America’s First Real Indian: How a Bengalese Man Ended Up in 17th-Century New France
REV. FATHER BARTH. JACQUINOT: “I also wanted to go, and hear the confession of a Bengalese, who had been wounded, and had sent for me. He is a young man brought from the East Indies, who had been converted to Christianity in France, and has been passing the winter here with us. I saw him, and consoled him as best I possibly could.”1
Ever since I read this passage almost two years ago, I’ve been fascinated. The 17th-century world was far more connected than I had ever imagined. Sure, I knew about Europeans coming over to what we now call America, Canada, Mexico, etc., etc. I mean who doesn’t? That’s kind’ve why I even exist. But, people from India? I never would’ve thought. So, how did this apparent anomaly of a life happen?
While the French didn’t create their own East India Company until the 1670s, another Catholic power had carved out possessions for itself over a century before. In 1505, the Portuguese state of India was founded, and used to keep tabs on all of Portugal’s imperial territories in the Indian Ocean.2 And it didn’t take long for the most famous of the Catholic missionaries, the Jesuits, to follow. Arriving in Goa in 1541, Francis Xavier and the Jesuit order looked to spread the Word.3 Quickly making connections in the Mughal Empire, which controlled a growing portion of the Indian sub-continent, and by 1707 would rule almost the entire area of what we now call India, Jesuits proved able to spread into the one of the Empire’s most lucrative provinces, Bengal.4
Okay, so we know how Catholic missionaries made it to India. But our man from Bengal converted to the faith in France. While it’s impossible to chart this man’s journey from the shores of Bengal to the river Seine, the beauty of a blog is I can make wild conjectures! It’s easy enough to imagine how someone from the other side of the world could end up in France. Since the Jesuit, Father Bartholeme Jacquinot, gave no name or description of the man other than “Bengalese,” one can presume he was lower class, and not part of the Mughal elite. And if he was part of the 99% of the 17th century’s population that worked as farmers, laborers, craftsmen, etc., one can imagine why a Jesuit coming around saying, in our religion, the meek inherit the earth, would appeal to him. So, he begins listening to the missionaries, maybe even seeking them out at their residence. As he learns more, and his interest in their faith grows, maybe they even offer him an opportunity to get out of that nasty, brutish, and short Hobbesian existence that so many knew too well.
But if these missionaries came under the flag of the Portuguese king and empire, why did the Bengalese man end up in France? The kingdom of France had long been one of the centers of European Christianity, second in importance only to Rome itself. Indeed, the geographic area we now call France had given birth to some of the most important men, and played host to some of the most significant events, in medieval Christian history. Charlemagne ruled Francia for 30 years, expanding its borders to such an extent that in 799, Pope Leo III named him Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.5 Five-hundred years later, from 1309-1377, the papacy itself moved to Avignon under the influence of the French kings – and though Avignon wasn’t part of France at the time, it was by the time our Bengalese protagonist arrived in Europe.6 The monarchs of France were themselves known as the most Christian kings, and Paris housed the most well respected theological minds of the time at the Sorbonne.
So it’s no surprise that our Bengalese protagonist ended up in the kingdom of France, where he subsequently converted to Christianity, presumably under the watchful eyes of those ever vigilant Jesuits. But why then go to Canada? Well, since there’s no way of really knowing, it’s time for another wild conjecture! Given that this man asked for Father Jacquinot when wounded, rather another of the several Jesuits no doubt milling about, makes me think he had a personal with the relationship with the man. So, when Bartholome Jacquinot was told by his superiors in the Society of Jesus he would be sent to Canada, this man may have decided to follow his would be chronicler to the “savage” continent.
And so once again our Bengalese protagonist found himself on a European ship crossing an ocean, surrounded by a bunch of zealous white guys. Now bound for the New World, however, this man from India was about to meet those people European colonists erroneously called Indians. With their course set for the St. Lawrence river valley, not only was he about to meet people like he’d never known, but a climate like he’d never known. Quebec is a far cry from Bengal and France when winter comes.
It’s fairly easy to imagine this man standing amid several feet of snow for the first time, watching his breath condense in the air before him, clutching his bear fur coat closer and closer, filled with wonderment at this place and its people – or else wondering what the f*ck have I gotten myself into? But I like to imagine the first one more.
And though this man had only a few sentences of a single document dedicated to him, and then disappeared from the Jesuit Relations – trust me, I’ve looked through the entire thing – his life was the perfect confluence of places and people that so defined his era. Traveling from India, to Europe, to Canada, this man must have heard more languages and seen more cultures than anyone in the modern era can even fathom. Living in the French settlements along the St. Lawrence, our Bengalese man probably had the opportunity to meet members of the Wendat, Mi’kmaq, Seneca, Mohawk, Naskapi, and Abenaki nations – and no doubt other Iroquoian and Algonquian speakers who came to the St. Lawrence to trade with the French and other First Nations.
One can only image what our Bengalese man thought of these various Native American peoples. While the Jesuits he came with often referred to the Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples they encountered as savages, I like to think our protagonist had a far kinder view of their cultures and ways of living. After all, Native American societies were far more egalitarian than the Mughal civilization whence he originated, and if he had belonged to the lower class in Bengal (as I speculated above) he may have marveled at the apparent freedom afforded individuals in these societies. Now, by no means was Native America a classless utopia where all lived in peace and harmony. But from European accounts of peoples such as the Wendat and Abenaki, the people of Canada’s First Nations had greater individual freedoms than did the people of the Fren
ch Kingdom or Mughal Empire – especially women, who played a large role in these matrilineal societies.
Though it’s impossible to know anything, really, about this man’s life other than the fact that he lived with the Jesuits in New France, and was wounded there, we can deduce with some certainty he lived a fascinating life. Stringing together the history of three continents and countless peoples, this man traveled the world at one of the most ethnically diverse times in history. He no doubt had known not just Christians, but Muslims, Hindus, probably even a few Buddhists, and died surrounded by a population who held animistic belief systems. His ears no doubt heard dozens of languages in his life, and his tongue must’ve picked up at least a few. His eyes bore witness to the shores of Bengal, the cathedrals of France, and the longhouses of Canada. Forget Magellan, this man truly saw the world.
1. Bartholeme Jacquinot, “Relation of What Occurred in New France in the year 1633,” Jesuit Relations, vol. 5, 233 (http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_06.html)