Sable Island criminal colonists

A Frenchman harvested colonists from criminals, vagabonds and beggars to live on Sable Island in the 1590s. (William Inglis Morse Collection/Dalhousie University Archives)

The very name Sable Island conjures up romantic images of crazed French prisoners murdering their guards as the penal colony engulfs in the flames of mutiny.


Read on.

The first thing to know is that Sable Island looked a lot different in the late 1500s, when France had its brilliant bad idea. Nova Scotia did not exist and neither did New France or Acadia. The mainland was all Mi'kmaki, the unconquered home of the Mi'kmaq.

France sought a base to set up a fishery and fur trade and to eventually explore the land beyond. By 1598, the scramble for the Americas ignited fighting among the Portuguese, Spanish, French and English. So Îles de Sable — or Sand Island — seemed a viable spot to settle.

Speculative maps made the island look roomy, and rumours had it that a few cows had been left there by earlier visitors. It sat on the edge of the fishing banks. King Henri IV saw potential.

Settling the unsettled

Enter a Frenchman with a glorious name: Troilus du Mesgouez, marquis de La Roche-Helgomarche, viceroy of New France.

No one had settled the island in the 13,000 years that humans had lived in the area, but that didn't deter the marquis. Neither did the wreck of a European ship in 1583, the first of many recorded for the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Not a promising place for a new settlement.

It got rolling with a March 1598 document dreaming of how much money could be made from the furs and fishing. France sought 100 "of the best and most experienced French infantry" to take the island. Parliament authorized sending 250 people to Canada, including 50 women.

But no one wanted to settle the small sandbar 300 kilometres from a little known mainland. La Roche, who had been there on a lucrative fishing trip in 1597, saw money in the dunes.

The king gave La Roche permission to seize his settlers. He harvested colonists from criminals, vagabonds and beggars. The criminals had a choice: be executed, or try your luck on the island. Official records describe the remainder of these first settlers as "sturdy beggars" and "strong tramps."

The marquis gathered his pilgrims at a Rouen, a French port. He told them they'd sail to the island for free and earn their keep by working for the colony.

France set aside two weeks to plan the settlement of Sable Island.

Dragooned criminals commit crimes

The marquis landed 50 or 60 settlers and about 10 soldiers on Sable Island in 1598 or 1599. They built humble homes and a storehouse on the north coast near what they called the Boncoeur River. They had enough tools, food, clothes and weapons to get through the first winter.

The marquis put Commandant Querbonyer in charge and left to explore Acadia.

Meanwhile, the criminals, strong tramps and sturdy beggars explored the tiny island and saw nothing human in any direction. The island barely stood above sea level and big waves crashed hard over it. Little lived.

Sable Island criminal colonist map

This map shows Sable Island where the marquis de La Roche-Helgomarche landed his colonists in 1598. (William Inglis Morse Collection/Dalhousie University Archives)

Shockingly, the dragooned criminals committed crimes on the island. Right away — and pretty much for every night — they robbed each other and the infant colony. A lieutenant general of the police sailed to the island to fight crime, but he failed magnificently.

The marquis sailed back to the island later that first year, but gosh, the wind wasn't blowing right and it's a small island in a big ocean, and anyway, he couldn't find it again. He blew right on back to France, leaving the lightly provisioned men to fight for themselves.

The first Sable Islanders struggled on, surviving on the "French gardens" they could grow, the cattle, fish and likely seal. Over the next two years, supply ships arrived annually to provide the colony with "wine, coats and clothing," according to La Roche.

However, the marquis fell on bad times at home and fell out of favour with the court. So did his mission to Sable Island.

Supplies cut off

In 1602, he cut off supplies to the colony. He sent a new mission in 1603 to resupply it and to relieve Querbonyer and the other leaders. He planned to bring Querbonyer home to tell the king how Sable Island could prosper.

But the supply ship came upon an apocalypse. Only 11 of the 70 settlers lived. At least 59 men had died in the year of solitude.

The survivors crowded the sandy coast near makeshift fortifications built from shipwrecks. Wearing only raw seal skins, they stared at their saviours with secretive eyes through matted hair and gaunt, bearded faces. When the rescuers came ashore, the survivors showed them the underground dens they lived in to escape the elements on a beach island with no wood or stone. The rescuers saw bones everywhere.

An old Coast Guard history site records the pilgrims had suffered "appalling miseries, living on seals and scraggy cattle, and clothing themselves in uncured skins."

The other 60 men had "perished" in a mutiny. The deportees, stuck on the oceanic prison, had revolted and "butchered" Querbonyer and another leader during a Sable night. Then, they murdered each other.

The relief ship sombrely brought the 11 survivors home to France. Despite the sedition, murder and hints of cannibalism, the mutineers created a great impression on King Henri IV in their wilded state.

The king rewarded each butcher with 50 ecus, or silver coins.

"Instead of being hanged for their misdeeds, they have been given money, although they themselves admitted to the murders," grumbled La Roche.

Sable Island went back to sleep, unsettled for another two centuries.