compagnie des Indes of his true identity. But he appears to have hesitated to return before his stolen riches were returned to him, afraid of his destiny if he returned as a destitute, “forgotten” prince after so many years had passed.

Pascale was believed to have died in Saint-Denis, but a recent article by Lombard-Jourdan suggests that he may have lived longer, spending a number of years in Paris.

I am particularly interested in how “filtered” Pascale’s voice is by the French documents about him. This would require more than a night’s deciphering French and amateur blogging, I’m afraid.

If this kind of story does not inspire some Timorese students to go into history, I do not know what will!

My source is an article by Anne Lombard-Jourdan from Archipel magazine, available for free thanks to the French government. Even more amazing for history scholars is that the National Library of France made the original pamphlet petition to the king of France available for free online.

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2 thoughts on “The little prince

  1. What an amazing story, Janet! As I read, I felt so excited to try to picture Pascale travelling to Macau, France, Québec… What did he have to face throughout that journey as a young Timorese mestizo? The ambiguous social status held by the Topasses in Timor stands out as a very interesting issue too.

  2. Yes, João Miguel, the Topasses or “Black Portuguese” as they were known are a fascinating group, and had a huge impact on history on the island. Their relationship with the various crowns of Europe and with the Dominicans, as well as with “indigenous” Timorese is something to be explored more fully. If you can get it, Charles Boxer’s work on the Topasses is still some of the best out there.

    And trying to imagine the young, proud Pascale in Europe and defending himself there is another thing altogether. The most fascinating part of the account is how he was on a mission to prove he was wronged – he must have traveled for years, collecting testimonies.

    Another wild image I had was of Prince Pascale meeting Tupinambá from Bahia. In one of the articles I read that there were three Tupinambá men taken to Paris at the same time. And in the latest research on Pascale, it appears he spent his last years in a very “cosmopolitan” neighborhood where other foreigners lived…

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