Strange Creatures and New Beginnings:
The Voyages of François Leguat.
On New Year’s Day, 1691, a small group of French voyagers, sailing towards the Cape of Good Hope on a Dutch-crewed ship and longing for the sight of land after their journey from Europe, observed a curious animal:
‘We had the pleasure of seeing clearly a sea-cow of a russet colour, of which we could see the entire head, and sometimes more than half the body, rising above the water. She was round and bulky, and appeared larger than our biggest cows. The eye was great, the teeth or tusks were long, and the muzzle somewhat swollen. One of our sailors assured us that these animals had feet, as you can see in the picture here.
The identity of this beast is far from certain: early modern travellers and naturalists used the term ‘sea-cow’ or vache marine to denote a variety of animals. The description, and the image provided, would seem to correspond most closely to the hippopotamus; an unlikely visitor to the high seas off the southern tip of Africa.
This not entirely reliable record comes to us from the pen of the eldest passenger on board, the fifty-something-year-old François Leguat. The book that bears his name, Voyage et Avantures de François Leguat & de ses Compagnons, en deux Isles Desertes des Indes Orientales, avec la Rélation des choses plus remarquables qu’ils ont observées dans l’Isle Maurice, à Batavia, au Cap de Bonne-Esperance, das l’Isle St. Helene, & en d’autres endroits de leur Route, was initially published at London and Amsterdam in 1707. Within a couple of years, testifying to its popular appeal, it had been translated into English, German, and Dutch and by 1750 had appeared in four new French editions. Although dated 1708, the copy in the Worth collection is the original French edition printed in London in 1707. The work is in two volumes and, as its title page promises, is ‘enriched with maps and illustrations’. Twenty-two years before the book’s publication, the Edict of Nantes, which had allowed French Protestants to enjoy religious and political freedom for the best part of a century, had been revoked by Louis XIV. In the wake of this decree, his Calvinist subjects fled France in their droves and sought refuge in less hostile territories, both in Europe and further afield. Leguat and his companions aboard the Hirondelle were carrying out the initial expeditionary stage of a scheme to found a colony of Huguenots on the island of Réunion, then known as the Isle of Bourbon, in the Indian Ocean.
Their expedition, however, did not go at all according to plan. The two ‘desert islands’ of the title form part of the Mascarene archipelago: Rodrigues, now a dependency of Mauritius, and an unnamed ‘rock’ close to the latter. The captain of the ship, in Leguat’s eyes a cheat and a rogue (ce fourbe, ce scelerat), upon seeing that Bourbon was already occupied by the French, deposited his passengers on the uninhabited Rodrigues. There they remained for two years, until restlessness, a lack of communication from Europe, and, perhaps most decisive of all, the complete absence of women on the island, drove them to board the semi-seaworthy craft they had constructed in the meantime and set off for more populated shores. Following a terrifying voyage, they landed on Mauritius itself and sought sanctuary among its Dutch colonists, but their pleasure in this more diverse society was to be short-lived. Accused of the theft of a piece of valuable ambergris, they were imprisoned on the aforementioned ‘rock’ by the governor of the island (one Diodati who, in his treachery, wickedness, and cruelty towards those who had the misfortune to fall under his jurisdiction, cuts an even more villainous figure than the Captain of the Hirondelle). There, for two years, they occupied themselves in reflecting on the misery of their existence, failed negotiations with passing English sailors, bouts of severe illness, and – in what appears to have been a crucial element in the preservation of their sanity – the manufacture of peculiar-sounding hats. Leguat had been instructed to make a record of island life and this he did faithfully, even if it was not of the intended sojourn on Bourbon. However, his account went far beyond this, and, as the title indicates, encompassed their entire adventure: the long voyages to, from, and across the Indian Ocean and the time they spent not only on the ‘two desert islands’, but also on Mauritius, at the Cape of Good Hope, at Batavia, and elsewhere.
The instigator of the plan to create a Huguenot republic far from the country they had left behind was Henri Duquesne, a Protestant nobleman who had fled to Switzerland and then to the Netherlands. Once convinced that the revocation of the Edict of Nantes was likely to be permanent, he began to plot out his proposed new society on Bourbon. This colony he discussed at length in his Mémoires of 1689; designated ‘Eden’, it was to be a ‘radical new beginning, inspired by the values of early Christianity’ (Carile 2001). Despite securing the support of the States-General of the Netherlands and the Dutch East India Company (VOC), circumstances forced Duquesne to begin his project on a much smaller scale: our band of ten pioneers who set sail on the Hirondelle in the autumn of 1690. The revised location for their New Jerusalem, the island of Rodrigues, was not nearly as idyllic as the ‘Eden’ described by Duquesne and glimpsed tantalizingly from the Hirondelle, but they found it pleasant enough. There, they formed a type of ‘anti-society’ (Racault 1984) which only Leguat, induced to leave by the wishes of his more youthful companions, appears to have been sorry to abandon. His account of island life is semi-utopian: their surroundings were beautiful, the air healthy (the only member of the party to die on the island expired of a ‘violent fatigue’), and water and food were readily available, enabling the party to revert to the methods of the hunter-gatherer following the miserable failure of their attempts at European-style agriculture. A small village of cabins was constructed and the largest of these (the hôtel de ville belonging to Dr Anselm, no.3 on the plan above) served as the meeting-place of their ‘republic’, although their principal discussions revolved around cooking. This simple life is presented in terms intended to reflect unflatteringly on the society they left behind; theirs was an existence defined by harmony, egalitarianism, and daily prayer, untroubled by the religious disputes, political oppression, and economic inequalities of European ‘civilization’. Nonetheless, the author’s fundamentally devout perspective means that he cannot expect true happiness in this life: all that one can do is to weigh the good against the bad. One does not have to dig too deeply to find the moral lesson of the Voyages: the discontent that prompted their self-imposed expulsion from the new Eden was to find its punishment on Diodati’s desolate rock.
How do we account for the presence of this French travelogue with religious overtones in the library of Edward Worth? Its inclusion may be attributed in part to general eighteenth-century vogue for the story of the Huguenots, groups of whom had been settling in Dublin and elsewhere in the country since the 1660s. Although Huguenot immigrants to Ireland were closer theologically to the emerging Presbyterian movement, it was to the Church of Ireland that the majority belonged. The libraries of the latter institution contained not only significant numbers of Huguenot religious and political tracts, but also works on more ‘popular’ subjects: those of Cashel and Armagh held, between them, copies of Jean Dumont’s New Voyage to the Levant (1702) as well as of Jean Chardin’s Voyages […]en Perse (1711) and its abridged 1686 English translation (McKee, 2006).
Furthermore, the Voyages of François Leguat cross a number of genres and, in their capacity as a work of natural history, are particularly at home in a scientific collection. The descriptions of the flora and fauna encountered by the travellers are detailed and relatively scientific, and it is these that the majority of the illustrations depict. The narrator displays a certain familiarity with the botanical and zoological knowledge of his time and with the conventions used in writing on these subjects. Leguat submits one of the many flying fish he viewed during the Atlantic portion of the outward voyage to a close examination (j’en considerai un avec beaucoup d’exactitude) and uses the differences in appearance between this specimen and the examples found in printed books to make a general point regarding the variations that can exist within a single species (‘As the horses of Ireland are not made like the horses of Friesland, nor the cows of Kent like those of Middlesex’). On the island of Java, we are told, one of Leguat’s companions encountered a serpent with a hood, resembling that described by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in his Six Voyages of 1676. He was so frightened, however, that he did not bother to search for the stone, said to be an ‘admirable antidote’, underneath the cobra’s hood. This ‘snake stone’ was in fact a calcified mass, sometimes present in the skull of a serpent, and traditionally prized not only in Asia but also in many parts of Europe for its supposed magical – and not always curative – properties.
Most notable and valuable in terms of ecological history, however, are Leguat’s descriptions of the wildlife to be found on the island of Rodrigues, particularly those of species that did not survive the activities of subsequent settlers. The most striking of these, and a creature which sounded sufficiently unlikely as to inspire doubts as to his reliability on the part of Leguat’s contemporaries, was the solitaire or ‘solitary bird’. Leguat compares this bird to the turkey (coq d’Inde) and his account is both specific and wide-ranging: the solitaire is flightless due to the inadequate size of its wings; it is difficult to catch in the woods but can be outrun in the open and is good to eat; the plumage, especially of the female, is beautiful; and its gizzard contains a stone which is the best thing on the island for sharpening knives. The behaviour was particularly interesting: ‘they walk with such pride and grace that one cannot help but admire and love them’. In a type of marriage ceremony, the young bird, leaving the nest, is brought to its mate by a crowd of thirty or forty others, whereupon all proceed together to a nearby place and there take their leave the young couple. The male and female thereupon remain faithful to one another for life, taking it in turns to cover their single annual egg. If, despite these admirable qualities, one can bear to capture the solitaire, it will shed noiseless tears and refuse all food until it dies. The term ‘solitaire’ had been used by Duquesne to designate a similarly land-bound bird which he had observed on the island of Bourbon, although this latter has since been identified as a ‘quasi-flightless ibis’ whereas the solitaire of Rodrigues was more closely related to the dodo of Mauritius (Hume and Cheke, 2004). In the nineteenth century, sub-fossilized remains resembling Leguat’s solitaire were found in a cave on Rodrigues (Racault, 1984). Leguat’s reputation as a natural historian was restored, and the Voyages, assiduously edited and annotated, were republished by the Hakluyt Society in a new English translation in 1891.
Observations of this kind were not designed to appeal only to those with a specific interest in natural history; there was an eager appetite among early modern Europeans for news of the curiosities to be found in far-off lands, the more unusual and fabulous, the better. For Leguat, these marvels of nature did not necessarily have to be witnessed by the author himself. Both the description of a small lizard found on the island of Gilolo (today Halmahera) in the Moluccas, and the prototype of the portrait that appears in the Voyages, came from an unnamed friend. This singular reptile had a bright green head, a reddish-brown back, a lemon-yellow stomach with violet spots and, most astonishingly, the beak and feet of a bird. While Leguat is a reporter of wondrous sights, at the same time he sees it as his responsibility to debunk fabrications. He dismisses the existence of the mythological unicorn: the true four-legged unicorn is, he says, the rhinoceros. Even in this, however, earlier writers are shown to have exaggerated. The illustration below was included not to depict the reality of the animal, but to underline the absurdity of previous descriptions. Leguat himself did not see a rhinoceros, but had been told by friends who had that its skin merely resembled that of an elephant, rather than the comical imaginary patterns (prétendues broderies) of legend.
It was part of the duty of the storytelling traveller to entertain his readers with strange tales, not only of the wonders of the natural world, but also, in the developing tradition of early-modern ethnography, of unfamiliar cultures. The first of Leguat’s encounters took place neither in Africa nor in Asia, but on board the Hirondelle itself. Those who spend their lives on the sea have their own hierarchies and traditions, and the ceremony associated with crossing the equator is viewed in the Voyages through the eyes of a rather censorious anthropologist. This ritual, compulsory for those who had never before crossed the line and who, unlike Leguat, did not have the means to buy their way out, went as follows: one of the more experienced sailors, with blackened face and a wig and beard made out of hemp, and bearing a chart and a sabre, made his way to the deck accompanied by his attendants. (Although Leguat does not say so, this figure was generally meant to represent Neptune, into whose company the neophytes were about to be initiated.) A promise to do to others as was done to them was extracted from the candidates who were then, in a fusion of baptismal and penitential rites, sprinkled with water and marked on the forehead with soot. The unfortunate few who could not afford to buy the crew a drink were thrown into a tub and given a vigorous and uncomfortable scrubbing.
The Voyages contain detailed descriptions of the colonies and outposts of the VOC, particularly its central trading post of Batavia. Built on the site of a small port called Jacatra, and today the capital of Indonesia, this walled city on the island of Java had grown over the course of the seventeenth century into a large settlement with a diverse population, which included the merchants, soldiers, clerks, and officials of the VOC and their families, servants, and slaves, as well as assorted others, among them a considerable Chinese community. Leguat provides a detailed account of daily life in Batavia. The diet of its inhabitants is recounted to the smallest particular, with the cost of individual foodstuffs translated into European currency. Exotic foods such as the pineapple, banana, and mango are described for the benefit of the European reader; the last-mentioned, Leguat says, is usually the size of an egg, long and a little curved like a small cucumber, and its taste is reminiscent of a muscat grape. He also discusses the availability of more familiar items: herbs are grown in Batavia’s gardens, but the raising of sheep has proved problematic. Rice is the only grain that will grow on Java and is therefore the everyday bread of the inhabitants; although le pain de froment, made with wheat imported from Bengal, is no more expensive in Batavia than it is in Holland, it does not appeal to the native population. One Indonesian custom that almost always featured in traveller’s accounts and was usually described with a certain disapproval, if not outright disgust, was the chewing of betel leaves and nuts (Taylor 1983). Leguat was no exception: this habit, he writes, is popular among men, women, and children because it is believed to strengthen the gums and the stomach. However beneficial, the dark juice of the betel gives one the appearance of having ‘bloody’ lips (chose assez dégouttante) and stains the teeth dreadfully. From this, Leguat can only conclude that these people ‘have never known the sweetness and charms of a beautiful mouth’.
With the same concern for accuracy displayed in his treatment of the rhinoceros, Leguat conscientiously disabuses his readers of misconceptions they may have drawn from other travellers’ descriptions of the Chinese as having tanned complexions, flat noses, and eyes that are ‘barely open’. On the contrary, writes Leguat, they are as ‘white as the French’ and their faces are similarly formed. Their unusual customs are highlighted: the binding of women’s feet; their expertise in making fireworks; and the voluble keening indulged in by mourners. There is a clear sense that unusual behaviour is understandable among distant peoples: such excessive lamentations for the dead, writes Leguat, were more surprising coming from the Catholic Irish. Apart from a despairing aside regarding the inadequate religious education of their children, Leguat makes no judgement on the widespread intermarriage of male European settlers and Javanese women. A certain prurience is, however, evident in his descriptions of the enchanting figures, revealing clothing, and extraordinarily amorous and passionate nature of the latter.
Leguat is not simply a curious traveller, willing to accept differences albeit observing them with a somewhat ethnocentric eye. He at times gives voice to an emergent European racism, most notably in his descriptions of Africans. He distinguishes between the majority of those seen at Java (whose skin is the colour of jet but whose faces resemble those of Europeans) and those at the Cape. These latter were the Khoi, a people described by early-modern anglophones and francophones as ‘Hottentots’. Leguat’s description of the ‘Hottentots’ is not entirely negative: he sees in them a generosity similar to that of the Chinese, a strict intolerance of adultery, and a certain knowledge of medicine. However, he betrays a virulent and at times physical revulsion towards the appearance, habits, and supposed scent of the Khoi. They are, Leguat writes, ‘ugly people […] if one may give the name of men to such animals’.
The most shocking instance of this animalistic presentation of the ‘other’ in Voyages comes in the form of the ‘ape’ of Java. This strange creature, according to Leguat, lived in the jungle beyond Batavia and bore some resemblance to the ‘grotesque faces of the female Hottentots [he] saw at the Cape’. While recounting that the creature was said by some to be a particular species of ape, only found on the island of Java, Leguat added that the popular theory was that ‘this Beast was begot between an Ape and a Woman’. However, Nicholas Hudson has argued that this hatred on the part of Europeans – an antipathy that was by all accounts mutual – did not stem from a genuine belief that certain peoples were more closely related to beasts. Nor was it simply the result of visible differences. Rather, it was an ‘anxiety’ produced by the very fact of their undeniable shared humanity that led the Khoi in particular to become ‘the most reviled people in European thought of the early modern era’ (Hudson, 2004). In fact, Leguat claimed that the difference in skin colour was not natural, but one deliberately acquired, insisting that the Khoi smeared themselves in soot and oil and lay in the sun, so that the blackness of the mixture might penetrate. Far from being peculiar to Leguat, this myth is found in a number of contemporary accounts and was repeated, as Hudson (2004) suggests, in order to shore up the notion that Africans were the polar opposites of Europeans.
In addition to its appeal to an early-modern readership as a source of anthropological and scientific information, Leguat’s Voyages would have worked on a more fundamental level as a tale of adventure. It is replete with dramatic tension: the travellers undergo frequent disasters, resulting from their encounters both with the elements and with human society. There is a cyclical narrative of hopeful plans, temporary successes, failed endeavours, and new beginnings. The attempts of the stranded voyagers to not merely survive, but to manufacture the basic requirements of a civilized existence out of the raw materials at hand, invite comparisons with those of Defoe’s Robinson. The storms encountered between the Cape of Good Hope and Rodrigues, and between Rodrigues and Mauritius, are described in vivid and thrilling detail. In keeping with the pious tone, the travellers’ last-minute deliverance from these dangers is unfailingly presented as the work of Providence. The author also displays a facility for humorous story-telling. On arrival at the Cape, the Hirondelle inadvertently ‘saluted’ those ships already docked when one of its guns fired its long-forgotten cannonball. This hit the wall of the fort, passed through a crowd of thirty people, and singed the moustache of a sergeant who returned to them their boulet. To this account Leguat appends the story of a similar event in England, in which a carelessly-fired salute ended with a charge whistling through the palace of Greenwich and past the queen’s ear. ‘Kings do not like these types of honours’, we are told, ‘and our sergeant had similar tastes to those of kings’.
Perhaps due to an awareness that the tale may appear somewhat fantastical, the preface insists that there has been no exaggeration, assures the reader that there are ‘two living witnesses’ who can vouch for the author’s veracity, and, for good measure, condemns those writers who hide behind anonymity in order to deceive the public with their lies. In the 1930s, Geoffrey Atkinson, a literary scholar, claimed that the Voyages of François Leguat did not merely possess many of the characteristics of a novel of adventure, but was in fact a thorough fabrication: a French Robinson Crusoe. By far the most likely culprit was the true author of the self-exculpatory preface, the travel-writer François Maximilien Misson, who was a compatriot and co-religionist of Leguat and a fervent anti-Catholic. Not only, claimed Atkinson, was there not ‘in the whole book a description of a bird, fish, reptile, or mammal which contains convincing first-hand observation incapable of being traced to earlier accounts’, even the personal adventures undergone by the party had been lifted from other French sources, including Duquesne’s Mémoires and Tavernier’s Six Voyages. Even ‘if such a man as a “François Leguat” ever lived’, he had had no part in the composition of the book (Atkinson, 1922). The debate regarding the work’s authenticity continued throughout the twentieth century and, although it cannot be definitively established that he was the sole author of the Voyages, it has been shown that the traveller François Leguat did indeed exist, at least in England where he lived out his remaining years following his return from the east. In addition, sufficient evidence has been discovered in the archives of the VOC to indicate that many of the book’s events occurred more or less as described (North-Coombes, 1979). There remains, however, a strong possibility that certain sections of the text, particularly the more philosophical digressions on religion and the unsatisfactory nature of European society, were the work of Misson. As Racault (1984) points out, this practice of making wholesale changes to another authors work was by no means unusual at the time: ‘c’est bien tard seulement que s’imposera la notion d’un auteur unique, propriétaire de son texte considéré comme un ensemble clos et ne varietur’.
As in the eighteenth century, the Voyages et Avantures de François Leguat can today be read on a number of levels. As well as serving as a literary adventure in the mode of Robinson Crusoe, it provides a valuable glimpse of the now-vanished ecological system of the island of Rodrigues. For those interested in the mentalities of early modern Europeans, it is a reminder of the complex and often contradictory nature of their encounters with and reactions to the ‘other’. The idealist whose notion of Eden is a haven of tolerance and equality and a rejection of European society and whose disapproval of the cruel punishments meted out to slaves by the tyrannical governor of Mauritius is difficult for the modern reader to reconcile with the racist who portrays the Khoi of the Cape as less than human. This odyssey of exile and voyage, of paradise found and paradise lost, is perhaps most valuable in what it reveals of an uprooted Huguenot’s view of his own destiny and his place in the world; in this, the identity of the author and the precise degree of authenticity of the work may not be overly important. The flying fish mentioned above are observed to be in a continual state of fear and flight: no sooner have they risen from the water in an attempt to escape predatory fish, than they must return beneath the waves in order to avoid the circling birds. Either Leguat or Misson – it scarcely matters which – saw in this an allegory of human life and an existence fraught with danger, in which the weak are always at the mercy of the powerful: tout cela nous est une image de la vie humaine, où le faible est ordinairement la victime du fort.
Geoffroy Atkinson, The Extraordinary Voyage in French Literature from 1700 to 1720 (Paris, 1922).
Paolo Carile,Huguenots sans frontières: voyage et écriture à la Renaissance et à l’Âge classique(Paris, 2001).
Michael Durey, ‘Crossing the Line in 1799: Plebeian Moral Economy on the High Seas’, in Mariner’s Mirror 80.2 (May 1994), 208-214.
W. R. Halliday, ‘Snake Stones’, in Folklore 32.4 (December 1921), 262-271.
Nicholas Hudson, ‘“Hottentots” and the evolution of European racism’, in Journal of European Studies 33.4 (December 2004), 308-332.
Julian Pender Hume and Anthony S. Cheke, ‘The white dodo of Réunion Island: unravelling a scientific and historical myth’, in Archives of Natural History 31 (2004), 57-79.
David Johnson, ‘Representing the Cape “Hottentots”, from the French Enlightenment to Post-apartheid South Africa’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.4 (Summer 2007), 525-552.
Jane McKee, ‘The Influence of the Huguenots on Educated Ireland. Huguenot Books in Irish Church Libraries of the Eighteenth Century’, in Anne Dunan-Page (ed.), The Religious Culture of the Huguenots, 1660-1750 (Aldershot, 2006), 121-136.
Alfred North-Coombes, The Vindication of François Leguat: a comprehensive appraisal of Leguat’s natural history observations in the Island of Rodrigues (Port Louis, 1979).
Jean-Michel Racault, ‘Introduction’, in the 1984 edition of Leguat, Aventures aux Mascareignes: voyage et aventures de François Leguat et de ses Compagnons, en deux îsles désertes des Indes Orientales 1707 (Paris, 1984).
Joan-Pau Rubiés, Travellers and Cosmographers : Studies in the History of Early Modern Travel and Ethnology (Aldershot, 2007).
Jean Gelmain Taylor, The Social World of Batavia: European and Eurasian in Dutch Asia (Madison, 1983).
Text: Dr Jennifer Smyth (Goldsmiths, University of London).