Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2012 Issue

An Almost Perfect Crime: Rochefort vs. Du Tertre

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Some old books are mysterious. Trying to unfold their stories is like solving a cold case, sometimes. In the case of Mr. de Rochefort, I’ve been holding a suspect on my bookshelf for a few years, collecting evidence after evidence in the dark alleys of forgotten libraries. Name of the suspect : Histoire Naturelle & Morale des Iles Antilles de l’Amérique. The mastermind behind it : anonymous, of course. But identified, in the same crime committed 4 years later in the Netherlands, as Charles de Rochefort (though one time wrongfully thought to be Césaire de Rochefort, a French contemporary jurist), an alleged protestant minister. Date and place of birth : 1658, in Rotterdam, at Arnoult Leers’, a so-called “Merchant Libraire.” Quite a small fellow, roughly the height of a small quarto volume, thick enough and of very pale complexion – being bound in full period vellum. Let’s add, for whatever purpose, that he smells very, very good. He is also quite eloquent, he expresses himself in a poetic style and can be very convincing – bear in mind that he intended to convey his guilty enthusiasm to his fellow protestants, so they would gladly migrate to the West-Indies. If you happen to open it, he will tell you stories of wonderful lands, gorgeous fruit trees, splendid animals, plants and herbs. He even added a lot of engravings to the offence. The result is breathtaking : tree leaves as if carved by an Art Déco expert, plants as if dedicated to embellish an emperor’s jacket and pine-apples simply “smelling” sugar. Another smell follows him, though – he smacks of heresy. Little is known of this criminal, but it all tends to describe him as a petty thief. In the forewords of his general history of the West-Indies, the French author Du Tertre, simply accuses Mr. De Rochefort of plagiarism ! I knew at first sight the rascal was too good looking to be honest.

Mr. De Rochefort did not leave his fingerprints on the first edition of 1658, nor on the second one of 1665 – both came out anonymously. His identity was not revealed before the Dutch translation of his work, in 1662. It then appeared in the in-12° French edition of 1666. His book came under harsh criticism before it was even printed. Indeed, the previous year, Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre who had traveled to the West-Indies as an apostolic missionary, put out his own Histoire Générale des Isles de St. Christophe, de la Guadeloupe... (À Paris, chez Jacques Langlois)*. In the forewords, the author apologizes for putting it out in a rush : “I was recently told that someone who had stolen my manuscript was about to publish it under another name.” This “someone” is our man, Charles de Rochefort. Du Tertre probably knew his name (he must have learnt it from the printers who informed him of his rival’s project) but refused to call it. Rochefort was linked to the West-Indies, where he had been the minister, or pastor, of the first tyrant of the island of Tortuga (La Tortue), off Hispanola (Hayti). The place was to become the most notorious hangout of the bucaniers of America alongside Port Royal, in Jamaica. Le Vasseur the villain took possession of this island under the commission of the French Governor de Poincy in the year 1640. “He went there with 40 protestants”, writes the bucanier Esquemeling in his History of the Bucaniers - Rochefort was probably one of them. Having recovered Tortuga from the English, Le Vasseur erected the Fort de la Roche (of the Roc) on a very strong position and defeated the Spaniards a few weeks after, gaining the support of the French colonists. “This changed his mood, writes Esquemeling. From kind as he first appeared, he became strict; he started to mistreat the inhabitants, insisting that they should pay more taxes than they could; he had them chastised for the slightest mistake ; he went as far as forbidding them to practice the Catholic religion.” According to Du Tertre, who became much more precise in the next edition of his work, Le Vasseur “did not even spare Mr. de Rochefort, his minister, whom he prevented from conducting any religious office.” Rochefort does not say a word about himself in his book, but he left a few hints that tend to indicate he was involved in the “Tortuga case”. Le Vasseur the wicked did not reign long and was soon stabbed to death by one of his rogue creatures. We have no clue of what Rochefort became afterwards, but he sure was in Holland 20 years later. 

* It has become even harder to find than the later 3 volumes edition : it popped up in an auction sale, a few years ago, with the golden armories of the Jesuites on each board, and went for some 6 or 7,000 euros

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