Chateaubriand's memoirs, VII, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VII - Chapter 5
An Iroquois – The Sachem of the Onondagas – Velly and the Franks – A ceremony of hospitality – The Ancient Greeks



London, April to September 1822.

Next day, I went to visit the sachem of the Onondagas; I reached his village at ten in the morning. Immediately, I was surrounded by young savages who spoke to me in their language, intermixed with English phrases and a few French words; they made a great noise, and seemed happy, like the first Turks I saw later at Modon, when I disembarked on the soil of Greece. These Indian tribes, restricted to clearings made by the whites, have horses and cattle of their own; their huts are full of utensils bought in Quebec, Montreal, and Detroit, on the one side, and the markets of the United States on the other.

Those who explored the North American interior found all the different forms of government known to civilised peoples, among the various savage nations. The Iroquois belonged to a race which seemed destined to conquer all of the Indian races, if strangers had not arrived to bleed his veins dry, and arrest his genius. That intrepid creature was not awed by firearms, when they were first used against him; he stood firm while bullets whistled and cannon roared, as if he had heard them all his life; he seemed to pay them no more attention than a passing storm. As soon as he could procure a musket, he employed it more effectively than a European. He did not abandon the tomahawk, scalping-knife, or bow and arrow, because of it; he added to them the carbine, pistol, dagger and hatchet: he seemed never to have enough weapons to match his valour. Doubly equipped with the murderous instruments of Europe and America, head decorated with feathers, ears slit, face daubed with diverse colours, arms tattooed and blood-smeared, this champion of the New World became as redoubtable in appearance as in battle, on the shores which he defended foot by foot against the invaders.

The sachem of the Onondagas was an old Iroquois in the full meaning of the word; in his person he guarded the ancient traditions of the wilderness.

English writers never fail to call the Indian sachem the old gentleman. Now, the old gentleman is completely naked; he sports a feather or a fishbone piercing his nostrils, and sometimes covers his head, smooth and round as a cheese, with a three-cornered hat edged with lace, as a European mark of honour. Does Velly not portray history with the same realism? The Frankish chieftain Chilpéric rubbed his hair with rancid butter, infundens acido comam butyro, painted his cheeks with woad, and wore a striped jacket or a tunic of animal skins; Velly represents him as a prince magnificent to the point of ostentation as to his furniture and retinue, voluptuous to the point of debauchery, scarcely believing in God, whose ministers were subjected to his mockery.

The sachem of the Onondagas received me courteously and invited me to be seated on a mat. He spoke English and understood French; my guide knew Iroquois: the conversation was relaxed. Among other things, the old man told me that though his nation had warred with mine, he had always respected it. He complained of the Americans; he found them unjust and covetous and regretted that in the partition of Indian territories his tribe had not augmented the share that went to the English.

The women served us a meal. Hospitality is the last virtue retained by the savages in the midst of the vices of European civilisation; what that hospitality once was is well-known; the hearth was as sacred as the altar.

When a tribe was driven from its woods, or when a man came seeking hospitality, the stranger began what was called the dance of the suppliant; the youngest child in the hut touched the threshold and said: ‘Here is the stranger!’ And the chief replied: ‘Child, bring him into the hut.’ The stranger, entering into the child’s protection, went to sit among the ashes of the hearth. The women sang a song of consolation: ‘The stranger has found a wife and a mother. The sun will rise and set for him as before.’

These customs appear as if borrowed from the Greeks: Themistocles, calling on Admetus, kisses the penates and his host’s young son; (At Megara I trod perhaps on the poor woman’s hearthstone, under which Phocion’s cinerary urn was hidden); and Ulysses, in Alcinous’ palace, implores Arete: ‘Noble Arete, daughter of Rhexenor, after suffering cruel misfortune, I throw myself at your feet…’ Having spoken these words, the hero goes and sits among the ashes of the hearth. – I took leave of the old sachem. He had been present at the siege of Quebec. Among the shameful years of Louis XV’s reign, the episode of the Canadian War consoles us, as if it were a page of our ancient history discovered in the Tower of London.

Montcalm, charged with defending Canada unaided, against forces four times his in number and continually replenished, fights successfully for two years; he defeats Lord Loudon and General Abercrombie. At last fortune deserts him; wounded beneath the walls of Quebec, he falls, and two days later breathes his last: his grenadiers bury him in a crater made by a shell, a grave worthy of the honour of our arms! His noble opponent Wolfe dies facing him. He pays with his own life for Montcalm’s, and for the glory of expiring on a few French flags.