June 20, 2018
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On Columbus Day, consider Champlain instead

"Fictional" portrait of Samuel de Champlain, by Théophile Hamel, 1817-1870. Probably painted in the 1860s. From the Collection of the Governor General of Canada, La Citadelle, Quebec.


On this sort-of holiday, we remember Christopher Columbus. You know, the guy who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and — as those sensitive to things like human rights have pointed out — turned native Caribbeans into slaves. Talk about problems with immigrants.

The Columbus stock has been in free fall since 1992, the 500th anniversary of his “discovering” the Americas. Some have recast him as the ultimate imperialist whose lust for gold led him to treat the locals as subhuman. Columbus certainly was a mercenary, an Italian sailing for Spain, not motivated by some grand and courageous scientific quest for more knowledge about the world, but instead aiming to develop trade routes.

This revisionist view of Columbus may be a little too harsh. If it is accurate, we certainly should be embarrassed at having named everything from the nation’s capital and a top-notch university to one of the space shuttles and a record company for him.

If you live in New England, Quebec or the Canadian Maritimes, you might do better to consider Samuel de Champlain as your explorer to honor. Champlain, as explained in David Hackett Fischer’s excellent 2008 book, “Champlain’s Dream,” actually was less an explorer and more of an entrepreneur (like Columbus).

Unlike Columbus, Champlain had high regard for the native populations. Early in his career, he essentially hitched a ride on a French ship hired by the Spanish government to sail to the Caribbean. His journals recount his horror at the treatment of the natives, who were forced to dive for shellfish, tethered to the boat like dogs on a leash.

Champlain, whom historians suggest may have been one of many illegitimate children sired by French monarch Henri IV, also saw the horrors of war in his younger years. France was riven by nine wars during the latter 1500s by conflict over the new Protestant doctrine and its repudiation of the traditional Roman Catholicism. He made a name for himself as a valiant and savvy warrior, but Champlain saw enough violence to want to achieve religious detente in the New World.

Champlain, as Mainers know, was part of the ill-fated 1604 settlement at St. Croix Island near Calais. The river froze up, making it difficult for the colonists to get food, and in the warmer months they were eaten alive by black flies. Champlain observed the effects of scurvy on his fellow colonists, and in the course of subsequent stays in the New World, surmised that fresh meat was the best defense against the disease.

Interestingly, Champlain chose the island in the St. Croix River as a place that could be easily defended — not from Indians, but from the British and Dutch. (That fear was well-founded; Jesuit missionaries on Somes Sound during the period were slain by the British.)

During that first visit, Champlain and his colleagues traveled around Mount Desert Island (so named by Champlain), up the Penobscot River to present-day Bangor (convening with the natives at what today is Oak Street), to Belfast and other Maine coast areas. He traveled as far south as the southern shore of Cape Cod.

On one of his journeys along the New England coast, led by another officer, Champlain noted his distress at the duplicitous way the other man interacted with Indians.

After an effort at establishing a permanent colony in what is today Annapolis, Nova Scotia, Champlain planted New France in what now is Quebec City. He was no utopian idealist, but he believed the Indians and French could work together for mutual material gain, and he earned high regard from the native tribes for his bravery in battle against tribes to the west and for his honesty, wisdom and high moral character.

Champlain made 27 Atlantic crossings, typically returning to the French court to argue for further funding of the New France endeavor. The city and province survived and thrived, thanks largely to his efforts.

So instead of considering Columbus, who is said to have cut off the hands of those natives who did not bring him gold, consider Champlain, who joined hands with the native tribes and believed in mutually beneficial cooperation.

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