LATE SCHOLAR WAS FASCINATED BY CHAMPLAIN AS A MAN OF TOLERANCE
A few months after completing the accompanying story for Canada’s History, author Janet Ritch passed away. Her death from cancer on December 12, 2014, at age fifty-nine, was a great loss to many people.
Janet was a colleague of mine, a highly respected researcher, translator, and scholar whose assistance was invaluable to my published efforts on Samuel de Champlain and John Cabot. I served as an assessor for a successful funding application for the research she was pursuing at her death, on indigenous slaves in colonial New France. Her curiosity and passion extended well beyond Champlain, but the issue of his possible status as an illegitimate son of Henri IV did fire her final years.
There is not much for me to add to the evidence Janet presented in her article. If I were able to sit with her again today and debate her case, I would be more interested in engaging Janet on her desire to view Champlain as a “legend of tolerance” for our time. Legend is something that has plagued approaches to Champlain, ever since he was resurrected as a historical figure in the nineteenth century.
Morris Bishop, in the 1963 introduction to a new edition of his classic biography Champlain: The Life of Fortitude (1948), argued for Champlain to be embraced as a “national hero.” It’s a burden few figures in our history have to shoulder, and when we approach history with a determination to create such heroes and gild them in legend, however useful such legends may appear to us, our ability to assess them critically becomes burdened as well.
Champlain is a fascinating, complicated figure who deserves all the attention he attracts, and Janet’s explorations add to that fascinating complication. But in response to the question of whether Champlain was the son of Henri IV, I would say: Would it matter if he wasn’t?