[Letter of the Huguenot convict Louis de Marolles to his wife from Marseilles]
Writings of the Protestant convicts and their circulation
As David van der Linden has recently emphasised, publicity for the plight of the forçats pour la foi was sustained among the Huguenot exiles by the exchange of letters with the captives. Ministers like Pierre Jurieu and Jacques Basnage acted as "memory brokers" collecting tales of the Protestant galley slaves which highlighted their suffering as "confessors to the faith". The correspondence which individual smuggled out to their pastors in exile often formed the basis for publications. Thus the letters of Louis de Marolles were turned into a history by Isaac Jacquelot in 1699; Etienne Girard, a minister in exile in Utrecht, wrote a "history of the sufferings" of his former parishioner Isaac Le Fèvre and the pastor Jean Morin wrote a life of Elias Neau (1662-1722). Both these last were printed in Rotterdam by Jurieu's publisher Abraham Acher.(p.190). English translations of the material rapidly followed.
David van der Linden Experiencing Exile: Huguenot Refugees in the Dutch Republic, 1680–1700 (2015), p.187-90.
A number of key texts in English are conveniently gathered in Edward Arber, The Torments of Protestant slaves in the French King's galleys, and in the dungeons of Marseilles 1686-1707 A.D. [London 1908]
Louis de Marolles and Isaac Le Fèvre
The earliest testimonies came from members of the Protestant elite, caught up in the immediate aftermath of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Marolles, a Conseiller du Roi and amateur mathematician, and Isaac Le Fèvre, an advocate were both captured attempting to flee France. They remained obdurate in the face of attempts to induce them to escape the galleys by abandoning their faith.(In a poignant letter to his wife from La Tournelle Marolles recounts how he lay aside his hat to be chained about the neck). In Marseille, in the convict hospital and aboard the galley, they at first enjoyed a certain amount of privilege and contact with the outside world; in particular both were invited to attend disputations at the Bishop's residence. Soon afterwards they were separately imprisoned, Marolles specifically because of his contacts with Holland; no doubt the presence of such cultured and articulate men among the forçats - and the attention they threatened to attract abroad - were a considerable embarrassment to the Catholic authorities. The cruel solution taken was simply to abandon them in prison. Marolles - who enjoyed mathematical puzzles and was prepared to argue the case against transubstantiation with senior members of the Catholic hierarchy - leaves a sad chronicle of endurance in his letters; malnourished, almost naked and confined in the dark and damp, he finally died in 1692, followed by Le Fèvre in 1702. "I continually give thanks to God", he wrote, "for the honour which he hath done me, in no thinking me unworthy to suffer for his Name's sake".
|Illustration from J.Morin's A Short|
Account of the Life and Sufferings of Elias Neau
(London 1749). See Kamil, p.403
Elias Neau was another well-to-do Huguenot, whom unlucky chance condemned to the galleys. Originally from La Rochelle, Neau had fled to Boston and successfully rebuilt his career as a merchant, but was captured by a French privateer on a return voyage from London to New York. When asked at his trial to choose between "death or the Mass" Neau, in a moment of personal crisis, decided to follow his conscience and chose "chains". He arrived in Marseilles - significantly enough on the day of Pentecost - and during six years as a galérien made himself a focal point for resistance among the Huguenots, so much so that he attracted the epithet of "the galley preacher" He was a determined man; when placed in solitary confinement on board ship he continued to bellow out hymns and psalms through the grill. Finally in 1694 he was taken ashore, incarcerated in a series of prisons and eventually ended up in the Château d'If. His Bible remained with him, saved quasi-miraculously from repeated searches. He was held under horrendous conditions, first in a tiny cell the size of his own body, then with three Camisard prisoners; Neau's account no doubt advisedly, resemble a description of Hell:
I verily believe there is no more dismal place in the world....all our senses were attacked at once; sight by darkness, taste by hunger, smell by the stench of the place, feeling by Lice and other vermin, and hearing by the horrid blasphemies and cursing.....
Disseminated in English in Cotton Mather's translation as A present from a Farr Country Neau's letters, with their quasi-mystical emphasis on the sacrificial nature of Christ's love, are still appreciated today. Neau describes his spiritual rebirth in the "Burning Furnace" of his dungeon." His "constant prayer" was that God would grant him "pleasure in this pain, in oppression and persecution". Thus his persecutors deprived him of all human relief, but God offered him the opportunity to reshape himself in conformity with Christ.
Neau was eventually released in 1697 and rejoined his wife and two children in New York where he later opened a school for escaped negro slaves.
Catherine Randall, From a far country: Camisards and Huguenots in the Atlantic world. (University of Georgia Press, 2011) , p.101-10
Neil Kamil, Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751(2005) p.402-8.https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ekSkZXXjVWUC&pg=PA402
Règlements of 1699
As well aid, the convicts at an early date to created a rudimentary religious organisation to sustain their spiritual resistance. Soiled devotional books and manuscript copies of prayers circulated, and there was an understanding that silent intercession should be joined when the cannon sounded nine o'clock to mark the end of the day. A text survives from 1699 in which a group of convicts, acknowledging the inspiration of Neau, set out regulations for a devotional society offering "mutual support and encouragement"; it is signed by men with Camisard names (Serres, Domouyn, Pelecuer, Valette, Allix, Bancillon, Pereau, Masseton, Maurin, Gonin, Lardant)
As they were without pastors, those who were educated were to act as deacons and spiritual guides, teaching others to read and instructing them in the faith. They were also charged with exhortations to steadfastness, and to record examples of "faith, patience, courage and piety".
For this text:
Règlements faits sur les galères de France par les confesseurs qui souffrent pour la vérité de l'Evangile (1699)
Following the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the Protestant galériens were victims of a particular sadistic bout of persecution. Up to this time Protestants were not compelled to take part in Catholic worship, but now the missionaries insisted that the chained gang remove their bonnets during mass, save for the Turks. Refusal resulted in a systematic campaign of whippings that left several men dead. Faced with indignation from the Protestant powers, Louis XIV was compelled to issue orders reining in the brutalities.
After the Peace of Ryswick, the Missionaries undertook to force the Protestant Slaves, while Mass as saying, to kneel with their Heads uncovered, and observe the same Posture of Devotion with the Roman Catholics. To succeed in this, they found no great Trouble in bringing over to their Interests Mr. Bonbelle, Major General of the Gallies, a Man possessed of all the Spirit of inquisitorial Persecution. It was resolved between them, that everyone of the Reformed should undergo the Bastinade till he should comply, and promise to kneel while Mass was saying. to make all more sure, and more methodical, it was also determined that the Major should being the first Day with one of the Gallies, the next with another, and so on till all was gone through and then he was to renew the Punishment till he forced a Compliance, or till the Slave should expire under the Lash. Bonbelle began his bloody Business, and executed his Commands without Mercy.
His brutal Manner of exhorting them to a Compliance is remarkable enough. Dog (he used to say) fall on you Knees, and in this Posture if you won't pray to God - pray to the Devil if you will, for what I care. All who were thus inhumanly treated, persisted in their courageous Resolution without shrinking; and while the Executioner was mangling their Bodies, seemed with unfeeling Serenity to give their Maker Praise for this Trial of their Constancy.(Memoirs of Jean Marteilhe, p.162-3;
Arber, Torments of Protestant slaves, p.274ff reproduces a number of letters, plus the petition drawn up by the convicts to the Intendant of the Galleys in Marseilles.