restricted access Missionary Time and Space: The Atlantic World in the Early Modern Age
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PART TWO P+++++++p DISTANCE Missionary Time and Space The Atlantic World in the Early Modern Age Luca Codignola P+++++++p As all runners and mountaineers well know, distances run during daily sessions of training, accounting for any sort of slope and altitude variation, can now be calculated with extreme precision through a quick look at one’s wrist computer. The only truly subjective element that remains is one’s level of fitness, although that too can be computed with some precision. Commercial airplanes and missiles built for space exploration are able to calculate their air time down to the split second. Science fiction tells us that there is but one next step: “Beam me up, Scotty! There’s no intelligent life down here.” That was Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk ordering his chief engineer, Montgomery Scott, to disintegrate and transport him back to the starship Enterprise from some God-forsaken rotating piece of rock in a galaxy far, far away.1 When they look at the past, historians are well aware that it has not always been like that. At least until the end of the eighteenth century, when scientific exploration really began, and at any rate not before the discovery of longitude, real distances between one’s point of departure and arrival were difficult to calculate. Indeed, at best, traveling time could be guessed at. Much had to do with human expectations, and these changed significantly over time.2 We now take for granted instant and personalized communication through telephone conversations, radio waves, television images, and computer connections. For centuries, however, the most one could do was to write a letter and hope for the best. For example, the arrival of the French fleet in Quebec City in the spring of each year, following a long winter of ice blockades, carried long-awaited personal letters as well as much-needed court orders. In 1633 the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune (1592–1664) remarked, “The letters that are sent to this country are like very rare and very fresh fruits; they are received with joy, are regarded with pleasure, and are relished as fruits of the terrestrial Paradise . . . like words from the other world.”3 If nothing arrived, one could do nothing but put up with another year of waiting.4 Historians routinely refer to the early nineteenth century as the period in which the first communication revolution took place, affecting human attitudes 98 Luca Codignola towards time and allowing a better estimate of distances. This revolution was marked by the invention of the telegraph (1837) and the commercial exploitation of steamship and train networks.5 Other historians show similar developments in earlier times and do not necessarily link them to technological improvements. According to Gabriella Airaldi, it was during the tenth century that along the Mediterranean routes “time [became] shorter, transportation cheaper, and contacts easier.” This quickened pace was mirrored in the notarial transactions of a dynamic port city such as Genoa, where not only the day but also the hour began to be noted.6 But even when technological improvements were available, sometimes other considerations took precedence over time—that is, over the earlier arrival at the final destination. Consider the following episode. In July 1821 the bishop of New Orleans, the Sulpician Louis-Guillaume-Valentin Dubourg (1766–1833), asked his Québec colleague, Joseph-Octave Plessis (1763–1825), whether he could spare some of the Ursuline nuns living in the two convents of his diocese. Sixteen months later, in November 1822, a party consisting of six Ursulines, accompanied by a priest, Philippe Janvier (1792–1862), finally docked in the New Orleans harbor. Their trip could have been much quicker had they traveled by steamship. Yet a local prominent merchant, Lewis Willcocks (active 1816–1832), a trusted Catholic, had suggested that the group take advantage of a traditional brig, which not only was cheaper but also provided better accommodation and everything that was needed except wine and the use of a porter, both extras. In the end, Janvier chose comfort over speed for himself and his nuns. A few extra days or weeks would have not made much of a difference anyway.7 Whereas for more practical-oriented people, such as seamen and merchants, time and distance represented elements to be reckoned with in very down-toearth terms (Will the water supply last until the next port? Will our sugar still be saleable when we arrive? Will we find icebergs along the route?), missionaries and churchmen...


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