Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XVIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

My next sixteenth-century digression takes us to Nova Scotia, where, in the 1560s or '70s, French sailors met a Micmac chief named Messamoet, and agreed to take him back to France. The chief spent an unspecified period, perhaps as long as several years, with Msr. de Grandmont, Governor of the City of Bayonne, and learned the French language and some of their customs. Upon his return to Canada Messamoet used his experience and training to become a fur trader and an interpreter for French explorers. He helped Samuel de Champlain map the coast of Maine in 1604, and helped Jean de Biencourt establish Port Royal, the first French settlement in Acadia, two years later.

Harold Prins believes Messamoet may have commanded a crew of Micmacs who acquired a Basque fishing vessel early in the seventeenth century, and who used it to fish and trade up and down the coast from Newfoundland to Maine. English mariners encountered this vessel in 1602 and said that its captain wore a serge waistcoat, European-style breeches, shoes, stockings, and a banded hat, and knew a fair amount of "Christian words."

However successful he might have become as a trader and translator, Messamoet's close contact with Europeans ultimately undid him. In 1610 he accepted baptism from Jesuit missionaries, and shortly thereafter died of an unspecified European illness, which he probably caught from those same missionaries or other Frenchmen at Port Royal. It's surprising, though, that Messamoet still lacked immunity to Old World diseases following several months' or years' residence in France. Perhaps simple age was also to blame: assuming Messamoet was in his twenties when he first traveled to France, and that he did so no later than 1580, he would have been in his late fifties or sixties by the time he died. (Harold Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches," 188; see also Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes [1625; reprint, Glasgow, 1906], 18:265)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XVII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

The last few posts in this series were an extended digression on Brazilian visitors to Europe, voluntary and otherwise, between 1503 and 1616. I would like to make two more digressions into the sixteenth century, describing three different groups of Native American travelers to Europe, before resuming my chronological narrative where I left it, at the turn of the seventeenth century.

The first digression takes place seven years after the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to Spanish adventurers under Hernan Cortes. In 1528, Cortes made a triumphant visit to Spain, where he was presented to Emperor Charles V at his court in Toledo. Accompanying Cortes were many trophies of his conquest: tropical birds and animals, samples of amber and oil, and at least twelve Mexican Indians, most of whom appear to have come to Toledo voluntarily. The delegation included five Indian acrobats who, according to Bernal Diaz, "seem[ed] to fly in the air while dancing;" four Indian jugglers who could juggle sticks with their feet; three hunchbacked dwarves; two or three caciques, or local Aztec chiefs; and one of the sons of Montezuma, the slain Aztec monarch. The scholar Harold Prins believes that Montezuma's son and the caciques, all of whom probably came to Toledo to increase their domestic political prestige, may well have been able to return home from Spain. The jugglers and other entertainers, however, went to Italy to entertain Pope Clement VII, who apparently persuaded them to remain as permanent members of his court. (Harold Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches: American Indians Traveling to Europe in the Age of Exploration," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17 [1993]:175-195, esp. 189; see also Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America [1984; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 1997], 129-130.)

In the same year of 1528, another delegation of Indians arrived in Toledo, led by another would-be conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. The three visitors were native Peruvians from the coastal community of Tumbez, whom Pizarro had met while exploring the region the previous year, and whom he brought to Spain for training as translators. We rarely learn of the fate of Indian translators in Europe, but not so in this case. One of the Tumbez travelers, a boy who received the Spanish name Felipillo, later returned with Pizarro to Peru, where he helped poison relations between the conquistador and the Inca monarch Atahualpa by maliciously mis-translating the emperor's speeches. (William Prescott, The Conquest of Peru, Vol. 1, pp. 292-3, 301-314.)

In some ways, then, these two groups of Indian travelers to Spain in 1528 are mirror images of one another: one party symbolized the successful conquest of a Native American empire, while the other played a critical role in starting the conquest of another.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Joke(s) of the Day

Time Magazine's 2007 Person of the Year issue may have dismayed advocates of a democratic Russia, but its profile of Vladimir Putin was well balanced - and it demonstrated that whatever changes have occurred in the past eight years, Russians retain their taste for political black humor. Here is a joke about Putin and one of his predecessors from Time's December 31st cover story:

"Stalin's ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, 'Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.' 'Why blue?' Putin asks. 'Ha!' says Stalin. 'I knew you wouldn't ask me about the first part.'" (p. 50)

And here is another joke about Putin and his presumed successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, whom most Russians assume will serve as Putin's lackey after his predecessor becomes prime minister:

"Putin goes to a restaurant with Medvedev and orders steak. The waiter asks, 'And what about the vegetable?' Putin answers, 'The vegetable will have steak too.'" (p. 55)