Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2012 Issue

An Almost Perfect Crime: Rochefort vs. Du Tertre

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In 1666, Rochefort’s book was “rendered in English by John Davies” as The History of the Carriby-Island (London, 1 folio volume). A copy is currently for sale on eBay.com (in a modern binding) for 2950 $. When Du Tertre published the first (out of three) in-quarto volume of his Histoire Générale des Antilles in 1667, he expressed the grievance he had against Rochefort. He explains how he gave his manuscript to one Mr. de Hatlay who handed it around, and how Rochefort’s project “forced [him] to publish it in the year 1654, (...) though it was nothing but a rough version.” Rochefort had some powerful acquaintances too, including De Poincy himself – as shown by some of his letters sent to the author and published in the second edition. Poincy was helpful in Rochefort’s project. It was he who asked Raimond Breton, a learnt religious who lived in the West-Indies, to give Rochefort “his [Caribbean] Vocabulary and some memoirs to an unknown person that was writing a history of the Antilles, claims Du Tertre. I have since learnt it was Sieur de Rochefort, minister in Rotterdam, who had been twice to the West-Indies.” At one point, De Poincy became my favorite suspect – several people believed he was the author of this history, based on the fact that the epistle of the first edition is signed “ LDP ”, assumed to stand for Louis De Poincy. Rochefort would have been responsible for re-writing it only, which would explain why De Poincy sent a flattering representation of his own “castle” in S. Christopher to Rochefort, who featured it in the second edition. Was Rochefort the victim (or accomplice) of De Poincy ?

 

De Rochefort introduced his work to the various Academies in France, where it was hailed as a masterpiece until, points out Du Tertre, everybody noticed that “the book was so much inspired from my own work, that the author did not even correct my mistakes.” This is a weird part – how come these learnt gentlemen had not read Du Tertre’s book before, as it came one year earlier ? They should have noticed the problem right away. Mr. De Rochefort, in his forewords, clearly states he did not write the book but simply “collected and put together various memoirs from some reliable authors”. Unfortunately, he hardly gives names. He credits Mr. Breton for the Vocabulary, or one Mr. Du Montel for the description of a sea unicorn, but most sources remain unknown. Had Mr. de Rochefort something to hide ? Or someone, like Mr. de Poincy ? I have even suspected our pastor, at another point, to be the true author of this work. The style defines the man, as Mr. Buffon would say. And Rochefort’s is so homogeneous, so subtle and, most of all, so personal, it is hard to conceive that his History is a mere patchwork of different memoirs. Intuitions have no legal value. Let’s stick to the facts. Witnesses ? Not too many. Inquiries in the neighbourhood ? Everybody blamed Rochefort, including the compiler of L’Histoire Générale des Voyages, Mr. de la Harpe. In the fifteenth volume of his work (Paris, 1759), he says Rochefort “gave an irrelevant history of the West-Indies”. He also claims that he plagiarized Du Tertre’s work – a very tactless way to put things. Let us remember that Mr. de Rochefort was a protestant in a time when they were not very popular in France. No wonder the French establishment sided with Mr. du Tertre. Powerful people were involved in the West-Indies trade who had read the book for sure, and who had apparently appreciated it. Defending Rochefort’s work might have been a risky move – for the sake of a protestant minister living in Rotterdam ? Let’s be serious.

 

The German philisopher De Paw, in his Recherches Philosophiques sur les Américains (Berlin, 1784) writes that America was a degenerate continent. Dom Pernety, a member of the Royal Academy of Prussia and Florence disagreed : “M. Bristock, an English gentleman, was in the country of the Apalachites in 1653 where he remained long enough to learn about their old and new customs. His account forms chapters 7 and 8 of the second book of Histoire Naturelle & Civile des Antilles published by Mr. Rochefort.” A valuable passage to identify at least one accomplice of our suspect. The Apalachites, according to Mr. Bristock had established an empire worth of Montezuma’s in Mexico, in the Apalaches Mountains. Rochefort added a plate of their Royal City of Melilot to the second edition. De Paw laughs : “ This critical author [De Pernety, ndla] only quotes César (sic) Rochefort, the less exact and the less estimated of all the travelers who wrote in the previous century. Rochefort who, on his side, had compiled the account of a Bristock, an obscure man, totally unknown from the République des Lettres.” Our informer obviously saw this accomplice as a small fry.   

Rare Book Monthly

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