There was a man named Donnacona, the leader of the Stadaconan nation. Every summer he led a large delegation of men, women, and children on a fishing or hunting trip to build up their food supplies for the long winters of their country. This year (a year we call 1534, but that the Stadaconans did not) they’d traveled 700 kilometers east of their homes, paddling with the current of the massive Kaniatarowanenneh river, to fish for mackerel. They camped by a harbor that, from far enough above, looked like a crack in the lower lip of the mouth of the river. As they settled in, they set the scene for some of the most consequential events in the history of their nation, a second nation from another world, and a third nation that did not yet exist. One morning in July, Donnacona looked out towards the mouth of the river that would carry all but two of his party back home, and watched as two large alien ships entered the harbour from the south and closed in on his camp.
Even before the ships dropped anchor and deposited their inhabitants on shore, Donnacona knew a few things about them. He knew that they were from another world, because the people from that world had been visiting this one for awhile now, including trips along the north coast of the gulf of the Kaniatarowanenneh where the Stadaconans would often go to hunt for seal and porpoise. But there was even more that he did not know, including the fact that just days earlier these foreigners had fired their cannons at the Mi’kmaq, a nation to the south, for the sin of approaching them for trade. And he could not have known their intentions, or what they were about to put into motion.
Absent a crystal ball, the Stadaconans welcomed the foreigners ashore and accepted gifts of glass beads. They managed to bridge formidable linguistic and cultural gaps well enough to enjoy the company of the visitors for a few days. They danced, and sang, and rubbed the face and arms of the lead foreigner in greeting. The humanity of the people from these two worlds, the fundamental thing they had in common, temporarily prevailed. Until, on a day the foreigners called Friday, July 24th, the foreigners made preparations to leave.
Some background on the foreigners is important to understand in order for their next act to make any sense. They called themselves Christians, and more specifically French, and more specifically Breton. Unlike the Stadaconans they each had two names, a “Christian name” and a family name that associated them with their kin through a patrilineal system. The Christians were so-called because they worshiped a god named Christ, who they believed had been ritually tortured to death on a large wooden cross, according to the oral history of their people (which had since been written down). The leader of the French people was called a King, and he derived his authority directly from the Christian god. Strangely, all the Christians from these ships were men. Their leader’s name was Jacques Cartier, and as he prepared to depart he had instructed his men to erect a large cross — a symbol of their god’s death by torture — on the land.
When Donnacona saw what the Christians had done he became angry at the obvious overstep. He and the Stadaconans had welcomed the French onto the land as temporary guests, but now they were “presuming to use land that belonged to his people without first acquiring the right to do so.” Donnacona jumped into a canoe with his brother and three of his sons, and paddled out to confront Cartier. Lacking a common language and anyone able to provide interpretation, Donnacona was still easily able to convey exactly what he was upset about in a way the French understood. Pointing at the cross while delivering his “harangue,” Donnacona made it clear that the French had no right to build anything on his community’s land.
Cartier was also able to communicate a simple message without the use of spoken language. He held out an axe, not as a threat, but as an offer of payment, as if he was willing to reach an agreement for use of the land. “As Donnacona warily approached the ship to collect the axe, he was seized” by the French, who then forced his brother and sons onto their ships as well. While delivering a speech in words that the Stadaconans could not understand, Cartier then dressed up two of Donnacona’s sons, Taignoagny and Domagaya, in European clothes and brass chains. It was in this way that Donnacona realized that Cartier intended to kidnap his sons and take them back to the Christians’ world.
For hundreds of years after this moment, people would speculate as to why Donnacona smiled and allowed this to happen. Historian Bruce Trigger says it’s likely that, in addition to realizing that Cartier and his men had the upper hand, at least for now, Donnacona also optimistically hoped that the customs of this strange nation were similar to those of his own when it came to the foreign exchange of family members. If he remained friendly, his sons would remain safe, and the two peoples would establish a mutually beneficial alliance. Additionally, the people of this land that was on the cusp of being called Canada for the first time were known for their politeness, which, to the French, gave “Donnacona’s actions a deceptive appearance of satisfaction and goodwill.”
The next day the two ships were gone, vanishing quickly over the horizon to the northeast, and so were Taignoagny and Domagaya. Their father, along with the rest of the community, had nothing to do but return home, and hope that their kidnapped sons soon would as well.
Donnacona and the rest of his family and community returned to their winter home in Stadacona and its six neighbouring villages. More than a year passed without any sign of Taignoagny and Domagaya, and no way to know when or if they’d ever be heard from again. Finally, in September of 1535, word got back to Donnacona that his sons were aboard three ships that had been spotted on the Kaniatarowanenneh river. This great river was a busy place, and Cartier’s small alien fleet was conspicuous. When they’d visited a year earlier they had no idea where they were going, and had dead-ended in two small bays and harbours without discovering the massive opening of the Kaniatarowanenneh right next door, like a basketball bouncing twice off the rim of an oversized net.
This time however, they had their kidnapped guides to show them the way home, employing the rudimentary French they had learned during the year. When the ships anchored on the west side of a large island across from their home town, Taignoagny and Domagaya could be seen by their community from the shore, and a celebration began. In addition to singing and dancing, the people of Stadacona presented the French with gifts of “eels, fish, maize, and several large squash.” Cartier and his men then continued a short way upriver before anchoring their ships where the Lairet river flows into the St. Charles River, currently the site of a small park with a historic monument, grassy field, visitors centre, playground, and a plaque, dedicated to Donnacona for what was about to be done to him.
In these early days of jubilation that the brothers Taignoagny and Domagaya had been returned, Cartier and Donnacona, as the leaders of these two groups of people, had every reason to believe that things would continue to go well. Donnacona’s forced gamble appeared to have paid off with the safe return of his sons, and Cartier and his men had been given an apparently warm welcome. In fact, this brief moment in time was to be the high point, not only of the relationship between these two peoples, but of Cartier’s relationship with any of the nations of this world.
From the perspective of Taignoagny and Domagaya, they had just survived a kidnapping that involved an uncomfortable and frightening “ocean voyage to an unknown destination,” which might has well have been another planet. While there they had been forced “to eat strange food” and “were exposed to a wholly unfamiliar way of life and many customs that must have frightened and disgusted them.” The culture of the French people was so different from any the Stadaconans had previously encountered — they beat their children, were more sexually conservative, and lived in greater pollution with lower standards of personal hygiene — that “even if Cartier believed that he treated” his captors well, “his behaviour often must have seemed cruel and arbitrary” to them.
To survive, they had cooperated as best they could figure out what was expected of them, and had learned a totally new language “by trial and error.” They had also made promises to broker their unlikely safe return. Most significantly, they promised to lead Cartier past Stadacona to the nation of Hochelaga, and gave him the strong impression that he would find “jewels and precious metals” there and beyond. But as soon as they had achieved the goal of returning safely back home, Taignoagny and Domagaya immediately became decidedly less friendly to their captors. For example, they wisely refused to again board any French ship.
While certainly cause for concern, the stories that Taignoagny and Domagaya brought back from their time in the other world were not yet a deal breaker for their father Donnacona and other Stadaconan leaders who hoped for an economic and military alliance with the French. But other incidents continued to strain the relationship further. The French beached their ships at the previously-mentioned site of today’s park, playground, and plaque, thereby again “using land without obtaining permission to do so.” They also walked around carrying their weapons even though the Stadaconans did not, which indicated a clear “lack of trust.” And there was the issue of Cartier’s planned trip upriver to Hochelaga. Donnacona did not want Cartier to make a separate alliance with the more populous and materially wealthy Hochelagans, wanting instead “to keep the… advantages of an alliance with the French to himself.” Here Donnacona was in the avant garde, so to speak, as the first leader of his world to try to establish himself as a middleman between Europeans and the nations in the interior.
Donnacona attempted to convince the French not to go upriver. Failing that, his backup plan was to lock the French into an alliance — a “special relationship” — before they left for Hochelaga. Neither effort went well. Cultural and language barriers plagued negotiations, with the French failing to fully comprehend the significance of the exchange of gifts, and the Stadaconans becoming startled by an ill-considered twelve-gun salute fired from a French ship. Ultimately Cartier rejected Stadaconan diplomacy without realizing that’s what he was doing, and further, unwittingly indicated that he intended to form an alliance with the Hochelagans instead, confirming Donnacona’s fears.
As for their attempts to dissuade the French from taking the trip altogether, Taignoagny and Domagaya attempted to imitate a Christian ritual while warning the French that a Stadaconan god said that if they continued upstream, “they would all perish from ice and snow.” When Cartier replied that his Christian god said the opposite, another miscommunication played out. The Christians understood religion to be exclusive, while the Stadaconans and their neighbours understood religion to be inclusive. It would therefore be rude of them to not “respect” the “French shamans’ pretended divination.” Christians would continue to be puzzled by the religious acceptance and plurality of the people of this world for centuries, leading to profound and harmful misunderstandings.
Having failed to convince them otherwise, the Stadaconans watched Cartier and some of his men head upriver towards Hochelaga.
By the time Cartier returned to Stadaconan country, the French men who stayed behind had built a small fort complete with ramparts and mounted artillery. “This was a still greater infringement on land belonging to the people of Stadacona,” to which Cartier soon added “wide ditches and extra scaffolding” as he became increasingly suspicious of the people who lived on the land he was occupying. His fear that they might become hostile was rational, since not only had he constructed a military fort without permission in a foreign country, the Stadaconans had also discovered he had been fraudulently passing off cheap trinkets as items of value. Plus, French men had assaulted at least one Stadaconan girl — a niece of Donnacona — who had escaped to tell the tale.
Relations between the members of the two nations turned colder with the weather, and everyone settled in for the winter. Soon the French became sick with scurvy, a deadly disease caused simply by a lack of vitamin C, but which the French did not understand. Because he was afraid of the Stadaconans, Cartier took “elaborate precautions” to hide from them that his men were sick and dying, so as to not betray weakness. But when Domagaya learned of their symptoms he recognized them, knew what to do, and “did not hesitate” to send help, despite his personal history with the French. Soon, Stadaconan women were collecting the required ingredients (primarily white cedar fronds) for “a curative drink,” which they showed the French how to make for themselves, likely saving many lives. Within a week the sick French were all feeling better.
And yet as the snow thawed, Cartier’s wariness did not. Meanwhile, the Stadaonans invited neighbouring peoples to conference with them about what foreign policy they should pursue with regards to the French. A man named Agona was a leading voice arguing that the Stadaconans should be more welcoming and conciliatory, compared to a perceived hostility from Donnacona and his recently kidnapped sons. In an apparent effort to try to change Agona’s mind, Taignoagny tried to convince Cartier to kidnap Agona and take him back to France. His plan seems to have been to start a rumour, or at best orchestrate an attempted kidnapping, so that Agona could learn firsthand what the French were capable of. Cartier, continuing to misinterpret Stadaconan culture and actions, while projecting his own values and worldview, believed that Agona and Donnacona were actually engaged in a power struggle for control of Stadacona. Such a dynamic would have made sense in French culture, but not in Stadacona and other similar cultures of this world, where leaders only held their positions by channelling the interests of their people, with their ongoing and active consent.
Taignoagny’s plan backfired. Up until now, his father had been telling Cartier stories about the geography of this world, and of its nations, and of its trade patterns and riches. Some of the stories were less true than others. For example, Donnacona “claimed to have visited lands where men had only one leg or where they lacked anuses and ate no solid food.” But he also accurately described a river that led south to the land of the Haudenosaunee, as well as another route to the west, past many great lakes, to the greatest lake, where there was a nation whose main export was copper.
Maybe he exaggerated, or maybe the word “copper” was mistranslated, or maybe Cartier heard what he wanted to hear, imagining himself a French Conquistador, discovering vast wealth. In any case, Cartier came to believe that there was gold to be found further inland, and that Donnacona was the man to lead him there. Once he also concluded that Donnacona and Agona were vying for control of Stadacona, Cartier resolved to again kidnap Taignoagny and Domagaya, and this time Donnacona as well. He believed that the kidnapping would execute a regime change in Stadacona more aligned with his objectives, and that Donnacona would then tell the French King of this land’s riches in order to convince him to send more ships to extract them.
Taignoagny and Domagaya’s nightmare came true when they were again seized and forced to board a ship again bound for the country called France, this time with Donnacona and 7 other Stadaconans, including children. Cartier made a public promise that they would all be returned the next year. Before being pulled away, Donnacona made a speech to his people “that the French could not understand.” They were the last words he’d ever speak in this land. This time, none of the Stadaconans taken by the French ever saw their homes again.
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Photo: This “Cross of Gaspé” was commissioned by the government of Canada and installed in 1934 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cartier’s cross.