Slightly over five hundred years ago, a Genoese named Christopher Columbus set sail from a port in Spain for lands that were then little more than rumour to most of the people of his hemisphere and, perhaps unwittingly, began an era that historians would thereafter glorify as the Age of Exploration. It was a momentous time for the nations involved - each was introduced to new people, new ideas, and new things. Many of the consequences were unfortunate. Some were tragic. But contact also brought humorous moments in which Europeans and Americans demonstrated just how alike they were to one another and, half a millennium later, to those of us living today.
Children are a perfect example. Whatever culture, religion or historical era they happen to be born into, they all have a least two things in common: their brutal application of logic to seemingly mundane situations and their uncanny ability to perceive when an individual (generally an adult) is being far too serious for his own good. Francois Marbois, secretary of the French legation to the newly formed United States, records an example of the first instance during a 1784 visit to the Oneida: A native boy took to the task of turning chickens on a spit for the evening meal with such care and precision that when the heat of the fire finally forced him to ask a friend to take over, he ended up tackling his friend and pummelling him for not performing the duty to his satisfaction. When questioned, he replied that he was upset with his friend for turning the spit in the opposite direction, thereby undoing all of his hard work by unroasting the chickens.
When Recollet missionaries first encountered the Huron, a confederacy of five Iroquoian-speaking tribes that once lived in the region south of Georgian Bay, the adults may have envisioned trading with another nation. But the children simply saw fresh targets for their daring. In what may well be the precursor to the old bucket-of-water-atop-the-door trick, young Huron boys almost four hundred years ago took great pride in stealthily approaching the dwelling of the visiting missionaries and cutting the cord that held up their door so that it would fall on the next unfortunate to cross the treshold. According to one of these missionaries, a good-humoured man named Gabriel Sagard, the mischievous perpetrators, like children everywhere, would then practise the time-honoured art of keeping a straight face as they vehemently denied their role in the prank. Meanwhile, however, they plotted. By the time the Jesuits had replaced the Recollet missionaries in Huronia, the children had devised a few new tricks. In winter, when the snows were deep and the air chill, they would throw snowballs through the smoke-hole of the Jesuits' roof. The priests, huddled around the fire inside, would watch the snowballs drop into the flames. The Jesuits weren't safe while attending to the members of their adopted flock, either. On more than one occasion, these dignified representatives of the Christian church were forced to duck swiftly as wayward cornstalks sailed over their heads.
Of course, children weren't the only ones who enjoyed a little lighthearted diversion from their everyday pursuits. The adults, too, often found ignoring their visitors' enticing combination of ignorance and credulity difficult, which may explain how Sagard, unfamiliar with beavers, came to accept a story about the rodent's haulage methods. When building their dens, some Huron wit earnestly informed him, large troops of beavers would lumber deep into the darkest regions of the forest, industriously cut down small trees and gather twigs, then select the eldest or laziest among them, make him lie down on his back, and carefully arrange the selected building materials on his belly. With his paws wrapped securely around his load, the supine beaver would then be hauled - in much the same manner as a sled or a wagon - to the den-building site.
However, the joking went both ways. A story in the Jesuit Relations, the missionaries' reports to their superiors, tells of a Huron man staring into the face of a Frenchman "with the most extraordinary attention and profound silence", exclaiming after considering him a long time, "oh, the bearded man! Oh, how ugly he is!" Aware of the Huron horror of beards, the French tried to convince them that European women, too, had them. It was only after some Huron men happened to encounter Samuel de Champlain's young wife at the Quebec settlement that they understood that they had been made the butt of a joke, and that European women were, in fact, beardless.
For centuries prior to Columbus's momentous 1492 voyage, Europeans had indulged their taste for the exotic through an imaginative body of travel literature. In works such as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville and Pliny's Natural History, readers were told of races of supposed subhumans inhabiting the earth's remotest regions, characterized by such physical deformities as multiple eyes, no head, or backwards feet. Because of this, Europeans who jouneyed to the Americas fully expected to encounter monsters and were more than a little surprised when they did not. Almost all of their surviving journals and reports, in fact, include astonished references to the striking beauty of the people that they did encounter. At least one reference specifically indicated that they looked "quite human". These beautiful people, in turn, quickly assessed the situation and made good use of it. In the Caribbean, Columbus was told of one-eyed, dog-headed cannibals. One the St. Lawrence River, Jacques Cartier was subjected to tales of races of people lacking anuses or with only one leg. Europeans across the hemisphere were on the receiving end of many a very tall tale.
Donnacona, the Iroquois chief who was French explorer and navigator Jacques Cartier's primary contact in the St. Lawrence valley, exhibited a particular flair for such farce. Wishing to prevent Cartier from journeying into territory where he might establish trade agreements of which Donnacona was not a party, Donnacona made what you might call a devilish decision. He had three of his men paint their faces black, don black-and-white dog skins, and affix long horns to their heads. Then he had them paddle nonchallantly down the river past Cartier's anchored ship. As Cartier looked on, one of the men (in an ironic touch considering the Christians' own proclivity for preaching) made a marvelous speech as the other two paddled toward shore. The rest of Donnacona's people immediately seized the canoe with the men still in it and hauled it into the woods. Half an hour later, Donnacona's sons Taignoagny and Domagaya appeared before Cartier giving every sign of the utmost consternation. "Taignoagny began to speak and repeated three times 'Jesus,', 'Jesus,' 'Jesus,' lifting his eyes toward heaven. Then [Domagaya] called out 'Jesus,' 'Maria,' 'Jacques Cartier,' looking up to heaven as the other had done". Cartier was then duly informed that the appearance of the devils portended a most sever winter - so severe, in fact, that his journey would simply have to be cancelled.
Such dramatic enactments were probably relatively rare, however. More often than not, Europeans were simply subjected to verbal accounts of the monsters and dangerous enemy nations that they could expect to find if they continued on their chosen course. But the reverse applied as well. When their native hosts wished them to go away or, at least, to journey in a particular direction, Europeans were told wondrous tales of gold, pearls, rubies, and spices. Though Christopher Columbus disbelieved the tales of one-eyed, dog-headed cannibals, he wholeheartedly accepted the story about an island inhabited entirely by women. In fact, only his ship's terrible state of disrepair and the need to get back to Spain kept him from immediately seeking out the island.
But such credulity is not always a reflection of ignorance. Sometimes one's wit simply operates at a lower ebb than normal - a phenomenon from which even historical figures were not exempt. In the early 1600s, when the first governor of New France Samuel de Champlain encountered three hundred Odawa warriors bearing clubs, bucklers, bows, and arrows, and sporting war paint and all of the other paraphernalia of men about to do battle (dressed to kill, so to speak), he didn't give a moment's pause at their chief's explanation for their presence outside of their accustomed territory. No doubt for years thereafter the Odawa word for "gullible" was associated with the name of the man who actually believed that three hundred battle-ready warriors were spending the day picking blueberries.
On another occasion, Champlain, known for his map-making skills, was so distracted by the appearance of a small, brightly coloured bird that he singlemindedly followed it deep into the forest as it flitted from tree to tree. By the time that the little bird - probably an eastern subspecies of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet - tired of the game and flew away, the explorer was thoroughly lost. He spent three nights alone in the cold winter woods before he was finally able to find his way back to his native allies, who chastised him soundly - and justifiably - for his foolishness.
Like travellers of any era, European explorers had to contend with the difficulties of foreign languages. This was particularly true in the Americas where different languages abounded. Some of the explorers, like Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who travelled for eight years through what is now Florida, Texas and Mexico, discovered that they had a facility for multilingual communication. Others were less successful. After living and working among the Mohawk for twenty years, one seventeenth-century European trader simply concluded that they changed their entire language every two or three years. His difficulty, however, may not have been entirely his fault. Other visitors to the Americas, like Henri Joutel, who was part of the ill-fated La Salle expedition to Texas, discovered that the native words he was taught did not always mean precisely what he thought they did. He realized this when he noticed that at times his hosts would break into uproarious laughter whenever he attempted to speak their language.
Not only was the land and its people foreign to the Eurpeans, the wildlife, too, posed some unexpected surprises. Some species simply did not exist in Europe. Not knowing how to describe them for those at home, travellers often resorted to comparisons. Walruses were described alternately as "oxen" and "horses", beluga whales were said to have the head "of a greyhound", and bison, somewhat more reasonably, were called "hairy cattle". The lasting impression left by skunks simple earned them the titles of "Devil's Brats" and "Sons of the Devil" (Fils diable).
[It] is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make of it a symbol of sin...It has black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and has upon its back two perfectly white stripes...at the first glance, you would say, especially when it walks, that it ought to be called Jupiter's little dog. But it is so stinking, and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto. No sewer ever smelled so bad...your heart almost fails you.
By the late sixteenth century, the Europeans were so accustomed to encountering strange new animals that, on one occasion at least, they mistook men for beasts. During an expedition to find the elusive Northwest Passage, Martin Frobisher encountered a number of Inuit men hunting in their kayaks and, at first, thought them to be porpoises, seals, or "strange fish".
The French did get some of their own back, however, when they introduced donkeys to North America. The beasts, thankful to be ashore after their long voyage, "joyously brayed" as they were led off the ship. The gathered Huron, unaccustomed to large domesticated animals, immediately hightailed it into the nearby woods without a backward glance.
At least one European visitor also managed to leave an impression on the wildlife. Having sought a quiet spot in the woods to pray, the missionary Gabriel Sagard was spotted by a partridge. Slowly approaching the kneeling man, the bird looked hims straight in the eye, studied him closely for some minutes, spread out its tail "like a peacock" and then unhurriedly walked back the way it had come, occasionally looking back at Sagard over its shoulder. Sagard documented the incident with some amusement but, considering the rest of his experiences with North American wildlife, the partridge was lucky to escape the gentle man's stew pot. Indeed, Sagard's description of the year that he spent in North American reads more like the jubilant adventures of a gourmand than of a Christian brother. As his ship approached the shores of the continent, Sagard sampled several marine species, including: cuttlefish ("very good when fried, like hard-boiled white of egg"), dolphin fish ("a little dry"), porpoise ("a great treat"), cod, and halibut ("very good...fried and boiled in slices"). As the ship entered the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, birds and their eggs were added to the menu, including the now-extinct great auk. Even a walrus failed to evade the man's palate (apparently, it tastes somewhat like veal). Further up the Gaspe, he encountered lobster, trout, toads, hare, herrings, larks, sea urchins, and partridge. During the time that he spent with the Huron near the shores of the Great Lake that bears their name, he was able to sample, among many other things, dog ("rather like pork"), beaver ("most excellent"), and eagle ("very good").
He did, like many Europeans after him, have some difficulty consuming the Huron's customary fare, but then the Huron were equally disgusted when they caught him adding wild onions to his porridge. They tended to stay away on such occasions, declaring that Sagard's breath "smelt too bad." But, if the Huron in general were disgusted by their European visitor's choice of seasoning, one particular Huron man was rather surprised by the potency of one of their condiments. Not knowing that mustard was intended to be consumed with meat in small amounts, the old gentleman took a heaping spoonful
and this good fellow, wishing to show the strength of his courage, strove to keep his countenace. His tears, however, betrayed him, although he set his teeth and compressed his lips to the utmost; until at last the little maintenance of appearances and facial control that he possessed escaped him, and he was left highly astonished by the strength of that "yellow porridge".
One of the Age of Exploration's most profound effects was its impact on the spiritual beliefs of the cultures of Europe and the Americas. In Europe, most people accepted as fact the Bible story of Genesis. But nowhere in Genesis was there an explanation for all of the "new" peoples that the Europeans began to encounter in the fifteenth century. Were they the descendants of Adam and Eve, or perhaps of Cain, or Noah's son, Ham? Could they even be descended from Eve and Satan? Meanwhile, the native peoples themselves were likewise speculating on the origin of the Europeans. The Iroquois, for example, hypothesized that they were the descendants of a supernatural man-being named Tawiscaron who, like the Christian Satan, was the personification of evil. The Inuit were even less flattering: They concluded that the Europeans must be the offspring of an unruly girl of their mythology whose father forced her to marry a dog.
Europeans were accustomed to worshipping a single deity in purpose-built structures (churches), supervised by a hierarchy of priests whose only task in life was to administer to their spiritual needs. In contrast, for most native cultures, spirituality was an integral component of everyday living. It didn't require special places or days. Occasionally someone who was believed to be particularly spiritual might be asked for assistance, but everyone was thought to be capable of communicating with the supernatural realm himself. For instance, when an Odawa man decided that the spirit of a nearby lake was responsible for the bad weather, he sacrificed a dog in the hope that the storm would abate. Apparently, reverance as understood by Christians was not part of the equation: "That is to appease thee," he said. "Keep quiet!"
Perhaps most misunderstood of all, however, was priestly celibacy. Although natives might exercise sexual abstinence for specific purposes (to become more spiritual, for example), it was never a permanent feature of their lives and they could not fathom why it should be so for anyone else:
One of the chief and most annoying embarrassments they caused us at the beginning of our visit to their country was their continual importunity and requests to marry us, or at least to make a family alliance with us, and they could not understand our mode of religious life...and in these importunities the women and girls were beyond comparison more insistent and plagued us more than the men themselves who came to petition us on their behalf.
Generally speaking, natives better tolerated the differences between people than their European visitors did. As one native man who had adopted Christianity explained to a Jesuit: "One should not be surprised...at the little vexations that occur; we have indeed some disagreements in our own country, among our nearest relations, but we do not hate them nor leave them on that account; we look upon Father Daniel here as our Father; we have no inclination to leave him on account of little annoyaces".
The people of the Age of Exploration first encountered one another as individuals, not as representatives of respective cultures. Humour arose as naturally as argument. To truly understand the past and to honour our collective ancestors, we must acknowledge the causes, not only of their conflicts, but of their laughter as well.
© Joyce M. Wright