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Champlain's Last Years

When Champlain reached the Sault St Louis on July 1, 1616, his career as an explorer had ended. The nineteen years of life that still remained he gave to Quebec and the duties of his lieutenancy.

By this time he had won the central position in his own domain. Question might arise as to the terms upon which a monopoly of trade should be granted, or as to the persons who should be its recipients. But whatever company might control the trade, Champlain was the king's representative in New France. When Boyer affronted him, the council had required that a public apology should be offered. When Montmorency instituted the investigation of 1620, it was Champlain's report which determined the issue. Five years later, when the Duc de Ventadour became viceroy in place of Montmorency, Champlain still remained lieutenant-general of New France. Such were his character, services, and knowledge that his tenure could not be questioned.

Notwithstanding this source of satisfaction, the post was difficult in the extreme. The government continued to leave colonizing in the hands of the traders, and the traders continued to shirk their obligations. The Company of the De Caens did a large business, but suffered more severely than any of its predecessors from the strife of Catholic and Huguenot. Those of the reformed religion even held their services in the presence of the Indians, thus anticipating the scandals of Kikuyu. Though the Duc de Ventadour gave orders that there should be no psalm-singing after the outbound ships passed Newfoundland, this provision seems not to have been effective. It was a difficult problem for one like Champlain, who, while a loyal Catholic, had been working all his life with Huguenot associates.

The period of the De Caens was marked by the presence at Quebec of Madame Champlain. The romance of Champlain's life does not, however, revolve about his marriage. In 1610, at the age of forty-three, he espoused Helene Boulle, whose father was secretary of the King's Chamber to Henry IV. As the bride was only twelve years old, the marriage contract provided that she should remain two years longer with her parents. She brought a dowry of six thousand livres, and simultaneously Champlain made his will in her favor. Probably De Monts had some part in arranging the marriage, for Nicholas Boulle was a Huguenot and De Monts appears as a witness to the notarial documents. Subsequently, Madame Champlain became an enthusiastic Catholic and ended her days as a nun. She had no children, and was only once in Canada, residing continuously at Quebec from 1620 to 1624. No mention whatever is made of her in Champlain's writings, but he named St Helen's Island after her, and appears to have been unwilling that she should enter a convent during his lifetime.

One need feel little surprise that Madame Champlain should not care to visit Canada a second time, for the buildings at Quebec had fallen into disrepair, and more than once the supply of food ran very low. During 1625 Champlain remained in France with his wife, and therefore did not witness the coming o the Jesuits to the colony. This event, which is a landmark in the history of Quebec and New France, followed upon the inability of the Recollets to cover the mission field with any degree of completeness. Conscious that their resources were unequal to the task, they invoked the aid of the Jesuits, and in this appeal were strongly supported by Champlain. Once more the horizon seemed to brighten, for the Jesuits had greater resources and influence than any other order in the Roman Catholic Church, and their establishment at Quebec meant much besides a mere increase in the population. The year 1626 saw Champlain again at his post, working hard to complete a new factory which he had left unfinished, while the buildings of the Jesuit establishment made good progress under the hand of workmen specially brought from France. What still remained imperfect was the fortification. The English had destroyed the French settlements at Mount Desert and Port Royal. What was to hinder them from bombarding Quebec?

This danger soon clouded the mood of optimism that had been inspired by the coming of the Jesuits. The De Caens objected to any outlay on a fort, and would not give Champlain the men he needed. In reply Champlain sent the viceroy a report which was unfavorable to the company and its methods. But even without this representation, the monopoly of the De Caens was doomed by reason of events which were taking place in France.

At the court of Louis XIII Richelieu had now gained an eminence and power such as never before had been possessed by a minister of the French crown. Gifted with imagination and covetous of national greatness, he saw the most desirable portions of other continents in the hands of the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the English, and the Dutch. The prospect was not pleasing, and he cast about for a remedy.

For Hanotaux,1 Richelieu is 'the true founder of our colonial empire,' and La Ronciere adds: 'Madagascar, Senegal, Guiana' the Antilles, Acadia, and Canada--this, to be exact, was the colonial empire for which we were indebted to Richelieu.' Regarding his breadth of outlook there can be no doubt, and in his Memoirs he left the oft-quoted phrase: 'No realm is so well situated as France to be mistress of the seas or so rich in all things needful.' Desiring to strengthen maritime commerce and to hold distant possessions, he became convinced that the English and the Dutch had adopted the right policy. Strong trading companies--not weak ones--were what France needed.

Henry IV could have given the French a fair start, or even a lead, in the race for colonies. He missed this great opportunity; partly because he was preoccupied with the reorganization of France, and partly because Sully, his minister, had no enthusiasm for colonial ventures. Twenty years later the situation had changed. Richelieu, who was a man of wide outlook, was also compelled by the activity of England and Holland to give attention to the problem of a New France. The spirit of colonization was in the air, and Richelieu, with his genius for ideas, could not fail to see its importance or what would befall the laggards. His misfortune was that he lacked certain definite qualifications which a greater founder of colonies needed to possess. Marvelous in his grasp of diplomatic situations and in his handling of men, he had no talent whatever for the details of commerce. His fiscal regime, particularly after France engaged in her duel with the House of Hapsburg, was disorganized and intolerable. Nor did he recognize that, for the French, the desire to emigrate required even greater encouragement than the commercial instinct. He compelled his company to transport settlers, but the number was not large, and he kindled no popular enthusiasm for the cause of colonization. France had once led the crusade eastward. Under proper guidance she might easily have contributed more than she did to the exodus westward.

At any rate Richelieu, 'a man in the grand style, if ever man was,' had decided that New France should no longer languish, and the Company of One Hundred Associates was the result. In 1627 he abolished the office of viceroy, deprived the De Caens of their charter, and prepared to make Canada a real colony. The basis of the plan was an association of one hundred members, each subscribing three thousand livres. Richelieu's own name heads the list of members, followed by those of the minister of finance and the minister of marine. Most of the members resided in Paris, though the seaboard and the eastern provinces were also represented. Nobles, wealthy merchants, small traders, all figure in the list, and twelve titles of nobility were distributed among the shareholders to help in the enlistment of capital. The company received a monopoly of trade for fifteen years, and promised to take out three hundred colonists annually during the whole period covered by the grant. It also received the St Lawrence valley in full ownership. One notable provision of the charter was that only Roman Catholics should be sent to New France, and the company was placed under special obligation to maintain three priests in each settlement until the colony could support its own clergy.

Champlain was now sixty years of age, and he had suffered much. Suddenly there burst forth this spontaneous enthusiasm of Richelieu the all-powerful. Was Champlain's dream of the great city of Ludovica to come true after all?

Alas, like previous visions, it faded before the glare of harsh, uncompromising facts. The year in which Richelieu founded his Company of New France was also the year of a fierce Huguenot revolt. Calling on England for aid, La Rochelle defied Paris, the king, and the cardinal. Richelieu laid siege to the place. Guiton, the mayor, sat at his council-board with a bare dagger before him to warn the faint-hearted. The old Duchesse de Rohan starved with the populace. Salbert, the most eloquent of Huguenot pastors, preached that martyrdom was better than surrender. Meanwhile, Richelieu built his mole across the harbor, and Buckingham wasted the English troops to which the citizens looked for their salvation. Then the town yielded.

The fall of La Rochelle was a great personal triumph for Richelieu, but the war with England brought disaster to the Company of New France. At Dieppe there had lived for many years an Englishman named Jarvis, or Gervase, Kirke, who with his five sons--David, Lewis, Thomas, John, and Jamesknew much at first hand about the French merchant marine. Early in the spring of 1628 Kirke (who had shortly before moved to London) secured letters of marque and sent forth his sons to do what damage they could to the French in the St Lawrence. Champlain had spent the winter at Quebec and was, of course, expecting his usual supplies with the opening of navigation. Instead came Lewis Kirke, sent from Tadoussac by his brother David, to demand surrender.

Champlain made a reply which, though courteous, was sufficiently bold to convince the Kirkes that Quebec could be best captured by starvation. They therefore sailed down the St Lawrence to intercept the fleet from France, confident that their better craft would overcome these 'sardines of the sea.' The plan proved successful even beyond expectation, for after a long cannonade they captured without material loss the whole fleet which had been sent out by the Company of New France. Ships, colonists, annual supplies, building materials--all fell into the hands of the enterprising Kirkes, who then sailed for England with their booty. Alike to Champlain and to the Hundred Associates it was a crippling blow.

Thus, but for the war with England, Quebec would have seen its population trebled in 1628. As it was, the situation became worse than ever. Lewis Kirke had been careful to seize the cattle pastured at Cap Tourmente and to destroy the crops. When winter came, there were eighty mouths to feed on a scant diet of peas and maize, imperfectly ground, with a reserve supply of twelve hundred eels. Towards spring anything was welcome, and the roots of Solomon's seal were esteemed a feast. Champlain even gave serious thought to a raid upon the Mohawks, three hundred miles away, in the hope that food could be brought back from their granaries. Finally, on the 19th of July 1629, Lewis Kirke returned with a second summons to surrender. This time only one answer was possible, for to the survivors at Quebec the English came less in the guise of foes than as human beings who could save them from starvation. Champlain and his people received honorable treatment, and were promised a passage to France. The family Hebert, however, decided to remain.

We need not dwell upon the emotions with which Champlain saw the French flag pulled down at Quebec. Doubtless it seemed the disastrous end of his life-work, but he was a good soldier and enjoyed also the comforts of religion. A further consolation was soon found in the discovery that Quebec might yet be reclaimed. Ten weeks before Champlain surrendered, the two countries were again at peace, and the Treaty of Suza embodied a provision that captures made after the treaty was signed should be mutually restored. This intelligence reached Champlain when he landed in England on the homeward voyage. It is characteristic of the man, that before going on to France he posted from Dover to London, and urged the French ambassador that he should insistently claim Quebec.

As a result of the war Canada and Acadia were both in the possession of England. On the other hand, the dowry of Henrietta Maria was still, for the most part, in the treasury of France. When one remembers that 1628 saw Charles I driven by his necessities to concede the Petition of Right, it will be readily seen that he desired the payment of his wife's dowry. Hence Richelieu, whose talents in diplomacy were above praise, had substantial reason to expect that Canada and Acadia would be restored. The negotiations dragged on for more than two years, and were complicated by disputes growing out of the captures made under letter of marque. When all was settled by the Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye (March 1632) Quebec and Port Royal became once more French--to the profound discontent of the Kirkes and Sir William Alexander,2  but with such joy on the part of Champlain as only patriots can know who have given a lifelong service to their country.

Having regained Canada, Richelieu was forced to decide what he would do with it. In certain important respects the situation had changed since 1627, when he founded the Company of New France. Then Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedes were not a factor in the dire strife which was convulsing Europe.3  In 1632 the political problems of Western and Central Europe had assumed an aspect quite different from that which they had worn five years earlier. More and more France was drawn into the actual conflict of the Thirty Years' War, impelled by a sense of new and unparalleled opportunity to weaken the House of Hapsburg. This, in turn, meant the preoccupation of Richelieu with European affairs, and a heavy drain upon the resources of France in order to meet the cost of her more ambitious foreign policy. Thus the duel with Austria, as it progressed during the last decade of the cardinal's life, meant a fresh check to those colonial prospects which seemed so bright in 1627.

Richelieu's first step in resuming possession of Canada was to compose matters between the De Caens and the Company of New France. Emery de Caen and his associates were given the trading rights for 1632 and 79,000 livres as compensation for their losses through the revocation of the monopoly. Dating from the spring of 1633, the Company of New France was to be placed in full possession of Canada, subject to specific obligations regarding missions and colonists. Conformably with this program, Emery de Caen appeared at Quebec on July 5, 1632, with credentials empowering him to receive possession from Lewis and Thomas Kirke, the representatives of England. With De Caen came Paul Le Jeune and two other Jesuits, a vanguard of the missionary band which was to convert the savages. 'We cast anchor,' says Le Jeune, 'in front of the fort which the English held; we saw at the foot of this fort the poor settlement of Quebec all in ashes. The English, who came to this country to plunder and not to build up, not only burned a greater part of the detached buildings which Father Charles Lalemant had erected, but also all of that poor settlement of which nothing is now to be seen but the ruins of its stone walls.'

The season of 1632 thus belonged to De Caen, whose function was merely to tie up loose ends and prepare for the establishment of the new regime. The central incident of the recession was the return of Champlain himself--an old man who had said a last farewell to France and now came, as the king's lieutenant, to end his days in the land of his labors and his hopes. If ever the oft-quoted last lines of Tennyson's Ulysses could fitly be claimed by a writer on behalf of his hero, they apply to Champlain as he sailed from the harbor of Dieppe on March 23, 1633.

Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars until I die.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It was Champlain's reward that he saw Quebec once more under the fleur-de-lis, and was welcomed by the Indians with genuine emotion. The rhetorical gifts of the red man were among his chief endowments, and all that eloquence could lavish was poured forth in honor of Champlain at the council of the Huron, who had come to Quebec for barter at the moment of his return. The description of this council is one of the most graphic passages in Le Jeune's Relations. A captain of the Huron first arose and explained the purpose of the gathering. 'When this speech was finished all the Savages, as a sign of their approval, drew from the depths of their stomachs this aspiration, HO, HO, HO, raising the last syllable very high.' Thereupon the captain began another speech of friendship, alliance, and welcome to Champlain, followed by gifts. Then the same captain made a third speech, which was followed by Champlain's reply--a harangue well adapted to the occasion. But the climax was reached in the concluding orations of two more Huron chiefs. 'They vied with each other in trying to honor Sieur de Champlain and the French, and in testifying their affection for us. One of them said that when the French were absent the earth was no longer the earth, the river was no longer the river, the sky was no longer the sky; but upon the return of Sieur de Champlain everything was as before: the earth was again the earth, the river was again the river, and the sky was again the sky.'

Thus welcomed by the savages, Champlain resumed his arduous task. He was establishing Quebec anew and under conditions quite unlike those which had existed in 1608. The most notable difference was that the Jesuits were now at hand to aid in the upbuilding of Canada. The Quebec of De Monts and De Caen had been a trading-post, despite the efforts of the Recollets and Jesuits to render it the headquarters of a mission. Undoubtedly there existed from the outset a desire to convert the Indians, but as a source of strength to the colony this disposition effected little until the return of the Jesuits in 1632.

With the re-establishment of the Jesuit mission the last days of Champlain are inseparably allied. A severe experience had proved that the colonizing zeal of the crown was fitful and uncertain. Private initiative was needed to supplement the official program, and of such initiative the supply seemed scanty. The fur traders notoriously shirked their obligations to enlarge the colony, and after 1632 the Huguenots, who had a distinct motive for emigrating, were forbidden by Richelieu to settle in Canada. There remained the enthusiasm of the Jesuits and the piety of those in France who supplied the funds for their work among the Montagnais, the Huron, and the Iroquois. As the strongest order in the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits possessed resources which enabled them to maintain an active establishment in Canada. Through them Quebec became religious, and their influence permeated the whole colony as its population increased and the zone of occupation grew wider. Le Jeune, Lalemant, Brebeuf, and Jogues are among the outstanding names of the restored New France.

During the last two years of his life Champlain lived patriarchally at Quebec, administering the public affairs of the colony and lending its religious impulses the strength of his support and example. Always a man of serious mind, his piety was confirmed by the reflections of advancing age and his daily contact with the missionaries. In his household there was a service of prayer three times daily, together with reading at supper from the lives of the saints. In pursuance of a vow, he built a chapel named Notre Dame de la Recouvrance, which records the gratitude he felt for the restoration of Quebec to France. He was, in short, the ideal layman--serving his king loyally in all business of state, and demeaning himself as a pilgrim who is about to set forth for the City of God.

It is not to be inferred from the prominence of Champlain's religious interests that he neglected his public duties, which continued to be many and exacting. One of his problems was to prevent the English from trading in the St Lawrence contrary to treaty; another was to discourage the Huron from selling their furs to the Dutch on the Hudson. The success of the mission, which he had deeply at heart, implied the maintenance of peace among the Indians who were friendly to the French. He sought also to police the region of the Great Lakes by a band of French soldiers, and his last letter to Richelieu (dated August 15, 1635) contains an earnest appeal for a hundred and twenty men, to whom should be assigned the duty of marshalling the Indian allies against the English and Dutch, as well as of preserving order throughout the forest. The erection of a fort at Three Rivers in 1634 was due to his desire that the annual barter should take place at a point above Quebec. A commission which he issued in the same year to Jean Nicolet to explore the country of the Wisconsin, shows that his consuming zeal for exploration remained with him to the end.

It was permitted Champlain to die in harness. He remained to the last lieutenant of the king in Canada. At the beginning of October 1635 he was stricken with paralysis, and passed away on Christmas Day of the same year. We do not possess the oration which Father Paul Le Jeune delivered at his funeral, but there remains from Le Jeune's pen an appreciation of his character in terms which to Champlain himself would have seemed the highest praise.

On the twenty-fifth of December, the day of the birth of our Saviour upon earth, Monsieur de Champlain, our Governor, was reborn in Heaven; at least we can say that his death was full of blessings. I am sure that God has shown him this favor in consideration of the benefits he has procured for New France, where we hope some day God will be loved and served by our French, and known and adored by our Savages. Truly he had led a life of great justice, equity, and perfect loyalty to his King and towards the Gentlemen of the Company. But at his death he crowned his virtues with sentiments of piety so lofty that he astonished us all. What tears he shed! how ardent became his zeal for the service of God! how great was his love for the families here!--saying that they must be vigorously assisted for the good of the Country, and made comfortable in every possible way in these early stages, and that he would do it if God gave him health. He was not taken unawares in the account which he had to render unto God, for he had long ago prepared a general Confession of his whole life, which he made with great contrition to Father Lalemant, whom he honored with his friendship. The Father comforted him throughout his sickness, which lasted two months and a half, and did not leave him until his death. He had a very honorable burial, the funeral procession being farmed of the people, the soldiers, the captains, and the churchmen. Father Lalemant officiated at this burial, and I was charged with the funeral oration, for which I did not lack material. Those whom he left behind have reason to be well satisfied with him; for, though he died out of France, his name will not there for be any less glorious to posterity.


1 Gabriel Hanotaux, member of the French Academy, is the author of the most authoritative work on the life and times of Richelieu.
2 Alexander had received grants from the British crown in 1621 and 1625 which covered the whole coast from St Croix Island to the St Lawrence.
3 At this period the largest interest in European politics was the rivalry between France and the House of Hapsburg, which held the thrones of Spain and Austria. This rivalry led France to take an active part in the Thirty Years' War, even though her allies in that struggle were Protestants. Between 1627, when the Company of New France was founded, and 1632, when Canada was restored to France, the Swedes under Gustavus Adolphus had won a series of brilliant victories over the Catholic and Hapsburg forces in Germany, After the death of Gustavus Adolphus in 1632, Richelieu attacked the Emperor Ferdinand II in great force, thereby conquering Alsace.]


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Chronicles of Canada, The Founder of New France, A Chronicle of Champlain, 1915

 

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