By Thomas Saintourens

Posted yesterday at 01:41, updated yesterday at 05:30

It’s a little house that smells of adventure and sea spray, a sailor’s lair cluttered with knick-knacks, naval lithographs, lifebuoys. There is even a harpoon behind the dresser. On the living room table, the owner has laid out a pile of yellowed files: evidence from a case from another time. We are in La Chaume, yesterday’s turbulent district of Sables-d’Olonne sailors, today a renowned holiday resort. At the end of the rue des Doris the ocean roars. 40 kilometers away, straight out to sea, lies 48 meters deep the wreck of the liner Africa, shipwrecked on January 12, 1920.

Having left Bordeaux for Dakar, he sank with 602 passengers on board, including 192 African soldiers from the Great War. Only 34 men survived. The crew, like the owner, the Compagnie des chargeurs reunis, was cleared without dispelling the mysteries of this fatal storm, which had been forgotten for decades.

A former sailor leads the investigation

It took a tenacious sea bass to face such a story. Here he is limping forward, a cushion in his hand. He sits down, flips through a selection of nautical charts, weather reports, Morse code messages… Where to start? By him, precisely, this singular detective: Roland Mornet, 76 years old, face tanned from an adventurer. A Chaumois pure juice, mousse at 14 years old – “1.47 m, 39 kg” -, former captain of scientific research vessels in the South Seas. Once retired, at age 52, he set about investigating, which led him to become an author of maritime stories; those of the shipwrecks in the Bay of Biscay, in particular, of which he is a sort of statistician, regularly consulted by the local press.

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The drama ofAfrica, the worst that the French civilian navy has ever known, so could not escape its obsession … “I heard about it since childhood. He nourished legends, such as those of the treasure of Bishop Jalabert, the religious who disappeared with his brothers present on board: it is said that a family from Noirmoutier would have fished out his precious scepter. It was the closest, and the most mysterious, shipwreck. I had to launch the research… ”

“What happened in the last few moments? Were there any fights during the evacuation? These questions will never be answered… ”Pierre Cerisier, nephew of a victim

Le Chaumois mobilizes its contacts, probes the archives of Rochefort, La Rochelle and Bordeaux. The documents soon invaded his room, to the chagrin of his wife, Françoise, a scientist expert in plankton, essential support of his “Fads”, as he says. When he appeals to the families of descendants, most ignore the details of the tragedy. Several even locate it off Dakar. One interlocutor evokes, for only memory, a grandmother “Eaten by crabs”.

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