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Nos Ancêtres les Américains: Myth and Origins in Early New France

Article Citation: 
Cahiers du dix-septième: An Interdisciplinary Journal XII, 1 (2008) 1–15
Brian Brazeau
Article Text: 

“Les plus curieux aussi et les moins dévots,
qui n’ont d’autre sentiment que de se divertir
et d’apprendre dans l’histoire l’humeur,
le gouvernement et les diverses actions
et cérémonies d’un peuple barbare,
y trouveront aussi de quoi se contenter
et satisfaire, et peut-être leur salut,
par la réflexion qu’ils feront sur eux-mêmes.”
Gabriel Sagard, Le Grand voyage du pays des Hurons

In a recent article entitled “Etre français en Nouvelle-France,” historian Saliha Belmessous poses one of the major issues of New France as that of identity. She centers her discussion on seventeenth-century campaigns of francisation: the population-building policy whereby natives were granted French citizenship through conversion and intermarriage. This policy, according to Belmessous, led to a reflection on what “français” implied. Her argument is that at a time when French identity itself was more local and malleable than unified and fixed, the French crown had to define that identity if it was to grant it to others. In short, if they were going to call the place “New France”, they had to figure out what that meant. A form of this last point has been the basis for much of my thinking on New France for the last several years. It implies that America was a site for reflection, as the Recollect missionary Gabriel Sagard noted in the above citation long before modern scholars, on some of the most pressing issues in early-modern France. Such work is, as Alice L. Conklin elegantly states, a “recognition of reciprocal influences and multidirectional flows between France and its diverse colonial possessions” (500).

What Belmessous and others situating France’s colonial policies in terms of identity have been focusing on, however, are the years during which the colony was heavily administratively bound. Essentially, they begin with the clear (if insufficient) royal involvement in the colony around 1632, and trace a forward movement to define policies of francisation.

In this paper, and in my larger book project, I argue that in fact the most fascinating struggle with identity came from the earlier 17th-century travelers, who had significantly less institutional backing. Without the comfort of official royal publications on the “requirements” that would make this place live up to its name, these authors, such as Samuel de Champlain, the Recollect Missionary Gabriel Sagard, and Marc Lescarbot, had to think a New France within their own individual frameworks. Theirs was a type of francisation before official policy, and it was a francisation not only of a people, but of a land, and of themselves. It was a process of Writing a New France, in all senses of the phrase.

We will focus on a writer who produced one of the most captivating reflections on identity and the New World: Marc Lescarbot, author of the Histoire de la Nouvelle-France. 1 For Lescarbot: “Rien ne sert de qualifier une NOUVELLE-FRANCE, pour estre un nom en l’air & en peinture seulement” (I:214). His elaboration of that New France passed through a reflection on how this place was similar, and dissimilar, to its namesake. We will address these questions in relation to two major aspects of his text: the ways in which Lescarbot fills up the silence that was the incommensurability of America in order to make understandable what was, physically, anything but a New France, and the changes both sides –Amerindians and French- undergo in the process.

In reducing the otherness of the New World, Lescarbot deals heavily with myths of origins. He treats in subtle yet radical fashion the origins of the Amerindians and those of the French, linking the two in a mytho-poetic present. We find in the Histoire the following complex movement, all mediated by a discussion of origins, which we will try to elucidate: first, an enfranchisation of the natives (not a francisation, but preparing the terrain) through a novel theory of their origins; second, a refranchisation of the French (a recentering of the past in line with his vision of history and the present) by a new vision of their ancestors; third, a rejection, or défrancisation of certain modern French through their distance from the purity of their origins; and finally, a refrancisation of both French and Amerindian in the present. The Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, then, is in many senses the story of a family reunion.

Who is the author of the Histoire? Born around 1570, Marc Lescarbot received a very thorough classical education, and graduated as a lawyer in 1598. He was called to the Parlement de Paris as an attorney in 1599. His works include several translations, various travel writings, some poetry, and the six hundred page Histoire de la Nouvelle-France.

In 1606, Lescarbot embarked on the Jonas for New France, where he spent roughly a year between the territory of the Souriquois and the Almouchiquois of the Algonquian linguistic group, tribes referred to as Micmac today. The result was the Histoire, which bears the mark of a sensitive scholar and humanist, whose curiosity, culture, and quirks produced one of New France’s most intriguing oeuvres. It was first published in 1609, then in 1611-12, and 1617-18. 2 The Histoire traces the history of French colonization of the Americas, implantation in Canada including a discussion of his time there, progress since his departure, and finally Amerindian mores. The sections we discuss are primarily from the introductory Book I which treats general topics of history and colonization, and the final Book VI, the primary meditation on American customs.

Lescarbot’s treatment of the New World moves through a exploration of origins, as we have said, and he begins with those of the natives. In so doing, he engages in a debate that had occupied European minds since the early 16th century: namely the implications of the discovery of the “new” people of America for a Christian worldview. A major question that arises is why he takes this issue further than most, well beyond the scope of French discussions of the day.

To enter into this subject in detail would take us on a complex tangent, but it is important to stress here that many theories of Amerindian origins had links to more European concerns. That is to say: most times an author advanced a theory, it was not simply the fruit of a theological or humanist wrestling with the origins of these poor people, but rather to prove a point that said author held dear. One famous example of the generally interested nature of the use of these theories, and there are many, is Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez’s claim that America was once inhabited by the twelfth king of Spain, Hespéro, and that therefore the Indians were his descendants. This in fact was a ploy to rescind on the promise made to Columbus by Queen Isabella that he and his descendants would be viceroys and in charge of bounty in all discovered lands. If the Spanish had been there since the 12th century, then Columbus had only re-discovered, and all of the gold could go to the Spanish crown.

One major tenet in many theories was to link the Amerindians to the migration of Noah’s sons. The traditional story posits that the world was divided between Noah’s sons after the Deluge, Asia going to Shem, Egypt and Africa to Ham and Europe to Japheth. 3 Who received America, though? Or rather, which of the descendants of Noah’s sons migrated to America? Many theorists in Europe, for various reasons, wished to attribute American origins to the cursed race of Ham beginning with the immensely influential Omnium gentieum mores of Johann Boem (1520), while others, such as the Huguenot Urbain de Chauveton, took exception to such Canaanite theories, claiming that they slandered the American Indians (Dickason, 33).

It is here that Lescarbot, one of a small number of French commentators of his time, enters the debate. He begins by noting the difficulty of the subject, in the first book of the Histoire:

Je sçay que plusieurs, étonnez de la decouverte des terres de ce monde nouveau que l’on appelle Indes Occidentales, on exercé leur esprit à rechercher le moyen, par lequel elles on peu étre peuplées apres le Deluge: ce qui est d’autant plus difficile, que d’un pole à l’autre, ce monde là est separé de cetui-cy d’une mer si large. (I: 236)

In an attempt to address this troublesome problem, writes Lescarbot, many Europeans “se sont servi de quelques propheties & revelations de l’Ecriture sainte tirées par les cheveux” (I:236). He discusses, and appears to endorse as the most plausible circulating hypothesis, the Canaanite theory, according to which the Amerindians “étoit une race de Cham portée là par punition de Dieu, lors que Josué commença d’entrer en la terre de Chanaan” (I:236). For much of the chapter, it seems as if Lescarbot adheres to this popular theory of Amerindian origins. However, he makes a novel move at the end of this discussion. After a lengthy treatment of the possibilities of the Canaanite view, he rather discreetly advances the following,

Mais quand je considere que les Sauvages ont de main en main par tradition de leurs peres, une obscure conoissance du Deluge, il me vient au devant une autre conjecture du peuplement des Indes Occidentales, qui n’a point encore esté mise en avant.

Developing his theory, Lescarbot continues,

quel empéchement y a-il de croire que Noé ayant vécu trois cens cinquante ans aprés le Deluge, n’ait luy méme eu le soin & pris la peine de peupler, ou plustot repeupler ces pais là? (I :238)

The link between Noah’s son Japheth and the New World had already been made by Guillaume Postel in 1556, but Lescarbot moves beyond his predecessor here (Gliozzi, 32). If, as we said, most theories of Amerindian origins had ulterior points to prove by choosing one theory or another, what were Lescarbot’s? Why did he advance, circumventing most existing hypotheses, that Noah was the first face of the Amerindians? What does this have to do with his vision of French origins? This is the first step, I argue, understandable only after we have looked at his theories concerning French origins, in his francisation of America.

In order to grasp this, we must move on to the French. Lescarbot’s discussion of Native roots is indivisible from his discussion of French origins. While the origins of the Amerindians were certainly a source of debate at this time, the foundations of the French were also the subject of much study. Again, as with the discussion of Amerindian roots, the choice of one or another version of French origins was linked to a political, religious, or philosophical agenda. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the wish to find European rather than antique sources for French ancestry led to a conflict between the most common previously-accepted version, that of the Trojan ancestors (which would return to favor in the 17th century), and the newer Gaulois model.4 By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the Gaulois origin, in various forms, had become the most widely accepted version of French ancestry. The success of the Gaulois was such that even by the end of the fifteenth century, according to Colette Beaune, “un Français a, à coup sûr, des ancetres gaulois qu’il ne possédait pas en 1400” (45). Whether used to show the beginnings of the French attachment to representative government such as in Hotman’s Franco-Gallia (1574), or the pure origins of French institutions in Etienne Pasquier’s Les Recherches de France (1560) the Gaulois were, we could say, “hot”. Lescarbot adheres to the Gaulois origin theory, as we will see below, but the question is why? Is it simply that, trained as a humanist and a lawyer and a disciple of humanist robe culture of the sixteenth century, he is espousing the views of his masters? He seems to exceed expectations were this the case: In his letter “A la France”, he notes French origins : “Lors qu’ilz portoient le nom de Gaullois”, he notes,

voz François n’étoient reputez legitimes si dés la naissance ilz ne sçavoient nager, & comme naturellement marcher sur les eaux. Ils ont avec grande puissance occupé l’Asie. Ils y ont planté leur nom, qui y est encore. (I :216)

He follows this by making the move with perhaps the most far-reaching implications, in light of the fact that he has established Noah as the direct father of the American Indians, and the Gaulois as the ancestors of the French. In chapter III, entitled “Noé Premier Gaullois”. Lescarbot explains that

pour le nom Gaullois, nous avons l’authorité de Xenophon, lequel en ses Aequivoques dict, que…Noé fut surnommé Le Gaullois, pource qu’au Deluge du monde s’étant garantit des eaux, il en garantit aussi la race des hommes, & repeupla la terre. (I :231)

Thus, “Noé repeuplant le monde amena une troupe de familles pardeça.” (I :232). 5 To resume thus far, then: Noah is the direct and specific (rather than descended or distant, as with the rest of Christianity) father of the Gauls, the Amerindians, and the French. Lescarbot has thus enfranchised the Indians, and refranchised the French. From here, there remain two steps in his meditation on origins: a défrancisation of certain Frenchmen, and a refrancisation of the Indians and those French who are virtuous enough to mix with them.

Both of these final elements are most clear in the ultimate book of the Histoire, which deals with Indian mores and is generally read as the moment when Lescarbot’s voice surfaces. He begins with a chapter “De la naissance”, and ends with “Des Funérailles”, discussing in between such varied topics as “ornemens du corps”, “danses et chansons”, “exericices des hommes”, or “la civilité”.

We can now read this section in light of what we have learned about Lescarbot and origins. Choosing an origin (for the French or for the Amerindians) is a decision which has its effects in the present; in it can be traced, as Michel de Certeau notes, “the decision to become different and no longer to be such as one had been up to that time” (Lyons, 3). This is the process of défrancisation of certain Frenchmen hinted at earlier. In one section, Lescarbot invokes the separation between modern France and the one he has created. He then follows with a chapter denouncing “La lacheté de nôtre siècle” (I: 233). The French of today are a people who “trouvent toutes choses grandes impossibles”. Lamenting in his poem “Sur Le Voyage de Canada”, he writes:

Allons où le bon heur & le ciel nous appelle;
Et provignons au loin une France plus belle.
Quittons aux faineans, à ces masses sans coeur,
A la peste, à la faim, aux ebats du vainqueur.
Au vice, au desespoir, cette campagne usee,
Haine des gens de bien, du monde la risee. (II:387)

Another poem, the “Adieu à la France”, ends with a cry to the French: “Sommeillez vous, hélas!” (II: 533).

He has now défrancisé his fellow French, and we arrive at the final stage: the refrancisation of both through mixture. He details the Indian mores through comparison, which was in many ways a standard reaction by Europeans in the face of Amerindian otherness: a major current in explaining the origins of the Indians, was to link the natives to biblical tribes and to ancient European peoples. Among these people of “méme parallele et degré”, in the Histoire we find a relatively standard group of cultures: the Romains, Hebreux, Allemands, and the Aegyptiens. However, in Lescarbot, by far the most common comparison made is with the Gaulois. The Romans, the second-most mentioned people, are seen eight times in the book, while the Gauls, the direct ancestors of the French, are treated on over fourteen occasions. It is thus more than a simple case of Foucaulian early-modern analogy here. This keen interest in relating the natives to the Gaulois can be explained by the genealogy he has created earlier in the text. By contact with each other, French and Amerindian will return to the purity, solidity, and fortitude of their ancestors.

First, this process will benefit the French: if contemporary France is closed to the world, accomplishing “aucune chose de vertu”, this is not the case for their forbears and new brothers (I:218).

In a section entitled “Hospitalité des Sauvages, Gaullois, Allemans, & Turcs, à la honte des Chrétiens”, he notes that,

Ils ont aussi l’Hospitalité propre vertu des anciens Gaullois…lequels contraignoient les passans et étrangers d’entrer chés eux et y prendre refection: vertu qui semble s’estre conservée seulement en la Nobless: car pour le reste nous la voyons fort enervée. (III: 393)

The practice of a Homeric xenia, or welcoming of others, places the Amerindians atop the French, and closer to their common grandfathers and mothers.

He continues by comparing the French and the Indians on several other levels, in which, now that he has eliminated the undesirable element from participation, the true commerce of origins can commence. Lescarbot believes this to be a relationship of exchange. 6 Beyond the “parole de Dieu” which is the paramount gift the Europeans will bestow upon their brothers, the French will allow them to realize their potential as humans and through the marrying of the two peoples, to be fertile and numerous.

The rhetoric of potential is widespread in this text, a telling example of which comes in the chapter on “La Tabagie”, or feasts. After a lengthy and positive discussion of native gatherings, Lescarbot moves to another, more Gallic subject: “c’est assez manger, parlons de boire” (III: 397). He laments, concerning the abundance of grapevines in the New World, “Je ne sçay si je doy mettre entre les plus graves aveuglemens des Indiens Occidentaux d’avoir abondament le fruit le plus excellent que Dieu nous ait donné, & de n’en sçavoir l’usage” (III:397). This fault, to be corrected by contact with the French, is lessened by the following sentence. Lescarbot’s hesitation in reprimanding the Indians for lack of viniculture is justified, “Car je voy que nos anciens Gaullois en étoient de méme, & pensoient que le raisins fussent poison” (III: 397). Thus, the French have the mission of extracting their neo-Gaulois brothers from the state of blindness in which they find themselves, as with wine from a grape.

Finally, he discusses fecundity. After all, is not the foundation of a discussion of lost family a desire to augment one’s ranks? For “(comme dit le sage) la gloire & dignité des Rois git en la multitude du peuple” (I:234). In addition, if there are so many French who are unworthy of the glorious project of New France, then we must make more who are. In the section “du Mariage”, Lescarbot notes that the natives are lacking in population. “Voire j’ay oui dire pluseurs fois que pour rendre le devoir au mari elles se font souvent contraindre: ce qui est rare pardeça” (III:391). In contrast, “Aussi les femes Gaulloises sont-elles celebrées par Strabon pour étre bonnes portieres (j’entend fecondes) & nourrissieres” (III:391). In this instance, it is the French who most resemble the Gaullois, as “je ne voy point que ce peuple là abonde comme entre nous” (III:391). However, Lescarbot attributes this not to Amerindian nature, but rather to material conditions, implying that it is only an isolated aberration that the natives do not resemble the French and their common ancestors in reproductive prowess. He explains,

Vray est que noz Sauvages se tuent les uns les autres incessamment, & sont toujours en crainte de leurs ennemis, n’ayans ny villes murées, ni maisons fortes pour se garder de leurs embuches, qui est entre eux l’une des causes du defaut de multiplication. (III:391)

It is only through civilization, in the form of organized habitats, to be brought by the French (a chosen few of them, at that), that the Amerindians will overcome this defect. Thus, the commerce of customs, mediated by a commonality of origins, creates a New France of infinite possibilities in this early period.

The Histoire de la Nouvelle-France is a closing of the rift opened up by the distance between two places, moments, cultures. It is an attempt to assimilate the difference of the other. What is fascinating about Lescarbot, however, is that he causes France, and by extension himself, at the same time as he closes that distance, openly to be transformed as he transforms the natives. His France finds itself, if only temporarily and textually, mythically modified by his attempted francisation of America.

American University in Paris


1Roman numerals in citations to Lescarbot refer to volume numbers in the Champlain Society edition.

2For useful summaries of Lescarbot’s life, see René Baudry’s entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and H.P. Biggar’s introduction to the Champlain Society edition of the Histoire. There existed, according to Baudry, a biography of Lescarbot written by the poet Guillaume Colletet, but this has unfortunately been lost.

3In relation to the discussion that follows, Colin Kidd reminds us, in British Identities Before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 9, that “the first five verses of Genesis 10” in which is described the division of the world among Noah’s sons and their descendants, “constituted the fundamental text” by which Europeans sought their own origins as well.

4The Trojan legend, according to Beaune, remained unchanged from the seventh until the mid-sixteenth century. From here, the Gaulois legend took precedence, although it had begun competing with the Trojan legend as early as the fifteenth century.

5The tradition of Noah as the first representative of the Gauls is developed by Jean Lemaire de Belges, whose fifteenth-century discussion Lescarbot borrows from. See Jean Lemaire de Belges, Les Illustrations de Gaule et Singularitez de Troye 1509 (Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1969), esp. p. 17-23.

6We should not forget that it is also a case of cultural erasure, as the majority of descriptions of Amerindians by Europeans tended to be. I pursue this aspect of Lescarbot’s vision further in Writing a New France, forthcoming Fall 2009.

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