Friday, October 28, 2016

Voyagers to the East, Part XXIV: Two Iroquois Experiences of France

(For the previous entry in this series, click here. For the index, link here.)

In the 1640s and '50s France's colony in Quebec became a beleaguered and semi-isolated outstation. Iroquois warriors, longtime enemies of the French, gained access to Dutch firearms. They made war on New France and its Indian allies, plundering furs, destroying towns, and taking hundreds of captives. Exports of peltry dropped and Native American travel from Quebec to Europe ceased. 

Normality and security only returned in the 1660s, when Louis XIV royalized New France and sent a regiment to garrison it. In 1666 French troops invaded Iroquoia and forced the Five Nations to sign an armistice. As part of the truce, the Iroquois admitted Jesuit missionaries to their towns, and many Iroquois began visiting the French colony or resettling near it. Apparently, some of these visitors agreed to accompany a French ship across the Atlantic, for in 1668 King Louis hosted a party of Iroquois "gondoliers" at Versailles. These men demonstrated their canoe-handling skills to the court, and by their presence assured the king that he had pacified his enemies. Doubtless the Iroquois saw their trip differently, as a gesture of amity rather than one of surrender. (Olive Dickason, Myth of the Savage, 212)

Iroquois-French relations soured again in the 1680s, and the next group of Iroquois to travel to France did so under very different circumstances. After several years of skirmishing with the French and their Indian allies, in 1687 the Iroquois sent some of their leaders to Fort Frontenac to negotiate. Governor Jacques-Rene Denonville arrested 51 of the visiting Iroquois chiefs and sent them to France as slaves. Denonville may have seen New France as a potential source of slave labor for France and its plantation colonies; certainly, the English colony of South Carolina was building its economy on the enslavement and export of Native Americans. Just as certainly, the deportation of so many Iroquois leaders would impress their kinsmen with French ruthlessness.

So Denonville thought. The captives were in for rough treatment when the Crown put them to the oar in 1688. Mediterranean galley slaves spent their days in hot, cramped, stinking ships, chained to their benches, "bodies pearled with a bloody sweat" (in Francis Knight's recollection), and succumbing all too quickly to dehydration, illness, hernias, and heart attacks. Some of the enslaved Iroquois probably died during their months at sea. We know, however, that the French Crown abruptly freed the survivors and sent them home in 1689. The reason was simple: France and England had gone to war, and English-allied Iroquois warriors now threatened France settlements in Quebec. Denonville and his masters wanted the prisoners returned to Quebec for use as diplomatic pawns, redeemable if their return would protect France's outposts. New France certainly did not stop the enslavement of Native Americans, but it (almost) never again exported them from the colony. Governor Denonville's experiment in slave trading became a one-time deal, an experiment that foundered on the rock of New France's vulnerability. (Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 [Anchor Books, 2004], 60; Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France [University of North Carolina Press, 2012], 147-152.)

Image above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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