Providence and Our Family's History

by Miff Crommelin

Jean de Coninck and His Impact on
the Irish and American Lines of the Family

The icon used to depict Jean de Coninck
in the 'translation project'

The massive doors of history often swing on the frail hinges of Providence which some people interpret as 'luck', 'fate' or 'chance'. This is the story of a young man named Jean de Coninck and how a false rumour in London and his accidental death in Rotterdam had a dramatic effect on how the history of the Irish and American lines of the Crommelin family unfolded.

Whereas many family members can trace their ancestry through the 'Irish Line' to Nicholas de la Cherois who married Marie Crommelin (sister of 'Louis of Lisburn') in 1693, others trace their ancestry through the 'American Line' that dates back to her uncle, Daniel Crommelin, and his arrival in New York in 1694. Coincidentally both these ancestors, Marie Crommelin and Daniel Crommelin, have a fragile connection to Jean de Coninck whose letters to his brother, Frederic de Coninck, I have been translating for over two years and have posted on the Crommelin family website.

When I started my 'Frederic de Coninck' translation project in November 2011, I had certain notions of how the 'extended family' of my old ancestors operated. The Crommelin family and various other families they married into such as the Testarts, de la Cherois, Ammonet, etc., seemed from my vantage point to be a large network that could provide for the social and economic necessities of anyone connected with the family. In other words, I assumed that a single person, whether male or female, wouldn't have much trouble finding a suitable mate from amongst the eligible young people in the clan, and if someone needed a job or wanted to start a business, I assumed good opportunities would soon arise once the word got around amongst the various relatives. However, the letters of Frederic de Coninck paint a slightly different picture. Communication between family members was primarily within the immediate family - between parents, children and siblings - and only occasionally between an uncle, aunt or cousin. Therefore trying to find a mate, or a job, was probably just as difficult then as it is today. Each person was effectively 'on his own' if the immediate family could render no assistance.

The False Rumours about Jean de Coninck

When Jean de Coninck, son of Catherine Crommelin, a widower and brother of Frederic de Coninck, wanted to find a second wife, he managed to get engaged to a cousin, Marie Crommelin (sister of 'Louis of Lisburn' and the widow of Isaac Testard). A marriage contract had already been prepared, but the engagement swiftly collapsed when false rumours began to circulate throughout the family 'network' which impugned the character of Jean de Coninck and his business acumen. When the rumour reached the ears of Louis Crommelin ('of Lisburn') in Holland, he wrote to his sister in London dissuading her from marrying Jean de Coninck. This turn of events devastated Jean, so he wrote to his brother, Frederic, urgently requesting his help to find out who had circulated such malicious gossip. Thus, far from being helpful to one another, the family network actually worked against Jean de Coninck's best interests. Through his letters Jean appears to have been a true Christian gentleman who had always been a devoted husband and father.

Jean de Coninck's letter of 21 September 1688 to his brother,
Frederic, is the last letter from him that we have a record of.
It contained the sad news about a hurtful rumour that would later affect
how the Irish branch of the Crommelin family unfolded.

A previous letter from Jean dated only 10 days before this last one contained these hopeful words:

"I am most grateful for the letter you wrote me and the approval you have for my marriage to cousin Testard and your best wishes regarding this enterprise. May it be according to God's will, His glory, my well-being, and the mutual satisfaction of all my friends, and especially for the good of my children."

Jean de Coninck's Tragic Accident

Jean had become a widower in 1687 when his wife, Marthe Duval, died of an illness in London. This left Jean with two little daughters, Catherine and Marie, who, some three years later, were to become orphans when Jean fell into a canal in Rotterdam. While passing through Holland in 1690 on a lace-buying trip, Jean de Coninck was staying with his sister and brother-in-law (Jean Camin) when he accidentally stumbled into a canal as he returned home from a dinner party late one night. In his doleful letter to his mother on 17 August 1690, Frederic wrote:

"I admit this blow is exceedingly difficult to bear, but after a while when you've had a chance to consider that God has ordained it for reasons that are hidden from us, it remains for us even now to love His wise providence."

Frederic's letter to his mother in 1690 that lamented
the accidental drowning of his brother, Jean de Coninck, that
would later affect how the American branch of the Crommelin family evolved
The substantial money that Jean bequeathed to his two orphaned daughters eventually fell into the hands of their guardian, Robert Oursel Jr., who later took the money with him when he embarked on a venture to Jamaica with his uncle, Daniel Crommelin. Unfortunately Robert contracted yellow fever in Jamaica and died from the contagion. Thus the remainder of the girls' inheritance money fell into the hands of Daniel Crommelin who used it to establish himself in the young British colony of New York. The orphans' money was never returned to the rightful owners who lived in poverty all their lives after having been raised by their uncle and aunt, Frederic de Coninck and Marie Camin, in Schiedam, Holland.

Some 26 years after the death of his brother, Frederic wrote in November 1716 a final appeal to his uncle, Daniel, to return the money that belonged to his nieces, one of whom had already died.

It is still quite a difficult subject despite appeals over a great number of years. All the family wrote to you on this matter however you remain quite inflexible, without wanting to reply. Or, if you do answer, it is in an unsatisfactory way by saying that it is necessary to take up a collection amongst the family while you have enjoyed with your ease of more than 25 years, wealth which with interest has grown to a considerable capital.

This poor young woman (Catherine de Coninck) is in a dreadful state while you hold her wealth. You have means; you are able to expand; you have slaves; you enjoy abundance, therefore this inflexible conduct defies reason. In the name of God, my uncle [Jacob Crommelin] appeals to you, pointing out your justice, to return that to whom it belongs, considering that you are now in advanced age and soon will be at the end of your career, or it will be necessary for you to give an account to the great Judge of the Universe Himself. He wishes to touch your heart so that you can as soon as possible resolve this business which humanity cries against you and yours.

Their Effect on the 'Irish' and 'American' Lines
of the Crommelin Family

Daniel Crommelin

It occurs to me that if the sordid rumours had not been spread in 1688 that caused Jean de Coninck's engagement to Marie Testard-Crommelin to collapse, then Jean and Marie would most certainly have been married. Then if he had died in Rotterdam by drowning, the girls would have had a new mother to look after them, and their inheritance money would have stayed with them. Without that inheritance money, Daniel Crommelin may never have gone to New York. Perhaps Daniel did go to New York [rather than return to England] simply to avoid having to account for the de Coninck orphans' inheritance money which had dwindled significantly since his departure from England. But if he didn't have the money in the first place, he may have returned to England from Jamaica because he wouldn't have had the means to establish himself in the New World, and because there would have been no borrowed money that he would have to account for and repay. If that happened, then the history of our family in America would have evolved along different lines, and my own life would be quite different because there would have been no Daniel Crommelin & Soonen trading company, and no famous Crommelin naval family in Alabama that fought heroically in World War II.

Personally, I think providence played a hand in having the money fall into the hands of Daniel which enabled him to get our family established in New York. However, he had an obligation to respond to Frederic's letters and to return the money eventually, if only in installments, so as to show good faith. By being fair, providence would have allowed Daniel to keep his property for future generations. Similarly, his son, Charles, may also have led a less tumultuous life, business-wise. He was continually involved in lawsuits, financial difficulties, and earned such a poor reputation for risk-taking that the will of his mother-in-law, Marie Sinclair, settled all her inheritance on Charles' children. Nothing was to go to Charles himself.

Charles Crommelin

Jean de Coninck was anxious to find out which family member started the rumour that caused his second engagement to fail. Frederic suggested that a rival suitor may have been interested in Marie Testard-Crommelin - someone who started the rumour in order to destroy Jean's reputation. Since Marie Testard-Crommelin married Nicholas de la Cherois five years later at the French Church in London's Threadneedle Street, someone partial to Nicholas may have been the one who started the nasty gossip. Perhaps he/she introduced Nicholas to Marie Madeleine Testard-Crommelin just when she was in the final stages of her engagement to Jean de Coninck. Nicholas de la Cherois was in the area around this time because in November 1688 he was in Exeter, England. For three weeks he was with William of Orange as part of the Dutch Army of the Glorious Revolution that toppled the Roman Catholic King James II.

The rumour could also have originated with Louis 'of Lisburn' himself because he no doubt knew the de la Cherois brothers already when they were in Holland.

This snippet from the book, "The History of the De La Cherois Crommelin Family" (page 23)
mentions the close ties between the two families while they were still in Holland, though it
is mistaken as to when and where Nicholas and Marie Testard-Crommelin were married [London, 1693].

If a malicious rumour hadn't spread throughout the Crommelin 'network' then the Irish line of our family would have evolved quite differently. For instance, there would have been no Carrowdore Castle built in 1818, no authoress May de la Cherois Crommelin, or astronomer Andrew Claude de la Cherois Crommelin, and no town called Newtown-Crommelin, etc.

Louis 'of Lisburn'

It must have been God's will that an Irish line of the Crommelin family be developed because this is what happened, albeit through the female line - through descendents of Louis' sister, Marie, who called themselves 'de la Cherois Crommelin'. Only three months after King William of Orange settled a generous pension on Louis' son in grateful recognition for Louis' work in establishing the linen industry in northern Ireland at Lisburn, his beloved son and only male heir, Louis Jr., died suddenly in 1711 at age 28. So ended the king's gracious pension and any Crommelin descendents in Ireland coming through the male line of Louis 'of Lisburn'. Was this God's way of rewarding him for playing a part in interrupting the engagement of Jean de Coninck?

It is interesting to speculate how the 'invisible hand' of God gets revealed in the affairs of a family if one is sensitive to such involvement. Christians take this seriously because the Bible is full of examples that show the visible effects of God's invisible activity while His will is being worked out on earth as it is in heaven. We mortals are conscious of only the physical effects, thus we tend to take a secular perspective and attribute the vagaries of history to 'luck', 'coincidence' or 'serendipity', or to our own hard work and ambition. We look at historical events as isolated incidents rather than in terms of cause-and-effect in which there is interplay between both spiritual and temporal entities in consideration of human acts of sin and virtue, and the far-ranging will of God.

Jean de Coninck's Last Golden Opportunity:
the Ammonet Family

Frederic's final suggestion in 1689 was to have his jilted brother meet the three daughters of another cousin, Jeanne Ammonet-Crommelin, who lived in London. Jeanne Crommelin, daughter of Adrien Crommelin and Suzanne Doublet, married Francois Ammonet in Paris in 1669. Ammonet was from London but they lived in Paris where they established a thriving business of French embroidery (points) and lace which made them very wealthy. Forseeing the persecution they fled to London in 1681 where he died a few years later leaving 3 daughters, Susanne, Jeanne, and Marthe. It is these girls to whom Frederic is referring as a possible mate for Jean de Coninck. The daughters went on to marry others, and Jeanne Crommelin's immense fortune was dissipated by her second husband, Jacques Dufay, through his ruinous business dealings. [Ref. Scheffer, P. 176]

Ammonet's fortune was also the subject of a police report made by those who were hunting down fleeing Huguenots in 1686 and throwing them in the Bastille. If Jean de Coninck had married into this family, his fortune and that of his orphaned daughters would likely have been assured, and he may never have travelled to Rotterdam in 1690 where he drowned.

Frederic's suggestion in 1689 to have his widowed brother, Jean,
meet the single sisters of the Ammonet family

A 1686 police report that mentions the immense wealth
of the Ammonet family
(Source: Unedited documents of the Bastille - April 27, 1686)

God's Providence in Our Family's Fortunes

It is remarkable how one hurtful rumour in 1688, and one little miss-step that caused a young man to fall into a Dutch canal in 1690 could have such far-reaching consequences. These little incidents involving Jean de Coninck affected the lineage of the entire American and Irish branches of the Crommelin family. Frederick de Coninck made several suggestions to his brothers that, if heeded, would have changed history. He suggested that Jean de Coninck marry one of his wealthy Ammonet cousins, and he pleaded with his half-brother, Robert Oursel Jr., not to take the inheritance money of his orphaned nieces away to Jamaica.

God's providence ordained that there would be American and Irish lines of the family, but providence also saw Daniel and his son, Charles, punished for their neglect in rendering justice to two orphans in Holland whose money made it possible for them to get established in America. Frederic de Coninck was very angry with his uncle because of his failure to return his niece's inheritance money, and he was also aware of God's dealings with men who are unjust. On February 20, 1695 in a letter to his uncle, Daniel Crommelin, Frederic wrote, "What consoles me is that if we are not punished for our crimes, at least there is a God who knows how to avenge us of such perfidy."

Although Frederic didn't live long enough to see his prophetic words fulfilled, Daniel and Charles did eventually lose all the wealth and property they had accumulated in America. The huge loans that Charles Crommelin accumulated to pay for expenses related to his copper-mining activities in Connecticut led to liens against his father's immense land holdings in Orange County, New York, known as 'Gray Court Farm'.

The original house in Graycourt, New York, that Daniel had built
for himself and son, Charles, in 1718

Charles Crommelin's last will and testament discloses how he travelled around the world in his latter years looking for subscribers amongst his relations in Europe to raise enough funds to pay off his creditors and thereby to keep his father's real estate in the family. Now it was the European Crommelins who turned a deaf ear to Charles and Daniel, and therefore they lost everything.

Charles' will which was written in 1732 reads in part:

Charles Crommelin of the Province of New York in America, but now in London, having by various losses and misfortunes in trade been thrown into many and great debts which have driven me from home to seek for succour among my relations in Europe to the end I might not be obliged to part with my patrimonial lands in order to satisfy for the said debts and having by the blessing of God obtained partly by gift from some relations in France, and partly by easy purchase from others in London...

The words a 'gift from some relations in France' may be a reference to inheritance money received from the estate of Rachel Tacquelet, or it could be the orphans' inheritance money. Clearly the latter was by no means a gift! Thus we see a sad irony in the outcome of this story. After 22 years of ignoring Frederic's many pleas for justice, now it was Daniel and Charles' turn to be ignored when they sought help regarding their investments. While some would say, 'What goes 'round, comes around', others would say that Daniel and Charles 'reaped what they sowed' and were rendered due justice according to God's providence - just as Frederic had confidently predicted!

The document that transferred all of Daniel's chattels over to Charles' creditors was a sheepskin parchment signed by Daniel. A companion indenture dated the previous day is the deed for Gray Court farm - three thousand sixty-six acres and a house in New York. And so Frederic de Coninck's prophesy was fulfilled regarding how providence deals with the unjust.

The 1720 sheepskin indenture that legally turned over
Daniel Crommelin's chattels to the creditors of his son, Charles.

Amongst the chattels were 3 slaves over 35 years of age: 2 Indians named William and Lawrence, and 1 Negro man named Casar. They looked after Gray Court Farm. This is why I find the 'Frederic Translation Project' so interesting. These letters recount seemingly insignificant details that resulted in sweeping changes which affected our family over several centuries and many lands. Indeed, the massive doors of history swing on the frail hinges of providence. Little things can mean a lot.

Thoughts on Providence as gleaned from the sermon
Providence - As Seen in the Book of Esther by C.H. Spurgeon

The Lord intended by the narrative of Esther's history to set before us a wonderful instance of his providence, that when we had viewed it with interest and pleasure, we might praise His name, and then go on to acquire the habit of observing His hand in other histories, and especially in our own lives. Well does Plavel say that he who observes providence will never be long without a providence to observe. The man who can walk through the world and see no God, is said upon inspired authority to be a fool; but the wise man's eyes are in his head - he sees with an inner sight, and discovers God everywhere at work. It is his joy to perceive that the Lord is working according to his will in heaven, and earth, and in all deep places.

The marvellous drama enacted at Shushan, the capital of Persia, was intended to be another manifestation of the being and glory of God, working not as formerly by a miracle, but in the usual methods of his providence, and yet accomplishing all His designs. It has been well said that the Book of Esther is a record of wonders without a miracle, and therefore, though equally revealing the glory of the Lord, it sets it forth in another fashion from that which is displayed in the overthrow of Pharaoh by miraculous power.

The Lord's wisdom is seen in arranging the smallest events so as to produce great results.

Faith in God's providence, instead of repressing our energies, excites us to diligence. We labor as if all depended upon us, and then fall back upon the Lord with the calm faith which knows that all depends upon Him.

All nations were compelled to feel that there was a God in Israel, and thus the divine purpose was fully accomplished. His people were secured, and his name was glorified to the world's end. From the whole we learn the following lessons. First, it is clear that the divine will is accomplished, and yet men are perfectly free agents. Haman (the Arabic villain) acted according to his own will, Ahasuerus (the king) did whatever he pleased, Mordecai (the Jew) behaved as his heart moved him, and so did Esther (the Jewish queen). We see no interference with them, no force or coercion; hence the entire sin and responsibility rest with each guilty one, yet, acting with perfect freedom, none of them acts otherwise than divine providence had foreseen.

Certain of my brethren deny free agency, and so get out of the difficulty; others assert that there is no predestination, and so cut the knot. I believe both free agency and predestination to be facts. How they can be made to agree I do not know, or care to know. I am satisfied to know anything which God chooses to reveal to me, and equally content not to know what He does not reveal. There it is: man is a free agent in what he does, responsible for his actions, and verily guilty when he does wrong, and he will be justly punished too, and if he be lost the blame will rest with himself alone. But yet there is One who ruleth over all, who, without complicity in their sin, makes even the actions of wicked men to subserve his holy and righteous purposes. Believe these two truths and you will see them in practical agreement in daily life, though you will not be able to devise a theory for harmonizing them on paper.

Next, we learn what wonders can be wrought without miracles. When God does a wonderful thing by suspending the laws of nature men are greatly astonished and say, "This is the finger of God", but nowadays they say to us, "Where is your God? He never suspends his laws now!" When the Lord allows everything to go on in the usual way, and gives mind and thought, ambition and passion their full liberty, and yet achieves His purpose, it is doubly wonderful. In the miracles of Pharaoh we see the finger of God, but in the wonders of providence, without miracles, we see the invisible hand of God at work. We need no miracles to convince us of his working; the wonders of his providence are as great marvels as miracles themselves.

Other Providential Aspects of this Project

In the course of translating the Frederic de Coninck letters, I found other aspects of this project to be highly 'fortuitous' or 'lucky' which I perceive to be God's guidance.

"Christ, Our Pilot" by Warner Sallman
"I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go:
I will guide thee with mine eye." Ps 32:8

This little picture, given to me when I was a child attending a Lutheran Church
summer camp at Hatzic (near Mission, B.C.) about 1955, was always a favorite.
Only later did I understand that it represented 'providence'.

Saved for Posterity
It was fortunate that Frederic and his mother, Catherine Crommelin, often lived apart which necessitated letters to be written between different cities over a period of many years. It was sad for them, of course, because Frederic appealed many times to have his mother leave France to come and live with his family in Holland, but this never happened. She never saw any of her grandchildren. Also, it is fortunate that the owners of these letters over more than 300 years all thought them worthy to be saved rather than having them thrown out at some point. Furthermore, the places where they were written and stored have seen periodic wars and revolutions over the years, and still the letters came through in pristine condition, as did wills and church registers that recorded their births, baptisms, marriages and deaths - registers that belonged to houses of worship that were callously destroyed centuries ago.

Technology and Assistance
The project unfolded at a time when things like digital cameras, computer translation programs, and the internet made it possible. I consider it providential that all these old letters fell into my hands in a digital format at a time when I had the time and inclination to work with them, and with the participation and encouragement of far-flung contributors such as Maryse Trannois, Jay Robbins, Harold R. Decker, and Govert Deketh. Maryse, living in St. Quentin, France, travelled widely to various French archives to acquire all the digital images of the letters. Jay Robbins, in Massachusetts, prompted me to translate a few letters written to Anne Testart which effectively launched the whole project. He also methodically researched last wills and testaments hidden away in various American and European cities. Harold Decker amazingly acquired the sheepskin indentures pertaining to Daniel Crommelin and contacted us through the Crommelin website. Govert, in Geneva, Switzerland always provided encouragement and unstintingly helped cover costs associated with the retrieval of various documents.

Old Maps and Pictures
I am also amazed and thankful that I was able to purchase vintage maps and pictures related to the cities of Le Havre, Rouen, Rotterdam. I even obtained photos taken inside the house that my very-great-grandfather, Daniel, built at Graycourt, New York, in 1718. All these acquisitions helped build a picture of how their environment looked when the de Coninck letters were written. Even though the old central core of Le Havre was reduced to powder and rubble by the RAF in 1944, thereby erasing the house of Catherine Crommelin where many of the letters were written, I was amazed to find on the internet a photo of their house at 35 Rue d'Estimauville taken before World War II. This picture enabled me to locate their house on an old map of the mid-1600's that I had purchased from an antiquarian dealer in Germany - a map that happened to have all the houses drawn on it!

I was even given the names of several descendents of Frederic de Coninck living in France today with whom I hope to establish contact some day. One descendent, also named Frederic, happened to write a book about 'Le Havre - It's Past, Present, and Future', a city where many of the letters originated.

The Novels of May de la Cherois Crommelin

May Crommelin (1849-1930),

Only two days after writing the above lines, I came across the following paragraph in the novel, "Half Round the World For a Husband" (p.23) written by May Crommelin.
...she felt herself like a feather, blown about by winds from every quarter; by Anita's caprice and selfishness; by the captain's advice. In this plight Ann Montague [the heroine] imagined herself, as others have done before her, the sport and plaything of the blind goddess of fortune. Again, if it were true that one's life was really mapped out by destiny, could she alter hers? She could only strive to know whether Providence, or was it Fate she ought to say, really did mean her to walk in a certain road; if so, she must submit. Fate might show its meaning by closing the gates to all other paths. Now, how to put the intention of this mysterious power to the test?

Providence was a recurring theme in many of May Crommelin's novels and she used it skilfully to weave her heartwarming tales. Two other novels, The Luck of a Lowland Laddie and The Freaks of Lady Fortune have titles which already anticipate an undercurrent of providence playing a crucial role in the witty incidents that involve the main characters. It seems uncanny that a lady whose ancestors were involved in a dramatic act of providence should repeatedly use this same theme in many of her fifty novels.

No doubt the average reader would conclude that all this constitutes 'luck' and 'coincidence' when people and things magically come together in different places to help satisfy a longing I had since childhood - to know what my early ancestors experienced; how they lived; and what motivated them to emigrate to North America. I can only praise God for making it all possible because any one of a thousand obstacles over 300 years could have prevented this from happening.


Crommelin tomb epitaph at Lisburn, Ireland.
'Mary' is Marie Madelaine Testard-Crommelin, the sister of 'Louis of Lisburn',
whose second marriage was to Nicolas de la Cherois.

Now when I see the epitaph on the Crommelin tomb at Lisburn, it makes me wonder how the Irish and American lines of the family might have evolved if Marie Testard-Crommelin had one day married Jean de Coninck instead of Nicolas de la Cherois...if it hadn't been for a nasty rumour.

A brief overview of Nicholas de la Cherois
& Marie Madelaine Testard-Crommelin