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French Colonial History 4 (2003) 1-14
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Writing the Cultural History of Pre-1760 European Colonists
Before addressing my subject, I want to recall Alf Heggoy, for whom the prize my book received is named. The French Colonial Historical Society exists, in part, because of Alf's enthusiasm and energy. He was interested in French colonial policy in Africa during the 1890s, but he welcomed "Old Regimers," such as me, to the association. As I speak, I have before me the memory of Alf's compact frame: his round, bearded face and those radiant eyes that grew ever brighter with the ingestion of fermented grape juice.
Three Eloquent Pieces of Evidence
While searching for material for the book La Nouvelle France, I came upon several items that provided clues to popular beliefs and attitudes among the European colonists and Amerindians of French North America. Three of these will illustrate the range and potential of the material.
The first bits of evidence are polished stone disks, about four or five centimeters in diameter, which I saw in the Huronia Museum at Midland, Ontario. Hurons called them askwandi,and the stones seem to have been amulets and, possibly, gaming pieces. The Christian crosses inscribed upon the stones were powerful symbols to aid the user, like the sun's image that appears on other askwandi. The fact that one symbol is a Maltese cross confirms its European origin. Just as animist Hurons kept tokens of their guardian spirit, Christian converts had crucifixes, holy medals, rings, and [End Page 1] these askwandi as their talismans. The neophytes treated Jesus of Nazareth as a protective spirit who was supposed to bring good fortune to the devotee and to avert misfortune. This utilitarian approach to Christ explains the quick abandonment of the new faith when the Hurons were beset by imported diseases and by Iroquois attacks. Native Christians fared no better than traditionalists, and so, when Jesus failed as a guardian spirit, disillusioned converts reverted to aboriginal practices and beliefs. Their initial view of Jesus explains why there were so many apostates among the Hurons.
The next item literally fell into my lap at the Public Record Office in London. It was enclosed in a 1744 letter from the intercepted mail collection known as High Court of Admiralty Series 30. This small slip of paper has a prayer to the Virgin Mary with a cross at the top, and it was written by the recipient's sister to ensure his safety while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He was advised to carry this written prayer on his person. Maritime travel was hazardous in the days of sail, and any additional safeguard was welcome. The garbled and fragmentary Latin in the conclusion shows that the writer did not really understand what she was writing: "tota es pulera" [End Page 2] could either be tota est pulvera [all is dust] or es tota pulchra [you are all beautiful]. 1 The writer's use of Latin, however, reveals her belief that the language of the Mass was a magical tongue, and it was a common practice to use sacred texts for profane purposes. Colonists and contemporary residents of western France sought to influence the supernatural world with a blend of folk magic and orthodox religion. A clove might sooth a toothache, but it would be more effective when administered with a Christian prayer and a few words of Latin.
The last example is a section of a 1731 map of Louisbourg from the Archives du Génie in Paris. The view of the town shows a parish church in a central location, facing the waterfront. This church (or references to it) appears on eighteen other maps and views produced by this and other draftsmen, until the French vacated the site in 1758. The illustrated church was more than the military engineer Étienne Verrier's reminder to his superiors in France that he had produced a design for this chapel. Others, who had no interest in his design, also referred to it. The historical puzzle is that...