Dreams of Empire

Reviewed by Barbara Belyea

The Canadian public-at least the Anglo component-clings to a myth that this is a country shaped and defined by recent immigration. If memory is the measure, perhaps the myth is halfway to being true. We can’t see past the recent past; as a result we are culturally and politically unsure. Yet this year marks the 250th anniversary of the proclamation ending the Seven Years’ War; seven years from now the Hudson’s Bay Company will celebrate the 350th anniversary of its charter. What do these documents signify? Why should we remember events and conditions associated with them? New editions of Radisson and Rogers can help us find answers to these questions.

Radisson and Rogers were both active on the frontier of French and British colonies in North America. As a boy Radisson was adopted into a Mohawk band. He then escaped and later joined his brother-in-law Des Groseilliers in fur-trade ventures to the upper Great Lakes. In 1660 they returned to the St Lawrence valley loaded with rich furs; the new royal administration fined them heavily for trading without government permission. “Seeing [them]selves so wronged,” finding no justice in France, the brothers enjoyed a better reception at the English court. The Hudson’s Bay Company, formed after their successful maritime venture, stood up to French trade initiatives, survived later threats to its charter as well as several regime changes, and is still in business. Meanwhile the French hold on its empire, always uncertain because it was dependent on Native alliances, failed during the Seven Years’ War. British colonial expansion west of the Appalachians was an irresistible force. Rogers led his “Rangers” against French troops at Quebec and Native “rebels,” notably Pontiac, a charismatic Ottawa leader whose siege of Detroit inspired attacks on eight other British forts. In time Pontiac’s resistance crumbled and the colonists moved in, ignoring an edict that provided for undisturbed use of “Hunting Grounds.” Rogers nevertheless admired the Ottawa chief and made him the protagonist of a blank-verse tragedy. In this play the character Ponteach and his enemies express attitudes that persist to this day.

Radisson’s “writings” and Rogers’ play were written by major players in the events they present. It would be hard to imagine a body of texts more difficult to edit than Radisson’s Voyages and Relations-a tissue of facts, self-serving interpretation, valid and unsubstantiated claims written in two seventeenth-century languages. The genres in which Radisson writes come with truth claims; as editor Warkentin explains, the narrative strategies by which Radisson’s texts tell the “truth,” do so to the author’s advantage. She presents a new authoritative description of the manuscripts, a clear and rational apparatus, readable texts, elegantly brief and helpful notes, together with a long introduction in which she untangles the rich but confusing detail of Radisson’s adventurous life and shifting loyalties. Warkentin’s landmark edition is admirable not only for rescuing Radisson from the obscurity of mere reference, but also for setting a new standard of editorial thoroughness and judgment for Canadian historical texts. Potter’s task was easier-that of editing a text established from copies of a single printed issue, with Rogers’s own history for generic comparison-but Ponteach is also a largely forgotten work that requires re-introduction. Potter begins with critical debate; her introduction would be clearer if it moved from events of the Native resistance to Rogers’s Concise Account of them, their dramatization, and finally reception of the text. In her own interpretation, Potter follows a now-orthodox historical emphasis on Native agency and sees it at work in the play. Ponteach presents “a complex, articulate human being driven to . . . violence and war . . . by his own excess ambition” as well as by “cultural encroachments.” But though the “encroachments” are historically specific, hubris has been a tragic trope since the Greeks. Contemporary reviews, which Potter includes, point to the poor fit between Rogers’s indecorous subject matter and European literary expectations.

The most interesting legacy of the French era and the fur trade was encouragement of alliances and métissage. British rule all but wiped out this intriguing development. The British rather than French pattern continues in anglophone media and publications: translation voiceover, citation of translations only, lack of apposite reference to works in French. A narrow unilingual view betrays the complex world reflected in the texts of these editions. I look forward to reading the Relations as Radisson wrote them. And Ponteach begs for comparison with Lahontan’s Adario.

This review “Dreams of Empire” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 183-185.

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