One of the questions I am often asked about this project is “Why?” or, less bluntly, “What got you started?” Obviously, there is my curiousity in Canadian history and my love of the metro, but the more prosaic and practical answer is that when I started I was unemployed and, as I was just arrived in Canada, thought I would do something which was both interesting and might lead to something more, money, fame, glory, or at least the sense of something had been done.
As with lunatic history projects, so (possibly) with history. While the reason why over the course of a hundred years successive Frenchmen took to the seas to explore and conquer Acadie, what is now eastern Canada, can be reduced to greed, fame, glory, or simple curiosity; or complicated by a dissection of a culture, economic circumstance; or the two in combination, the specific reason given in an account attributed to Samuel de Champlain is as everyday as my own: after serving as quartermaster for Henri IV in Brittany, he was “without charge or office”. In other words, he was unemployed.
According to this account, called the Brief Narrative of the Most Remarkable Things that the Sieur de Champlain de Brouage Observed in the West Indies, Champlain did not immediately head west from Brittany. Instead, he went south to Spain and thence to the West Indies and Mexico. There it is reported that he saw the cities that the Spanish had built, tasted chocolate, heard about and drew a dragon, and witnessed the terrible (and in his judgement counterproductive) attempts to convert the local population to Catholicism. He would presumably have also seen what could be done and how, knowledge upon which he could trade and so be useful to the French king.
That Champlain traded on his knowledge, gained in Mexico or otherwise, to establish New France is beyond dispute – that the king found it useful is less certain – but if there is any truth in the Brief Narrative then there is the distinct possibility that Samuel de Champlain came to Canada for the perfectly banal reason that in 1598 he was out of a job.
Having been employed in the king’s army [Henri IV] which was in Brittany under Messieurs the Maréchal d’Aumont, de St Luc, and the Maréchal Brissac in the capacity of quartermaster in the said army for some years, and until his Majesty, in the year 1598, reduced the said country to Brittany to obedience and dismissed his army; and seeing myself thereby without any charge or employment, I resolved, so as not to remain idle to find means to make a voyage to Spain, and being there to acquire and cultivate acquaintances, in order by their favour and intermediacy to managed to embark in some one of their ships of the fleet which the king sends every year to the West Indies; to the end that I might be able there to make enquiries into particulars of which no Frenchmen have succeeded in obtaining cognizance, because they have no free access there, in order to make a true report of them to his Majesty on my return.
Consulted for this post
Samuel de Champlain, Brief Narrative of the Most Remarkable Things that the Sieur de Champlain de Brouage Observed in the West Indies, in. The Works of Samuel de Champlain, vol 1., ed. H. P. Biggar (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1922), p. 3.
For a while I’ve had the feeling that I’ve been going about this project in a wrongheaded fashion, the problem being my love of the detail being balanced with the larger sweep of Canada’s history. For what this feels like, see here. One consequence of this (I hope) is the irregularity of the posts. I think I have figured it out now and, as a result will be providing overviews to the stations like this one for Acadie. These will be linked back to in captions for the pictures, when the detail from primary sources, which I hope you enjoy as much as I do, follows. Please let me know what you think of the new approach.