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  Mathurin-Marie Helias was born on the 22nd of December 1862 in Primelin a small fishing village in the Finistere region, along the Brittany coast. He joined the Navy in Brest in August 1882. As was common with the population from his area, he could not speak French, he spoke Breton.  

In August of 1883 he joined the transport ship Aveyron which was leaving France to ferry much needed supplies and men to French Indochina.

Above: Seaman 3rd class Mathurin-Marie Helias and some of his ship mates on shore leave in Indochina

Below Right: Helias' campaign medal for his service in Tonkin

Press reports from the period describe some of the movements of the Aveyron  

The Times, October 24, 1883
"SAIGON, Oct. 23. The French transports Shamrock and Aveyron, bringing reinforcements of troops and war material, have arrived here."  

The Times, November 17, 1883
"PARIS, Nov. 16. The Liberté of this evening positively contradicts the alarmist reports current on the Bourse to-day in reference to the operations in Tonquin. The last despatch received from Admiral Courbet, dated the 8th inst., stated that the health of troops was excellent and announced the arrival of the transports Aveyron and Shamrock. The Admiral expected the transports Bien-Hoa and Tonquin to arrive on the 10th inst., and purposed attacking Sontay between the 15th and 20th inst. It is therefore thought probable that the French advance has already commenced"  

The Times, January 10, 1884
"PARIS, Jan.9. The Minister of Marine has received the following telegram from Admiral Courbet, despatched from Hong-Kong at noon to-day, and dated Hanoi, December 27th and 31st :- "To-day, December 27, a fire broke out in the artillery stores at Hanoi. The loss of material was inconsiderable, and will be replaced within a fortnight from Saigon by the transport Aveyron."

Leaving Tonkin

Leaving Tonkin in mid August 1884 the Aveyron and her crew were headed back to France carrying sick and wounded soldiers. It was an operational cruise that was to have lasted one year. It was to end in disaster for the ship and those on board.  

During a storm on the 21st of August, hampered by inconsistencies on his maps, Capitaine de Fregate Michelin ran his ship onto the wreck of the French ship "Mékong" which had sunk in the treacherous waters off "Cap Gardafin".

"Cap Gardafin" is the easternmost tip of Africa, pointing out into the Indian Ocean. Also known as Guardafui, Cape Hafun or locally as  "Ras Hafun" (the crouching lion) it is a section of coastline that has often seen ships wrecked in its waters. In 1862 a treaty was signed with the locals according to which they would protect shipwrecked sailors. Renewed in 1879 and 1885 it gauranteed a $350 yearly revenue for the Sultan of the Midjurtines and Yusuf Ali from Alula.

The German steamer Massalia which happened to be in the area evacuated 300 people from the Aveyron. Almost 300 more were left on board, including Seaman 3rd class Mathurin-Marie Helias.  

On the 22nd of August the ship "Lord of the Isles" arrived to evacuate the remaining crew members to Aden.
The Times, August 25, 1884
"LOSS OF A FRENCH TROOPSHIP Lloyd's Agents at Aden telegraphed, under date of August 23, 9 10 p.m., that the French troopship Aveyron had been totally wrecked at Guardafui. The Aveyron was bound from Haiphong and Saigon for France. A Reuter telegram states that 286 of the officers and crew have arrived at Aden ; the rest, numbering 300 officers and men, remain on the spot. Her Majesty's ship Briton has been ordered to Cape Guardafui to assist."

The Times, August 26, 1884
"THE WRECK OF THE AVEYRON Aden, Aug.25 The remainder of the officers and crew of the French transport Aveyron have been landed here by the steamer Lord of the Isles."

Left: The military service book of Mathurin-Marie Helias

The New York Time reported the loss of the ship in the following article on September 26 1884.

The language (and sentients) is rather offensive, but it seems not to have bothered the editors at the time.

Wrecked on a hostile Shore: Unhappy experience of a ship's crew off Cape Guardafui.  

The steamer "Lord of the Isles", of the Union line, which cleared Shanghai July 18, arrived at Quarantine Wednesday night and yesterday was moored at Pier No. 47 North River. She had an eventful passage. Clearing from Amoy on July 27 she sailed right into a strong typhoon, which continued two days with very high sea, and inflicted injuries of which she still shows the effects. Heavy weather lasted until Singapore was reached, on Aug. 8. At 3:15 o'clock on the Afternoon of Aug. 22, in thick weather, guns of a ship in distress were heard. The "Lord of the Isles" was then off Cape Guardafui, the Northeastern point of the coast of Africa. When the weather moderated it was found that the Lord was three miles nearer shore then the reckonings showed. A mile away and hard aground was the French transport Aveyron, which was on her return trip from Tonguin with 100 or more sick and injured troops on board besides her crew and enough men returning to France to swell the total number to 586 when she left Saigon on July 24. Several of the officers were accompanied by their wives. The Aveyron had gone ashore on the night of Aug 20 in very thick weather.

"We bore down towards the Aveyron," said mate Evans, of the Lord of the Isles, yesterday, "when a boat came off, and we were asked to take off the crew and all on board- I think 306 in all. The German steamer Massalia had taken off the other 300 the day before-all she could carry. At 6:30 o'clock in the evening we sent a boat to the stranded vessel. We could do nothing that night as it was blowing great guns, and a high sea was on. It was impossible to land on account of the surf. We anchored and at 6 o'clock the next morning began taking off the men. We finished the work at 4 o'clock in the Afternoon, and in half an hour were underway for Aden, where the French were landed. The Aveyron was set on fire by her captain before he left her, and when we last saw her, at 5:30, her main and fore mast had gone by the board. Then 60 pounds of (gun) powder in her hold exploded, and the ship was gone. She grounded almost on top of the French mail, which went ashore there three or four years ago. We could see the boilers of the old boat not 20 feet from the Aveyron."

Right: A map showing how the Aveyron drifted off course

Eight of the crew of the Aveyron attempted to reach the shore in the lifeboat when the steamer first grounded. The boat was upset in the breakers and one of the seamen was drowned. A little in shore from where the wreck occurred is an Arab village of 300 people, and every native, whether in breech clout or not, was on hand to receive the men. They demanded 6000f before they would allow the men to walk up the beach. The ship was signalled, and after much trouble a line was rigged from the mainmast to the shore. Fearing for the safety of those on shore, 600f were sent to them by a sailor, a sling being used to put him ashore. This satisfied the natives, and they allowed the men to land some provisions. The eight men stayed on shore until the arrival of the "Lord of the Isles" when they were hauled on board the Aveyron. Lt Jacotin was the last to leave. The natives made a rush for him after he was in the sling, robbed him of his watch, cut the buttons from his coat, and turned him head downward, so he was drawn aboard in an unconscious condition.

"Those niggers swim like fish," said an officer of the Lord of the Isles yesterday. "There were at least 3000 on the shore and in the water when we arrived. Word doubtless having been sent to the tribes for miles around. They had no firearms, but were armed with bows and arrows, hatchets, and the wickedest looking knives you ever saw. They swan all about our boats when we were taking off the men, and even tried to sink a couple of boats by diving under them and hacking the bottom with their knives. All of us were armed with pistols but we didn't have to use them. They had just 47 muskets and 2 canon on the transport. The muskets were in the hands of 47 marines, and they kept constant guard on the Aveyron. Why, the Arabs just swarmed around the boat. The water was black with 'em, and no sooner had we left than we could see them swarming on deck, almost in the flames. You see the Aveyron had been used as a hospital ship, but she should have been better armed, it seemed to me. All the powder but 60 pounds was thrown overboard. It seems that the French Captain didn't want to blow too many niggers up. If I could have had a chance at 'em they'd have all been sent up with the transport. They just lie in wait for wrecks. Why, when the French Mail went down they even stripped women of their clothing, and when the seaman of the Aveyron was drowned they kept him in the surf until they'd stripped him of everything he had"

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