The Old Regime

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In July 2009 Vermont celebrated the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s “discovery” of the lake that bears his name. Lake Champlain, sometimes referred to as the sixth Great Lake, was created by retreating ice sheets some 9,000 years ago. Its true discoverers were the Amerindians who settled the region long before the first Europeans arrived. It remains a jewel of the Vermont landscape, despite being threatened by pollution and invasive species. (I don’t think 1’m prejudiced, even though I was married on its shore.) No trip to northern Vermont is complete without glimpsing the sunlight glittering on the lake, with the Adirondacks rising in the west beyond.

Samuel de Champlain, of course, did more than give his name to a lake. More than any other individual, he was responsiblefortheestablishmentofNew France, the French colonial empire in North America. Although defeat in the Seven Years’ War brought Champlain’s achievements as an empire-builder to naught, French language and culture still predominate in the Canadian province of Quebec, a Gallic outpost in the midst of a continent long dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

Champlain was in many ways a remarkable man. He was a native of Saintonge, the ancient French province on the Bay of Biscay, north of Gascony. Born probably in the late 1560s, he came of age during the terrible wars of religion that devastated France. While we know that he came from a good (though not noble) family, much else about him remains uncertain. Was he born a Protestant or a Catholic? Was he the natural son of Henry IV, king of France from 1589 to 1610, and one of la Grande Nation’s greatest monarchs? The sources are ambiguous. It is certain that from an early age Champlain received the patronage of King Henry, under whom he served as an army officer before embarking on his career of exploration. That career, which was to make his name famous, was launched with the encouragement and backing of the king. It is possible, perhaps likely, that Champlain was raised a Protestant but converted to Catholicism in the early 1590s, as did King Henry, who is supposed to have said that “Paris is worth a mass.” Just how intimately the two men were connected is likely to remain forever a mystery.

Champlain, like his royal patron, was a man characterized by practicality and tolerance, two attributes in short supply during the late Renaissance. Open-minded, inquisitive, and more concerned with results than dogma, he shines in contrast to many individuals of his (or any other) age. Remarkably, he remained so despite growing more devout as he aged.

Champlain’s greatness of spirit is most clearly seen in his treatment of the Indians. Virtually alone among the conqueror-adventurers who appeared in the New World – Spaniards, French, English, and later Americans – he regarded the Indians as fully human beings. He did not, however, idolize them. He deplored what he saw as their backward spiritual life, as well as their cruelty and deceit. He also regarded them as “too free,” looking askance at their sexual license and their lack of a European-style system of laws. But he found much to admire as well, and he treated them with a respect that most other white men never deigned to feel. It is no exaggeration to say that from the early 16th to the late 19th centuries, the Europeans and Americans treated the Indians little differently from the way in which the Nazis treated the Slavic peoples of Poland and the Soviet Union. If only Champlain’s example had been followed, a better life for all peoples could have been forged in this hemisphere.

Champlain’s career peaked in 1608- 09, with the founding of Quebec. The murder of Henry IV in 1610 was a major blow to his plans. He spent the remaining 25 years of his life shuttling between the court of Louis XIII and New France, where he served as de facto viceroy (as a non-nobleman he could not officially hold the title). His fortunes fluctuated.

He tried unsuccessfully to obtain a monopoly of the fur trade. In 1629 he lost Quebec to the English, but returned in 1633 with the help of the famous Cardinal Richelieu.

His role in the establishment of the French presence in North America is undeniable. Nevertheless, his success proved largely barren. The French cultural heritage here is practically confined to the province of Quebec, while politically and economically France was finished as a North American power by the Peace of Paris in 1763. Wolfe’s victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 was decisive.

Thus, while Champlain’s name and achievements still find a place in the history books, one could be excused for asking whether his importance, his relevance to the current age if you will, justifies the publication of a biography of more than 800 pages. I would say not. David Hackett Fischer, however, thought the opposite.

Fischer, professor of history at Brandeis and the author of such fine books as “Washington’s Crossing,” as well as such unreadable tomes as “The Great Wave,” gives us more than most of us will ever want to know about Champlain and his times. At 834 pages (including 567 of text, 66 of appendices and 110 of notes), the book is just too long. How many people will actually read it? (I should note that a friend of mine, the proprietress of my village’s sole bookstore, and a woman possessed of good taste in matters literary, has voluntarily read the entire 567 pages of text. But I would venture to say that she is almost certainly an exception.)

The book is well-written but spends too much time on tangential matters. We learn far too much about Henry IV, for example (although Fischer tells us that the king was assassinated on May 4, 1610, when in fact it was May 14th). Henry was a fascinating figure to be sure, but many of the details that Fischer mentions have little or nothing to do with Samuel de Champlain. Indeed, Fischer seems compelled to tell us altogether too much about many of Champlain’s contemporaries. While reading the book, I thought Fischer might have felt that his subject was not quite substantial enough to warrant a full-length biography, and decided to meet this objection by writing about sundry other matters which, if truth be told, required far less coverage than they are given. The why of this book remains a mystery, beyond the fact that 2008 happened to be the quadricentennial of Quebec’s founding.

Fischer is of course an accomplished academic historian, and I daresay the scholarship in the book is sound. I was puzzled by one passage. In describing the Indian practice of torturing enemies, Fischer says:

[Champlain] recognized that Indian torture was also rational and functioned in a very dark way. In the warrior cultures of North America, the continuing practice of torture was a way of guaranteeing a state of perpetual war. It meant that the work of retribution would always need to be done, and warriors would be needed to do it (273).

This remarkable statement may very well be true, but I found nothing in the book to back it up. Did the tribes in fact desire a “state of perpetual war?” If so, why? Fischer fails to enlighten us, unless I somehow missed his answers.

Champlain rightly condemned the barbaric practice of torturing war captives, and had the courage to do so directly to the Indians, but he also averred that “we [i.e., Europeans] do not commit such cruelties.” One wonders how Champlain could have forgotten about the Inquisition or the persecution of the unfortunates suspected to be witches (the witch craze was at its height during his lifetime).

For all his good qualities, Champlain was just another adventurer who contributed to Europe’s conquest of most of the rest of the world, and with it the disruption or destruction of countless native cultures. The interest in such men will only continue to wane as Western civilization sinks slowly into the abyss, its successor still uncertain, though we can be sure it will be less white, less Eurocentric, and less likely to spend time reflecting on long-dead seekers after new lands and riches.

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