Jean Testart (1664 - 1696):
The Last Days of a Robinson Crusoe

by Miff Crommelin

When Jacob Crommelin finished writing his summary of the Crommelin family in 1712 on his 70th birthday, it was later published in 1878 as an appendix to J.H. Scheffer's Genealogy of the Crommelin Family. Jacob provided a few valuable details regarding all the family members that he knew about, but for some reason he lavished a bit more attention on the strange fate that befell Jean Testart (Testard), son of Pierre Testart and Rachel Crommelin [a daughter of Jean Crommelin and Rachel Tacquelet, born in 1634].

Jacob's fanciful tale which appears on Page 170 of Scheffer's book provides some cryptic information about this adventurous soul who lived like Robinson Crusoe stranded on some remote island called Rodrigues or Maurice and then leaves us wondering whatever happened to him. It relates how he carried out an escape plan by building a boat which finally succeeded, only to be held captive by a cruel governor of another island which he finally reached, and then another escape that goes awry with disastrous results. Perhaps Jean Testart's fate sparked Jacob's imagination and caused him to provide as much detail as possible so that others might be able to investigate further and finish the story properly. Jacob's cryptic notes certainly made me wonder if the story was true, or simply a rumour that became fashionable amongst family members in his day.

An internet search led me to the name of François Leguat, a Huguenot naturalist and explorer, who published in 1708 a book entitled, A New Voyage to the East Indies by Francis Leguat and His Companions. Containing Their Adventures in Two Desart Islands. Besides a few 'first editions' for sale on the internet for as much as $4000, I was pleased to find cheaper paperbacks being reprinted, and even some free downloads of this book such as Google Books.


First edition and paperback reprint of François Leguat's book.

This book by Leguat happens to contain a complete description of the harrowing adventure that cost Jean Testart his life. It even provides details on how he died! A Wikipedia account of François Leguat reads as follows:

François Leguat (1637/1639 – September 1735) was a French explorer and naturalist.

Leguat was a French Huguenot originating from the Province of Bresse, now part of the department of Ain, who fled to Holland in 1689 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Marquis Henri du Quesne had published a book giving a glowing description of the island of Réunion and, with the cooperation of the Dutch East India Company, was planning to establish a colony of French protestant refugees on the island. Two ships were charted for the purpose and many refugees, including Leguat, were eager to become colonists. When du Quesne learnt that France had sent a squadron of ships to the island, he abandoned this plan as he wanted to avoid any confrontation with the French. Instead he fitted out a small frigate, L'Hirondelle [which means 'Swallow' in English] and instructed the captain, Anthony Valleau, to reconnoitre the Mascarene islands, and to take possession of whatever island was found unoccupied and suitable for colonisation. It appears that the colonists were not informed of this change of plan. On 10 July 1690 Leguat and nine male volunteers boarded L'Hirondelle in Amsterdam, intending to start a new life on the island of Réunion, which they believed had been abandoned by the French. Instead, on 16 May 1691, Leguat and 7 companions were left on the uninhabited island of Rodrigues.

After spending a year on the island the group became homesick and set about constructing a wooden boat to allow them to escape to the island of Mauritius, then under Dutch control. The first attempt failed when they struck Réunion's reef. One of the party subsequently died from some illness (possibly brought about by contact with some poisonous reef fauna). They finally left Rodrigues on 21 May 1693 and spent a week being carried by the prevailing wind and current in their open boat to Mauritius, a distance of 300 nautical miles (560 km).


Fronticepiece to François Leguat's first edition, 1708.

They were initially well received by the Governor of the island, Rodolfo Diodati, but after an argument over a piece of ambergris that one of the group had brought from Rodrigues, and the discovery by the Governor of their plan to steal a dingy and escape to Réunion, five of the party were put in prison. Relations were probably strained by the fact that France and Holland were on opposite sides in the Nine Years' War (1688–97). In February 1694 they were transferred to a tiny islet some distance from the shore and kept under abhorrent conditions. One of the group died in attempting to escape; he seems to have reached Mauritius' mainland with a crude float, but apparently perished in the woods too. [Note: From this Wikipedia account, this casualty was likely Jean Testart. The book attributes Jean's death to drowning while escaping.]

Finally, in September 1696 the remaining members of the group were transferred to Jakarta and brought before the Dutch Council where they were found to be innocent. Leguat and the two other survivors arrived back in Europe in June 1698. Leguat appears to have settled in England and spent the rest of his life there.

Leguat published a description of his adventures in 1708 when he was around 70 years old. The full French title was: Voyage et avantures de François Leguat et de ses compagnons, en deux isles désertes des Indes orientales : avec la relation des choses les plus remarquables qu'ils ont observées dans l'isle Maurice, à Batavia, au Cap de Bon Espérance, dans l'isle de Sainte Hélène, et en d'autres endroits de leur route. Le tout enrichi de cartes et de figures. The French edition was published in both London and Amsterdam. An English translation with the title A new voyage to the East-Indies was published in London and a Dutch edition in Utrecht. Some of the text is very similar to passages found in works by Maximilien Misson, another French Huguenot living in exile. It appears that either Leguat copied Mission or, more likely, Misson assisted Leguat with the book and wrote the preface.


Illustration showing a Rodrigues Solitaire (now extinct and similar
to a Dodo bird) from François Leguat's book.

The book is notable in containing Leguat's natural history observations on the now extinct fauna of Rodrigues including the Rodrigues Solitaire, the Rodrigues Rail, the Domed and the Saddle-backed Rodrigues Giant Tortoises and Newton's Parakeet.

Another account on the history of Rodrigues reads as follows:

History

Rodriguez or Diego Ruy's Island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1645. In 1690 Duquesne prevailed on the Dutch Government to send a body of French Huguenots to the Island of Bourbon, at that time, he believed, abandoned by the French authorities. As the refugees, however, found the French in possession, they proceeded to Rodriguez, and there eight of their number were landed on the 30th of April 1691 with a promise that they should be visited by their compatriots within two years. The two years were spent without misadventure, but, instead of waiting for the arrival of their friends, the seven colonists (for one had meanwhile died) left the island on the 8th of May 1693 and made their way to Mauritius, where they were treated with great cruelty by the governor. The account of the enterprise by Francis Leguat - Voyages et aventures (London, 1708), or, as it is called in the English translation, A New Voyage to the East Indies (London, 1708) - is a garrulous and amusing narrative, and was for a long time almost the only source of information about Rodriguez. His description of the solitaire is unique: From the Dutch the island passed to the French, who colonized it from Mauritius. Large estates were cultivated, and the islanders enjoyed considerable prosperity.

A later edition of Leguat's book includes a Chronology of the tragic events that unfolded in this unusual adventure. In it we see that Jean Testard's ill-fated voyage aboard the Swallow began on July 10, 1690 at Amsterdam, and that he died by drowning on January 10, 1696 while attempting to escape from a small island prison where he was being held captive.


Click to enlarge.

Except for the fact that there were no women amongst the seven adventurers, they lived a rather idyllic life on this uninhabited 43 square-mile volcanic island for two years (1691-3) waiting to be re-visited by a supply vessel. When none came they decided to use their own devices to leave the island in a home-made boat and sail for Mauritius.


Jean Testard had his own cabin [#7] surrounded by a vegetable garden.
Next to his lot was a larger vegetable garden [#4] that belonged to everyone.
They had their meals at a table under a large tree [#9] next to the kitchen [#3].
(Click to enlarge)


A sample of the lush vegetation that surrounded Jean Testard on his little "Garden of Eden".


Sunset at Rodriguez with little Diamond Isle in the distance.

Judging from the sketch and description of the Settlement on Rodriguez ["in a small valley that opens toward the N-NW"], it may be that it was located on the present site of the capital, Port Mathurin, and the island's main center of activity today. There are some 40,000 inhabitants on Rodriguez today, predominantly Roman Catholic, which seems ironic considering these first colonists were Huguenot refugees!


(Rodriguez Island in red inset.) When they decided to leave their home on Rodriguez they faced the challenge of
making a successful landfall in a vast empty ocean in a frail home-made boat.
Eight days after leaving Rodriguez they landed in a bay at Maurice [Mauritius] only to be taken captive on this Dutch penal colony.
(Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons user: Sting)


Jean Testard died January 10, 1696 by drowning while trying to escape.
Francois was greatly saddened by Jean's death - one of the company of adventurers that he spoke very highly of.

A curious footnote to the ordeal suffered between 1690 and 1696 by Jean Testart, son of Rachel Crommelin, is that her younger brother, Daniel Crommelin, and nephews Robert Oursel Jr. and de la Chambre also faced a harrowing voyage about this time when their trip from London to Jamaica in 1693 ended in disaster. Daniel Crommelin and his son Charles survived, but the nephews Oursel and de la Chambre were sticken by yellow fever and died immediately after they disembarked at Jamaica. Therefore the three sisters, Marie (who married Daniel de la Chambre), Catherine (who married Robert Oursel), and Rachel (who married Pierre Testart) each lost a son or grandson in this time period. While Jean Testart was cruelly being held captive in the East Indies, his cousins de la Chambre and Robert Oursel Jr. were perishing half-way 'round the world in the West Indies.

Another oddity that bears mention is that Charles Crommelin, son of Daniel who settled in New York, also had part interest in a vessel that was used on occasion to ferry French prisoners from America to the French West Indies under a white flag of truce. Strangely, it too was called Swallow - the name of the vessel that brought Jean Testart to Rodriquez.

Once again we can thank Jacob Crommelin for his thoroughness in 1712 which helped us solve another family mystery.


(Click to enlarge.)

Francois Leguat's drawing of Rodriguez (above) giving credit to Jean Testart as one of its first colonists having lived here for the span of two years and 20 days, French Protestants, fugitives for their religion. They arrived 30 April 1691 and departed 20 May 1693.