February 09, 2015

This Robinson Crusoe was a woman



David Ellis


THE plight of Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk who was abandoned on a South Pacific island in 1704, and which inspired Daniel Defoe's classic Treasure Island (this column last week,) was not the first such case of a marooning on a proverbial desert island that was to go on to enthral the reading public.


Because a near-150 years earlier another yarn had been published about a galleon dropping anchor off a barren dot in the sea – and in this case not one of its seaman, but one of its passengers being callously cast ashore to confront a fate unknown.


And more bizarrely, in this actual true-life event that passenger was anything than a rambunctious Alexander Selkirk-like seaman, but rather a young, affluent and well-bred member of France's social elite… and to the shock of those who were to read the story in years to come, a woman at that.


The extraordinary tale of Marguerite de La Rocque was first recounted in fictionalised form in a book published  in 1558 and titled Heptameron, a collection of short stories written by Queen Marguerite of Navarre (originally a part of Spain, later France.)


Marguerite de La Rocque was born around 1515 and by the age of 20 owned substantial landholdings in Languedoc in Southern France, and jointly with her cousin Jean-Francois de Roberval, other properties inherited upon the deaths of inter-related family.


De Roberval, an unabashed social-climber, ingratiated himself with anyone he perceived of use including even France's young King Francis I, with the two regularly indulging in weekends of game-hunting and womanising. De Roberval even convinced the King to appoint him as Lieutenant-General of New France – at that stage the St Lawrence River, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in what was later to become Canada.


And extraordinarily in April 1542 the 27 years old Marguerite sailed off to the wild and unknown New France with the fast-talking de Roberval aboard the ship Valentine, one of three galleons carrying 200 colonists, livestock and farming equipment. Just why an attractive, single and well-to-do woman from a well-placed family and with extensive lands in France would do so, has been a point of conjecture ever since…


But it's fair to assume that de Roberval, who had become heavily in debt while keeping up with the playboy lifestyle of his mate the King, had Marguerite's wealth and inheritance-potential in mind when talking her into venturing with him far from home…


And when on the long sea journey she became unabashedly smitten with a young fellow passenger, de Roberval decided he had grounds to act: as the-now Lieutenant- General of New France, when their ship approached the uninhabited Island of Demons in the Gulf of St Lawrence, he ordered that for bringing such disrepute on their family with her scandalous onboard behaviour, she be cast ashore on the bleak island.


Thus Marguerite, her faithful maid Damienne and her lover (who has never been identified) were abandoned there with a blunderbus, gunpowder and shot, several knives and a Bible… with Marguerite discovering soon after arriving that she was pregnant, but before the birth of her child seeing both her maid and lover die in the harsh conditions.


Alone, Marguerite gave birth to her baby, which survived just days. Somehow the gutsy French socialite continued on, at one stage shooting dead a large bear which she skinned with her knife – using the skin to keep warm, and living in a cave the trio had found when first dumped on the island.


Then in late 1544, two-and-a-half years after she'd been put ashore, a group of fishermen exploring the island were shocked to come across a bedraggled white woman in a bearskin cape…


They took her back to their home port in Newfoundland from where Marguerite returned to France, founded a private school for girls, and lived comfortably for the rest of her life in the luxurious Chateau de la Mothe in the little town of Nontron.


Her evil cousin Jean-Francois de Roberval fared less well. After his return to Paris from his role in New France, he and several others were leaving a Huguenot (Reformist Protestant) church meeting one night in 1560, when they were set upon by a hostile Catholic mob and all of them beaten to death.






[] HARRINGTON Harbour that was harsh, uninhabited and known as The Island of

   Demons when Marguerite de la Rocque was abandoned here; today fewer than

   300 live on the near-barren island. (WikiMedia.)

[] QUEEN Marguerite of Navarre heard of the strange tale of Marguerite de la

   Rocque and fictionalised it in her book of short stories, Heptameron. (National Library

   of France.)

[] THE Heptameron was published under the name Queen Marguerite in France and

   Anglicised as Queen Margaret elsewhere. (National Library of France.) 

[] AFTER her rescue Marguerite de la Rocque returned to France, opened a private

   school for girls and lived in the luxury of Chateau de la Mothe in Nontron.



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