1634 | New France

Ravenous Jubilation

Hunger games in New France.

Of the three brothers who had invited Father Le Jeune, the Jesuit, to join the party, one was the hunter, Mestigoit; another, the sorcerer; and the third, Pierre, whom, by reason of his falling away from the faith, Le Jeune always mentions as the apostate. He was a weak-minded young Indian, wholly under the influence of his brother, the sorcerer, who, if not more vicious, was far more resolute and wily. From the antagonism of their respective professions, the sorcerer hated the priest, who lost no opportunity of denouncing his incantations and who ridiculed his perpetual singing and drumming as puerility and folly. The former, being an indifferent hunter, and disabled by a disease which he had contracted, depended for subsistence on his credit as a magician, and in undermining it, Le Jeune not only outraged his pride, but threatened his daily bread.

Le Jeune, a man of excellent observation, already knew his red associates well enough to understand that their rudeness did not of necessity imply ill will. The rest of the party, in their turn, fared no better. They rallied and bantered each other incessantly with as little forbearance and as little malice as a troop of unbridled schoolboys. No one took offense. To have done so would have been to bring upon one’s self genuine contumely. This motley household was a model of harmony. True, they showed no tenderness or consideration toward the sick and disabled, but for the rest, each shared with all in weal or woe: the famine of one was the famine of the whole, and the smallest portion of food was distributed in fair and equal partition. Upbraidings and complaints were unheard; they bore each other’s foibles with wondrous equanimity, and while persecuting Le Jeune with constant importunity for tobacco and for everything else he had, they never begged among themselves.

Besides his incessant endeavors to annoy Le Jeune, the sorcerer now and then tried to frighten him. On one occasion, when a period of starvation had been followed by a successful hunt, the whole party assembled for one of the gluttonous feasts usual with them at such times. While the guests sat expectant and the squaws were about to ladle out the banquet, the sorcerer suddenly leaped up, exclaiming that he had lost his senses and that knives and hatchets must be kept out of his way, as he had a mind to kill somebody. Then, rolling his eyes toward Le Jeune, he began a series of frantic gestures and outcries, then stopped abruptly and stared into vacancy, silent and motionless, then resumed his former clamor, raged in and out of the hut, and seizing some of its supporting poles, broke them as if in an uncontrollable frenzy. The missionary, though alarmed, sat reading his breviary. When, however, on the next morning, the sorcerer began again to play the maniac, the thought occurred to him that some stroke of fever might in truth have touched his brain. Accordingly, he approached him and felt his pulse, which he found, in his own words, “as cool as a fish.” The pretended madman looked at him with astonishment, and giving over the attempt to frighten him, presently returned to his senses.

’Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.

—William Shakespeare, 1595

Nowhere was the sorcerer’s magic in more requisition than in procuring a successful chase to the hunters—a point of vital interest, since on it hung the lives of the whole party. They often, however, returned empty-handed, and for one, two, or three successive days, no other food could be had than the bark of trees or scraps of leather. So long as tobacco lasted, they found solace in their pipes, which seldom left their lips. “Unhappy infidels,” writes Le Jeune, “who spend their lives in smoke, and their eternity in flames!”

As Christmas approached, their condition grew desperate. Beavers and porcupines were scarce, and the snow was not deep enough for hunting the moose. Night and day the medicine drums and medicine songs resounded from the wigwams, mingled with the wail of starving children. The hunters grew weak and emaciated, and, as after a forlorn march, the wanderers encamped once more in the lifeless forest, the priest remembered that it was Christmas Eve. “The Lord gave us for our supper a porcupine, large as a sucking pig, and also a rabbit. It was not much, it is true, for eighteen or nineteen persons; but the Holy Virgin and St. Joseph, her glorious spouse, were not so well treated, on this very day, in the stable of Bethlehem.”

On Christmas Day, the despairing hunters, again unsuccessful, came to pray succor from Le Jeune. Even the apostate had become tractable, and the famished sorcerer was ready to try the efficacy of an appeal to the deity of his rival. A bright hope possessed the missionary. He composed two prayers, which, with the aid of the repentant Pierre, he translated into Algonquin. Then he hung against the side of the hut a napkin which he had brought with him, and against the napkin a crucifix and a reliquary, and this done, caused all the Indians to kneel before them, with hands raised and clasped. He now read one of the prayers and required the Indians to repeat the other after him, promising to renounce their superstitions and obey Christ, whose image they saw before them, if he would give them food and save them from perishing. The pledge given, he dismissed the hunters with a benediction. At night they returned with game enough to relieve the immediate necessity. All was hilarity. The kettles were slung, and the feasters assembled. They fell to their repast with ravenous jubilation.

Repeatedly, before the spring, they were thus threatened with starvation. Nor was their case exceptional. It was the ordinary winter life of all those Northern tribes who did not till the soil but lived by hunting and fishing alone. The desertion or the killing of the aged, sick, and disabled, occasional cannibalism, and frequent death from famine, were natural incidents of an existence which, during half the year, was but a desperate pursuit of the mere necessaries of life under the worst conditions of hardship, suffering, and debasement.

Contributor

Francis Parkman

From The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century. While attending Harvard University in the 1840s, Parkman journeyed through New England and southeastern Canada, concluding that pretty girls and horses were “the ‘first-ratest’ things in nature.” He published the seventh and last volume of his grand history, France and England in North America, in 1892.