Chateaubriand's memoirs, VIII, 1

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VIII, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> VIII, 2


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VIII - Chapter 1
The Lakes of Canada – A fleet of Indian canoes – The history of the rivers



London, April to September 1822. (Revised December 1846)

The little beaded girl’s tribe departed; my guide, the Dutchman, refused to accompany me beyond the cataract; I paid him off, and joined some traders who were leaving to travel down the Ohio; before leaving I took a look at the Canadian lakes. Nothing is as sad as the aspect of those lakes. The expanses of the Ocean and the Mediterranean open up a path for nations, and their shores are or were inhabited by civilised peoples, numerous and powerful; the Canadian lakes reveal only the nakedness of their waters, which meet an unclothed land once more: solitudes which separate further solitudes. Uninhabited coastlines gaze at seas without vessels; you land on deserted shores from empty waves.

Lake Erie is more than thirty miles long. The nations of the lakeshore were exterminated by the Iroquois, two centuries ago. It is a terrifying thing to see the Indians venture out in bark canoes onto the lake, renowned for its storms, where myriads of serpents once swarmed. These Indians hang their manitous (objects possessing supernatural powers) from the stern of their canoes, and dash into the midst of the whirlpools among the towering waves. The water, level with the sides of the canoes, seems ready to swallow them. The hunting dogs bay, their paws resting on the gunnels, while their masters, keeping a profound silence, strike the waves in unison with their paddles. The canoes advance in line: at the lead prow stands a chief who repeats the diphthong oah; o on a long soft note, a in a short shrill tone. In the last canoe is another chief, who is also standing and handling an oar, shaped like a tiller. The other braves are crouched on their heels inside the boats. Through the breeze and mist, one can see only the feathers with which the Indians heads are adorned, the outstretched necks of the howling mastiffs, and the shoulders of the two sachems, the pilot and augur: they look like the gods of these lakes.

The Canadian rivers lack the history of the old world; the fate of the Ganges, Euphrates, Nile, Danube and Rhine is otherwise. What changes have they not seen on their banks! What blood and sweat have conquerors not shed, on their journeys to traverse those waves that a goatherd at the source can step across!