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.


Isabelle Lachance said...

Messamoet n'a pu être baptisé par les missionnaires jésuites, puisqu'ils n'étaient pas encore en Nouvelle-France en 1610 (ils y arrivent en mai 1611). S'il l'a été, c'est certainement par Jessé Fléché, dit le Patriarche, prêtre amené par Jean de Biencourt, dit Poutrincourt. Cela dit, il ne figure pas dans le registre des baptêmes dressé par Lescarbot dans sa _Conversion des Sauvages_ (1610), mais ce prêtre a procédé à d'autres baptêmes par la suite. Messamoet a peut-être été baptisé du nom français de Martin, mais je n'arrive pas à déterminer cela à la lecture de Lescarbot. Il faudrait voir l'hypothèse de Lucien Campeau, Monumenta, vol. I, document intitulé "Relation dernière" (1612).

Dave Nichols said...

A rough French-to-English translation of the preceding comment:

"Messamoet cannot have been baptized by Jesuit missionaries, as they were not yet in New France in 1610 (they arrived there in May 1611). If he was [baptized], it was certainly by Fléché Jesse, called the Patriarch, a priest led by Jean de Bienfait, known as Poutrincourt. That said, he does not appear in the baptismal register compiled by Lescarbot in his _Conversion of the Savages_ (1610), but this priest made other baptisms thereafter. Messamoet may have been christened Martin, but I cannot determine this from reading Lescarbot. One should read the conjecture of Lucien Campeau, Monumenta, vol. I, document entitled 'Last Relation' (1612)."

Isabelle Lachance said...

Thanks for the translation! But "Bienfait" should be read "Biencourt" and the title "Last Relation" should be replaced by "Relation dernière" - I don't think this small work by Lescarbot has been translated.