Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 10

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VII - Chapter 10
Chapter 10: DIGRESSIONS - Ancient Canada – The Indian population – The decline of customs – The true civilisation spread by religion; the false civilisation spread by trade – The Métis or Burntwoods – The Wars between the Companies – The death of the Indian languages

London, April to September 1822.

The Canadians are no longer such as were described by Cartier, Champlain, La Hontan, Lescarbot, Lafitau, Charlevoix and the Lettres édifiantes: the sixteenth century and the start of the seventeenth century were still an era of powerful imagination and simple customs; the wonder of the former reflected virgin nature, and the candour of the latter recreated the simplicity of the savage. Champlain, at the finish of his first voyage to Canada, in 1603, recounts that close ‘to the Baye des Chaleurs, to the south, is an island, where a dreadful monster lives, that the savages call Gougou.’ Canada had its giant just as the Cape of Good Hope did. Homer is the true father of all these inventions; There are always the Cyclopes, Charybdis and Scylla, ogres and gougous.

The savage population of North America, not including the Mexicans or Eskimos, comprises today no more than four hundred thousand souls, on both sides of the Rocky Mountains; travellers even put it as low as a hundred and fifty thousand. The decline of Indian customs has gone hand in hand with the depopulation of the tribes. Their religious traditions have become confused; the instruction spread by Canadian Jesuits has mingled foreign ideas with the native ideas of the indigenous peoples: one finds, in their crude fables, Christian beliefs disfigured; most of the savages wear a cross as an ornament, and the protestant traders sell them what the Catholic missionaries give them. Let me say, to the honour of our country and the glory of our religion, that the Indians are strongly attached to us; that they never cease to mourn our absence, and that a robe noire (a black robe, a missionary) is still the subject of veneration in the American forests. The savage continues to love us beneath the trees where we were his first guests, on the soil we have trodden, and where we have consigned to him our graves.

When the Indian was naked, or dressed in skins, he had something great and noble about him; in our time, European rags, without covering his nakedness, are a witness to his wretchedness: he is a beggar at the inn-door, no longer a savage in the forest.

In the end, an intermediate race, the Métis, formed, born of colonists and Indian women. These men, nicknamed Boisbrûlés(Burntwoods), because of the colour of their skin, are the exchange-brokers between the creators of their twin origin. Speaking the languages of both their fathers and their mothers, they possess the vices of both races. These bastards of a civilised and a savage nature, sell themselves now to the Americans, now to the English, so that they might grant them the fur monopoly; they fuel the rivalry between the English Hudson’s Bay and North West companies, and the American companies, Columbian-American Fur, Missouri Fur and the rest: they hunt themselves, as paid specialists, and with the hunters paid by the companies.

Only the great war of American Independence is famous. We forget that blood also flowed on account of the minor interests of a handful of merchants. The Hudson’s Bay Company sold, in 1811, to Lord Selkirk, land along the Red River; it was settled in 1812. The North-West or Canada Company took umbrage at this. The two companies, allied to different Indian tribes and supported by the Boisbrûlés, came to blows. This domestic conflict, horrid in its details, took place amongst the frozen wildernesses of Hudson Bay. Lord Selkirk’s colony was destroyed in June 1815, exactly at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. In these two theatres of warfare, so different in their brilliance and obscurity, the woes of the human species were the same.

Search no longer, in America, for those artistically constructed political constitutions of which Charlevoix has recounted the history: the Huron monarchy, or the IroquoisRepublic. Something of that destruction has been accomplished and is still being accomplished in Europe, under our very eyes; a Prussian poet, at a banquet given by the Teutonic Order, recited, in old Prussian of about 1400, the heroic deeds of his country’s ancient warriors: no one understood him, and they gave him, in recompense, a hundred empty walnut shells. Today, Breton, Basque, Gaelic die out from cottage to cottage, with the vanishing goat-herds and ploughmen.

In the English county of Cornwall, the native language was extinct by about 1676. A fisherman said to some travellers: ‘I scarcely know four or five people who speak Breton, and they are old timers like me, sixty to eighty years old; all the youngsters no longer understand a word.’

The small tribes of the Orinoco no longer exist; of their dialect there only remain a dozen or so words uttered in the tree-tops by parakeets that have been freed, like Agrippina’s thrush that chirped Greek words from the balustrades of the Roman palaces. Such will be, sooner or later, the fate of our modern tongues, the ruins of Greek and Latin. What raven, freed from a cage, belonging to the last Franco-Gallic priest, will croak, to a foreign people, our successors, from the heights of some ruined bell-tower: ‘Hear the accents of a voice once known to you: you will bring an end to all such speech.’

Live on so, Bossuet, that in the end your masterpiece may outlast, in a bird’s memory, your language and your remembrance among men!