Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Brandy and white feathers

In 1694 Joseph Robineau de Villebon, Governor of Acadia, was planning a surprise attack on the English fort at Pemaquid.  He wrote to Minister Pontchartrain in France about the proposed expedition, explaining that a group of Native men could be recruited to serve as warriors.  He stressed the need for a combined sea and land offensive and noted that the Natives "are much better marksmen with the musket than any of our soldiers, although they are less obedient and can not be depended upon to stand their ground in case of a sortie, but association with 200 Frenchmen will surely deter them from deserting....
If all the Indians go to war next year, it is certain to be a bloody campaign for our enemies."  

Though he had doubts about their loyalty based on past experience, Villebon made an effort to establish a bond with the Natives that was strong enough to bring their tribesmen into military action. The strategy of maintaining an alliance with Native groups (Abenaki, Maliseet and Mi'kmaq) was essential to the success of French campaigns in the New World.  

 Villebon's correspondence, published in the book "Acadia at the End of the 17th Century" by John Clarence Webster describes feasts and gift-giving prior to embarking on the warpath.  It was costly bribery diplomacy that required loads of supplies transported by ship from France.

Native people respected generosity.  The newcomers from France were judged by the things they offered at the pre-war party.

"Within Mi'kmaq society goods were not privately accumulated but were either given to those most in need or used and then passed on to others.  Similarly, food was shared.  Generosity was the means by which to express goodwill towards others, and in demonstrating generosity, the giver acquired status within the community."          - Bill Wicken  "26 August 1726:  A Case study in Mi'kmaq-New England Relations in the Early 18th Century"

 Here's Villebon's shopping list:

"Two months' provisions to be brought out for the maintenance of the Indians, estimated at 200, to be divided equally among the three vessels.

2000 lbs of flour.
2 tierces of molasses, to flavor their sagamite. (corn porridge)
200 lbs of butter, for the same purpose.
10 kegs of brandy, without which it will be impossible to make them fight efficiently.

Memorandum of presents to the value of 3640 livres, accorded by His Majesty to the Indians of Acadia, for their warfare against the English.
2000 lbs of powder.
40 kegs of bullets.
10 kegs of swan shot.
400 lbs of Brazilian tobacco.
Illustration of a Mi'kmaq warrior (Parks Canada)
200 tomahawks, for which M. de Bonaventure will provide a model.
60 selected muskets like those sent this year.
200 Mulaix shirts, averaging 30 sous each
8 lbs. fine vermillion.
200 tufts of white feathers to be given to the Indians as a distinguishing mark, in case of night attack, which should not cost more than 6 to 7 s a piece; to be selected in Paris by M. de Bonaventure.

These presents will be distributed among the Indians when they assemble at the appointed rendezvous."

-Villebon to Count Pontchartrain, August 20, 1694

Liquored up and uniformed, with hemp shirts, French-made muskets and tomahawks, their faces painted red and heads adorned with white Parisian feathers, the brigade of Native warriors organized by the French must have been a fear-inducing sight as they approached the English fort.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Nine years a slave in N.B.

The French slavery guide, 1685

In the movie "12 Years a Slave," a carpenter named Sam Bass (played by Brad Pitt), is the only character to oppose slavery, and the one person who helps recover the freedom of Solomon Northup.  He just happens to be a Canadian -  and his abolitionist stance, while accurate and admirable, serves to reinforce a common myth.  Canadians tend to think of slavery as an ugly stain reserved for the pages of U.S. history books, a disgraceful institution that we're somehow immune to, when in fact it wasn't exclusively an American practice.   Slaves were commonly held on this side of the border during the colonial period, as France and England wrestled to claim territory in the New World for settlement, military dominance and commercial gain.  Prisoners taken by soldiers or Native warriors during  raids were deemed the personal property of the aggressor and could be legally sold, bartered, loaned or granted by inheritance to another party.  Military officers, clergy and seigneurs forced captives to serve as unpaid domestic servants or agricultural workers in their forts and on their farms.   Between 1700 and 1760, there were 2000 slaves enumerated in Canada, with the largest number residing in the east.  King Louis XIV's "Code Noir," laid explicit ground rules for New World master/slave relationships, while reinforcing the power of the Roman Catholic church and sanctioning the use of extreme disciplinary measures.  King Louis' edict applied not only to black but also Native (Panis) people enslaved to colonial masters.

 "All Panis and Negroes who have been purchased and who will be purchased shall be the property of those who have purchased them and will be their slaves; it shall be forbidden to said Panis and Negroes to leave their masters, and whosoever shall incite them to leave their masters shall be subject to a fine of fifty pounds."    - Intendant Jacques Raudot, 1709

Watching the Steve McQueen movie "12 Years a Slave" a film based on the true story of a free black man who was captured and enslaved in Louisiana during the 1840s, I was struck by the way the plot echoes our very own Canadian slave narrative from an earlier era.   New Brunswick slave history, though well-documented in archives and historical publications, isn't common knowledge and hasn't been turned into a dramatic, Oscar-winning film yet.

The story of a New England boy captured by Maliseet warriors, sold as a slave to a French master and finally freed after nine years  is a saga marked by similar oppression, exploitation and hard-won liberation, though the central character is white, not black.   John Gyles, son of a Puritan farmer, was nine years old when a group of Natives incited by the French attacked his family's home at Pemaquid in August, 1689.   His father was brutally killed in the raid, while his mother and siblings were taken by Natives and transported to separate locations.  In his personal account, John writes about the canoe voyage to Fort Penobscot and an encounter with Jesuit priests that reinforced his slave status.  

- John Gyles "Memoirs of Odd Adventures, strange deliverances etc." first published 1736 in Boston

John resided for six years at Meductic, the capital of Acadia located at the confluence of  Eel River and St. John River.  As a slave he was expected to do adult work - planting, tending and processing corn, carrying loads during the seasonal migration, joining tribesmen on hunting and fishing expeditions.  The boy endured physical abuse, humiliation and hardship.    He describes an evening when the Maliseet hosted a group of visitors from another tribe.  (This account reminds me of the scene in McQueen's movie where slaves are roused from sleep to dance at the big house for their masters' entertainment. ) 

The death of John Gyles' master and an ownership dispute involving the Native man's widow led to a sale of the young slave to a French seigneur, Louis Damours.  Conditions improved, although John was still chattel. The seigneurie was a large estate on the St. John River producing wheat, corn and livestock and John was put to work as farm hand, trader and translator.

When English forces attacked the farm, an opportunity for escape presented itself.  John remained loyal to his mistress Madame Damours, helped to save the seigneury from ruin and was subsequently granted freedom.  

John Gyles was released by Louis Damours and returned to Boston as a free man on  June 19th, 1698.  He was reunited with his brother, joined the British army, served as a multilingual interpreter for the military and became Commander of the garrison of the Saint George River, Maine.   He was fortunate to have survived nine years of slavery in Canada. 

Maliseet birchbark canoes