Bourrie revisits New France in the 1600s

Saint or cultural assailant? Mark Bourrie takes a new look at a Jesuit martyr in Crosses in the Sky: Jean de Brebeuf and the Destruction of Huronia (Biblioasis, 448 pages, $26.95). 

Review by Ken McGoogan /  Special to the Star

Bourrie turns from Radisson to Brebeuf

In 2019, Mark Bourrie published Bush Runner, a biography of the adventurer Pierre-Esprit Radisson. In a review (see here), I described it as “compelling, authoritative, not a little disturbing — and a significant contribution to the history of 17th-century North America.” I can now say the same about Bourrie’s latest, Crosses in the Sky: Jean de Brébeuf and the Destruction of Huronia.

A social history that encompasses a biography, it is both a companion volume and a stand-alone prequel. Where “Bush Runner” begins in 1651 “Crosses in the Sky” runs mainly from when Jesuit priest Jean de Brébeuf arrives in New France in 1625 to his martyrdom in 1649.

While never losing sight of the priest, Bourrie ranges widely, drawing on the chronicles known as  The Jesuit Relations to paint a picture of the Huron/Wendat world and its destruction as a result of devastating epidemics, the cultural assault of fundamentalist Christianity, and the enduring enmity of their long-standing Iroquois enemies.

Brébeuf, born in Normandy in 1593, emerges as a man of average intelligence, physically larger than most, given to the most extreme idiosyncrasies of his time and place. He was a fervent believer in Catholic dogma and a seer of visions who, in his later years, would pray to be tortured to death as a martyr to his faith.

He also had a gift for languages. He learned to use the metaphors of Huron culture to communicate Christian mythology, translating it clearly enough that for Indigenous traditionalists he stood as an enemy – indeed, a bogeyman that mothers used to frighten their children.

To a hedonistic culture that reveled in sexual promiscuity, Brébeuf brought a mindset akin to that of the Spanish Inquisition. Give up your wanton ways, he thundered from any given pulpit, or you shall burn in hell. No more orgiastic feasts, no more sex without marriage, no more women fleeing their husbands. Hell fire awaits those who refuse to embrace our one true God and his only begotten son.

I’m embellishing to clarify why Brébeuf spent years struggling to convert a handful of Hurons to his evangelical world view. He and his fellow Jesuits well knew that back in Europe, interrogators deployed fiendish methods to torture heretics, from stretching them on the rack to skinning them or, as with Giordano Bruno in 1600, burning them alive at the stake.

The Jesuits discovered that accounts of the ritualistic torture ceremonies they witnessed in the New World, as conducted by both Hurons and Iroquois, appealed to a broad audience with deep pockets. So, in their Jesuit Relations, published annually, they highlighted the sensational. The 1636 volume, for example, detailed the fate of a 50-year-old Iroquois leader, Saouandanoncoua, captured by Hurons. Theoretically, he might have been spared and adopted, but his captors, knowing him to be a committed enemy, immediately damaged his hands, rendering him useless and doomed. Back in the village near the main Jesuit mission, Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, warriors taunted the prisoner while Brébeuf urged him to avoid hell fire by accepting Jesus as his saviour.

Ste. Marie Among the Hurons is today a living history museum


That evening, after making him sing, Huron warriors finished smashing both hands and pierced his ears with pointy sticks. When he passed out, many witnesses went off to bed, leaving the dedicated to finish the job. This at a time when Europeans, Bourrie observes, would turn out “en masse to watch the brutalization and killing of a prisoner.”

Ultimately, the torturers suspended their captive from a tree branch, burned his genitals and upper body, placed a garland of red hot axeheads around his neck, jammed firebrands down his throat and up his rectum, then cut off his hands, feet and head. Along the way, during moments of respite, Brebeuf preached to all those in attendance, warning the torturers that they faced worse torments than these if they did not embrace the Christian faith. Such was his fanaticism that, having witnessed this atrocity, yet the priest prayed that, to demonstrate his love for Jesus, he might suffer an equally horrendous death. For that, he would have to wait more than a decade.

Full disclosure: my own earliest-arriving French ancestor, Jean Pelletier, traveled inland in 1646 with a convoy to Ste. Marie, near present-day Midland. Age nineteen, he went as a “donne” or apprentice Jesuit. Luckily for me, he bailed on his quest for sainthood and returned home to Quebec in 1647. The next year, a party of Iroquois ambushed and killed one of young Pelletier’s comrades. And then, in March 1649, they dealt summarily with all the French still in the vicinity when they also gave Brebeuf the death he so desired – one that, in its horrific details, closely resembled that of Saouandanoncou.

In reinterpreting the Jesuit’s martyrdom against the backdrop of Huronia’s destruction, Bourrie presents a revisionist history. First, he repudiates the prevailing Roman Catholic narrative, which presents Brébeuf as an innocent saint who died horribly for his faith. Bourrie paints the priest as a fundamentalist Christian who actively sought to become a martyr: a troubled soul given to visions, probably schizophrenic, certainly of unsound mind from a contemporary perspective.

Second, Bourrie shows that the eradication of Huronia was more complex than most people realize. The Jesuits were not settlers but cultural assault troops. They undermined Huron traditions and beliefs, dividing and weakening the nation. The epidemics of the late 1630s proved more ravaging still. Sickness arrived from the south, conveyed by fur traders shuttling among English, Dutch, and Indigenous peoples, and dramatically reduced the size of the population.

Even so, by the mid-1640s, the Hurons were regrouping and would almost certainly have survived as a nation except that their long-standing enemies, the Iroquois, spotted an opportunity, developed a careful plan and attacked in overwhelming numbers. The stronger First Nation wiped out the weaker, a few survivors escaping to assimilate into other peoples. That’s the way Bourrie tells it and I, for one, find his rendition convincing.

In September, Ken McGoogan will publish Shadows of Tyranny: Defending Democracy in an Age of Dictatorship.

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