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Champlain's Writings and Character

There are some things that speak for themselves. In attempting to understand Champlain's character, we are first met by the fact that he pursued unflinchingly his appointed task. For thirty-two years he persevered, amid every kind of hardship, danger, and discouragement, in the effort to build up New France. He had personal ambitions as an explorer, which were kept in strict subordination to his duty to the king. He possessed concentration of aim without fanaticism. His signal unselfishness was adorned by a patience which equaled that of Marlborough. Inspired by large ideals, he did not scorn imperfect means.

Thus there are certain large aspects of Champlain's character that stand forth in the high light of deed, and do not depend for their effect either upon his own words or those of others. But when once we have paid tribute to the fine, positive qualities which are implied by his accomplishment, we must hasten to recognize the extraordinary value of his writings as an index to his mind and soul. His narrative is not an epic of disaster. It is a plain and even statement of great dangers calmly met and treated as a matter of course. Largely it is a record of achievement. At points where it is a record of failure Champlain accepts the inevitable gracefully and conforms his emotions to the will of God. The Voyages reveal a strong man 'well four-squared to the blows of fortune.' They also illustrate the virtue of muscular Christianity.

At a time which, like ours, is becoming sated with cleverness, it is a delight to read the unvarnished story of Champlain. In saying that the adjective is ever the enemy of the noun, Voltaire could not have leveled the shaft at him, for few writers have been more sparing in their use of adjectives or other glowing words. His love of the sea and of the forest was profound, but he is never emotional in his expressions. Yet with all his soberness and steadiness he possessed imagination. In its strength and depth his enthusiasm for colonization proves this, even if we omit his picture of the fancied Ludovica. But as a man of action rather than of letters he instinctively omits verbiage. In some respects we suffer from Champlain's directness of mind for on much that he saw he could have lingered with profit. But very special inducements are needed to draw him from his plain tale into a digression. Such inducements occur at times when he is writing of the Indians, for he recognized that Europe was eager to hear in full detail of their traits and customs. Thus set passages of description, inserted with a sparing hand, seemed to him a proper element of the text, but anything like conscious embellishment of the narrative he avoids--probably more through mere naturalness than conscious self-repression.

From Marco Polo to Scott's Journal the literature of geographical discovery abounds with classics, and standards of comparison suggest themselves in abundance to the critic of Champlain's Voyages. Most naturally, of course, one turns to the records of American exploration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries--to Ramusio, Oviedo, Peter Martyr, Hakluyt, and Purchas. No age can show a more wonderful galaxy of pioneers than that which extends from Columbus to La Salle, and among the great explorers of this era Champlain takes his place by virtue alike of his deeds and writings. In fact, he belongs to the small and distinguished class of those who have recorded their own discoveries in a suitable and authentic narrative, for in few cases have geographical results of equal moment been described by the discoverer himself.

Among the many writings which are available for comparison and contrast one turns, singularly yet inevitably, to Lescarbot. The singularity of a comparison between Champlain and Lescarbot is that Lescarbot was not a geographer. At the same time, he is the only writer of importance whose trail crosses that of Champlain, and some light is thrown on Champlain's personality by a juxtaposition of texts. That is to say, both were in Acadia at the same time, sat together at Poutrincourt's table, gazed on the same forests and clearings, met the same Indians, and had a like opportunity of considering the colonial problems which were thrust upon the French in the reign of Henry IV.

It would be hard to find narratives more dissimilar,--and the contrast is not wholly to the advantage of Champlain. Or rather, there are times when his Doric simplicity of style seems jejune beside the flowing periods and picturesque details of Lescarbot. No better illustration of this difference in style, arising from fundamental difference in temperament, can be found than the description which each gives of the Ordre de Bon Temps. To Champlain belongs the credit of inventing this pleasant means of promoting health and banishing ennui, but all he tells of it is this: 'By the rules of the Order a chain was put, with some little ceremony, on the neck of one of our company, commissioning him for the day to go a-hunting. The next day it was conferred upon another, and thus in succession. All exerted themselves to the utmost to see who would do the best and bring home the finest game. We found this a very good arrangement, as did also the savages who were with us.'

Such is the limit of the information which we receive from Champlain regarding the Ordre de Bon Temps, his own invention and the life of the company. It is reserved for Lescarbot to give us the picture which no one can forget--the Atoctegic, or ruler of the feast, leading the procession to dinner 'napkin on shoulder, wand of office in hand, and around his neck the collar of the Order, which was worth more than four crowns; after him all the members of the Order, carrying each a dish.' Around stand the savages, twenty or thirty of them, 'men, women, girls, and children,' all waiting for scraps of food. At the table with the French themselves sits the Sagamos Membertou and the other Indian chiefs, gladdening the company by their presence. And the food!--'ducks, bustards, grey and white geese, partridges, larks, and other birds; moreover moose, caribou, beaver, otter, bear, rabbits, wild-cats, raccoons, and other animals,' the whole culminating in the tenderness of moose meat and the delicacy of beaver's tail. Such are the items which Champlain omits and Lescarbot includes. So it is throughout their respective narratives--Champlain ever gaining force through compactness, and Lescarbot constantly illuminating with his gaiety or shrewdness matters which but for him would never have reached us.

This difference of temperament and outlook, which is so plainly reflected on the printed page, also had its effect upon the personal relations of the two men. It was not that Lescarbot scandalized Champlain by his religious views, for though liberal-minded, Lescarbot was not a heretic, and Champlain knew how to live harmoniously even with Huguenots. The cause of the coolness which came to exist between them must be sought rather in fundamental contrasts of character. To Champlain, Lescarbot doubtless seemed a mere hanger-on or protege of Poutrincourt, with undue levity of disposition and a needless flow of conversation. To Lescarbot, Champlain may well have seemed deficient in literary attainments, and so preoccupied with the concerns of geography as to be an uncongenial companion. To whatever cause conjecture may trace it, they did not become friends, although such lack of sympathy as existed shows itself only in an occasional pin-prick, traceable particularly in the later editions of their writings. For us it is the more needful to lay stress upon the merits of Lescarbot, because he tends to be eclipsed by the greater reputation of Champlain, and also because his style is sometimes so diffuse as to create prejudice. But at his best he is admirable, and without him we should know much less than we do about that Acadian experience which holds such a striking place in the career of Champlain.

The popular estimate of French character dwells overmuch upon the levity or gaiety which undoubtedly marks the Gallic race. France could not have accomplished her great work for the world without stability of purpose and seriousness of mood. Nowhere in French biography are these qualities more plainly illustrated than by the acts of Champlain. The doggedness with which he clung to his patriotic and unselfish task is the most conspicuous fact in his life. Coupled therewith is his fortitude, both physical and moral. In times of crisis the conscript sets his teeth and dies without a murmur. But Champlain enlisted as a volunteer for a campaign which was to go on unceasingly till his last day. How incessant were its dangers can be made out in full detail from the text of the Voyages. We may omit the perils of the North Atlantic, though what they were can be seen from Champlain's description of his outward voyage in the spring of 1611. The remaining dangers will suffice. Scurvy, which often claimed a death-roll of from forty to eighty per cent in a single winter; famine such as that which followed the failure of ships from home to arrive at the opening of navigation; the storms which drove the frail shallop on the rocks and shoals of Norumbega; the risk of mutiny; the chances of war, whether against the Indians or the English; the rapids of the wilderness as they threatened the overloaded canoe on its swift descent; the possible treachery of Indian guides--such is a partial catalogue of the death-snares which surrounded the pathway of an explorer like Champlain. Every one of these dangers is brought before us by his own narrative in a manner which does credit to his modesty no less than to his fortitude. Without embellishment or self-glorification, he recites in a few lines hairbreadth escapes which a writer of less steadfast soul would have amplified into a thrilling tale of heroism. None the less, to the discriminating reader Champlain's Voyages are an Odyssey.

Bound up with habitual fortitude is the motive from which it springs. In Champlain's case patriotism and piety were the groundwork of a conspicuous and long-tested courage. The patriotism which exacted such sacrifices was not one which sought to define itself even in the form of a justifiable digression from the recital of events. But we may be sure that Champlain at the time he left Port Royal had made up his mind that the Spaniards, the English, and the Dutch were not to parcel out the seaboard of North America to the exclusion of the French. As for the religious basis of his fortitude, we do not need Le Jeune's story of his death-bed or the record of his friendship with men of religion. His narrative abounds throughout with simple and natural expressions of piety, not the less impressive because they are free from trace of the theological intolerance which envenomed French life in his age. And not only did Champlain's trust in the Lord fortify his soul against fear, but religion imposed upon him a degree of self-restraint which was not common among explorers of the seventeenth century. It is far from fanciful to see in this one of the chief causes of his hold upon the Indians. To them he was more than a useful ally in war time. They respected his sense of honor, and long after his death remembered the temperance which marked his conduct when he lived in their villages.

As a writer, Champlain enjoyed the advantage of possessing a fresh, unhackneyed subject. The only exception to this statement is furnished by his early book on the West Indies and Mexico, where he was going over ground already trodden by the Spaniards. His other writings relate to a sphere of exploration and settlement which he made his own, and of which he well merited to be the chronicler.

Running through the Voyages is the double interest of discovery and colonization, constantly blending and reacting upon each other, but still remaining matters of separate concern. It is obvious that in the mind of the narrator discovery is always the more engaging theme. Champlain is indeed the historian of St Croix, Port Royal, and Quebec, but only incidentally or from chance. By temper he was the explorer, that is, the man of action, willing to record the broad results, but without the instinct which led Lescarbot to set down the minutiae of life in a small, rough settlement. There is one side of Champlain's activity as a colonizer which we must lament that he has not described--namely, his efforts to interest the nobles and prelates of the French court in the upbuilding of Canada. A diary of his life at Paris and Fontainebleau would be among the choicest documents of the early colonial era. But Champlain was too blunt and loyal to set down the story of his relations with the great, and for this portion of his life we must rely upon letters, reports, and memoranda, which are so formal as to lack the atmosphere of that painful but valiant experience.

Excluding the brief notices of life at St Croix, Port Royal, and Quebec, Champlain's Voyages present a story of discovery by sea and discovery by land. In other words, the four years of Acadian adventure relate to discoveries made along the seaboard, while the remaining narratives, including the Des Sauvages of 1604, relate to the basin of the St Lawrence. Mariner though he was by early training, Champlain achieved his chief success as an explorer by land, in the region of the Great Lakes. Bad fortune prevented him from pursuing his course past Martha's Vineyard to the mouth of the Hudson and Chesapeake Bay. It was no small achievement to accomplish what he did on the coast of Norumbega, but his most distinctive discoveries were those which he made in the wilderness, leading up to his fine experience of 1615-16 among the Huron.

To single out Champlain's chief literary triumph, it was he who introduced the Algonquin, the Huron, and the Iroquois to the delighted attention of France. Ever since the days of Cartier the French had known that savages inhabited the banks of the St Lawrence, but Champlain is the pioneer in that great body of literature on the North American Indian, which thenceforth continued without interruption in France to the Rene and Atala of Chateaubriand. Above all other subjects, the Indians are Champlain's chief theme.

To some extent the account of Indian life which is given in the Voyages suffers by comparison with the Relations of the Jesuits. The Fathers, by reason of their long residence among the Indians, undoubtedly came to possess a more intimate knowledge of their character and customs than it was possible for Champlain to acquire during the time he spent among them. On the other hand, the Jesuits were so preoccupied with the progress of the mission that they tended to view the life of the savages too exclusively from one angle. Furthermore, the volume of their description is so great as to overwhelm all readers who are not specially interested in the mission or the details of Indian custom. Champlain wrote with sufficient knowledge to bring out salient traits in high relief, while his descriptive passages are sufficiently terse to come within the range of those who are not specialists. When we remember the perpetual interest which, for more than three hundred years, Europe has felt in the North American Indian, the Voyages of Champlain are seen in their true perspective. For he, with fresh eyes, saw the red man in his wigwam, at his council, and on the war-path; watched his stoic courage under torture and his inhuman cruelty in the hour of vengeance. Tales of the wilderness, the canoe, the portage, and the ambush have never ceased to fascinate the imagination of Europe. Champlain's narrative may be plain and unadorned, but, with such a groundwork, the imagination of every reader could supply details at will.

In all essential respects Champlain seems to have been a good observer and an accurate chronicler. It is true that his writings are not free from error involving facts of distance, altitude, and chronology. But such slips as have crept into his text do not constitute a serious blemish or tend to impugn the good faith of his statements on matters where there is no other source of information. Everything considered, his substantial accuracy is much more striking than his partial inaccuracy. In fact, no one of his high character and disinterested zeal could write with any other purpose than to describe truly what he had seen and done. The seal of probity is set upon Champlain's writings no less than upon the record of his dealings with his employers and the king. Unselfish as to money or fame, he sought to create New France.

In national progress much depends on the auspices under which the nation was founded and the tradition which it represents. Thus England, and all the English world, has an imperishable tradition in the deeds and character of Alfred the Great; thus Canada has had from the outset of the present stage in her development a great possession in the equal self-sacrifice of Montcalm and Wolfe. On the other hand, the nation is doomed to suffer which bases its traditions of greatness upon such acts as the seizure of Silesia by Frederick or Bismarck's manipulation of the Ems telegram.

For Canada Champlain is not alone a heroic explorer of the seventeenth century, but the founder of Quebec; and it is a rich part of our heritage that he founded New France in the spirit of unselfishness, of loyalty, and of faith.


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

 

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