Raymonde Litalien and Denis Vaugeois, eds. Champlain: the Birth of French
America. Québec: les Éditions du Septentrion, 2004 (co-published with McGill- Queen’s University Press). 398 p., many maps and plates. ISBN 0-7735-2850-4.
This large and beautiful book, which was produced through a collaboration between Canadian and French authorities, is a translation by Käthe Roth of Champlain: la naissance de l’Amérique française, also published in 2004. It reproduces many images; these are uniformly of high quality, but it is sometimes vexatious when early modern manuscript documents are printed at angles, with one part of them sometimes obscuring another, and so preventing the reader from following the whole text. It is impossible here to summarize the 35 or so articles, each written by an acknowledged authority; here I will simply pick out some chapters that seemed particularly interesting.
Etienne Taillemite’s chapter, on the French navy in Champlain’s time, seems a little exaggerated in maintaining that this arm was entirely neglected under Henri IV (1589-1610). It is true that the Atlantic fleet was given little attention, but the galley-fleet in the Mediterranean, very important for French trading interests there, was steadily built up, and proved effective against corsairs. In the next chapter, Bernard Barbiche convincingly demonstrates that Henri IV was “an ardent proponent of French expansion overseas” (in spite of the opposition of his powerful minister, Sully), and that it was thanks to him that a permanent French presence was established in Canada.
In this chapter there is an interesting section on the famous image by Theodor de Bry of Laudonnière being shown the stele erected in Florida by Ribaut. This has long been thought to have been derived from a water-color by Jacques Lemoyne de Morgues, and is the only de Bry engraving derived directly from this artists. Bernard Barbiche, however, interestingly adduces the argument of Christian Feest that the water-color is in fact derived from the engraving, since “the engraving is not a mirror image of it.” This theory has wider implications, since, if Feest is correct, the manuscript originals of many other images found in de Bry (those by John White, for instance) would be open to the same criticism. On the other hand, it may well be that de Bry was perfectly capable of reproducing the manuscript originals without resorting to a mirror image.
In part II, we come to articles by Laura Giraudo and François-Marc Gagnon on the manuscript “Brief Discours” concerning the West Indies, whose principal copy is now preserved at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence. Over the years, many scholars have doubted if this document was indeed composed by Champlain. But Giraudo and Gagnon make a convincing case for Champlain’s authorship, calling into evidence particularly the other manuscript versions of the “Discours” preserved in Bologna and Turin. Their articles are illustrated by excellent reproductions of some of the forty-odd drawings found in each of the three manuscripts, and this permits the reader to judge how persuasive their arguments are.
The publishers of this volume reproduce not only rarely-seen images from Champlain’s “Discours,” but also very unusual images from the work of artists like Le Moyne de Morgues, mentioned above (see for instance pp. 206-7). It is therefore a great pity that they do not offer full descriptions of the repositories in which the originals of these images are to be found. There is indeed on p. 385 a list of “Illustration sources,” but this is entirely insufficient for the scholar wishing to track down the exact location of this material; these laconic abbreviations are only a step above the even more deplorable habit of giving only the reference to the photographic agency in question.
On p. 312 we come to a consideration by Conrad Heidenreich and Edward Dahl of Champlain’s cartography. These authors have already published, in a special issue of Cartographica, their views on the subject, but the sumptuousness of this volume allows them to amplify their arguments in using exceptionally clear black-and-white and colored images. They also reproduce, on page 372, a remarkable set of small images allowing the reader to see at a glance the whole range of Champlain’s maps; this is exceptionally illuminating, and might serve as an example for other cartographic studies.
All in all, then, this is a remarkable volume. Not only does it offer the most recent views of the best authorities on various aspects of Champlain’s life and significance, but it also includes a great range of fascinating new imagery; it surely will long remain the last word in Champlain studies.
The University of Texas at Arlington