The Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle France are the annual reports sent to France by the superiors of Canadian missions. Published from 1632 to 1673, for propaganda purposes, they nonetheless shed considerable light on Indigenous societies and French colonization in North America.
Context of Production
The evangelization of New France began after the wars of religion, alongside efforts to rebuild the French kingdom in social, political, and religious terms. To re-establish order, the crown favored the simultaneous deployment of internal and external missions. Conversion to papal Christianity and subjection to the King of France provided the initial foundations of French imperialism. It was in this context that the first French Jesuit missions reached North America.
The very first mission was among the Mi’kmaq, lasting from 1611 to 1613, the year in which the fledgling colony of Acadia was destroyed by Samuell Argall's force from Virginia. In 1616, Pierre Biard published a long Relation about the difficulties encountered by this mission, to which his enemy, the lawyer Marc Lescarbot, offered a riposte in the form of his Histoire de la Nouvelle France. The second Jesuit mission took place from 1625 to 1629, when, invited by the Récollets, the Jesuits undertook a mission among the peoples who were allied to France – the Récollets published the Advis au Roy in 1626, and the Jesuits released the Lettre by Charles Lalemant in 1627 and in 1630 the Doctrine chrétienne, translated into Wendat by Jean de Brébeuf.
After France recovered its claim to the Saint Lawrence Valley in 1632, and until the bishopric of Quebec was founded in 1658, the Jesuits exercised an almost complete social and religious monopoly over the colony. Out of necessity, the Jesuits became linguists, explorers, and negotiators of alliances. As ethnographic precursors, they related their adventures, which were soon published so as to inspire missionary vocations and donations. Just as the Récollet Gabriel Sagard published Le Grand Voyage au Pays des Hurons, a different text---a sixty-page letter by the superior of the Jesuit mission, Paul Le Jeune launched the series of Relations. Drafted “in the middle of a forest, on 16th August 1632”, the letter struck the Jesuit provincial in France so powerfully that he decided to publish Le Jeune’s writings. On learning this, the latter revised his first Relation in 1634 as a book, of some three hundred and forty-four pages, dividing the text, as he put it, into chapters “at the end of which I shall place a journal of things that have no other connection than the sequence of time in which they happened. Everything I shall say about the sauvages, I have either witnessed myself, or I have learnt from the mouth of people from the country, especially from an old man deeply learned in their doctrines, and many others with whom I have spent six months.” The tone and form were hereby given to the Relations des Jésuites which, teeming with linguistic, ethnographic, political and diplomatic observations, combined the religious and literary tradition of martyrdom, prophecies and hagiographies, as well as features of classic travel literature and the cataloguing of foreign customs and beliefs. As with the writings of Marie de l’Incarnation, the Relations also bore witness to colonial life. Wherever they developed missions, the Jesuits confronted the tragedy of epidemics that decimated local populations. In some times and places, their raison d’être seemed to vanish and their lives were occasionally threatened by those indigenous peoples who saw them as sorcerers, and sources of illnesses and divisions, who wanted to “overturn the country."
The Relations make up a series of forty-one volumes, whose appearance evoked inexpensive books of devotion. They were poorly printed and often full of typographical or pagination errors. They were not illustrated and only one contains a map. Mostly written in French, in a clear and simple style, these narratives were intended to inform missionary authorities in France about the progress of evangelization. They were formatted by the Jesuit superior in Quebec who acted as a publisher, in addition to producing his own narrative, in the form of annual reports sent by the pays de mission. He then sent the texts that had been compiled in this way to France on the last ships to sail before winter cut off communication with France. After going through revisions, modifications, and even possible censorship, the yearly Relation was published in Paris by Sébastien Cramoisy about a year after being written. Alongside pirated or plagiarized copies, there are fifty-three “genuine” editions of the Relations, a testimony to their success.
Published in may 2021