The seas have long been the domain of fantastical, mystical lands lying somewhere over the waves and past the far horizon. There seems to be some allure to these lost mysterious lands, some facet of our very nature that compels us to look to the distance over the vast expanses of the ocean and imagine that there are hidden islands out there that exist in a world outside of the realm of our civilization and its inexorable exploration and discovery, perhaps even beyond the world of reality, time and space as we know it. Perhaps they harbor ancient secrets, lost treasure, fantastical wonders, or unspeakable evil, but whatever the case may be, they seem to beckon to us on some primal level. Yet what happens when someone manages to actually find one of these mythical places, to reach the unreachable and actually become stranded there upon a landscape not ever meant to be touched by human hands? What wonders might they witness and what sort of ordeal would await them? To find the answer to this, perhaps we need look no further than the story of a well-off young Frenchwoman by the name of Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, who through an unfortunate series of events found herself cast away upon a legendary, cursed island long said to be the notorious haunt of demons and hideous monsters. Here is the real life Robinson Crusoe-type story from a time before that was even a thing, in a harsh, haunted land that seems far removed from any normal deserted island as we know it, and is a testament to the human drive to survive against all odds.
The Isle of Demons, or the Île des Démons, was a legendary island said to lie somewhere within the Gulf of Saint Lawrence off of Newfoundland, and first started appearing on maps in 1508, although its grim reputation as a cursed land fearfully whispered of within the spooky lore of sailors preceded its official charting. The remote island did not get its ominous name by accident, as it was said to be inhabited by all manner of demons, supernatural creatures, the tormented ghosts of those who had drowned in the Atlantic, and evil spirits, which were all said to lie in wait to attack anyone who ventured too close to their domain. Those who passed by its mist shrouded shores often told of hearing the haunting screaming, wailing, and shrieking of these entities emanating from the forest choked interior, or of seeing strange hideous creatures frolicking in the water or cruising under the waves, and the island was mostly given a wide berth by wary ships. Such was the fear of the Isle of Demons that it was not uncommon for sailors to desperately clutch crucifixes to their chests as they passed it, praying that the source of the unbearable screeches assaulting their ears would not erupt forth from the dark woods to attack, or to bloom up from the darkness below to rend their ships to pieces. The demons and other supernatural creatures said to infest the island were kept company by vicious predators such as abnormally large bears and packs of wolves, which constantly prowled the wilderness here, and it was also said that the temperatures on the island were known to drop far below those of the surrounding region. The lore said that anyone who braved going ashore on this frigid speck of cursed land was sure to never return, victims to the hostile environment, demons, or wild animals. All things told the Isle of Demons was considered to be a forbidding, haunted, and accursed place not fit for human habitation. It was a place of doom.
It was to this menacing, inhospitable island wreathed in a seemingly eternal fog that three ships under the command of a Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval found themselves approaching in the spring of 1542. Roberval had just been appointed Lieutenant General of New France, now French Canada, by his friend King Francis I of France and was on his way to the New World to find places to settle along the rugged North Atlantic coast. Accompanying him on this long, arduous voyage was the ship’s crew, his own men, a group of 200 colonists, some horses, and his niece, a wealthy French noblewoman by the name of Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, for whom he was an official guardian. The exact nature of their relationship is a bit murky, with some saying that they were cousins, siblings, or even husband and wife, but whatever their true relation, they were together on this dangerous, harrowing transatlantic journey, inching closer to an alien new frontier and farther from home with every passing moment.
It is a mystery as to why Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval had found herself going on this voyage to the New World in the first place, as she was young, incredibly rich, and owned plenty of land in Southern France in the regions of Périgord and Languedoc. The answer to why such a wealthy and esteemed noblewoman would find herself risking life and limb aboard a ship full of ragtag New World colonists has never really been satisfactorily answered, but there she was. Perhaps she was consumed by a spirit of adventure, maybe she was trying to escape some turmoil back home, or possibly she had a yearning to pursue some business in the New World, or was simply obliged somehow to follow Jean-François. Maybe she was escaping from herself. The answers to this question is lost to time, but whatever her reasons and motives were, the long, perilous months at sea aboard a cramped, dirty ship tossed about by the whims of the sea would have doubtlessly been quite a shock to the young noblewoman, who had until then had a pampered, privileged, and carefree upbringing in luxury.
It soon came to pass that Marguerite found a way to take the edge off of the toils of her journey by engaging in a torrid secret affair with a young man on the ship by the name of Etienne Gosselin. History is a bit shady on exactly who Gosselin was, with theories ranging from a young knight or soldier, to a carpenter, shipbuilder, or even a simple deckhand, with some theories pointing to this hazy record as an intentional bid by the royal family to obscure the man’s true identity and therefore preserve their reputation in the face of this rather scandalous, embarrassing incident. Regardless of who he was, Gosselin would have an important hand in shaping the tragic events which were to unfold next. The affair by all accounts was one of the worst kept secrets on the ship, and it was not long before it came to the attention of Jean-François himself. Depending on his exact relation to Marguerite, his displeasure at this news would naturally differ in its intensity, but his ultimate course of action seems rash at best. The spiteful, wrathful Jean-François at first bided his time while seething with the knowledge of the affair, for he had a sinister plan in store for the two lovers, and finally over the horizon he saw what he was looking for, the legendary Isle of Demons. It was a deeply cursed place that he of course knew well of, most seamen did, and he felt it was a fitting punishment to exile Marguerite there. It has been argued over why he would have chosen such a horrific punishment for the young noblewoman. Perhaps it was his strict moral code or religious values, this was certainly how he portrayed it to his men, but more likely his true motives for banishing her to the island were financial in nature, a convenient way to get rid of Marguerite in order to inherit the vast amount of land that was jointly owned by them.
When the accursed island drew near like a specter in the mist, Marguerite was seized, along with her lover and her maid-servant, Damienne, and the trio was marooned on the demon infested island along with some weapons such as guns and knives, as well as a few other meager supplies and a Holy Bible. It is unclear if Gosselin and Damienne were also being punished, or if they chose to go with Marguerite of their own volition, with one version of events describing how Gosselin leapt over board to swim to his lover’s side as she floated away towards the shores of the island and the evils that no doubt eagerly waited for her. Regardless of why they were together or what the circumstances behind their hopeless bondage was, as soon as arriving on the desolate island, it is said that the trio took up residence in a crude hut that they cobbled together within a darkened cave. They began trying to eke out an existence there picking berries and hunting small animals, all while allegedly under constant threat by wild predators and the evil spirits and demons which were said to incessantly howl and wail in the wilderness, said to sound “like the approach of one hundred thousand angry men.”
The book Haunted Canada 5: Terrifying True Stories, by Joel A Sutherland, describes the hapless group being besieged by all manner of strange creatures and specters when night fell. It was said that supernaturally thick fog banks would suddenly descend upon the island to blanket all in their path, bringing with them fleetingly glimpsed phantom shapes that would stalk and stir within. There were also red glowing eyes that would peer from the darkness and the shadows of twisted trees at the cowering trio, and that large creatures could be heard crashing through the brush. On occasion, unseen hands would strike or claw at the side of the hut or even try to pry the boards free. Out in the cold expanses of the wilderness could be seen grotesque apparitions which could morph and change shape at will, and which were said to moan, scream, or cackle maniacally. The terrified group took to huddling together within their besieged hut at the first signs of sundown to pray in an effort to ward away the inexorable approach of the supernatural evil they knew would be coming as the last rays of daylight faded. Marguerite would later describe them as being constantly under attack "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."
Despite all of this horror, Marguerite became pregnant at some point during this ordeal, yet the baby would never know its father. Gosselin and Damienne would soon perish in the harsh conditions of the island and leave Marguerite alone to bear her baby, which would also die shortly after, most likely due to malnourishment as she was not able to produce adequate milk for it. Alone, with dwindling supplies, in freezing conditions, and tormented by roaming bears, wolves, and the insidious ghosts and demons of the night, one might assume that this would be the end of the story. After all, how would this pampered young noblewoman from a life of opulence and privilege, who had likely never been alone anywhere in all of her life, let alone in the wilderness, possibly survive in these dire circumstances? Yet survive she did. Perhaps she found some reserve of strength within herself, or maybe the fury of having lost her lover and child to Jean-François’ wrathful scorn flowed through her veins to animate her with the superhuman resolve and courage she needed to make it through this ordeal, but she was certainly not the weakling one may have taken her for when she had first boarded the ship to the New World. It is said that she gathered plants to eat from the forest, hunted animals with her guns and knives, and fended off the various evils haunting the landscape, both real and supernatural, all completely alone. One old story tells of how she was able to bring down a great bear with her firearms, and subsequently take its skin to use for warmth. In another account, after she had run out of ammunition she proceeded to valiantly fend off a pack of ravenous wolves, which had encircled her and wanted to feast on the corpses of her shallowly buried companions, with only a small sword.
For two and a half years she survived like this, braving perils, battling both the natural and supernatural, scraping whatever nourishment she could get out of the cruel, frozen wilds, and depending solely on her wits and inner resolve to carry her through. In the end she had survived the feared Isle of Demons and everything it had been able to throw at her. When she was finally found by chance by a boat of Basque fishermen, Marguerite must have appeared to them to be one of the very demons said to inhabit the island. Wrapped in the ragged skin of the bear she had killed, malnourished, unwashed, and wild eyed from the constant hardships, perils of the wilderness, and the never ending fight for survival, she likely resembled a savage wild animal more than the sophisticated and preened noblewoman she had once been. Nevertheless, the fishermen took in the young, wild looking woman draped in her bear skin and clutching a well-worn, tattered bible. Marguerite was taken back to her homeland of France with quite the story to tell.
Queen Marguerite de Navarre took a particular interest in the tales she had to tell of her adventure, and the story was recounted in the book, Heptaméron, which was published in 1558. Marguerite de La Rocque’s harrowing experience was such a fantastic tale of romance, adventure, danger, and horror, that it became quite popular at the time, and would eventually be written about in a variety of works, including histories, such as François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques, and André Thévet’s work, Cosmographie, as well as later more fictional works such as the 19th-century long poem by Canadian poet George Martin entitled Marguerite, Or The Isle Of Demons, and numerous other works of all types all the way up to the present. Upon her return to France, Marguerite herself went on to found a private school in Nontron in the Chateau de la Mothe, and lived out the rest of her days in the countryside as the school’s headmistress. As for Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, the man who had first abandoned her on the Island of Demons in the first place, and whose visage must surely have haunted her dreams, there is no record of whether she ever took action against him or brought charges to bear upon him for his barbarity. All that is known is that Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval did in fact return to France, and that he met his end at the age of 60 being viciously beaten to death by an angry mob in Paris, perhaps still a more gentle demise than the one he had surely expected Marguerite to encounter in her exile.
This whole story of the innocent French noblewoman who ventured out into the unknown, fell in love, sinned, was marooned on a cursed, haunted island, and survived seemingly insurmountable odds against her in her struggle to survive in an alien, inhospitable landscape plagued by demons and wild animals, has presented many mysteries. For instance, how much truth does the tale hold and what is exactly the gulf between what really happened and what she claimed happened upon her return to France? There is no doubt Marguerite was indeed stranded on an island and that she survived under harsh conditions, but it is unclear just how many of the other elements of this survival were embellished in hers and later retellings. Killing bears and fighting off wolves with a sword seem like they could be elements added in later to make things more dramatic, but the truth is no one knows for sure. Even more baffling are all of the claims of demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural entities. Were these real in any sense at all? Were they the hallucinations of a woman under severe duress and losing her sanity? Or were they perhaps based on some kernel of truth, such as seeing new, potentially frightening sights such as Native Americans or unfamiliar animals, the perceptions of which then became warped and distorted in Marguerite’s mind? Were the demons and ghosts in fact literally real as she said they were? Were they real beings and beasts, or where they merely the demons of her mind, forged by hardship, desolation, and despair? Or was it maybe all pure fabrication added in later to add flourish to the story and lend an ominous gravity to the well-known reputation of the infamous Isle of Demons? It is most likely a complex mixture of several of these possibilities, but it is unlikely we will ever know for sure.
Another mystery posed by the tale of Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval is just exactly what island she was marooned on. The Île des Démons disappeared off of maps in the mid-17th century and it is widely believed that it was a phantom island which had never really existed at all. Yet, Marguerite was stranded somewhere, so there has been a lot of speculation on where this mysterious island could have been. A popular theory is that the Isle of Demons was in fact Hospital Island, also known as Harrington Island, which lies off of Quebec. Local oral tradition seems to demonstrate that the people know of Marguerite, that her story has been passed down through generations, and that they even know of the alleged location of the cave in which she took residence. There are even stories here that tell of the ghosts of Marguerite, Gosselin, and Damienne still wandering about the wilderness here. Another theory proposed by maritime historian and veteran sailor Donald Johnson is that Marguerite’s island was actually Fichot Island, which is close to the Strait of Belle Isle located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson has stated that the rugged Fichot Island would have been right along Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval’s course to New France, and that the loud, eerie cries of the island’s breeding colony of a type of seabird known as gannets, could have been heard by the passing ship and misconstrued as the wailing of demons or other supernatural monsters. However, despite these theories, the exact location of Marguerite’s Isle of Demons has never been concretely ascertained, and this only serves to further deepen the mystery behind the legends.
In the story of Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval we have a very curious blend of two captivating elements that seem to be lodged deep down within the human psyche; that of the mysterious, otherworldly island lying out past our civilization and defying our attempts to tame it, and that of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of nature’s fury and seemingly impossible odds. What happens when we reach that unreachable mystical island, attempt to tame its untamable wilds, and do manage to emerge triumphant through hellish conditions and in the face of nature’s wrath? How does our soul survive this journey? Do we climb from this experience intact, or is a part of our soul somehow fragmented, scattered, or lost in the process? Do we emerge as a different person than who we once were or perhaps even somewhat less human? Is there any knowledge we can glean from all of this? One person who most certainly knew the answers to these questions was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, who found that mythical island lying over the horizon and embedded within our psyche, and persevered against its rage and its demons, be they real or imagined, from outside or from within.