The Jesuit Relations and other accounts

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in North America (1690-1791)  is a marvelous collection of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in New France to their patrons and religious superiors in France. The writing is clear, vivid and simple.

One is entranced by the absolute gulf in comprehension between the European Catholic intellectuals and their would be converts, who are called Savages, Hurons, Iroquois, Abenaki, and so forth, but never as Indians.

The Hurons tell them of their idea of sun and moon and comets, to the sly amusement of the know-it all European. They tell the Jesuits of their idea of the afterlife, where the souls of the hunters hunt and trap the souls of the elk, deer and beavers in the happy hunting grounds. “What happens to the souls of the dead animals,” asks the Jesuit, “do they go to a further heaven.?” The Indian has no answer for this and like questions. He has never thought about it. The Indian has never thought about it because systematic inquiry into nature is not what he does or can do. If Father Sun and Mother Moon beget a child, which is dark, there is no contradiction between the luminous nature of the parents and the and the darkness of the child. It just is. Everything is a “just so” story (rather like evolution – but nevermind).

The depictions of Indian warfare and cruelty never vary: they are in constant warfare, and their behaviour is cruel in the extreme. Here is a short story from 1649. A war band of Tobacco Indians had left a village around Chambly, Quebec to seek out a war party of Iroquois, who were thought to be outnumbered and on the run. Consequently their own village was defenceless.

It was on the seventh day of the month of last December, in the year 1649, toward three o’clock in the afternoon, that this band of Iroquois appeared at the gates of the village, spreading immediate dismay, and striking terror into the poor people, – bereft of their strength and finding themselves vanquished; when they thought themselves to be conquerors. Some took to flight; others were slain on the spot. To many, the flames, which were already consuming their cabins, gave the first intelligence of the disaster. Many were taken prisoner, but the victorious enemy, fearing the return of the warriors who had gone to meet them, hastened their retreat so precipitately, that they put to death all the old men and children, and all whom they deemed unable to keep up with them in their flight.

It was a scene of incredible cruelty. The enemy snatched from a Mother her infants, that they might be thrown into the fire; other children  beheld their Mothers beaten to death at their feet, or groaning in the flames, – permission in either case denied them to show the least compassion. It was a crime to shed a tear, these barbarians demanding that their prisoners go into capacity as if they were marching to their triumph. A poor Christian Mother, who wept for the death of her infant, was killed on the spot, because she still loved, and could not stifle soon enough her Natural feelings”.

-Father Paul Ragueneau

You can talk all you like about European settlement of North America, its depredations upon the native people both deliberate and inadvertent, such as smallpox and other “childhood” diseases which reduced their numbers by 95%. It was a catastrophic disaster for them, and they still have not recovered. But would any rational person hold that the endemic, cruel and mutual exterminations – and the psychological damage it did to both perpetrators and victims alike – constitute a model for how a society should be run?

In Christianity, only one person was crucified, in order that cruelty be abolished. The religion founded on the crucifixion of its founder has not completely triumphed, as we all observe. Can anyone doubt, however,  that Christianity marks a permanent and irreversible improvement in human behaviour, when compared to the universal and compulsory group savagery of what came before?

“Love is the only engine of survival” – Leonard Cohen

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