The Story of Marguerite and the Isle of Demons

On our journey to Quebec, Tadoussac and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, I read aloud to Matt from Francis Parkman’s Pioneers of France in the New World, and here set down a marvelous account of female fortitude in the face of tremendous odds. I will quote Parkman, since these were the terms in which I first heard the tale, but there is more to learn from other references, which I will cite at the end.

First, concerning the Isle of the Demons:

“On this dim verge of the known world (the fisheries of Newfoundland) there were other perils than those of the waves…,other tenants than the seal, the walrus and the screaming sea-fowl, the bears which stole away their fish before their eyes and the wild natives dressed in seal-skins. Griffins…infested the mountains of Labrador. Two islands, north of Newfoundland, were given over to the fiends from whom they derived their name, the Isles of Demons. An old map pictures their occupants at length, devils rampant, with wings, horns, and tail. The passing voyager heard the din of their infernal orgies and woe to the sailor or the fisherman who ventured alone into the haunted woods. ‘True it is,’ writes the old cosmographer Thevet, ‘and I myself have heard in the air, on the tops and about the masts, a great clamor of men’s voices, confused and inarticulate, such as you may hear from the crowd at a fair or market-place; whereupon they well knew that the Isle of Demons was not far off.'” Pioneers of France, Samuel de Champlain Ch. 1

Matt and I spoke to a kayaker on the Saguenay who told us waterfalls on either side of this deep fiord of the Saint Lawrence echo one another back and forth in the fog and sound exactly like human voices conversing!

The Story of Marguerite:

“The ominous adventure of New France had found a champion in the person of Jean Francois de la Roque, Sieur de Roberval, a nobleman of Picardy…His commission declares of the objects of the enterprise to be discovery, settlement, and the conversion of the Indians who are described as ‘men without knowledge of God or use of reason.’ — a pious design, held doubless in full sincerity by the royal profligate, now, in his decline, a fervent champion of the Faith and a strenuous tormentor of heretics. The machinery of conversion was of a character somewhat questionable, since Cartier and Roberval were empowered to ransack the prisons for thieves, robbers and other malefactors to complete their crews and strengthen the colony.”

“Roberval…set sail, steering northward to the Straits of Belle Isle and the dreaded Isles of the Demons. And here an incident befell which the all-blieving Thevet records in manifest good faith, and which, stripped of the adornments of superstition and a love of the marvellous, has without doubt a nucleus of truth. I give the tale as I find it.

“The Viceroy’s company was…mixed….There were nobles, officers, soldiers, sailors, adventurers, with women too, and children. Of the women, some were of birth and station, and among them a damsel called Marguerite, a niece of Roberval himself. In the ship was a young gentleman who had embarked for love of her. His love was too well requited; and the stern Viceroy (disorder was dangerous under the iron rule of the inexorable Roberval), scandalized and enraged at a passion which scorned concealment and set shame at defiance, cast anchor by the haunted island, landed his indiscreet relative, gave her four arquebuses for defence, and, whith an old Norman nurse named Bastienne, who had pandered to the lovers, left her to her fate. Her gallant threw himself into the surf, and by desperate effort gained the shore, with two more guns and a supply of ammnunition.

(Notice that Roberval blamed the women only and left them short of lead and gun powder! Wretch!)

“The ship weighed anchor, receded, vanished, and they were left alone. Yet not so, for the demon lords of the island beset them day and night, raging around their hut with a confused and hungry clamoring, striving to force the frail barrier. The lovers had repented of their sin, though not abandoned it, and Heaven was on their side….In the form of beasts or other shapes abominable and unutterably hideous, the brood…, howling in baffled fury, tore at the branches of the sylvan dwelling….Marguerite became pregnant…., but…stood undaunted amid these horrors….Her lover, dismayed and heart-broken, sickened and died. Her child soon followed; then the old Norman nurse found her unhallowed rest in that accursed soil, and Marguerite was left alone. Neither her reason nor her courage failed. When the demons assailed her, she shot at them with her gun, but they answered with hellish merriment, and thence-forth she placed her trust in Heaven alone. There were foes around her of the upper, no less than of the nether world. Of these, the bears were the most redoubtable; yet being vulnerable to mortal weapons, she killed three of them, all, says the story, ‘as white as an egg.’

“It was two years and five months from her landing on the island, when, far out at sea, the crew of a small fishing-craft saw a column of smoke curling upward from the haunted shore. Was it a device of the fiends to lure them to their ruin? They thought so and kept aloof. But misgiving seized them. They warily drew near, and descried a female figure in wild attire waving signals from the strand. Thus at length was Marguerite rescued and restored to her native France, where a few years later, the cosmographer Thevet met her at Natron in Peribord, and heard the tale of wonder from her own lips. (The story is taken from Thevet’s curous manuscript of 1586.)”

For an expanded and less fantastical account read Legends of Newfoundland and Labrador by Donald Wilson Stanley Ryan. There is also a novel called Paradise by Joan Elizabeth Goodman and another called Elle by Douglas Glover (click on Marguerite above).

Sharon Chubbs-Ransom shares her memories of Harrington Island, where her mother showed her the “cave of Marguerite.”

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