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Pierre-Esprit Radisson : The Collected Writings

 vol.1: The Voyages


Edited by Germaine Warkentin


Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012

Hardcover. xvii+357 p. ISBN 978-0773540828. CDN$ 65.00 / £44.00


Reviewed by Bernadette Rigal-Cellard

Université de Bordeaux



This book reached my desk the very day I returned from Winnipeg, home of the Hudson Bay Company Archives, where I had once more admired the replica of the Nonsuch (in the Manitoba Museum), the ketch that in 1668 sailed from England to the Hudson Bay to validate Radisson and Des Groseillers’ proposition that it would be more convenient to gather the pelts on the bay than to take them through the forests to the St Lawrence posts. The success of the Nonsuch convinced Charles II to grant a charter to the trading company that had made it possible, and thus the Hudson Bay’s Company was born on May 2, 1670. I had stayed at the Radisson Hotel Winnipeg Downtown… where else? Radisson was thus on my mind and I had decided to inquire more about him as a person.

My wish was immediately granted with the superb edition of the writings of Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636?-1710) by Germaine Warkentin. The book takes us back to the man himself and to his travails in the vast expanses of North America in the 17th century that would lead him to spur the foundation of the famous Company. The first volume (the only one reviewed here) contains the relations of his first four Voyages (in the French sense of journey/travel): To the Mohawk, 1652-53; To the Onondaga, 1657-58; To Lake Michigan, 1654-56; To Lake Superior and James Bay, 1659-60. On these travels, Radisson was not yet the famous fur trader and entrepreneur history has recorded. Germaine Warkentin writes a long introduction (104 pages) that clarifies the background of the Voyages and the narrative itself, which is not always easy to understand. She focuses on Radisson’s social personality and shows how, like the other coureurs des bois, he was a man of his time and society (17th-century France and New France plus the Dutch and English networks) and how he understood and functioned within the patronage system that alone helped one survive dramas and dangers and succeed socially. She makes use of the more recent scholarship on the period and on the actors to answer several questions about Radisson and she purposely leaves some unanswered so that the man does retain a good measure of mystery. Her rich explanations are constantly honest: when she is not sure about something, she voices her doubts and leaves room for future scholarship.

The textual introduction explains the differences between this edition and the two previous ones: Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson, ed. Gideon Scull, Boston, 1885, and The Explorations of Pierre Esprit Radisson from the Original Manuscript in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum, ed. Arthur T. Adam, modernized by Loren Kallsen, Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1961. Germaine Warkentin has retained the original manuscript (dating from 1685-86) held in the Bodleian Library (Ms. Rawls, A 329), copied by two hands from the original manuscript Radisson penned: hand A is that of Nicolas Hayward, and G. Warkentin asserts that hand B “is almost certainly” that of Samuel Pepys, who once owned the manuscript. We suppose the narratives were meant for his patron, not meant to be published and read by a large audience.

To a modern reader the narratives are at first unsettling not simply because they were written in the 17th century, but because Radisson, a Frenchman, wrote them directly into English (probably in 1668), when even though he was very good at speaking many languages he was not a professional translator/writer. G. Warkentin bases her affirmation that the manuscript we have is actually Radisson’s original text (but copied only) on precisely the heavily Frenchified English prose that no translator would have produced. I feel that the French reader may decipher the text more easily than an English-speaking one: though often archaic, the syntax and a lot of words are clearly French and obviously very awkward in English. It is best understood if one reads it “orally” without paying attention to spelling. G. Warkentin explains most of the strange passages or terms in the footnotes but I have found a number of times that I could understand the text without the notes. One explanation amused me: Radisson writes at the very end of Voyage IV that he and his brother were made several offers but they refused them: “wee answered them that a scalded cat fears the water though it be cold” [304] and G. Warkentin explains in note 284: “A very old proverb and, according to […], still in use in French Canada today”, but the expression is still commonly used in Old France as well: “chat échaudé craint l’eau froide.”

Now for the contents of the Voyages:

As an autobiographical narrative of 17th-century Native and European encounters the Voyages are a fascinating predecessor of the narratives analysed by Robert Sayre in La modernité et son autre : Récits de la rencontre avec l’Indien en Amérique du Nord au XVIIIe siècle (Les Perséides, 2008) that I reviewed here in 2011. Though he remains “French” all the time (the voyages take place long before he “sold” himself to the English crown) and regularly exclaims that he was happy to be back in a French settlement after his many misfortunes, Radisson had no interpretive frame for the “Other” as the 20th century would have to theorize the encounters with people other than oneself and mostly with members of other ethnic groups. He calls them “sauvages/wild men”, with the original meaning of the term (people living in the forest), but he seldom bears moral judgment on them. When he uses the term “barbarian”, he is more critical of their mores (tortures) but yet again, he very rapidly behaves like them, except a few times, notably when he really cannot swallow their grub (there is at least one instance when the Indians understandingly give him something else [119]). He does note that the Cree are less cruel than the Iroquois, that they do not kill so systematically and do not burn their victims, but he does not really establish a moral scale.

He is no missionary, he is a self(?)-appointed discoverer of new lands and new people (he did have patrons but it is never made very explicit, and one feels he is the one always deciding to keep exploring lands). Amazingly, after managing to escape from his captors in the first narrative, he refuses to go back to France or remain in the St Lawrence settlements, because he wants to keep going West into unexplored territories: “This was the time I thought to have escaped. For in vain, for I being alone… and moreover I was desirous to have seene the country” [124]. He expresses the same desire when after being tortured and rescued, he refuses to go back home: “… or att leas I should have the happe (opportunity) to see their countrye which I heard so much recommended by the Iroquoites who brought so wounderous stories and the facilitie of killing so many men.” [145) Again later he gives the reasons why he will not let the Governor buy him from the Indians: one being that he loves his new family but the main reason being that “it was my destiny to discover many wild nations, I would not strive against my destinie.” [159]

At the same time as he observes the situation of the North Eastern tribes who had begun to experience and suffer from the momentous changes brought about by the arrival of the Europeans, he himself is an agent of these transformations. He does not reflect on this however (I do not recall reading anything like this anyhow in early texts about the encounters), just as, to quote G. Warkentin, he lacks “interest in the complex play of higher politics between the French, Dutch, and Iroquois”, which, she adds, “hampered him in later years as he struggled in webs of intrigue in both France and England” [36-37].

G. Warkentin writes that “he is among the first Europeans to regard Aboriginal historiography as a worthy source of information” [15]; by “historiography” she means the stories told by the Natives about their own past and mores. Many pages indeed repeat what he was told by the Indians he met, without the slightest disbelief on his part. Even though the editor repeatedly warns the reader that the narrative may not always be reliable, the text strikes us as genuine and original.

Here, Radisson does not really focus on the fur trade itself, even if he does mention the quantities of pelts he and his companions or the Indians collect and carry. Only at the end in Voyage 4 does he complain that his company has not been paid what it was due and how Des Groseillers tried to get a settlement. Also, he never gives precise information on his origins, his real occupation, nor on his exact business relations to Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseillers (to whom he is eternally bound in history: Radisson & Des Groseillers) whom he simply calls “his brother”, but who was his brother-in-law, some twenty years older than him.

Voyage 2 and 3, while well documented on the people and the land, remain somehow less fascinating than the first and the fourth voyages. In the first Voyage, To the Mohawks, Radisson narrates how, as a teenager, he went with companions into the woods and how they were captured: he left his companions to retrieve some fowls and when he came back the two men were killed and he himself was soon taken prisoner. This will happen to him several times in the course of the Voyages and as the editor notes, he only survived because he looked handsome and healthy and thus fit to be adopted in order to replace a dead member of the attacking tribe. In the first Voyage, then, he explains how he was taken to the village, tied up, his hair pulled up, greased, his face painted red. Later his captors teach him some words of their language, make him sing (something we read also in the Jesuits’ relations when they were taken prisoner, as part of the torture ritual). Later still, they strip him naked and force him to run and undergo various trials. He is finally chosen and adopted by a clan mother who lost her son [128]. He is given the name of the departed one and is then truly integrated into the family. Though he escapes later, he considers them as his true family and after many more journeys he comes back to see them and be again protected by them from more tortures.

It is after having escaped from his new family the first time that, with a companion, he meets some “cruel inhumans” who steal their booty and kill his companion. What they do to the corpse is horrid: “They made a great fire, and tooke my comrade’s heart out, and shoped of his head, which they put on an end of a stick and carryed it to one of their boats. They cutt of some of the flesh of that miserable, broiled it and eatt it. If he had not been so desperately wounded, they had don their best to keepe him alive to make him suffer the more by burning him with small fires”… [133-4]. Then they torture Radisson horribly. Yet, if we can erect a scale in atrocities, I must say the torture of Father Bressani sj (1612-1672) was far worse as it lasted over two months so that his body was open and rotting (see his Relations abrégées de quelques Missions [117-128]). In the case of Bressani, just as in that of Radisson, it was a clan mother who took pity on him and put an end to his torture, to which anyhow not many men could have survived.

The only explanation must be that the Jesuits like Radisson and many men of this period were so strong physically and mentally that their resilience impressed the Iroquois who finally relented: it is after seeing the Jesuits undergo torture without complaining that many Iroquois asked them to teach them their faith since obviously their god was a stronger one. It has been explained that the Iroquois tortured to avenge their dead, but also to test the mettle of their victims possibly to adopt them afterwards or keep them as slaves. It has been said also that the Iroquois behaved this way because they were highly perturbed by the arrival of the Whites, who thus became responsible for the famous tortures of the Iroquois. Yet, Radisson and other travelers reported that the other tribes never exhibited such cruelty whereas they also underwent the same traumas of the conquest and the Iroquois seemed to be have been already feared by their neighboring tribes before the arrival of the Europeans. It was clearly part of their culture: Radisson shows how Iroquois children are taught very early on to torture people: “The boy was not four years old. This takes my finger and begins to worke, but in vaine because he had not the stren[g]th to breake my finger, so my poorer finger escaped… His mother made him suck the very blood that runed from my finger” [140-141].

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narratives is precisely that Radisson, without any kind of moral qualms, moves his narration from the cruelest tortures — as in Voyage III page 220: “The dead were eaten, and the living weare burned with finall fire to the rigor of cruelties, which comforted the desolat to see them revenged of the death of their relation”— to most pleasing descriptions of the beauties of the landscape: page 223: “the country was so pleasant, so beautiful and fruitfull that is grieved me to see that the world could not discover such inticeing countrys to live in.” At this point he praises the country in the same manner the promoters of immigration in the 18th c. would: the land is vast, healthy, fertile, etc.

Furthermore, when needed, he behaves exactly like the Natives he lives with: we see him regularly dispatching enemies as soon as he encounters them without further ado. In Voyage IV, after an attack, he concludes, using the pronoun “we” that includes him in the acts of revenge for the good of the tribe (even though we cannot imagine that he himself partook of the actual torture on enemies): “Many … filled their bellyes with the flesh of their ennemyes; we boiled some of it, and kettles full of the rest….The greatest marke of our victory was that we had ten heads [it was the custom to put the heads of enemies on poles] and fowre prisoners whom we embarked in hopes to bring them into our countreyn and there to burne them att our owne leasures for the more satisfaction of our wives. We left the place of massacre with horrid cryes, [not] forgetting the death of our parents, we plagued those infortunates, we plucked out their nails one after the other.” He also explains in between these lines how they disposed of the corpses of their companions according to the local fashion: “We bourned our comrades, being their coustume to reduce such into ashes, being slain in bataill. It is an honor to give them such a burial.” [253]

Another interesting point is that even though at times he uses Christian language and thanks God for His help, Radisson does not seem to be a strictly observant Catholic, which seems to have been the case for most coureurs des bois and adventurers. He notes that God also provides for those who do not know Him (by giving them berries etc). One long passage explains the Ojibwa belief in the journey of the soul after death. The explanations are very precise (just as much as what we can read in scholarly books today, notably in Vecsey’s Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes, American Philosophical Society, 1983). At the end of the narration he briefly adds: “By this you many see the silly beleefe of these poor people” [299] but he has never been ironical or judgmental in the previous lines, unlike some authors of similar narrations in the literature of the time. His concluding remark may simply be to show his reader that he did not believe in such things, but it seems he liked the eschatology well enough to describe it (in fact it does not differ much – in the general lines – from a Catholic interpretation of the fate of the soul after death).

He refers to the Jesuits several times since they were exploring the same territory. He notes that they often helped the coureurs des bois by spying on the tribe they were evangelizing so that they could warn their countrymen of any impending attacks. At the beginning of Voyage IV, one discovers that their reciprocal goals were often the same: if one thought that the Jesuits fished for souls only, we learn here that they were competitors in the fur trade as well: Radisson explains how he had to refuse to work for them or to let them follow his company since they were only interested in expanding their own trade networks at his expense [245].

Many pages describe the gift exchange ceremonies: it is certainly during those ceremonies that the extraordinary gifts the Europeans brought endowed them with a wonderful aura: knife, sword blade, guns etc turned them into semi-gods. During the feast for the dead among the Malhonmines (Menominee), or the oat/wild rice people, he says that after the exchange “[we] durst not speake because we weare demigods” [267].

The passage that struck me most in this respect (probably because I study and teach the impact of Christian missions on Native communities in Canada) is the one that comes after the feast of the dead, a “pleasant encounter” to quote Radisson [290]. His brother (Des Groseillers) has some trade goods and in particular a religious image—that of the Flight in Egypt—that they show to their hosts, explaining that the donkey is a bison. At seeing this, one man is astonished, weeps, pulls his hair, tumbles up and down, for one hour, then puts his hand on his face “as if he should make the signe of the crosse”, then he tells them that they are “devils knowing all what is and what was done.” It turns out that the man had lost his wife and his child who were captured by another tribe. He thus saw wife and child on the image and saw himself in the long robe of Joseph seeking them.

As usual Radisson does not dwell on the deep meaning of the episode, and the following line turns to the lake they are going to explore, yet, the episode is of paramount importance: first it shows that Radisson and Des Groseillers just displayed an object to entertain their hosts but never had any intention of converting them (he does not dwell on the episode at all). They were not missionaries and simply liked living among the Indians and exploring their territories. Second, as I said earlier, if they somehow did perceive their larger function within the territories (Radisson says that he is helping the Governor for the good of his country, but in fact he says more often that he was exploring the land for his own pleasure), they do not seem to perceive how deeply their presence is transforming the social and cultural fabric of the tribes he loves to live with, whereas the short paragraph exemplifies such impact: it remarkably encapsulates the role of religious imagery in the evangelization process (as studied in particular by François-Marc Gagnon in La conversion par l'image : Un aspect de la mission des jésuites auprès des Indiens du Canada au XVIIe siècle. Montréal : Editions Bellarmin, 1975), the very process that would buttress the colonization of the tribes (as is recapped by the appendix: “Radisson in an aboriginal world” by Heidi Bohaker). We read about the cruelty of the Iroquois, but also their generosity, their sense of honor, their kindness for those they consider to be family, whatever their biological origins, as well as the mores of the less extravagant tribes west of them. We follow day after day the grueling but mostly stimulating, exhilarating adventures of the voyageurs and coureurs des bois, these extraordinary men who, in New France and in what would become Canada, were not interested in owning land but simply in roaming among the tribes for there they found a freedom they could not enjoy in Old France or Europe in general. They did have to trade furs to get some financial support but at least in these Voyages, the trade is definitely secondary to everything else.

It is probably because Radisson was no professional writer, no Jesuit father laboring at the text of his relations, that his writings are so unique. Granted, one never sighs with contentment before a well structured or poetical line, but because we have such perfect prose with the Jesuit Relations or with the Correspondence of Marie de l’Incarnation,(1) we do appreciate the candor of his writing, his matter-of-factness. In the field of Indian autobiography, his narrative equates the unpolished but most fascinating straightforward autobiography of Black Hawk (1833) as opposed to Black Elk Speaks (1932), the extremely polished, romantic autobiography rewritten by a White poet, Neihardt, with a major slant, that of the 19th and 20th centuries: Indians were brave but they are now doomed to vanish. Here Radisson celebrates the extremely alive and kicking wild men that he discovers, delighted to be adopted as one of them.

The work of Germaine Warkentin must be highly commended: in her introduction and in the notes she explains most of what we need to grasp in the meaning of Radisson’s Voyages and the references that of course he did not see fit to explain, but she offers us the naked text of Radisson, unaltered by some modernizing process so that we may enjoy it fully. Such respectful editing perfectly serves Radisson who thus becomes “enfleshed” and is not just a looming but long-gone figure of Canadian history. The book is a must for anyone interested in savoring a vivid slice-of-life of this past.


(1) She is often referred to in the notes. Last Spring (2013) a meeting in Touraine complemented the rich conferences that in 1999 celebrated in Tours and in Quebec the 500th anniversary of her birth, so that, like Radisson, she can now be better known by our contemporaries.


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