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Thursday, September 27, 2012

“Champlain's Dream: The European Founding of North America”, by David Hackett Fischer



848 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1416593324

David Hackett Fischer's new full-length biography of Samuel de Champlain is pure nectar to the serious reader of history. Full of life, vivid, entertaining, fascinating and full of insight, this is biography at its best. Painted on the vast canvas of 16th & 17th Century Europe and North America, we see a fully developed portrait of a fascinating and complex individual who played such a key role in the unfolding of North American culture and civilization.

This story begins in Brouage, which is in the Saintonge province in France. Here, a young Samuel Champlain learned how to be even tempered and to sail. In his early twenties he participated in religious wars in Brittany and then went on a secret mission to Spain and its American colonies on behalf of Henry IV. After learning much about sailing, war, and different cultures Champlain decides to accompany Francois Grave Du Pont, Pierre Dugua de Mons, and others to explore the north eastern parts of the Americas. Throughout the years he takes meticulous notes, creates charts, and collects all sorts of data for Henry IV. He also sees Pierre Dugua de Mons and other well off leaders such as Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt fail at dealing positively with local Native American tribes. Through years of experience in practical matters such as war and sailing, efforts to treat Native Americans with great respect, constant support from Henry IV, and from inheriting most of his uncles estate Samuel de Champlain succeeds in not only becoming wealthy, experienced, and respected by both Native Americans and Europeans but also in gaining the necessary support in France to lead an expedition into French territories in the Americas.

After having seen much failure from leaders who could not relate to Native Americans and because of the religious wars in France between Protestants and Catholics, Champlain decides to lead a religiously mixed crew to New France in order to secure the territory as quickly as possible. He does run in to road blocks such as Henry IV dying, being shunned by Henry IV's successors, Cardinal Richelieu's distrust and other setbacks. Furthermore, any support that he does receive from France is often minimal and sets him up for failure. Due to these circumstances New France is taken over by the British and the Iroquois run amuck. Nevertheless, Champlain never gives up and pursues his goal of a tolerant New France. In the meantime, his supporters are either killed or stripped of their authority on religious grounds and he himself is often looked down upon even though he has converted to Catholicism. He marries Helene Broulle to gain a relationship with a prominent French family but that does not work out since she is many decades younger and in the end he spends most of his time trying to please a woman who is very different from himself. This is a repeating problem with Champlain. He often tries to convince stubborn people to do good deeds and almost always fails because these same people have self interest in mind before the common good. On a side note, Fischer also suggests that Samuel de Champlain is gay and the son of Henry IV but there is no strong evidence for either one of those theories.

In the end, Samuel de Champlain has a stroke and withers away for months before dying surrounded by Native American and French friends. He's seen many personal successes but has failed just likes his predecessors at getting much needed attention for New France. To say that he is accomplished, respected, and has vast life experience is an understatement. However, even this strong willed and intelligent person could not fuse magnets that are of opposite charges. Meaning that his good nature, wealth, intelligence, charm, and support from Native Americans and from many French did not account for much with the French nobility and Cardinal Richelieu. It seems that Champlain was always moving two steps forward and one step back.

Overall, it was thrilling to read about Champlain's adventures, perseverance, and the political climate of his time. Yet it was very disheartening that Samuel de Champlain died without getting the French support that he needed and was often disrespected by the French leaders in power after Henry IV. If I had to choose a favorite part of the book it would be regarding torture and how Champlain vehemently opposed it. I particularly liked that Samuel de Champlain stood up to his Native American allies and refused to support them if they continued to be vicious to other tribes in the area. His reluctance to be violent did not work with some of the Native Americans living in New France nor with most of the French nobility in Europe but it did make an impact on many of the people around him. If nothing else, this man left a history of good will behind when he died. I can definitely respect that about him.

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