Master historian Fischer (History/Brandeis Univ.; Washington’s Crossing, 2004, etc.) heads north of the border to document the life of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec.
Champlain, as Fischer immediately shows, was an impossibly accomplished man of parts: a scholar and writer with an athlete’s body, a soldier and sailor, an ethnographer and linguist, a mapmaker and explorer. When he established Quebec in 1608, he did so amid a campaign of extensive reconnaissance “through what are now six Canadian provinces and five American states,” having already traveled and battled throughout Europe and the Caribbean. Though his noble sponsor back in France favored a different site for a new colony, Champlain successfully argued that command of the St. Lawrence River far in the interior would help France forge alliances with the native peoples there. By Fischer’s account, one of Champlain’s most notable successes—and there were many—derived from his view that whites and Indians, as well as Europeans of various religious beliefs, could live side by side in peace. His design for New France, Fischer writes, “combined the best of the old world as [Champlain and King Henri IV] understood it, with an expansive idea of humanity that embraced people different from ourselves.” That plan for “Acadia” would suffer following Henri’s assassination and the ascent of Marie de Medici, whose counselors “had no liking for an expansive New France in North America.” Champlain’s subsequent successes, born of ethnic sensitivity and skillful soldiering alike, were done at risk of offending the unsympathetic French throne, which was much enriched, in the end, for the next century and a half, until French rule in Canada was broken with the Seven Years’ War. France’s legacy remains all the same, Fischer concludes, in the “francophone populations and cultures” of Canada.
A lucid portrait of a man given too little attention in standard American textbooks. Fischer’s work should make it impossible to ignore Champlain’s contributions henceforth.