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A Jesuit preaching to the Indians © Charles William Jefferys / BIBLIOTHÈQUE et ARCHIVES Canada / C-005855
A Jesuit preaching to the Indians by Charles William Jefferys, 1745 (learnimage.ca)

Les Relations des Jésuites

It would be my opinion the Jesuit Relations do not belong to a discourse or speech that I would call indirect or an “indirection.”  What is said by an animal (fables, beast epics, Orwell’s Animal Farm, etc.), a “bon sauvage,” a Turk, a Persian (Montesquieu‘s Lettres persanes),  Pascal in his Provinciales or Voltaire in Candide is said and not said, or a dire-sans-dire.  However, the Jesuit Relations are not the discours oblique that eighteenth-century Encyclopédistes cultivated to avoid being thrown into the Bastille, jail.

Le Bon Sauvage

However, the Relations occasionally depict the Amerindians in a manner that makes Amerindians seem morally superior to Europeans. So, as I suggested in my last post, the concept of the “bon sauvage” or “noble sauvage” may well find its birthplace in the Relations. Pierre Biard (1567-1622), who worked in Acadie, the eastern province of Nouvelle-France, has nothing but praise for Amerindians, except that they are “pagans,” a matter he and other missionaries are in Nouvelle-France to correct.

The “Bon Sauvage” becomes a barbarian

However, when François Le Mercier (1604-1690) describes the torture and very slow death of an Iroquois captured by Hurons, he cannot understand that torture could be so slow and so cruel. The missionaries are so horrified than a superior among them speaks to one of the Amerindians. He wants to know why they are killing their captive so painfully and so slowly. The missionary says to the Amerindian that they may indeed kill an enemy, but need they do so in such an atrocious manner. The Amerindian he is addressing is prompt to answer that the French do the same to their own people.

I must say that this particularly relation, included in the Anthology we used, was difficult to present to students.  These missionaries were speaking as Jesus of Nazareth would have spoken. But there was truth to what the Amerindian was saying, if indeed the Amerindian said what he was reported to have said. This, we will never know, but what we know for certain is that the Jesuit who wrote that relation, François Le Mercier, was a compassionate man. As for his superior, he was very brave. He himself could have been subjected to the same death. Several missionaries were indeed tortured and killed, not to mention settlers. They constitute our martyrs and saints.

* * *

So, as depicted in the Jesuit Relations, the Amerindians were not always “bon sauvages” or “nobles sauvages,” but the Amerindian who pointed out to an appalled missionary that the French were no better than the Amerindians was making a valid point.  What could the Jesuit answer?  Suddenly, he could only speak for himself and express a point of view that would have been Christ’s point of view.  He could not speak for the French.  Marguerite de Valois, Dumas’s Queen Margot, could not prevent her mother, Catherine de’ Medici, from having La Môle, who was probably innocent, tortured and beheaded.

Unlikely ‘Casuistes’  &  Francois de Laval

These missionaries were not our casuists taking sinfulness out of sin. The casuistes were in Europe sleeping in comfortable beds. They were not missionaries fighting their way through black flies to go and convert Amerindians that fur traders turned into alcoholics. Paul Le Jeune (1591-1664) so reprimanded fur traders who were ruining the lives of Amerindians. As for Monseigneur Laval, François de Laval (1623-1708), Nouvelle-France’s famous bishop, he threatened with excommunication fur traders who stooped to exchanging pelts for alcohol. As well, the Jesuits considered Huguenots as greater ‘pagans’ than Amerindians.

When the Amerindian told the Jesuit that the French also burned people, he did pull the rug from under the missionary’s feet, but that relation was not meant to be a criticism of France.  They were not speaking obliquely.  In other words, the Jesuits who compiled the Relations were not in America to find ways of indicting France.  It may have happened occasionally, but I believe it would have been inadvertent and unintentional criticism.

 An Avocet

N. B.  By the way, in yesterday’s post, I forgot to mention that St. Francis Xavier University, not a Jesuit university, has the complete Relations, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. They can also be read online at Jesuit Relations or Les Relations des Jésuites

À la claire fontaine (Université de Moncton Male Choir)
(please click on the title to hear the song)
  • Theodore C. Blegen, Songs of the Voyageurs (St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1998[1966]), p. 44.
  • Charles William Jefferys © / BIBLIOTHÈQUE et ARCHIVES Canada / C-005855

© Micheline Walker
16 March 2012