The View From Fogo Island

Marguerite de Roberval

Benson Hewitt
Published on August 5, 2009

The other day I was online and was browsing the Winnipeg Free Press for the March 30, 1974 and happened upon a review of a book by Jean Johnston entitled Wilderness Women: Canada's Forgotten History.

The other day I was online and was browsing the Winnipeg Free Press for the March 30, 1974 and happened upon a review of a book by Jean Johnston entitled Wilderness Women: Canada's Forgotten History.

In that book she had a chapter on Marguerite de Roberval and claimed that she had spent two years and five months exiled on the Island of Fogo off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, and that one of those years she spent alone. This was around 1542, more than 450 years ago. She did not seem to speculate on the location, as others have, and so I thought I'd do a little research.

I remember the story from school and I seem to think that the name of the island was Belle Isle in the Straits of Belle Island, and as the name given to the island then was Isle of Demons, I did not doubt that that might have been an appropriate name for such an isolated and windswept island. My research also told me that she had been marooned on a Fogo Island situated in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I am not aware that such an island exists. Perhaps, if the story itself is true, she was indeed exiled on Fogo Island and perhaps at that time it was called the Island of Demons and if howling winds was one of the reasons the island got its unfortunate name, there was, and still is, lots of that. Perhaps sometime in the future archaeologists will discover the evidence, but more on that later. Here then is the story.

We do know that Jacques Cartier made a number of voyages to the New World in the mid 16th century and that his third trip in 1541 was made under Sieur de Roberval whom the king of France had appointed first Viceroy or Governor of Canada. A member of his household was his niece, Marguerite, who was said to be adventurous and intelligent, and that she was a favourite of his. Perhaps her parents were dead. She was most anxious, it would seem, to accompany him on this voyage, and he consented.

Now, prior to all this, and unknown to her uncle and perhaps others, she had been receiving the attention of a poor young soldier, and was very much in love with him. Because of the differences in their social standing, she would never have received permission from her uncle to marry him. Now, when this soldier heard that Marguerite was going on this voyage and not being able to bear the thought of his being separated from his sweetheart, managed to enlist as a volunteer with Roberval, and so sailed on the same ship as Marguerite. In the course of the voyage the lovers' secret was found out and Roberval's affection for his niece gave way to a vengeance, cruel and inhumane.

As referred to earlier, there was off the coast of Newfoundland an island then called the Island of Demons, which was supposed to be the abode of evil spirits. No wonder later inhabitants of that island preferred not to lay claim to it. Roberval decided to punish her for her betrayal to him and her family and abandon her with only an old nurse, scant provisions, a few guns and minimum ammunition. She pleaded with him to change his mind, but his mind was made up, and so he set her ashore on this island and left her to her fate.

Meanwhile, unknown to Roberval, and just as the ship was getting underway again, her sweetheart (we do not know his name) grabbed a few guns and some ammunition, strapped it to himself, and jumped in the water and soon rejoined his beloved Marguerite.

At first they both thought that the Governor would change his mind and come back to rescue them, but he never did. They declared themselves married in a ceremony they designed themselves, built some kind of a shelter, and began to live off the land killing birds and wild animals, catching fish, and from the skins of the wild animals that they had killed, provided themselves with clothing to resist the cold of the approaching winter.

The following summer Margueiite gave birth to a baby, and she spent most of her time taking care of the baby. Still they kept on hoping that the Governor would return and carry them back to France. Of course, he never did. Her husband, grieving over the suffering of his wife, sickened and died. Very shortly after that the baby died and not too long after that the old nurse died. Marguerite was left alone.

For 18 months, according to the story, she wandered about the shores of this island straining her eyes for the glimpse of a sailing vessel that might land and take her back to France. The third winter was almost upon her when she caught glimpse of a sailing ship. Her problem now was how to attract the attention of this vessel which might want to avoid this Island of Demons. Mustering all her strength for one final effort, she sacrificed her little store of fuel, and built a huge fire, in hope that the smoke would attract the attention of the captain. The captain was at first reluctant to land and his first sight of Marguerite was enough to convince him that Marguerite indeed must have been one of the demons that supposedly inhabited the island. Fortunately, very fortunately for Marguerite, the captain decided to investigate and land upon the island. Thus Marguerite was rescued from her perilous situation and shortly afterwards was returned to France after an absence of nearly three years.

Did this story, if indeed it is historical, take place on Fogo Island? Perhaps we'll never know. But perhaps, just perhaps, someone in the future building a new garden or something, happens upon three mounds in an unusual place, and upon further investigation, perhaps again, discovers that they are the graves of three people, and that one of them is a baby, and carbon testing or whatever the method, says they were buried in the 16th century. That certainly would be enough to give some credence to the legend that Fogo Island was the setting for this tragic story.

Who cares if there was a time when this island was named the Island of Demons? After all there is a theory that there was a time when Fogo Island was called Bird Island, and we all know what that can mean. If this story is true, and considering the date that it supposedly took place, this could mean that the first European family home of which we know in Canada now was on Fogo Island. Meanwhile, I end with the closing stanza from the rather long poem, Marguerite de Roberval written by John William, and published in 1916, in which she (Marguerite) describes her rescue and how it affected her thereafter. We would call it post traumatic stress disorder today.

One day there came a sail. It drew near

And found me on my island, all alone-

That island that had once held all the world-

They succoured me and brought me back again

To sunny France, and here I falter through

This halting tale of mine. And now 'tis told

I pray you speak of it no more!

If I would sleep o'nights my ears must close

To that sad sound of waves upon the beach,

To that sad sound of wind that waileth so!

To visions of the sun upon the sea

And green, grass-covered mounds, bleak, bleak, but still

With early flowers clustering here and there!


An entry in The Free Press, a weekly newspaper out of St. John's at the turn of the last century, had this news item in its December 7th, 1904, edition:

There have been three deaths from typhoid fever in the family of Fred Keats, Eastern Tickle, Fogo, within the last few weeks. The daughter, a young woman of about twenty-three died about five weeks ago, two young men were down with fever shortly after and one of these died, while on Sunday last the father, a man of sixty-five, passed away.