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Detective Samuel de Champlain

Alberto Manguel

As a detective story, Champlain’s account of two murders in 1616 is unsatisfactory on many points

One of the pleasures of reading for no particular reason is coming across hidden stories, involuntary essays, samples of what someone once called “found literature”—as opposed, I imagine, to the literature that states its official identity on the cover. Leafing through a book on Samuel de Champlain, I came across, of all things, a detective story.

Champlain, the “starting point of Canada” as he has been called by Marcel Trudel (author of Catalogue des immigrants, 1632—1662; Histoire de la Nouvelle-France; and other works), appears in his own writings as a somewhat plodding and earnest figure. Compared to other explorers, he seems to have had neither the imagination of Cartier nor the intelligence of Bougainville, and his diaries and chronicles have something of a dutiful schoolboy’s report about them. However, almost against his own nature, there appear from time to time in his writings curious little vignettes and episodes alien to his usual dry narrative tone. It is as if certain events, certain landscapes, certain encounters demanded for their telling a different style, a style of which Champlain himself seems to have been unaware, as if the explored country produced for the alien explorer not only the commercial goods he was sent to seek—wood and copper and fur—but also strange stories and singular dramas that he dutifully recorded while remaining impervious to their possible meanings. A cartographer rather than a historian, a traveller in space, not in time, Champlain was more concerned with the where than the what, and thereby began the tradition according to which Canada is a country with too much geography and too little history.

In the summer of 1618, Champlain arrived to inspect the colony of Cap Tourmente, near the town of Quebec, and was told that two years earlier, shortly after his previous visit, a couple of French settlers who had been missing for several months had been found brutally murdered. “It is almost impossible to extract the truth,” he wrote conscientiously in his journals, “both because of the scantiness of the evidence that could be obtained, and of the discrepancy in the accounts that were given, most of them being by way of presumption; but at least I will here relate it, according to the story of the greatest number.”

The Sieur de Parc, interim commander of the settlement, had bestowed his favours on two Natives, thereby sparking the jealousy of one of the French settlers, a locksmith by trade. Furious at not being “preferred to a savage,” the locksmith cornered one of the Natives and beat and insulted him, and then called upon his comrades to do the same. Sometime later, the locksmith and a friend, Charles Pillet, decided to go hunting and sleep out for several nights. They never returned. Long afterwards, their emaciated and lifeless bodies, tied together with a rope to which large stones had been attached, were found in the middle of a forest, some twenty paces from the water’s edge.

After examining the bodies, the authorities came up with a possible scenario. According to the evidence, upon arrival on the Île d’Orléans in their canoe, the men had been attacked with clubs, knives and arrows. The bodies were then tied together, weighted down with stones and thrown into the river. Mysteriously, the water had washed the corpses ashore, and someone or something had dragged them inland. The injured Native man was obviously the prime suspect, but a second Native was accused of assisting in the crimes.

Upon Champlain’s arrival, a trial was set up according to French custom. The prosecution reminded the court that the Natives had betrayed the bonds of friendship and loyalty that supposedly tied them to the French; then the father of the first Native stood up to speak. He argued that his son had perhaps committed the murder, but that he was a thoughtless and foolish youth, and that he had no doubt acted in a passion of revenge rather than coldly plotting the crime. Mysteriously, the father’s argument convinced the court. Champlain records in his journals that the accused was found guilty, but his life was entrusted to his father, so that the old man might teach him to be a good servant of France.

As a detective story, the account remains unsatisfactory on many points. Were there two murders or one? Who dragged the bodies inland, and why? What exactly had provoked the locksmith’s jealousy and anger? Were there any other suspects? Champlain’s report of the court’s decision smacks of cheap moralizing and sleazy politics, and renders the Natives’ loyalty to France (and to Champlain) more significant than mere justice—if justice was what was being meted out. No doubt Champlain did not want to continue a cycle of insult and revenge that might extend endlessly into the future. Stability (or at least a temporary stability) must have been desired above all.

But still, the story remains open. Perhaps it has a variety of possible solutions that Champlain (not being well versed in the art of the detective story) did not consider. Perhaps his account gave only one side of the events, and the other, the hidden one, narrated the life of the victim—the mysterious locksmith, the frustrated settler from Old France, unable after so many years to realize his North American dream. Perhaps the clues were all there, the actors ready to speak, the drama all laid out, but Champlain, with eyes for nothing but maps and political intrigue, was unable to see it. Perhaps the story itself, like the official judgment, was in fact a cautionary tale. Or perhaps (this is the solution I prefer) the events took place for literary reasons: to teach Champlain that history, unlike the rivers he so meticulously traced, has no clear, discernible, unequivocal course.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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