Radisson’s account of extreme nature

Radisson. Green Line, opened 1976.

Montreal has been reminded of the power of nature. This Tuesday, summer was interrupted with a downpour which flooded basements, transformed tunnels into rivers, sewers into geysers and elevators into waterfalls.

Canada, of course, is not unknown for its extreme weather, but it is never more extreme than in winter, and during the winter of 1659 and 1660 Pierre Espirit Radisson was experiencing the worst of it. Radisson, an explorer and founder of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and his brother-in-law were living with the Cree near the James Bay in northern Quebec, much against the wishes of the governor of New France.

In broken but clear English he gives a harrowing account of winter at its worst, but one that still persuaded the powerbrokers of Restoration England that shipping beaver fur through a sea which is frozen most of the year was a good idea.

In the morning the husband looks upon his wife, the brother on his sister, the cousin the cousin, the uncle the nephew that were for the most part dead. They languish with cries and hideous noise that it was able to make the hair stare on the heads that have any apprehension. Good God, have mercy on so many poor innocent people, and of us that acknowledge thee, that having offended thee punishes us. But we are not free of that cruel Executioner. Those that have any life seek out for roots, which could not be done without great difficulty, the earth being frozen two or three foot deep and the snow five or six above it. The greatest subsistence that we can have is of rind tree which grows like ivy about the trees; but to swallow it, we cut the stick some two foot long, tying it in faggot[s] and boil it, and when it boils one hour or two the rind or skin comes of with ease which we take a dry it in the smoke and then reduce it into powder betwixt two grainstones, and putting the kettle with the same water upon the fire, we make it a kind of broth, which nourished us, but [we] became thirstier and drier than the wood we ate.

The two first weeks we did eat our dogs. As we went back upon our steps for to get anything to fill our bellies, we were glad to get the bones and carcasses of the beasts that we killed. And happy was he that could get what the other did throw away after it had been boiled three or four times to get the substance out of it. We contrived another plot, to reduce to powder the bones [and] the rest of crows and dogs. So put all that together half a foot within the ground and so make us a fire upon it … We burned the hair on the coals; the rest goes down the throats, eating heartily these things most abhorred. We went so eagerly to that our gums did bleed like one newly wounded. The wood was our food for the rest of that sorrowful time. Finally we became the very image of death. We mistook ourself very often, taking the living for the dead and the dead for the living.We wanted strength to draw the living out of the cabins or if we did when we could, it was to put them four paces in the snow. At the end the wrath of God begins to appease itself and pities his poor creatures. If I should express all that befell us in that strange accidents a great volume would not contain it. Here are above 500 dead, men, women and children. It’s time to come out of such miseries. Our bodies are not able to hold out any further.

Consulted for this post

Fournier, Martin. Pierre-Espirit Radisson, 1636-1710: aventurier et commerçant. Sillery, QC, 2001.

Nutte, Grace Lee. ‘Pierre-Espirit Radisson.’ Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto and Université Laval. Web. 31 May 2012.

Radisson, Pierre-Espirit. Voyages. Trans. Nicholas Hayward [?] Boston: Prince Society, 1885.

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