Boat People, Then and Now

Making the Calais Crossing

A packet boat arrives as Calais Pier. 1803, Joseph Mallord William Turner. National Gallery

On August 1, 1686, at eight in the morning, a small ship dropped anchor off the Dover shore. Among those who hobbled onto the beach was a 26-year-old Calvinist Frenchman from Calais, Isaac Minet. Minet had finally succeeded in leaving his native country alongside his 65-year-old mother, Susanne, his younger sister Elizabeth, and 15 other men, women, and children. In the Calais region, the accession of Louis XIV, that most Catholic of monarchs, to the French throne heralded an increase in state persecution of the Protestant minority.

In 1685, Louis XIV officially outlawed Protestantism. And so, to avoid being condemned to the galleys, French Protestants had no choice but to abjure or run away. In Calais, religious persecution was particularly fierce. Between October and December 1685, the Minets were put under house arrest and then imprisoned in a dungeon. They eventually yielded to their captors and converted to Catholicism, but their troubles were not yet over. Flight seemed a rational choice, as did the decision to head for Dover. French Huguenots, as Protestants in France were called at the time, generally opted for the closest Protestant country that would have them: between 40,000 and 50,000 Frenchmen migrated to England after 1685.

Minet’s escape was well prepared. To begin with, he knew Dover very well and spoke English; as a teenager, he had spent two years with the family of a merchant in Dover, as was customary in Europe for sons of affluent traders. Further, this was what sociologists call a “chain migration,” dependent on a sending network in France and a receiving network in England. Other members of the family had preceded Minet on the same journey. In fact, six of his brothers and sisters were already living in Dover or its vicinity when he made his great escape.

Best-laid plans aside, as in all such stories, chance also played its part. Surveillance was tight, but Isaac and his fellow passengers slipped past the detachment of soldiers patrolling the French coast. A cruiser from Dunkirk that was detailed

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