Vincent de Paul is Captured by Pirates and Taken to Barbary
During all the years Vincent de Paul devoted to his studies, either in Dax or at the University of Toulouse, he acted with such modesty and wisdom that he spread the good odor of his virtues everywhere. He was esteemed and loved by all who came in contact with him. He was particularly devoted to the young students he supervised, not only teaching them well but likewise giving them a strong taste for Christian piety. His reputation in Toulouse was so well founded that his boarding school became popular. We have testimony from a long-time and dear friend, Monsieur de Saint-Martin, canon of Dax, who survived him, that at that time there was some hope that he might be made a bishop. The initiative for this came from the Duke d’Epernon, who had two close relatives among his students. 1 At the beginning of 1605 Vincent traveled to Bordeaux for reasons we do not know, but we have some right to think might have been about the bishopric. In one of the letters he wrote at this time we read, “I have undertaken a costly matter which I can hardly mention without trembling.” 2
Upon returning to Toulouse he learned that a friend who admired his virtuous life had died, leaving him the beneficiary of a will. This entailed spending some time to acquire the legacy. After looking into the matter he discovered that a man who had borrowed four or five hundred ecus from the dead person had fled to Marseilles to avoid paying the debt. Vincent went to Marseilles to pursue the man. He succeeded in working out a settlement of three hundred ecus. Since it was now July 1605, he proposed to return to Toulouse by land. A gentleman from Languedoc he had met in an inn suggested, however, that he join him in traveling by ship to Narbonne. Vincent was easily persuaded, for the weather was good and the sea voyage would greatly cut down on his travel.
According to the ordinary standards of the world, we might say this was a foolhardy decision. If we look at things with the clear light of faith, we must say, on the contrary, that it was a happy event in the accomplishment of God’s designs upon him.
Let us listen to Vincent himself as he describes what happened. He did so in a letter written from Avignon after his escape from captivity, dated July 24, 1607, to Monsieur de Comet, the younger. His father had died of the plague some time before. 3
I set out by ship for Narbonne, to save time and money, but, to say it better, never to be there and to lose everything I had. The wind was favorable, and we should have reached Narbonne that same day (since it is but fifty leagues away) if God had not allowed three Turkish brigantines 4 patrolling the Gulf of Lyons in search of small ships coming from the fair at Beaucaire, 5 one of the best in Christendom, to attack us. They pressed their attack so vigorously that two or three of our party were killed, and everyone else injured. I myself was struck by an arrow, which will ever be my time-piece for the rest of my life. We were obliged to yield to the pirates. They immediately in their rage hacked our captain into a thousand pieces for having killed one of the leaders, besides four or five of their convicts. They chained us afterwards and, after having crudely dressed our wounds, continued their sweep of the gulf. They captured countless others, but after robbing them set them free if they had surrendered without a fight. Finally loaded with stolen goods, after seven or eight days they returned to Barbary, lair of the disreputable robbers unacknowledged by the Grand Turk. 6 Upon arrival we were put up for sale, with a written report of our capture saying that we had been taken from a Spanish ship. This lie sought to prevent our being freed by the king’s consul, who looked after French commercial interests there. 7
As to our sale, we were first stripped, then given a pair of shorts, a linen jacket, and a cap, and then paraded through the streets of Tunis, there to be sold. After we had been taken in chains five or six times around the city, they brought us back to the boat so that buyers could come and inspect us. They looked to see if we could eat or if we had recovered from our wounds. Next they brought us to the city square, where the buyers came just as they do for buying horses or cattle. They made us open our mouths to show our teeth, rapped our sides, checked our wounds, made us walk, trot, and run, lift boxes, and wrestle to judge each one’s strength, and a thousand other indignities.
I was sold to a fisherman, but he was soon obliged to get rid of me because I found nothing so repugnant as the sea. He in turn sold me to an old doctor of alchemy, a student of quintessences. He was a kindly and reasonable man, who told me that he had been searching for the philosopher’s stone for fifty years. 8 He liked me very much and taught me some of the secrets of alchemy and then his religious beliefs. He used all his efforts to convert me, promising to enrich me and to teach me all he knew. God inspired in me a sure hope that I would be freed because of my earnest prayers and the care of the Virgin Mary, by whose intercession I firmly believe I was restored to liberty. The hope and even firm belief that I had of seeing you again, Monsieur, made me pay close attention to my owner’s instruction about how to cure the plague, for every day I saw the marvelous cures he wrought. He taught me all this and even had me prepare and administer the medications. How many times I wished that I had been captured and enslaved before the death of your brother! In that case I feel that I would have learned the secrets of this disease, and he would have escaped death at its cruel hands.
I was with this aged man from September 1605 to the middle of August 1606, when he was captured and taken for the service of the sultan. This did not happen, however, since he died on the way. I was left to his nephew, a man who attributed human form to God. He resold me soon after his uncle’s death. He had heard that the ambassador to the Turks, Monsieur de Breves, was on his way with letters from the Great Sultan 9 to free the Christian slaves. 10
A renegade from Nice in Savoy bought me. 11 He took me to his farm which he held as a tenant farmer to the great lord, for there no one owns anything. Everything belongs to the Sultan. His farm was in the mountains, in an extremely hot and dry country. One of his three wives was a Greek Christian, but orthodox. A second was a Moslem. She turned out to be the instrument of God’s immense mercy to recall her husband from apostasy and return him to the bosom of the Church and to rescue me from my slavery.
She was curious to know how we Christians lived. She came every day to the fields where I was digging to speak with me. Once she asked me to sing one of our hymns in praise of our God. The memory of Quomodo cantabimus in terra aliena [“How will we sing in a foreign land?”] of the children of Israel captive in Babylon brought tears to my eyes, so I began to sing the Psalm Super flumina Babylonis [“at the rivers of Babylon”], 12 and then the Salve Regina [“Hail Holy Queen”] and several other songs. She was so pleased, it was astonishing. She spoke in the evening to her husband. She told him that he was wrong to leave such a religion as I had explained in telling her of our God and in singing several hymns for her. She said that she had felt such pleasure in my account that she believed that the paradise of her fathers could not be as glorious or accompanied with such joy as she had experienced when she heard me praise the Lord. She thought there was something marvelous in all this.
This woman, like another Caiaphas or Balaam’s ass, was so persuasive in her speech that the next day her husband told me that he was awaiting an opportunity to sail to France with some merchandise. 13 He said also that in a few days a remedy to my situation would make me praise God. These few days lasted ten months, during which he sustained my hopes until finally we sailed in a small skiff, landing on June 28 at Aigues-Mortes and later at Avignon. Here the vice-legate 14 publicly received the recantation of the renegade. With tears in his eyes and a sob in his voice, he was reconciled to God in the Church of Saint Peter, to the honor of God and the edification of all present. The vice-legate kept us both with him for some time. Then he directed us to Rome, where he promised to come as soon as his own successor 15 arrived in Avignon. He promised the penitent that he would help him to enter the austere order of the Fate ben Fratelli. He did so some time later. 16
Up to now we have been quoting the words of Monsieur Vincent in a letter written from Avignon. A gentleman of Dax, 17 nephew of Monsieur de Saint-Martin, found it by chance in 1658, fifty years after it had been penned. He gave it to his uncle Saint-Martin, and he sent a copy to Monsieur Vincent. He thought that he would be glad to read of his former adventures and in his old age see his younger self. As soon as Vincent read the letter he threw it into the fire. Soon after he wrote to thank Monsieur de Saint-Martin for having sent the copy but asked if he would send the original as well. Later, only six months before his death, he sent another and more urgent appeal for the original. 18 His secretary slipped in a note with this appeal. 19 He suggested that Monsieur Vincent would probably burn the original as he had the copy. He further suggested that Monsieur de Saint-Martin send the original but addressed to someone other than Monsieur Vincent to keep if from being lost. He did so, sending it to a priest of the Congregation who at the time was superior of the seminary connected with the College des Bons Enfants at Paris. This letter was thus preserved without Monsieur Vincent ever having found out the pious deception. Otherwise we would certainly never have found out about these days of his slavery. This servant of God made strenuous efforts to conceal the graces and gifts he had received from God and all that he had accomplished for his glory and in his service. All who knew him well recognized this trait in him, and it is hard to believe to what lengths he would go to avoid honor. So true is this that in this present book we can read only what his humility was unsuccessful in hiding from sight. If on some special occasions his charity obliged him to reveal some small detail of his past, he did so with extreme reluctance. Even afterwards he would beg pardon of his audience for having spoken of himself. When it was possible to speak in the third person without obviously referring to himself, he did so adroitly.
Besides all the facets of his stay among the infidels, such as his constancy and firmness in professing the faith of Jesus Christ, his perfect confidence in the divine Goodness in the midst of total abandonment by others, his fidelity to his self-imposed regime of pious exercises, his devotion to the most holy Virgin among the impious of Barbary, his gift of touching the hardest hearts and inspiring respect and affection for our holy religion in the minds of those deeply opposed, and for his other virtues and gifts of God which appeared during his forced exile, all of which we leave for readers to reflect on to their own edification, two particular points remain which merit our closest attention.
The first is Monsieur Vincent’s extraordinary virtue which moved him to suppress all knowledge he had acquired from the doctor of alchemy of the secrets of nature and art during his year as his slave. We are aware of how much he picked up from the letter to Monsieur de Comet, quoted above, which even then is only an extract of the full letter. The same information is contained in a second letter he wrote after arriving in Rome. 20 Had he wished he could doubtless have found many opportunities to use his skill, for many unusual types were to be found in that great city. He could have gained great personal advantage from making use of his knowledge when he was in great financial need, but he felt it unworthy of a priest of Jesus Christ. Not only did he not use this art, but even more remarkably, after his return to France from Rome he was never heard to say a single word about this, either to those of his own Congregation or to any of his closest friends. Furthermore, he never spoke about any of the events of his forced stay in Barbary. He had hundreds and hundreds of occasions to do so, since he had taken on the care of the slaves. He was heard to speak about some of the more humiliating events of his life, but nothing of his stay in Tunis, for in some way these events would turn to his own praise.
The second thing to consider in the slavery of Monsieur Vincent is his spirit of compassion towards the poor Christians whom he saw languishing miserably in irons under the barbarian yoke, bereft of consolation or help, either bodily or spiritual. They were subject to great cruelty, unbearable forced labor, and what is worse, exposed to the danger of losing their faith and their salvation. God so willed it to engrave this sorrowful sight on his soul that one day, in other circumstances, he might help these poor abandoned slaves. He was later able to do this by sending some of his missionaries to Tunis and Algiers. They were to comfort, strengthen, and encourage them, to administer the sacraments, and to provide all sorts of services and help to both body and soul, and to help them experience to some degree in their pains and in their irons the infinite care and mercy of God.
- They were the two grandnephews of the Duke d’Epernon, Jean Louis de Nogaret de la Vallette, (1554-1642) the heroic grand master of the order of Saint John of Jerusalem. The duke became powerful at court in the last years of Henry IV, and especially during the regency of Marie de Medici. He became governor of Guienne only in 1622, but often lived in his chateau at Cadillac near Bordeaux.
- CED I:1-13.
- This entire account of the captivity has been much debated as to its historical reliability. Abelly’s account differs in numerous details from the original text.
- These ships were at that time small, decked craft, rigged with only one sail, and having eight to sixteen benches, each for a single oarsman. The oars were wide and flat. CED I:3.
- Beaucaire was the central market for goods coming from the East. The fair opened each year on July 22 and brought to that city countless boats from Marseilles, Sete, Aigues-Mortes and elsewhere. At the time of their departure, the boats that were headed for the open sea formed their own escort or had themselves accompanied by galleys for protection in case of attack. The pirates from the east and from Barbary lay in wait for them, posted on watch all along the coast, no far from the mouths of the Rhone.
- The sultan or emperor of the Ottoman empire, who resided in Turkey and ruled the far flung areas of the empire through beys and other officials.
- Treaties of 1534, 1569, 1581, and 1604 stipulated that the Barbary pirates would respect the freedom of French trade.
- Abelly here omits several details about Saint Vincent’s knowledge of alchemy. The “doctor of quintessences,” literally a Spagyrite, explained the organic changes of the human body in health and in sickness as the chemists of their day explained those of the inorganic realms. Paracelsus invented the word, and founded this school of thought in the sixteenth century.
- Ahmed I, died 1617.
- Francois Savary, marquis de Breves, was one of the most able negotiators in the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIII. His arrival was the result of a treaty advantageous to France, signed with the Great Sultan, May 20, 1604. He left with only seventy-two slaves.
- Renegades were numerous, recruited from among slaves or from foreigners who had come to Barbary to escape their creditors. Those who embraced Islam were freed of all debts. Converted slaves had more freedom than others and were treated less harshly. The most fearsome captains were almost all renegades. Once they had made their fortunes, they enjoyed them in sumptuous palaces. It appears from seventeenth-century spelling that “Nice” may refer to Necy or Annecy.
- Ps 137:1-4.
- The original text is more vivid: “This other Caiaphas or Balaam’s ass. . . .”
- Pietro Francesco Montorio (or Montoro), 1558-1643.
- Joseph Ferreri, archbishop of Urbino.
- The “Do-good Brothers,” a popular name in Italy for the Brothers of Saint John of God, taken from the formula, “Do good,” used by the founder and the brothers to beg alms.
- Cesar Saint-Martin d’Ages.
- CED VIII:271-72.
- Brother Bertrand Ducournau. For this letter, CED VIII:513-15.
- Dated February 20, 1608; CED I:13-17. His arrival in Rome was October 30, 1607.