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Edward Willis

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An interesting sidelight in the events leading up to the beginning of WWII in East Timor was the arrival in Dili of the celebrated French tennis player and circumnavigator yachtsman Alain Gerbault. [1] He had singlehandedly sailed his yacht, of his design and that bore his own name, from Tahiti (departing in September 1940) via Port Moresby (July-August 1941) and arrived in Dili on 30 August 1941 mooring at the harbour pier.


Cover "Alain Gerbault" by Éric Vibart

He was in an unkempt and emaciated state and his yacht was in need of repairs before he could continue his journey onwards to an uncertain destination.  During his sojourn in Dili he was visited and interviewed by David Ross, the RAAF intelligence officer who served as British consul.  Sustained by the hospitality and generosity of members of the Portuguese colonial administration and with his yacht made seaworthy he made three attempts to depart Dili but had to return because of adverse weather and sea conditions.

324172650_RequeimpourAlainGerbaultLuisCardoso.thumb.jpeg.3783ae881d9c94ecaff7e31895c5e7a4.jpegLe dernier voyage d’Alain Gerbault (1940-1941) [The last journey of Alain Gerbault (1940-1941)] [2]

Depressed by these setbacks and debilitated by malaria, he was taken by concerned friends to the Lahane hospital where he died on 16 December 1941 the day before the Dutch-Australian Sparrow Force contingent landed and occupied the airfield and Dili township.  Buried under a simple cross in Santa Cruz cemetery, his fate wasn’t publicised until September 1944. [3] In 1947 the French government organised the retrieval of Gerbault’s body and it’s reinternment in dedicated memorial located in Bora-Bora, Tahiti. [4]


Dili, Portuguese Timor 1945-09-29. Derelict vessels and native outrigger canoes line the beach at Dili. (Photographer Sergeant K.B. Davis) [5]

Post-war, the fate of Gerbault’s yacht has been of continuing interest because it reputedly housed his collection of research papers and Polynesian artefacts, but more controversially a cargo of gold ingots concealed in the keel. [6] The boat wasn’t amongst the numerous vessels that littered the Dili foreshore at the war’s end.

Gerbault’s story was the centrepiece of Timorese author Luís Cardoso’s historical novel “Requiem Pour Alain Gerbault” that is set in Dili during WWII. [7]

This post includes J.C.H. Gill’s recollection of his encounter with Gerbault in Port Moresby in August 1941 and transcripts of David Ross’ notes of his meetings with him in Dili from late August to early November.


[1] Éric Vibart. – Alain Gerbault: vie et voyages d’un dandy révolté des années folles. – Paris: Seghers, c1989.

[2] Luís Cardoso. – Requiem para o navegador solitário : romance [Requiem of the solitary navigator]. – Lisboa : Dom Quixote, 2006: 13.

[3] “Death of Gerbault – famous yachtsman and writer” Pacific Islands Monthly XV (2) 18 September, 1944: 39.  https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-315148632

[4] “Last resting place of lone yachtsman – Alain Gerbault’s remains taken from Timor to Bora Bora” Pacific Islands Monthly XVIII (4) November 18, 1947: 63.  https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-316583400

[5] https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C201944

[6] An Australian Navy intelligence officer remembered Gerbault’s visit to Port Moresby: “Within a few days I had inspected the Alain Gerbault from stem to stern and truck to keelson.  All I found was evidence of genteel poverty; the gold turned out to be lead and iron ingots for ballast which he was selling to the natives for money for stores, replacing them, with rocks and bags of sand”.  See J.C.H. Gill “The brotherhood of the sea” The Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 9 (3) 1971/1972: 78-80.  https://www.textqueensland.com.au/item/article/d6d7968bb648a46aa59578933ff96bf8

[7] Luís Cardoso. – Requiem para o navegador solitário : romance [Requiem of the solitary navigator]. – Lisboa : Dom Quixote, 2006.  “Novel by Timorese author, set in Timor-Leste (East Timor); the central figure is Catarina, a naive and romantic young Chinese girl who travels to Dili in search of her fiancée shortly before World War II and suffers through the Japanese invasion and occupation.  In her trunk is the book A la Pour suite du Soleil [In search of the sun] the account of a trip by Alain Gerbault, the solo navigator of the title, who died in Timor in 1941”.


Alain Gerbault” https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Gerbault

J.-P. Alaux. - Alain Gerbault: marin légendaire [Alain Gerbault: legendary sailor]. – Paris: Société d'Éditions Géographiques Maritimes et Coloniales. 1950.

Pedro d'Alte “Quando as personagens se sentam à mesa - a narrativa de Senna Fernandes de Luís Cardoso Autores” [When characters sit at the table: Senna Fernandes’ and Luís Cardoso’s narrative] Revista Da Anpoll, 51 (3), 2020: 199–210.  See esp.: 202.  https://doi.org/10.18309/anp.v51i3.1416

Joana Matos Frias “Olhos novos para contemplar mundos novos: corografias de Ruy Cinatti” Cadernos De Literatura Comparada, 24/25, 2011: 185-2011.  https://ilc-cadernos.com/index.php/cadernos/article/view/139.  Relates Ruy Cinatti’s interest in preserving the memory of Gerbault’s Timor connection, see esp.: 206-211.

Denise Rocha “Paisagem de guerra em Díli nos anos 1942 a 1945 em Requiem para o navegador solitário(2007), do timorense Luís Cardoso” in Encontro Nacional de Estudos da Imagem (7:2019: Londrina, PR). - Anais do VII Encontro Nacional de Estudos da Imagem [e do] IV Encontro Internacional de Estudos da Imagem [livro eletrônico] / André Luiz Marcondes Pelegrinelli, Ana Heloisa Molina, Gustavo do Nascimento Silva (orgs.). – Londrina: UEL, 2019 :144-162.  http://www.uel.br/eventos/eneimagem/2019/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/5.-PAISAGEM-ESPAÇO-E-CONSTRUÇÃO-Atualizado.pdf

Denise Rocha “Resistência feminina Chinesa no Timor Português em Requiem para o navegador solitário (2007), de Luís Cardoso” in Representações da mulher nas literaturas de língua portuguesa / Denise Rocha (Organizadora). - Campo Grande: Editora Inovar, 2020: 73-85.

Denise Rocha “Tempos de paz e guerra em Dili, capital do Timor Português, no romance Réquiem para o navegador solitário (2007), de Luís Cardoso” [Times of peace and war In Dili, capital of Portuguese Timor, in the romance Requiem para o navegador solitário (2007), by Luís Cardoso] Via Atlântica, São Paulo, no. 38, December 2020: 282-337.  https://www.revistas.usp.br/viaatlantica/article/view/147914


The Brotherhood of the Sea

J.C.H. Gill [1]

During the 1920's I was an avid reader of a monthly magazine called The Wide World Magazine.  It published in the main true adventure stories from all parts of the world.  One series of stories dealt with the adventures of an intrepid Frenchman named Alain Gerbault, who sailed a small vessel named the Firecrestinto and out of all sorts of adventurous situations - that he sailed the vessel single-handed made the stories all the more fascinating.  However, I never dreamt then that I would play a small part in the closing scenes of Gerbault's life.

It was the end of June 1941.  After a short leave in Australia I was returning to Port Moresby, where I had been stationed since September 1939, to take up a new appointment as Naval Intelligence Officer.  As the Burns Philp ship Macdhui, in which I was travelling, entered the harbour I idly surveyed the small craft at anchor.  They were all familiar with one exception; a weather beaten single-masted yacht of about twenty tons burthen.

On disembarking I reported to my N.O.I.C. In due course I asked about the stranger.  I was told she was the Alain Gerbault, named for and crewed and navigated by the owner.  "Also," said Commander Eddy, "he's going to be your baby."  It turned out that Gerbault had been living in Tahiti, where his political views - allegedly pro-Vichy - had rendered him exceedingly unpopular.  He had been banished on a charge of moral turpitude - a strange one for free and easy Tahiti - and was sailing to another sanctuary where the political climate would be kinder.  The N.O.I.C. did not regard him as a threat to the security of Port Moresby, but indicated that I had better get to know Gerbault and report on him to the powers-that-be in Melbourne.

I first had a consultation with my opposite number in Army Intelligence.  The M.I.O. had little to add except a rather startling allegation that Gerbault had a hundred-weight of gold concealed in the keel of his vessel.

In the Wide World photos Gerbault had appeared to be of spare build; by 1941 he was positively emaciated in appearance.

I got to know him by the simple expedient of "coincidentally" passing the small boat landing as he rowed his prahu in to come ashore and taking and making fast his mooring line.  Ever the perfect gentleman he thanked me and introduced himself.  I mentioned the Firecrest and had it made from then on.  I should have mentioned that he had also been a tennis player of some note; this also proved a good topic of conversation.

Within a few days I had inspected the Alain Gerbault from stem to stern and truck to keelson.  All I found was evidence of genteel poverty; the gold turned out to be lead and iron ingots for ballast which he was selling to the natives for money for stores, replacing them, with rocks and bags of sand.  His appearance was due to a combination of malnutrition and malaria.  Missing teeth caused him to splutter when he spoke.  It was a good idea I soon found when speaking to him to keep upwind.

He was quite frank about having been tossed out of Tahiti.  He was sailing for the Marianas where he hoped he might get a job at the Japanese broadcasting station on Saipan, I think it was.  He felt that he would not be subject there to the indignities he had suffered at Tahiti.  Commander Eddy, who had had the misfortune to be downwind during a talk with M. Gerbault, had this sole comment to make: "Thank God I won't have the job of baling out the microphone afterwards."

We decided he probably was pro-Vichy, but harmless as far as we were concerned.

Netherlands naval vessels were using Port Moresby as a rendezvous with their fleet tanker Pendopo to refuel.  On 30 July 1941 the cruiser Java entered port to refuel, Pendopo having arrived the day before.  As one of my routine jobs was visiting friendly war vessels (which, however, one did not do whilst they were refuelling) I sallied out on the morning of 31 July to convey the N.O.I.C's respects and certain information to the captain of the Java.  Gerbault saw me at the landing and asked me to inquire if the captain would see him as he was anxious to obtain information on the approaches to Dili in Portuguese Timor, his next port of call.  After I had concluded my formal business with the C.O. of the Java I asked him if he had ever heard of Gerbault.  His reply was "What sailor has not?"  I then told him about Gerbault's request and also about our conclusions concerning him, adding that he did not appear to have concealed radio transmitters about his little vessel.  "However, sir," I concluded, "this is not an official request from us.  The decision as to whether you allow him to visit you or not is entirely yours."  He pondered briefly and then said "What odds!  He is a great sailor and I want to meet him.  I will send a boat for him at 1500.  Please convey my respects to your commanding officer and ask him if as a favour to me you may escort M. Gerbault and introduce him to me and then remain as the guest of my officers."  My N.O.I.C. readily complied.  Gerbault in his threadbare best suit and I were duly conveyed to Java, the introduction performed and Gerbault whisked away by the captain.  Two hours later word came to take M. Gerbault ashore.  The executive officer and I hastened to the gangway so I could pay my respects and go ashore with Gerbault.  A few minutes later the captain and he appeared still deep in conversation.  Gerbault was clutching a chart tracing.  At length he farewelled the captain and proceeded down the gangway.  I fronted up to pay my respects.  The captain shook my hand and said "Young man, I have you to thank for a most agreeable afternoon.  Almost, I was able to forget the war for a while."  Almost, I felt I could have had a future in the Netherlands navy.

However, I must end this reminiscence on a sad note.  My duty took me to places where I was out of touch with many events.  Months later I read in an intelligence report that Gerbault had died of malaria at Dili in February 1942 [in fact December 1941]. 

On 27 February 1942 his kindly benefactor went down with his ship in the battle of the Java Sea.

[1] J.C.H. Gill “The brotherhood of the sea” The Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 9 (3) 1971/1972: 78-80.  https://www.textqueensland.com.au/item/article/d6d7968bb648a46aa59578933ff96bf8


30 August – 5 January 1942 [1]


30 August 1941

I signalled arrival of Alain Gerbault yesterday 30/8/41.  Later in the day I introduced myself to him when on the jetty; he was then awaiting arrival of Commander Barbosa, who had invited him to dinner.  Gerbault enquires as to my nationality and nature of work in Timor Dilli.  After the fewest possible pleasantries he lost no time in airing his political views, though there was not the least indication of antagonism in the manner in which he expressed these views; the gist of the opinions he expressed to me are as under:

1. The British Empire may win the war, but he is by no means certain of this.

2. IT would in any case be impossible for Britain to invade Germany.

3. France did what she could when invaded and could not be blamed for her surrender; Britain has more people than France, but she keeps them in England; there were no British Troops in Greece or Crete, has so far used mostly Empire troops Australians and New Zealanders to fight her campaigns.  The young German soldiers fighting in Europe are really only trying to avenge what was done to their country twenty odd years ago.

4. Cannot forgive the Free French their attitude towards Vichy; had De Gaulle, at the very outset, said he respected Vichy's views but felt that he must disobey them in accordance with his own, and had subsequently refrained from ‘slandering’ Vichy through the press and over the air, he , Gerbault might have joined the Free French.  However, should France declare war on England he has no wish to fight for or against Vichy, he wishes to be left entirely free to go his own way.

5. That he does not dislike the British people, especially those in the overseas territories, and in England he had many good friends in earlier days, but he does consider that the people in England, especially Jewish circles in London, are responsible, to a great extent, for this war.

6. Does not consider Japan will enter the war and that we do not fully understand her "southward movement" - that this only refers to China and the Japanese occupation of French Indo China is merely a measure designed to more easily facilitate her bringing the war in China to a speedy end.

Gerbault further informed me that on 1st September, he is to see the Governor at 11.30 a.m. when he will endeavour to obtain permission to remain in Timor for several months.  I despatched a signal to that effect under today's date.  There are quite a sufficient number of Portuguese in Dilli, connected with the higher administrative posts in the colony whose views now are sufficiently far from pro-British, whose opinions would be further adversely affected by political discussions with Gerbault, and it is amongst this particular section of the population that Gerbault would move if he remained here any time.  Gerbault has accepted my invitation to dine with us on 1st September.


2 September, 1941

Alain Gerbault

I have had a further discussion, on general topics, with Gerbault, and he was my guest for dinner on 1/9/41. 

While a guest in the house he kept quite clear of all political subjects.  In my company alone, however, he talks very freely.  He had an interview with the Governor on 1st of this month.  According to Gerbault the Governor did not appear to be particularly pleased with his presence in Dili, has intimated that he can remain here for three weeks in any case, and that in the meantime the Governor will send a radio to Lisbon, advising of Gerbault’s arrival at Dili, and will then ‘let them decide’.

Gerbault further informed me that after all, he does not think he will remain here very long, is disappointed in the place and with his reception.  As you probably know, Gerbault is not without a certain amount of conceit.  In discussing the war he is very insistent in his view that Japan will not enter hostilities, admits he has many friends in Vichy government circles, considers that, instead of fighting Germany we should now be with Germany against Russia.  Is bitter against Communism and the Jews.  Gerbault speaks very highly of the reception and kindness accorded him by British authorities wherever he called on his way here , especially the Navy at Port Moresby; he contends that, in the tragic event of France declaring war on England, he only wishes to be away from it all, at least in some place where he cannot be embroiled in it, politically or in any other way; and now intimates that he will perhaps go to Keeling (Cocos) Islands and, if welcome to stay there , will do so.  Should this not be the case he will go on to Madagascar.

In addition to my own personal contact with Gerbault, I have arranged that his movements be closely watched; he has made no effort, so far, to contact any of the Japanese here, nor have they approached him.  Any item of urgent moment will be communicated to you by signal.


15 September 1941

Busy overhauling his gear.  Barbosa has placed the facilities – so called – of the Marine Department at Gerbault’s disposal.  There is no difficulty in keeping close contact with his movements.  He has more or less singled me out as the repository of his woes, probably because I was one of the first to contact him, and made him free of the Mess, which he visits occasionally, and I have naturally encouraged him to talk, when we are alone.  I also have two men along the waterfront watching his movements.

I can safely say that so far he has made no attempt to contact any of the Japanese.  He has visited the Sporting Club several times, played Bridge with Sanders and Barbosa; recently had dinner with Sanders, whom he considers to be ‘rather an objectionable old man’ mainly because he is of Jewish blood.  He has also conceived a dislike for Brouwer, whose views he considers to be ‘leftist’.  Gerbault would appear to be somewhat contemptuous of the Portuguese community as a whole, considers there are too many half castes, but seems to be progressing in his association with the Barbosa set.  Confesses that he now rather likes Dilli and that if he does not depart from here by 1st week in October, adverse weather conditions over his route will prevent him from leaving until next March!  Barbosa, according to Gerbault, is pressing him to stay, and so far there is no evidence that the Governor sent a radio to Lisbon advising Gerbault’s arrival at Dili.  The Governor is still at Baucau and will probably remain there until the end of September.  Gerbault further informs me that he is still undecided as to where he will go; he is still playing with the idea of first Keeling Islands, then, if not welcome there, on to Madagascar.

He admits, however , that should the war continue for three or four years more he will become short of money and, in that case, South America would be the best place for him, as he could obtain finance by writing articles for the South American newspapers , and perhaps have a book published over there.

In a letter to the Director General, Ross has touched on this subject or Brouwer - a subject on which he feels very strongly, and which is causing him no little concern, and also advises that he has written to Mr. Walsh, H.M.B. Consul General, Batavia, regarding Brouwer’s activities.  The suggestion conveyed in Ross’s letter to Walsh being that, as he is no doubt in close contact with the head of the Dutch Shell in Batavia, he might recommend that Brouwer be replaced by another geologist.

Referring back to my earlier reports - a cable addressed to Brouwer was subsequently sighted, requesting that he approach the Governor and ascertain whether his replacement by another geologist would necessitate further representations to Lisbon.  It is understood that Brouwer replied to the effect that further approach would not be necessary.  The above cable was shortly followed by another, advising Brouwer that, on instructions received from London he was to be replaced by another geologist and that he, Brouwer, was to return to Balikpapan.


18 September 1941

Alain Gerbault (continued).  Gerbault yesterday informed me that he will most probably leave here in two weeks from date; he will have completed necessary overhaul by then.  Gerbault now inclines to the view that America will force Japan into war, in which case it would be wiser for him to get away from this area without undue delay, fearing that, in the above eventuality, he would be blockaded here.  I had a very long discussion with Gerbault and encouraged him in his proposal to leave here as soon as possible; he states that his first move would be to visit Keeling Islands (Cocos), as he has previously stayed with Clunies Ross.


30 September 1941

13. Some weeks ago, a message was received requiring me to make representations to the Governor concerning the stay here of Alain Gerbault.  His political views are anti British and do no good to our interests here.  At the time the Governor was absent in Baucau and could not be reached except by a long car journey.  I mentioned Gerbault to the Governor yesterday, and he said that Gerbault had told him that he would be leaving Dili as soon as the weather was favourable for a run through the Indian Ocean.  The Governor can hardly instruct Gerbault to leave Dili as Portugal is neutral and Gerbau1 is not doing any harm to the Portuguese.  He said he thought Gerbault was rather eccentric.

14. Gerbault asked the Resident of Koepang for permission to call there and to visit the island of Sawu nearby.  The reply from Koepang forbade him to enter Dutch waters except under grave emergency, so Gerbault is rather like a lost soul wandering over the world trying to find a haven where he would be welcome.  Really he cannot make up his mind where to go to where or when.


13 October 1941

Alain Gerbault

Has practically completed laying in his stores and has informed me that he expects to leave Dili on the 14th of this month – destination Madagascar, via Cocos.  Gerbault appears to be most anxious for communication with France to ascertain if any monies are available in connection with his books.  He also says that he requires charts of the South American coastline, that Madagascar is now the only place where he could obtain these.  Gerbault expresses the fear that hostilities might ultimately extend to the Pacific and, if so, that he would be ‘blockaded’ should he remain in Dili.  Gerbault infers that he may proceed to South America from Madagascar, as in that country he would have more security and also an opportunity of replenishing the exchequer by writing articles for newspapers.  His departure from Dili will immediately be signalled to you.


5 November 1941

Alain Gerbault

An earlier assumption of mine has been justified, in that Gerbault has paid at least two visits to the Japanese Consul.  I am not in a position to say definitely that he will use the Japanese Consul as means of communicating with France, but it is quite reasonable to assume that he will.  In view of the fact that this Consul was formerly in New Caledonia Gerbault would be most anxious to make contact with him.  I reaffirm my earlier view that Gerbault should be made to leave Portuguese Timor, to which I would now add that, if entering British territorial waters he should be picked up.


5 January 1942

As a matter of passing interest, Alain Gerbault, the French yachtsman who arrived here many months ago from Port Moresby, died from malaria about the middle of last month.  His boat has been taken over by the Portuguese Court for disposal.  Gerbault was a very strong pro Vichy Frenchman, but was far from normal mentally.

[1] Timor (Portuguese) Intelligence Reports. 1941 – 1942. NAA: A981, TIM P 11.  https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/ItemDetail.aspx?Barcode=181031&isAv=N




Plan of the motor yacht “Alain Gerbault” [1]


Boats moored near Motu Uta island. Taken from Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia. Mo'orea in background, centre yacht "Alain-Gerbault". [2]




Dili pier – pre-WWII post card photo



Launch notice for Luis Cardoso “Requiem of the solitary navigator” [3]


[1] “Alain Gerbault” https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Gerbault

[2] “Alain Gerbault” https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Gerbault

[3] https://raiketak.wordpress.com/2007/02/09/requiem/


Edited by Edward Willis
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