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  • Pierre-Esprit Radisson: The Collected Writings. Vol. 1, The Voyages ed. by Germaine Warkentin
  • Peter Cook
Pierre-Esprit Radisson: The Collected Writings. Vol. 1, The Voyages. Germaine Warkentin, ed. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii + 357, $65.00

Germaine Warkentin’s new critical edition of Pierre-Esprit Radisson’s narratives of his travels in the Great Lakes region is the most thorough to date and does more than any previous edition to illuminate the character of Radisson himself and the cultural worlds through which he moved. It proposes eminently plausible explanations for aspects of the text which have confused and bedevilled scholars for well over a century, solves a number of riddles surrounding the author and the manuscript, and provides twenty-first-century readers with a text that is accurate, intelligible, and highly readable.

In the fall of 1668 Radisson, then living in England, penned an account of four voyages he made in the Great Lakes region between 1652 and 1660. Though he wrote in a trained hand, Radisson was not a writer by nature: throughout his life he resorted to ink only when it served an immediate purpose. In 1668, that purpose was to impress Prince Rupert, cousin of Charles ii, and other potential investors with his knowledge of North American geography and familiarity with Indigenous peoples, indispensable partners in the potentially lucrative fur trade out of Hudson Bay. That goal was seemingly achieved, but Radisson never found the secure wealth and patronage he craved. His misfortune is our gain, as it seems probable that his continuing struggle for recognition and protection led to the creation, almost twenty years later, of the only surviving copy of the Voyages – a careful transcription that preserved its author’s fractured English and confusing Gallicisms even as it failed to record his name. In the late nineteenth century, the anonymous manuscript was discovered in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and attributed to Radisson. Its first editor, Gideon Scull, assumed it was in Radisson’s own hand. Later, Grace Lee Nute hypothesized that it was a botched translation of a French original. Now, through a close examination of Hudson’s Bay Company records, the handwriting in the manuscript, and the watermarks on the paper used by the scribes, Warkentin has determined that the bulk of the Bodleian manuscript was produced in 1685–6 by a professional scrivener involved with the hbc, presumably working from the text originally produced by Radisson in 1668.

Warkentin’s introduction, some hundred pages in length, does an excellent job of situating the Voyages in the context of Radisson’s life. He appears first in the historical record as a brash teenager forcibly adopted by the Kanienkehaga (Mohawks) and leaves it as a “decay’d [End Page 598] gentleman” (101) buried in an Anglican parish graveyard. The years spanned by the events of the Voyages correspond to Radisson’s transformation from a boy occupied with easy and earthy pleasures to a man concerned with making a place for himself in the world. To these ends Radisson employs his particular constellation of talents: considerable energy, a facility with languages, and a deviousness exercised unembarrassedly. An insightful concluding essay by Heidi Bohaker provides parallel context for the Great Lakes region and emphasizes Radisson’s ability to learn and manipulate Indigenous languages and cultures. Though he empathized with the Indigenous people among whom he lived, identified with them (often using we and our), and cared for them (“I loved these poor people,” he wrote of his adoptive Mohawk family [168]), he also used them to pursue success as a merchant adventurer and condemned aspects of their cultures to his European readers. Nevertheless, as Bohaker points out, his narratives – with their detailed observations of Iroquoian, Algonquian, and Siouan practices, relationships, and world views – humanize and complicate Indigenous experiences of the seventeenth century and for that reason remain invaluable to scholars.

Less thoroughly developed in the commentary is a portrait of the small but volatile French settler society in the St Lawrence Valley of the 1650s and 1660s. As was the case with the “charter generations” of many Atlantic colonies of the mid-seventeenth century, some individuals then...


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pp. 598-600
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