Did the self-made man fake it with Bohemian fossils?

Richard Fortey

  • The Deprat Affair: Ambition, Revenge and Deceit in French Indochina by Roger Osborne
    Cape, 244 pp, £15.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 224 05295 0

On 23 May 1909, Jacques Deprat left France for Hanoi with his young family to start a career as a geologist in the Service Géologique de l’Indochine. His advancement had been won against the odds. His beginnings were humble, if respectable, and he had progressed by virtue of hard work. He had published brilliant papers on the geological structure of Corsica, which had eventually earned him the respect of a distinguished sponsor, Professor Termier at the Ecole des Mines in Paris. At the turn of the century the academic hierarchy in France was rigid and class-ridden, and Deprat would have got nowhere without a patron. In the colonial service the snobbery was compounded; with the right background you didn’t have to do much to survive and prosper. The kind of lassitude that George Orwell describes so well in Burmese Days was to be found equally among the French colonies to the East: a sweltering indolence encouraged social intrigue and discouraged intellectual effort.

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