[p.147] THE SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS WORLD OF A KNIGHT OF MALTA IN THE CARIBBEAN

c. 1632 - 1660.

David F. Allen

Although the Mediterranean remained the focus of activity for many Knights of St John in the seventeenth century, certain French Knights of the Order were contributing elsewhere to the related movements of Catholic revival in metropolitan France and colonization in French Canada and the French Antilles. In thus exchanging the Mediterranean for the Caribbean, the old world for the new, these French Knights of St John served the interests of Louis XIII and Louis XIV as well as of their respective ministers, Richelieu, Mazarin, Fouquet, and Colbert. At the same time they aroused mixed feelings in Malta itself, where the traditional rhetoric of their Order had been shaped by the exigency of fighting the Turks.

Frere Philippe de Lonvilliers de Poincy was a French knight-commander of St John whose long life between 1583 and 1660 was spent fighting Turks in the Mediterranean, Huguenots, in the Atlantic and all manner of men in the Caribbean. Here especially he bent the law to his own purposes when he was Lieutenant-Governor of the French Antilles between 1639 and 1645 and de facto Governor of the French part of St Christopher between 1639 and 1660. During his twenty-one turbulent years in the Caribbean, de Poincy managed to quarrel with everybody, including the French Crown and his own Order of Malta. He survived because he was ready with stratagems and was adept at playing off one authority against another. One consequence of the political risks taken by this maverick knight was the purchase of his domain in the Antilles by the Order of Malta. In 1649 de Poincy suggested this purchase when the Convent in Malta was on the point of depriving him both of his commanderies in France and of his habit altogether. On 24 May 1651 the Order's ambassador to the French Court paid 120,000 francs to the bankrupt Compagnie des Isles de l'Amérique for its proprietorial rights in the French [p.148] sections of the islands of St Christopher, St Martin, St Bartholomew, and Ste. Croix.[1] Although the Order of Malta was never to succeed in extending its proprietorship to the larger islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, its possessions in the Caribbean were confirmed by a treaty with France in 1653. Cardinal Mazarin and the young Louis XIV reserved to the French Crown only the right of sovereignty of St Christopher and its dependent islands. This right was to be acknowledged by payment of a crown of gold worth 1,000 écus to each future king of France on his accession. Furthermore command of these islands must always be entrusted to a subject of the king of France. Otherwise the Grand Master of Malta was to enjoy both temporal and spiritual jurisdiction over St Christopher and its dependencies.[2]

The Order of Malta's successful purchase in the Caribbean so impressed the Jansenists of Port Royal that their patrons, the duc de Luynes (who had a financial stake in the bankrupt Compagnie) and his mother, the duchesse de Chevreuse, petitioned Mazarin similarly to bless their intended purchase of Martinique on the terms obtained by the Order of Malta at St Christopher. On Martinique Jansenists fleeing from Jesuit persecution in metropolitan France would have made odd neighbours for the Knights of Malta and their Jesuit missionaries at St Christopher.[3] Mazarin's rejection of the duchesse de Chevreuse and her chimera of a Jansenist sanctuary in the Caribbean is more easily explained than his approval of the bargain struck by de Poincy in St Christopher and the Convent in Malta. It may be seen first as a detail in the long term of relations between the French Crown and the Order of Malta and particularly as it related to the history of French colonization in the New World. Both in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries French Knights of St John [p.149] were to the fore in colonial projects initiated in metropolitan France. From the eighteenth century, one might mention the involvement of French knights in John Law's Mississippi venture between 1717 and 1720; the chevalier de Turgot's scheme for a colony of his Order in Guiana between 1761-65; also, the fighting presence of several French Knights of Malta in the American War of Independence, not to mention the proposed treaty between America and the Order of Malta which was to be mooted at Paris in 1794.[4] My paper is concerned with an earlier period in the seventeenth century, when the commandeur de Poincy's enterprise placed him in Canada - Nouvelle France - and the Caribbean alongside other French knightly administrators from within the Order of St John. In 1632 de Poincy commanded the fort of La Hew in Acadie under the knight-commander Isaac de Razilly, Louis XIII's Lieutenant-General of Nouvelle France, Governor of Acadie and Seigneur of Port Royal. Both Knights of Malta held shares in the Company of the Hundred Associates which Richelieu had established in 1627 in order to rival the English colonization in Canada. Also in 1627 both de Poincy and Razilly and up to another twenty Knights of Malta had held command in the royal fleet deployed against the Île de Rhé and La Rochelle.[5] Huguenots as much as Muslims were then the enemies of Catholic knights though de Poincy was to become more tolerant of Protestants later in his life.

In public office at St Christopher in the Caribbean, de Poincy would demonstrate a pragmatic even secular approach whenever religious discord loomed and whatever the prompting of his private piety. In this respect de Poincy was similar to Richelieu, who employed the French Knights of Malta for the benefit of Church and State, mutually supportive institutions in the cardinal's eyes. Meanwhile in Canada so-called savages rather than Protestants threatened the nascent French colonies at Acadie and along the St Lawrence. Razilly recognized how this presented his Order of St John with the opportunity of being the first to bring Christianity to the Indians and he offered the Grand Master of Malta the revenues of his own seigneurie of Port Royal to establish the Order's first priory in the New World. Such sentiments impressed Jesuit missionaries, one of whom praised "tous ces braves soldats de Jesus-Christ, l'honneur de Malte ... cette saincte milice incessament armée pour la gloire".[6] Though a Frenchman himself, the Grand Master was obliged [p.150] to decline this generous offer because it could not be supplemented from the Order's Common Treasury at a time when Malta's fortification needed to be strengthened against the Turks. The Order of Malta's rhetoric was practised in proclaiming its role in the Mediterranean and could not soon be amended to comprehend also these short-term opportunities in French Canada and the French Caribbean.[7] If some of their French brethren were enticed by the French Crown or the French colonial companies to venture into Canada and the Caribbean, the rest of the Order suspected them secretly of "going native".

Such suspicions were aroused in Malta by de Poincy's conduct after his appointment by the Compagnie des Isles de l'Amérique as its Governor at St Christopher and after his appointment by Louis XIII as his Lieutenant-General in the Antilles. De Poincy's own attitude was allegedly expressed at a window of his chateau in St Christopher: "There are few places in France where one can point through one's window to 100,000 livres of income".[8] Neither the Compagnie nor the French Crown was satisfied with de Poincy especially after 1645, when he refused to accept the authority of the man sent from France to replace himself as Lieutenant-General and so unleashed civil war among the French settlers. Similarly the Convent in Malta was dissatisfied because de Poincy - at so many miles distant - was not administering properly his commanderies in France and was using their revenues to pay for his princely style in the Caribbean. Furthermore he had ignored the Grand Master's summons to return to Malta in 1635 and 1645 when the island had been threatened by the Turks. De Poincy jumped clear of trouble by suggesting - as we said at the outset of this paper - that his Order should buy St. Christopher and its dependencies from the bankrupt Compagnie. In consequence of this arrangement, de Poincy continued to reside at St Christopher until his death there in 1660.[9] He left many debts behind him as well as an inventory of his library, from which it is possible to speculate about his intellectual and spiritual interests. Most of de Poincy's contemporaries would have been surprised to know of his spiritual reading for his motto seemed always to be Pugno, ergo sum. What follows in the rest of this paper is based upon de Poincy's library [p.151] as well as upon his well documented dealings with missionaries in the French Antilles.

Governor de Poincy's relations with the Catholic missionaries in the French Antilles were often fraught. Unlike his kinsman and fellow Knight of Malta, Charles Huault de Montmagny (who had been appointed Governor General of Nouvelle France just one year before his own appointment in the Caribbean), de Poincy had not wanted to be a Jesuit before being received into the Order of St John. De Poincy considered himself to be not a priest manque but a Christian knight, though his enemies among the missionaries questioned his morality. By the time he arrived at St Christopher, in February 1639, the new Governor General found secular priests from metropolitan France as well as Capuchins and Dominicans already scattered among the several islands of his new domain. They were to be joined soon after by Jesuits and Carmelites. From the outset of French colonization in the Antilles, the Compagnie de Saint-Christophe and its successor, the Compagnie des Isles de l'Amérique, had been anxious to provide priests above all for the spiritual needs of the settlers themselves. Just as most of these came initially from Normandy, so too did their accompanying priests. The first priests at St Christopher were seculars from the dioceses of Normandy but from 1635 Louis XIII and the Compagnie des Isles de l'Amérique favoured Capuchins from the province of Normandy, perhaps because of Père Joseph's influence at Court. His fellow Capuchins were ready to respond to royal promises that the papacy would bless their mission in the Antilles. In fact Urban VIII had already allowed the Dominicans to establish missions in exactly the same territory protected by Louis XIII for the Capuchins. This meant that in the period 1635-42 the Capuchins were in the French Antilles unofficially, a difficulty they overcame in 1642 by incorporating their mission there with their separate mission in Canada. Protected by Louis XIII if not by Urban VIII, these Norman Capuchins clung tenaciously to their new environment, especially to St Christopher. And despite invitations from the Compagnie, they were reluctant to extend their mission to Guadeloupe and Martinique, islands which came to be evangelized instead by Dominicans and Jesuits respectively.[10]

Rooted in St Christopher only four years or so, these Capuchin missionaries soon fell foul of the new Governor General. Their differences with de Poincy were partly theological and partly personal. Before examining these, it should be stressed that de Poincy was generous to the Capuchins overall. He was a [p.152] great builder and besides three new churches at St Christopher he also built there a convent-church for the Capuchins, importing some of its materials from Holland and France. He furnished this church with statues and ornaments and provided the Capuchins with negro slaves for the cultivation of their gardens.[11] The theological squabbles between the Capuchins and de Poincy concerned the proper deportment of Catholics towards Protestants and the rights of negro children born into slavery. Since the French settlers shared St Christopher with English settlers, and both depended alike on Dutch merchants to exchange their goods with the wider world, a necessary modus vivendi had been established between the French and English settlers. This pragmatic arrangement was maintained by de Poincy, who was then accused by the Capuchin missionaries of showing too much favour to Protestants, quite contrary to the orders of the Compagnie, which had always intended its colony to be Catholic. In particular the Capuchins objected when, in November 1641, de Poincy entrusted to a Huguenot, Le Vasseur, the charge of a new colony at Tortuga. Here liberty of conscience was to be granted to Catholic and Protestant alike.[12] Another conflict of principle between the Capuchins and Governor de Poincy concerned a detail of the slave system in the French Antilles. Negro slaves were delivered to St Christopher from Curacao where, wrote the English Governor of Jamaica, "Jesus Christ was good but trade was better", viz. slaves were things and religious concern for them was another matter altogether.[13] Governor de Poincy concurred and remained deaf to the Capuchins when they urged him to free the children of baptized slaves. De Poincy's refusal to ameliorate the condition of infant slaves in the Caribbean revealed the great distance he had travelled from the Mediterranean world of the Knights of Malta and the Barbary corsairs. There the infants of captive slaves were never tainted irredeemably by their parents' slavery.

By quarrelling with Governor de Poincy, the Capuchins compromised their independence in their quite separate disputes with Dominicans and Jesuits in the French Antilles. In the absence of a bishop there to adjudicate these frequent squabbles between the various congregations of missionaries, Governor de Poincy was drawn into the role of Solomon to judge spiritual matters beyond his competence. The Sacred Congregation for Pro da of the Faith was a whole world away in Rome, not yet precisely informed about the [p.153] geography of the Antilles and inclined to take the view that the various missionaries would cancel out each other's mistakes.[14] The Capuchins' quarrels with de Poincy came to a head in January 1646, when he expelled them from St Christopher in consequence of their support for Patrocles de Thoisy, the loser in the civil war against de Poincy.[15] Thereafter de Poincy made do with two secular priests at St Christopher until he summoned Jesuits from Martinique, where they had been established since 1640. So when de Poincy's Order of St John became interested in his suggestion in 1649 that it should become the proprietor of St Christopher, the Grand Master and Council were anxious to establish from the outset that they must exercise spiritual as well as temporal jurisdiction over their Caribbean islands. Because by 1649/50 the Jesuits were conducting their mission on St Christopher at de Poincy's request, the Order of St John now specified the Jesuits as their preferred priests in the new territory it was to rule over. The Knights of Malta had already worked alongside Jesuits in Nouvelle France and their Grand Master and Council were aware of the Jesuits' influence on de Poincy, "par la direction de sa conscience." How the Jesuits succeeded where the Capuchins had failed to make an impression on de Poincy was evidenced also by their spiritual works in the Governor's personal library at St Christopher.

Governor de Poincy's library comprised some ninety-five books and manuscripts, mostly in French but partly in Latin, Spanish, and Italian. These reflected the fixed points of his universe: France, Malta, Rome, and the New World. French civilization was contained within the covers of Le pâtissier françois (published anonymously at Amsterdam in 1655) and was defended from the barbarians by a tract entitled Les raisons contre les duels avec les édicts du Roy pour la défence. Similarly there was a collection of royal decrees about the Admiralty and La charge des gouverneurs des places. The history of Malta, the statutes and privileges of the Order of St John, and portraits of its Grand Masters were likewise included in de Poincy's library. Rome was represented by a chronological list of the popes and a description of the city's marvels. The New World was described in part by the voyages of Champlain (first published in 1613), who had been succeeded as Governor-General of Nouvelle France in 1637 by de Poincy's kinsman and fellow Knight of Malta, the chevalier Charles Huault de Montmagny. Where Montmagny had laid out the streets of Quebec and converted the Algonquin Indian to Catholicism, his relative de Poincy had [p.154] succeeded the first Governor-General of the French Antilles, Belain d'Esnambuc, and had proceeded to exploit St Christopher's human resources in the persons of the Carib Indians. Precisely because his brutal methods and his quarrels with missionaries had made himself a controversial figure in metropolitan France, in Malta, and at the Holy See, de Poincy wanted to influence how the French chroniclers of this history in the making were representing his own leading role. This motive explains the presence in de Poincy's library of a history first published at Rotterdam in 1658, namely, Cesar de Rochefort's Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l'Amérique. Since this book was first published anonymously and since its preface was signed by the letters L. D. R, readers were encouraged to conclude that the Governor Lonvilliers de Poincy himself had written the whole work in self-justification of his rule at Saint Christopher.

The truth was otherwise. Rochefort himself had written his book but from documents and reminiscences provided by de Poincy at St Christopher. These were intended to place de Poincy in the best light possible. Rochefort was a Protestant in whose company de Poincy could relax, putting aside his conflicts with Catholic missionaries in the French Antilles.[16] This literary collaboration between de Poincy and Rochefort was intended to eclipse the growing fame of another and earlier description of French colonization in the Antilles written by the Dominican Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre and published at Paris in 1654 with the title, Histoire générale des isles de St. Christophe, de la Guadeloupe, de la Martinique et autres dans l'Amérique. Not surprisingly, therefore, there was a copy of this irksome title in de Poincy's library. Being a man of the book as well as of the sword, de Poincy was resentful of this Dominican's influence in representing to readers in Europe the still developing saga of French settlement in the Caribbean. Furthermore Du Tertre was an intelligent and humane observer of the Carib Indians, sympathetic to their condition. From the manuscripts of his fellow Dominican, Raymond Breton, Du Tertre published for the first time in his book the Carib form of the Ten Commandments and of the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, and the Credo.[17] Before becoming a Dominican, Du Tertre had lived as a seaman in the Baltic and as a soldier in the Netherlands. To that extent his experience of life made him sceptical of all surface explanation. He proved to be an energetic researcher [p.155] both in Parisian archives and in the seaports of Normandy, where he inter-viewed the mariners who had travelled to the Antilles. In due course this newly professed Dominican voyaged often to the Caribbean himself and thereby became acquainted with de Poincy and with the Governor's enemies. From these latter Du Tertre obtained documents damaging to de Poincy's reputation and printed a good number of them in his book. And Du Tertre's history of French colonization in the Antilles has held the field rather than de Poincy's collaboration with the later and lesser talent of Rochefort.[18]

Governor de Poincy's military temperament and office explain the presence in his library of several books about fortifications, including those by Antoine de la Vallée and Antoine de Ville, published at Lyon in 1619 and 1640 respectively.[19] Alongside these were manuals both in French and Italian for the instruction of artillery and the Mémoires of the soldier-administrator, Martin du Bellay, first published in 1569. Military history was further represented in de Poincy's library by a French translation of Barletus's history of Scanderberg, Prince of Epirus and fighter of the Turks, first published in 1520.[20] Also there was a history in Spanish about the Order of Santiago as well as a history in Italian of one hundred famous generals. Wider history was represented in this library by Carion's history of the world, by volumes of old newspapers and by a self-portrait of the English monarch, Charles I, allegedly drawn during his imprisonment and before his execution.[21] Another link with England was exemplified in de Poincy's library by his copy of Drake's voyages in French, published at Paris in 1613. Navigation more generally was represented by atlases, maps, drawings of harbours and George Fournier's Hydographie of 1643. Since both navigation and fortification depended upon arithmetic, books of mathematics and surveying were also included in the Governor's library. There was Euclid in Latin as well as the mathematical works, also in Latin, of the Jesuit Christophe Clavius, the so-called "Euclid of his time", who had died at Rome in 1607 after assisting Gregory XIII in the reform of the Julian calendar. Alongside Clavius there were the mathematical works in French both of Samuel Marolois and Jean Launay.[22] The practical [p.156] character of de Poincy's library was compounded by the presence of manuals in the arts of drawing and horsemanship, one heraldic work - Le Blason des Amoriers - and a botanical treatise in Italian about the cultivation of the beaver-tree. Rather oddly for a Knight Hospitaller, de Poincy had only one medical work in his library, an abridgement of Francois Boisset, though he did possess Charles Sorel's La Science universelle in three volumes. So often prone to litigation himself, de Poincy possessed a legal manual about the function and duties of a notary.

Belligerent though he might have been, Governor de Poincy also had a spiritual side to his character which could have been nourished by the numerous works in his library on the subjects of ethics, philosophy, theology and private prayer. De Poincy was a dignitary of that military, religious Order of St John of Jerusalem which the Knights themselves called in shorthand La Religione. And one of the Governor's duties as His Most Christian Majesty's representative in the French Antilles was to encourage Catholic missionaries to convert the Carib Indians. De Poincy's relations with these missionaries were fraught and of them all - Capuchins, Dominicans, Jesuits, and Carmelites - he worked best with Jesuits. This preference accounts for the works of Jesuit piety in de Poincy's library, such as those by the Spanish Jesuit, Louis de la Puente and some by the French Jesuit, Jean Busée.[23] Alongside this Jesuit spiritual reading was the denunciation of Jansenism by a French Jesuit, Etienne Dechamps, published at Paris in 1650.[24] Religious controversy in metropolitan France was evidenced also in the Governor's library at St Christopher by Cardinal Richelieu's works, Les principaux poincts de la foy de l'Eglise Catholique and La Methode de convertir ceux qui sont retirés de l'Eglise. Like most French Knights of St John in this period, de Poincy was influenced by the spirituality of Francois de Sales and his library had copies of the celebrated Introduction à la vie dévote and of the bishop's equally celebrated letters. The noble house of de Sales was well connected with the Order of St John. When Governor de Poincy died in 1660, he was succeeded at St Christopher by the commandeur Charles Auguste de Sales, Knight of Malta and great-nephew of the saint.

Alongside this spiritual reading from the French Counter Reformation de Poincy's library contained Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Jure's life of the Baron de [p.157] Renty, subtitled, l'idée d'un parfait Chrétien and first published at Paris in 1651, just nine years before de Poincy's own death. Such was the fame of this work that it was soon translated into English, first by E.S. Gent in 1658 and then later by John Wesley in 1741. De Renty had lived his short life between 1611 and 1649 mostly on his ancestral estate in Normandy and briefly in Lorraine, where he had held a military commission from Louis XIII. As the king's soldier de Renty had acquired reputation and published at Paris in 1639 a treatise about fortifications.[25] By his own admission de Renty was "choleric, hot and of an active spirit" but he had become a soldier by default, unable to overcome parental opposition to his preferred vocation of a Carthusian. De Renty was his own example of the paradoxical education of a Christian nobleman in seventeenth-century France:[26]

For the education of infants, God, having distinguished their conditions, seems to teach us that there ought to be a difference between the nurture of a peasant and that of a gentleman - who, being born to wear a sword must not, without doubt, be put into a cloister for the fitting of him to it.

For Governor de Poincy whose long life had been spent more outside the cloister than in it, de Renty was perhaps the model of a Christian knight, in such moments as de Poincy could snatch from war in order to examine his own conscience. In the person of de Poincy, the international cross-currents of seventeenth-century Europe had linked the French monarchy, the Order of St John and the papacy itself with Nouvelle France and the French Antilles. But in de Poincy's library, the life of de Renty was a memento mori, a reminder that this celebrated French Knight of St John would have to encounter God quite alone.


[1] St Christopher had been colonized almost simultaneously by the English under Thomas Warner in January 1624 and the French under Belain d'Esnambuc in October 1625. By a pragmatic treaty of partition in May 1627 the English and French agreed to co-exist in St Christopher, agreeing not to fight each other even if war should break out in Europe between their mother countries, unless commanded so to fight by London or Paris. The island of St. Martin was divided between French and Dutch settlers. St Bartholomew was in dispute between the French and the native Caribs. Ste. Croix had been occupied at different times by Spanish, English, French and Dutch.

[2] AOM 259, f. 74. I remain grateful to the Librarian and his staff for their unfailing courtesy.

[3] See C. Brunetti (ed. S.H. Anderson), "Three Relations of the West Indies in 1659-60", Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 59 pt.6 (Philadelphia, 1969), 11; P. Jansen, Le Cardinal Mazarin et le mouvement Janséniste français (Paris, 1967). A later attempt to establish Port Royal on the island of Nordstrand in the Duchy of Holstein also came to grief.

[4] See E.E. Hume, "A Proposed Alliance between the Order of Malta and the United States, 1794", William and Mary Quarterly, series 2, 16 no.2. (April, 1936), 222-33.

[5] Cf. British Library, Egerton MSS. 1673

[6] Fr. Le Mercier, S.J., Monumenta Missionum Societatis Iesu 46, Monumenta Novae Franciae 3 (Rome, 1987).

[7] Examples of the Order's Mediterranean rhetoric are, in 1654, the Order's Prior of Naples describing Malta as "un scoglio nel fine della Christianity"; in 1687 Cardinal Cibo described Malta as "antimurale delta Christianity." See AS Pisa, Deposito Rasponi, filza 6; Archivio Segreto Vaticano, SS. Malta 88 f. 11.

[8] See AOM 58 ff. 308-9.

[9] See M. Gouyon-Guillaume, "Le Procès du 14 Février 1656", Cahiers du Centre de Généalogie et d'Histoire des Iles d'Amérique 13 (1985).

[10] See J. Rennard, Histoire Religieuse Iles Antilles Françaises (Paris, 1954), 12, 13, 15, 17, 21.

[11] Ibid,24-25.

[12] See J.B. Du Tertre, Histoire générale des Antilles i (Paris, 1667), 173.

[13] Quoted by C.C. Goslinga, The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 1580-1680 (Gainesville, 1971), 351, 369.

[14] See Rennard, 62, 89.

[15] See Du Tertre, i, 303-4.

[16] See J. de Dampierre, Essai sur les sources de l'histoire des Antilles Françaises (Paris, 1904), 137, 142.

[17] Later in the 1660s Fr. Breton's Carib catechism, Carib grammar, and Carib-French dictionary were published at Auxerre.

[18] See Dampierre, 108, 115, 121.

[19] A. de la Vallée, Parenthèses et documents militaires (Lyon, 1619); A. de Ville, Les fortifications (Lyon, 1640).

[20] M. Barletus, Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbergi, Epirotarum principis.

[21] J. Carion, Histoire (Lyon, 1609).

[22] S. Marolois, Oeuvres mathématiques (Amsterdam, 1628); J. Launay, L'arithmétique, arpentage universel (Rouen, 1635).

[23] Louis de la Puente, S.J. (1554-1624) was known outside Spain as Dupont. Jean Busée, S.J. (1547-1611) wrote meditations on the life of Christ, which were translated into French in 1611.

[24] E. Dechamps, Le Secret du Jansénisme découvert et réfuté (Paris, 1650/1).

[25] G. de Renty, Traité ou Manuel de la fortification (Paris, 1639).

[26] E.S. Gent, The Holy Life of M. de Remy, a Late Nobleman of France (London, 1658), 21-22.