Escape from Babylon

IN 1684, having “suffered through eight months [of] exactions and quartering by the soldiery, for the religion with much evil,” Judith Giton, a Huguenot from southern France, decided to escape. With her mother, two of her brothers, and a servant, she slipped away at night, leaving soldiers sleeping in the family bed.

The group traveled north along the Rhone and Rhine rivers to Holland and reached England in 1685. They stayed three months in London waiting for a Carolina—bound ship, then crossed the Atlantic under terrible conditions. Judith’s mother died of scarlet fever, and a storm forced them to stop in Bermuda, where the captain, having “committed certain rascalities,” was imprisoned and the ship seized. Penniless, Judith and her brothers indentured themselves to pay for their passage to South Carolina.

Once in Charleston, Judith endured “affliction . . . sickness, pestilence, famine, [and] poverty,” and her elder brother, Louis, died of a fever. After a few years, though, Judith “had it the way she wanted it” and thanked “God [for giving] her good grace to have been able to withstand all sorts of trials.”

Judith’s story contains many elements common to the Huguenot exodus: the quartering of troops, a night flight, a long and risky voyage filled with hardships and sorrows—but also survival, hope, freedom, and prosperity.

New Babylon

In the 1660s, France’s King Louis XIV launched a crusade to convert his Protestant subjects to Catholicism. According to the powerful “one king, one faith” principle, the country’s stability depended on the monarch and his people all following the same religion. For years legal and religious harassment alternated with financial measures to entice Huguenots back into the Catholic fold.

Huguenots, who often compared themselves to the remnant of Israel (see “Slaughter, Mayhem, and Providence,”), felt that they were living in the New Babylon, ruled by an oppressive Nebuchadnezzar.

Early royal measures aimed to restrict Huguenots’ freedom of worship. In 1663 Huguenots were told they could not conduct their funerals during the day, and the next year processions were limited to 10 people. Then the crown prohibited ministers from serving multiple churches, meaning that congregations too poor to hire a minister would die out. Laws also restricted psalm singing, one of the most distinctive aspects of Huguenot religious practice, outside the church—or even inside the church when a Catholic procession was passing by.

Church services came under royal surveillance and censorship. In each Huguenot temple, pews had to be reserved for Catholic observers, who were allowed to interrupt services and challenge the pastor.

In his memoirs, Jaques Fontaine, a Huguenot minister who fled to the British Isles, explained that Capuchins and Jesuits came to listen to his father’s sermons so regularly that “there was a bench especially marked for them in the temple . . . just opposite the minister’s seat.”

In addition to people and practices, the monarchy targeted Huguenot property. Authorities tore down churches and imposed severe restrictions on cemeteries. By March 1685 the crown had ordered the closing of all five Huguenot académies, which meant that Calvinist ministers could no longer be trained in France.

Huguenots faced professional restrictions, too. They were excluded from the guilds of hosiery dealers in 1681, barbers and wigmakers in 1684, printers and booksellers in 1685. By then Protestants could no longer be notaries, bailiffs, apothecaries, midwives, surgeons, or doctors. They also could not keep Catholic servants.

"Booted missionaries”

Eventually Louis XIV lost his patience with passive coercion and turned to a military solution, the dragonnades. In these campaigns, Catholic soldiers called “dragoons” swarmed Protestant communities and attempted to force conversions to Catholicism. Huguenots called the troops “booted missionaries.”

Dragoons placed enormous financial burdens on their Huguenot hosts. Fontaine had to entertain 18 of them, who lived in his home “until they had destroyed or sold everything, even the bolts on the doors.”

When property attacks fell short of the goal, dragoons inflicted physical and emotional abuse. A letter from Thomas Bureau, a bookseller from Poitou, to his brother in London details the escalating persecutions.

"As soon as the dragoons were in town,” Bureau wrote, “four were sent to our home. . . . They threw all the books on the floor . . . destroyed the carpentry work, the stacks, the windows with axes and hammers, brought their horses inside the shop, used the books as litter, then they climbed upstairs to our bedrooms and threw everything that was inside them into the streets as the mayor watched . . . filled with joy.”

Aggravated by the steadfast determination of Bureau’s mother and sister, the dragoons threatened “to hang them . . . or tie them to the harnesses of their horses and drag them through the streets like rabid dogs to serve as examples.” As threats were not enough, four more dragoons were assigned to the home. They took all of the family’s books to a square in the town to be burned.

The violence got results. Huguenots were terrified. Sometimes entire communities converted at the local Catholic church before the dragoons even reached town.

From bad to worse

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 made the Huguenots’ already desperate situation even worse. With this act, Louis XIV outlawed Protestantism, leaving the 700,000 Huguenots still living in France three choices: convert, enter the underground church, or flee. The last two choices carried the risk of death.

Often when a European power outlawed a religion, it ordered adherents to leave the country. France, however, forbade Huguenots to leave—except pastors, who were given two weeks to relocate or convert. Protestants who refused to abjure, who attended illegal services, or who were caught leaving the kingdom could be imprisoned, sentenced to the galleys, deported to the Caribbean, or even executed.

Most Huguenots, about 500,000, avoided these risks by renouncing their faith. As long as the ecclesiastical and civil authorities let them be passive Catholics, these “New Converts” lived with practical compromises. Huguenot theologians recognized Catholic baptism. Converts agreed to be married by Catholic priests as long as they were not forced to take Communion beforhand, meaning the ceremony was more a civil than a sacramental affair. On the threshold of death, converts refused the last rites and died as Calvinists.

Of the 200,000 Huguenots who fought their fate, about 10,000 were sentenced between 1685 and 1787. Nearly 4,000 of these were women, and most (6,500) were imprisoned. From 1685 to 1715, about 1,500 Huguenots were sentenced to life in the galleys. More than half of these were charged for attending illegal religious services and nearly one-fourth for attempting to leave France.

Even Huguenots who had already settled in a foreign country could be captured by French privateers and sent to the galleys. For example, élie Néau, a New York Huguenot merchant, was taken prisoner while crossing the Atlantic on a business trip in 1692. He remained in the galleys until his release in 1698.

In 1687 and 1688 alone, more than 400 Huguenots were deported to the West Indies. Conditions on the transport ships were horrific, and the death rate averaged 25 percent. If the deportees made it to Guadeloupe, Martinique, or Saint-Domingue, however, most found ways to escape to an English or Dutch island and eventually sail back to Europe.

To flee or not to flee

The French crown cracked down especially hard on Huguenots who tried to leave the country. A 1669 decree sentenced fugitives to confiscation of property and death. Other laws condemned those who helped Huguenots escape. On the other hand, Catholics who denounced Huguenots preparing to flee or who helped catch fugitives got the rights to one third of the victims’ property. The guards who made the arrest shared the rest of the estate.

Still, a determined minority of the Protestant community risked all to reach le Refuge.

The first Huguenot refugees left France during persecutions in the 1500s. This emigration was small, occasional, and very often led only to temporary exile. Most early refugees, including John Calvin, fled to nearby Protestant cities, mainly Geneva and Strasburg. Others traveled to England, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. A few trekked overseas to la Florida under the leadership of captain Jean Ribault in 1562. No more than 20,000 Huguenots left France between 1520 and 1660.

The late—seventeenth century exodus, in contrast, was massive, brief, and permanent. Historians estimate that about 180,000 Huguenots left France between 1680 and 1705. The movement started with the intensification of the persecutions in 1680, peaked between 1684 and 1687, and then dwindled in the 1690s, except for occasional outbreaks.

Fugitives fled primarily to preserve their Calvinism—"to live and die in the true religion,” as a South Carolina Huguenot wrote in his will. Yet many other factors entered in.

Different locations had very different emigration rates. Huguenots who lived in overwhelmingly Catholic provinces were more prone to leave than those who lived where the concentration of Protestants made persecution less painful and resistance easier to organize. Huguenots who lived in large cities or near the coast or the borders could escape at lower cost and lesser risk than those in the rural interior.

Personal and familial factors also affected the decision to flee. Huguenots who held occupations that became legally limited to Catholics had to leave or convert simply to survive economically. Flight appealed more to young people than to old, because it often required travel over long distances without the aid of horses or coaches. Even education was a factor, for a person who knew little geography or could not read a map might never reach safety.

Getting away, staying close

Resolving to abandon relatives, friends, and the comfort of home was undoubtedly difficult, but making that decision was easy compared to carrying it out. Escaping from France required courage, perseverance, ingenuity, and luck—plus plenty of money and contacts.

Fugitives paid guides, who knew how to safely reach the coast or the border, and fishermen, who provided passage to an English or Dutch ship anchored off a French harbor. Fugitives also bought maps with itineraries and lists of inns and homes where Protestants were welcome. Leftover funds were saved to bribe coast and border guards, just in case.

When choosing a destination, most refugees followed the simplest route. Huguenots who lived in northwestern France fled to England. Those who were from the Atlantic seaboard escaped to either England or the Netherlands following well-known maritime trade routes. Huguenots from southern and eastern France usually took the Swiss route, following the Rhine River to the Netherlands or settling in the German states.

Ready employment and established exile communities attracted many Huguenots to large foreign cities, some of which wooed the fleeing Protestants with promotional documents. German decrees guaranteed Huguenots generous religious, economic, and linguistic privileges, while colonial pamphlets promised abundant land, free naturalization, and freedom of worship. Because most displaced Huguenots possessed education and labor skills, they were embraced nearly everywhere.

The overwhelming majority of refugees remained in Europe—about 65,000 in the Netherlands, 60,000 in the British Isles, 30,000 in the German states (half in Prussia), and 25,000 in Switzerland. Most hoped to return to France once Louis XIV was defeated by his Protestant enemies and forced to reestablish the Edict of Nantes.

But the Treaty of Ryswick, signed in 1697 to end a nearly 10-year-old war involving France, England, Spain, and the Netherlands, dashed these hopes. It left the French monarchy’s domestic religious policy intact, meaning the Huguenots were still unwelcome at home.

The ones who disappeared

The longer the Huguenots remained shut out of France, the more they adapted to their new countries. This was especially true among those who settled in British North America. Yale historian Jon Butler argues that they essentially disappeared.

For a long time, scholars estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 Huguenots settled in the American colonies. Thanks notably to Butler’s work, however, that estimate has been revised down considerably.

Even including the eighteenth-century Huguenot communities of Purrysburgh and New Bordeaux in South Carolina, no more than 4,000 refugees are likely to have settled in North America from the 1670s to the 1770s. This number is large compared to the 200 who settled in the Dutch colony of South Africa but represents only a tiny fraction of the total refugee population.

Huguenots founded settlements in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Virginia, and South Carolina. New England Huguenots settled in Boston, Oxford, and in the Narragansett Bay. In New York they established communities in New York City (where they joined a few Walloons, French-speaking Protestants from the southern Netherlands), Staten Island, New Rochelle, and in New Paltz, also a Walloon-Huguenot settlement. In Virginia, they founded the community of Manakintown near Richmond, and in South Carolina, they settled in Charleston, Orange Quarter, and Santee.

Roughly 800 refugees settled in New York, 700 in Virginia, 500 in South Carolina, and 300 in New England. The rest dispersed between New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

Once settled, Huguenot families strove to blend in with their new communities. Their identification with the remnant of Israel quickly faded.

Most of the refugees’ children abandoned Calvinism and the use of the French language. Except in the cases of Charleston and New York City, where the refugees managed to keep their congregations active through most of the eighteenth century, most Huguenot churches remained Calvinist only through the 1720s. In Manakintown, Virginia, the colony was founded with the stipulation that all settlers would immediately join the Church of England.

In New York Huguenots joined the Dutch Reformed and the Anglican churches. In New England a few became Congregationalists and Presbyterians. In South Carolina nearly all refugees, except those in Charleston, became Anglicans.

The new Americans also proved eager to participate in local politics and the economy. They obtained large amounts of land, abandoned their traditional occupations to take up agriculture, and intermarried with British and Dutch settlers. They even Anglicized their names.

In every country of le Refuge, however, including America, Huguenot identity re-emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. This new identity, best conveyed by the Huguenot Societies founded in New York, South Carolina, Great Britain, and Germany between 1883 and 1890, represents a durable legacy. Two hundred years after the French king revoked their freedoms and took their property, Huguenots came out of hiding and began to search for what they had lost. CH

By Bertrand van Ruymbeke

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #71 in 2001]

Bertrand van Ruymbeke is an associate professor at the University of Toulouse, France.
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