On His Majesty’s Secret Service, 1599–1601
The King [of Spain] … at the commencement of his conquests, established the inquisition among them and enslaved them or put them to death in such great numbers that the mere account of it arouses compassion for them.
—Champlain on the Indians in New Spain.1
THE YEAR WAS 1598. In Brittany the war was over, and the young captain from Saintonge found himself “without any charge or employment,” in his own words.2 Champlain was at Blavet, a seaport on the south coast of Brittany. Today it is called Port-Louis, a very attractive stone-built town that still preserves many old buildings and parts of a massive fortress that the Spanish army built during the War of the Catholic League.3
The Spanish garrison was still there, preparing to return home under the terms of the Treaty of Vervins. During the war, Champlain had been sent with a detachment of French troops to keep an eye on them. From the waterfront, he looked across a broad estuary with two passages to the sea. The passe du sud pointed south across the Bay of Biscay toward Spain. The passe de l’ouest opened to the west toward America. Behind him was a dark and ruined countryside, ravaged by decades of religious strife. Before him stretched the open sea and a bright new world of boundless opportunity.4
In that setting, this restless young man made a plan for himself. It centered on a vision of America. Champlain had heard much about the new world. In Brouage and Brittany he had met men who had been there, and they must have spun many a yarn for an eager listener. He was aware of the king’s expanding interest in America. Champlain wanted to know more. The question was where to begin.
As he studied the problem on the waterfront at Blavet, one possibility was to take the passe de l’ouest, and follow Jacques Cartier and Martin Frobisher to the higher latitudes of North America. Many people had searched there for a northwest passage to China, but nobody had been able to find it. After a century of heavy traffic by fishermen and fur traders, much of that vast area remained to be explored.
Another option was the passe du sud. Champlain could go that way, toward the American regions where Spaniards and Portuguese had built their empires. The kings of France and Spain had agreed to a comprehensive peace in 1598, the first in many years. It was a moment when a well-connected Frenchman might visit the Spanish dominions in America in hope of learning from their imperial experience.
Champlain weighed those choices, and decided to take the passe du sud. He wrote, “I resolved, so as not to remain idle, to find means to make a voyage to Spain, and being there to acquire and cultivate acquaintances, so that by their favor and intervention I could find a way to get aboard one of the ships in the fleet that the King of Spain sends to the West Indies every year.”5 He was very clear about his goal, which was “to make inquiries into particulars of which no Frenchmen had been able to gain knowledge, because they had no free access there, in order to make a true report of them to His Majesty on my return.” One wonders if Henri IV himself might have had a hand in this plan. Champlain had already been employed on at least one secret mission on His Majesty’s service. Perhaps the king gave him this new assignment, but Champlain tells us that it was his own idea.6
The fortress of Blavet (now Port-Louis) on the south coast of Brittany was built in part by Spanish troops during the wars of religion. After the war in 1598, Champlain was there without employment. Looking outward to the sea he formed a plan for himself in the New World—a Frenchman’s American dream.
In 1598, the brooding fortress at Blavet and its setting on the sea symbolized a dramatic contrast in Champlain’s thinking. Behind him was an old world ravaged by forty years of religious war. Before him was a bright new world of boundless opportunity.
Whatever the origin, it was a bold plan and very dangerous. Even after the crowned heads of France and Spain had made peace, old enmities were slow to fade. The hard men who ran the Spanish empire in America were far from Madrid, and some were farther from God. The penalty for entering New Spain without permission was death. Champlain himself wrote that interlopers were executed there. Others were sent to the galleys and chained to an oar, or locked away in tropical dungeons, which was a death sentence by another name. And all that was merely for trespassing. The punishment for espionage was worse than death. But Champlain was not deterred by danger. He found it a positive attraction.
The only question in his mind was about how to get started. How could he obtain an open invitation to visit a closed empire? Champlain knew that Spanish leaders were chronically short of ships and seamen, and were compelled to employ foreigners from other Catholic countries. Sometimes these arrangements were made with official sanction. More often they were private deals that were not reported to the imperial bureaucracy in Seville.7
In the summer of 1598, such an opportunity suddenly presented itself. The Treaty of Vervins called for the return of all Spanish troops from French soil, and one of the largest garrisons was at Blavet. Both sides agreed that these soldiers should be repatriated by sea, but the Spanish rulers lacked the ships to carry them. To bring the troops home, they proposed to charter several French vessels. One available ship was the Saint-Julien, a big navire of 500 tons. Her commander happened to be Champlain’s uncle.8
He was a fabulous character, with a life so complex that more than one historian has wondered if several men shared the same name. In the sixteenth century, his name was written many ways, a common practice in that era. In French records he appears as Guillaume Allène, or Guillaume Helaine, or Guillaume Elene. In Spanish archives he turns up as Guillermón Elena, or Guillermo Elena. On the waterfronts of many countries, he was known as “le capitaine Provençal,” from his reputed birthplace in Marseilles. Captain Provençal moved frequently from port to port and made a prosperous living from the sea. He sailed under many flags, and some were flags of convenience. At one stage in his career, he won notoriety as a corsair, ranging the sea and raiding the coast of England. At other times he served as a commissioned officer in France’s armées de mer and received marks of royal favor from Henri IV. He also won an appointment as a Pilot-General in the Spanish Marine. On another venture he gained entry to Portuguese Brazil in a ship hopefully named L’Espérance, and he also traded on the coast of Africa. His religious affiliations were variable. At one time he appeared as a Huguenot; at another, as a Catholic. Through it all, he became a man of wealth, with commercial property in Spain and a country estate in France near La Rochelle.9
For a time Captain Provençal lived in Brouage, where he married the sister of Samuel Champlain’s mother. Young Samuel wrote with family pride that his uncle was “considered one of France’s first-rate seamen.” Captain Provençal, for his part, responded with feelings of affection for his nephew and took an active interest in his career.10
On one of his many adventures, Captain Provençal had acquired a one-eighth share of a large French vessel called the Saint-Julien (San Julian to the Spanish). She was old and not in the best repair. Probably her hold still stank of fish, for she had long been in the Newfoundland trade. For several years she had been out of service and even out of the water, sitting high and dry on stocks in a French port. Some doubted that she was seaworthy, but Champlain described her as a “strongly-built ship and a good sailor.”11
Her principal owner was Julien de Montigny de la Hottière, a French nobleman of flexible politics, who had been a leader of the Catholic Party in Brittany and later a supporter of the new Bourbon regime in France. He was well connected, and had access to both Phillip II of Spain and Henri IV in France. Governor de la Hottière moved easily across national and religious lines, and held offices of trust in both countries—which made him an ideal candidate for the Blavet mission.12
In 1598, he and Captain Provençal received a lucrative offer to carry Spanish troops home from France, with the blessing of both governments. Young Champlain may have helped to make the arrangement. In the last days of the Breton campaign he was working on the staff of Maréchal Brissac, who had been commissioned to supervise the return of the Spanish troops.13
Captain Provençal outfitted the ship Saint-Julien and brought her to Blavet, where a Franco-Spanish fleet was assembling. In overall command was a Captain General of Spain, Pedro de Zubiaur, a rough character renowned for his exploits as a corsair against the English.14 Along the way, Captain General Zubiaur had been an associate of Champlain’s uncle Captain Provençal. In Blavet, the two men became partners in side-investments of dubious legality, loading aboard their ships private cargoes of valuable commodities such as wine and silk.15
Saint-Julien was duly chartered to join Zubiaur’s Spanish squadron for the voyage from Brittany to Spain. Captain Provençal was in a position to help his nephew and he invited Champlain to come along. The young man leaped at the chance. Champlain’s status aboard the ship was not clear. He held no formal rank, except that of gentleman. Perhaps he went along as his uncle’s assistant, or companion. Champlain tells us only, “je m’embarquay avec luy; I embarked with him,” a phrase that hints at his own agency and a personal connection.16
At Blavet, Saint-Julien took aboard a large number of Spanish soldiers with their artillery. She was one of eighteen ships in the squadron, all crowded with men. On August 23, 1598, they sailed from Brittany, outward bound through the passage du sud for Cadiz on the southwest coast of Spain.17
The journey began with a fair wind, and promised to be an easy passage in pleasant summer weather. But in the sixteenth century, any voyage could turn dangerous in unexpected ways. As they sailed south across the Bay of Biscay, a pestilence began to spread through the crowded ships. Zubiaur reported to his superiors, “With my own hands, I threw into the sea the corpse of an Irish gentleman who died aboard my flagship.” So many others fell ill that the Spanish commander converted one vessel into a hospital ship, and the victims were quarantined aboard her.18
As they struggled with this ordeal, the fleet approached Cape Finisterre on the northwest tip of Spain. Here the waters of the Bay of Biscay met the currents of the Atlantic Ocean, with abrupt changes in sea-temperature. Suddenly they found themselves in thick fog on a lee shore, with rocky shoals around them. Champlain recalled: “All our vessels scattered, and our flagship was nearly lost, having touched upon a rock and taken aboard much water.”19
At last the fog lifted and the ships began to find each other. They steered for Vigo Bay and anchored for ten days while repairs were made to the flagship. Zubiaur ruthlessly ordered the hospital ship to be burned and sunk (brûlé et coulé) to stop the contagion. One wonders what happened to the sick and dying. When that brutal work was done, the fleet got underway. They sailed south along the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal, doubled Cape Saint Vincent at the southwest corner of Iberia, and turned east toward their destination. On September 14, 1598, Saint-Julien dropped anchor in the clear waters of Cadiz Bay.20
Saint-Julien remained there for about a month, and Champlain seized the opportunity to explore the town of Cadiz, a vital center of Spain’s American trade. Cadiz was then an island at the end of a long peninsula. It had been attacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1587, and was heavily fortified with massive walls and towers.21
Champlain went ashore, and described his visit in the language of espionage, as “reconnoitering” Cadiz. He later made a careful sketch of the town, with particular attention to its fortifications. As he walked its streets, Champlain found a very mixed population. One street, still called the Calle de Bretonnes, was a gathering place for seamen and merchants from Brittany. He would have met many people who could tell him about the Spanish empire. Throughout his career, Champlain gathered knowledge in every way he could—working from his observations and information that others gave him.22
After a month at Cadiz, Saint-Julien was ordered to shift her mooring across Cadiz Bay to the sprawling river town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. This was the place where Spain’s American treasure fleets assembled for their annual voyage to America. It was also where they returned, in armadas of as many as a hundred ships or more, laden with wealth from the new world.23
Once again, while his ship was in the harbor, Champlain made the best of his time by “reconnoitering” another strategic Spanish town and studying its defenses. He found much of interest in Sanlucar. It was vital to imperial communications with America, as a port of entry for the fabulous city of Seville, fifty miles upstream on the Guadalquivir River. From Sanlucar to Seville, the banks of that busy waterway were lined with shipyards, chandleries, warehouses, taverns, brothels, and all the industries of maritime trade.
Seville itself was a great city in 1599, one of the largest and fastest-growing urban places in Iberia, with a population of perhaps 150,000 souls. It was also the commercial center of the Spanish empire. While Champlain was there in 1598, construction began on a new home for the Casa de Contratación, a powerful institution that regulated Spain’s imperial trade. The city was also known for the strength of its medieval towers and walls, and for the majesty of its Alcàzar, which had been the home of King Ferdinand and his queen, Isabella. It was renowned for the beauty of its Moorish palaces and gardens, and the creativity of its culture. The painter Velasquez was born there in 1599, and Murillo a few years later.
Champlain went ashore and studied the city. He was no casual tourist who went wandering through its ancient streets. Later he made small bird’s-eye sketches from the same oblique perspective that would be favored by intelligence analysts from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. His drawings showed the location of city walls, the construction of towers, the placement of gates, and the height of crenellated battlements. Champlain appears to have done all these things in a discreet way, without arousing the suspicion of Spanish authorities, who were constantly on the qui vive for inquisitive strangers.24
While Champlain studied the fortified cities that controlled the commerce of the Spanish empire, Saint-Julien lay restlessly at her mooring in the Guadalquivir River. She remained there for three months, longer than Champlain had anticipated. He and his uncle were looking for another job, and hoped that their ship might be chartered yet again for the annual treasure fleet to America. That arrangement would have given Champlain a chance to visit a large part of the Spanish empire.
But the treasure fleet was delayed that year. In the summer of 1598, a dispatch vessel arrived at Cadiz with a report that the English Earl of Cumberland had attacked the island of Puerto Rico. This was no small raid. The Earl of Cumberland led a force of 600 freebooters in twenty privately armed ships. They had sacked the capital of San Juan, spread out through the big island, and gathered up anything of value that they could carry away.25
This assault was a major threat to the Spanish empire. Puerto Rico lay athwart the main lines of trade from Spain to America, and the fall of San Juan threatened major arteries of communication. Spanish leaders acted quickly. They postponed the sailing of the treasure fleet, and mobilized the resources of the empire to recover Puerto Rico. As part of that great effort, Captain-General Zubiaur was instructed to extend the charters of the French ships from Blavet, and to prepare his squadron for a voyage to Puerto Rico. It was to be a large operation. Zubiaur’s ships were to be joined by a second squadron from the Azores and a third from Lisbon, with more ships from Cadiz, Seville, and San-lucar.26
Saint-Julien and her French crew were hired for that task, with Captain Provençal as master. Both General Zubiaur and Captain Provençal were thought to be especially well qualified for the mission by their experience of fighting English corsairs. Young Champlain welcomed this unexpected opportunity, which promised to give him another way of reaching the Spanish colonies in America.27
As these plans were maturing in the late fall, another dispatch boat arrived in Sanlucar with yet more news. The English at Puerto Rico had been defeated, not by Spanish forces but by tropical disease. In the summer and early fall, the Earl of Cumberland and most English survivors had abandoned Puerto Rico and sailed away.28 In Spain, plans changed yet again. The special expedition to recover Puerto Rico was cancelled. General Zubiaur was given a new assignment in the Mediterranean, and he invited his friend Captain Provençal to join him. Champlain heard the news with a sinking heart. He despaired of seeing New Spain and wrote of his “great regret at seeing myself frustrated of my hope.”29
Meanwhile, Spanish authorities also decided that the treasure fleet could safely sail to America, and they put it under the command of an able officer with much experience of the new world, Don Francisco Coloma. It would be his third treasure fleet, more than any other officer in Spain. Once again the Spanish leaders were short of large ships with trained crews. Don Francisco proposed to charter Saint-Julien with her French seamen. As Captain Provençal himself would not be able to make the voyage, he wanted to put the ship under experienced Spanish officers and assigned a Spanish master, Captain Jeronomino de Vallebrera.30
Champlain tells us that he and Captain Provençal had a meeting with Don Francisco. One might imagine the scene: an austere Spanish chamber with stark white walls. In the center would have been a massive oak table, covered with maps of the new world, charts of the open sea, and dispatches from America. Don Francisco himself was a leader of great dignity and courtesy. He would have been dressed in black with a pristine white ruff. He liked to wear a single decoration suspended by a gold chain from his neck: an eight-pointed Maltese cross that identified him as a Chevalier in the Order of the Knights of Malta. The eight points symbolized the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. It was a proud emblem of honor, courage, and Catholic faith.31
Enter two Frenchmen: weatherbeaten old Captain Provençal, brightly dressed in the colorful clothing called bizarria that were much loved by seamen of every nation, and a step behind was, his young nephew Samuel de Champlain.32 After an elaborate exchange of courtesies, Don Francisco offered terms for the charter of the Saint-Julien, which now became San Julian. Captain Provençal agreed on one condition. He explained that he was “engaged by General Zubiaur to serve elsewhere and unable to make the voyage,” and asked if his young kinsman might remain aboard the ship “to keep an eye on her, pour esgard à iceluy.”33
Don Francisco agreed, and an arrangement was made to the benefit of all parties. By its terms, the Spanish leader added a large vessel to his fleet. The owners received 500 crowns a month for the charter of their ship. Captain Provençal put aboard a trusted young kinsman who could look after his interests. And Champlain was able to visit Spanish America with the protection of the fleet commander. The young Frenchman wrote that Don Francisco “freely granted me” permission to make the voyage, “with evidence of being well pleased, promising me his favor and assistance, which he has not denied me upon occasions.”34
A mutuality of material interest made such an agreement possible. So also did the personal qualities of these men. Don Francisco was a courtier and a gentleman, renowned for his exquisite manners. His letters suggest qualities of intelligence, cultivation, decency, and sympathy for others. Young Champlain was by all accounts a serious and large-spirited young man, very engaging in his Saintonge manners and happily endowed with an easy gift for getting on with others. He was able to work with Catholics and Calvinists, merchants and priests, scholars and soldiers, French corsairs and Spanish Dons.
The arrangement was a private understanding. The parties appear not to have consulted the Casa de Contratación, and nothing has yet been found in Spanish records of the voyage that mentions Champlain by name. This was an informal agreement, like many others in the Spanish fleet. San Julian alone was later reported to have had no fewer than six “clandestine” Spanish and Italian passengers aboard, not counting Champlain and his personal servant.35
Champlain’s name did not appear on surviving lists of the ship’s officers. He was not formally recognized as a supercargo, or as the owner’s legal representative with powers of attorney. Champlain explained his role in another way. “My uncle … committed to me a responsibility to watch over the said vessel, which I accepted very willingly.” Historian François-Marc Gagnon explains that “the responsibility given to Champlain was one of surveillance, rather than command.” In that anomalous role, Champlain returned to his berth aboard San Julian and prepared to sail. He wrote happily, “I had occasion to rejoice, seeing my hopes revive.”36
On February 3, 1599, the Spanish fleet weighed anchor at Sanlucar de Barrameda and crossed the bar at the river’s mouth, outward bound for America. The ships made a magnificent sight as they sailed into the deep blue water of the open sea. The great galleons were bright in their brilliant paintwork of scarlet and saffron, the national colors of Spain. Blazoned on high bulwarks were rows of red and yellow shields, shining in the light. From mastheads flew Spanish flags, royal standards, imperial ensigns with the double eagles of the House of Hapsburg, the broad pennants of admirals and generals, and the long pennants of each ship. Behind the galleons came large merchantmen such as San Julian. Each large ship was accompanied by a small tender that Champlain called a patache. San Julians patache was a little vessel called Sandoval.37
In open water, the Spanish pilots set a course with a favoring breeze behind them. Aboard each ship, helmsmen on the puente, or steering deck, strained against the heavy cana, or tiller, as sailing masters carefully trimmed their billowing sails to catch every knot of speed. Working at the rails were experienced Spanish navigators who well understood the winds and currents of their “ocean sea,” as they called it in a proprietary way. They thought of the Atlantic as a private lake, and guarded their knowledge as a state secret, which it was.38
Champlain watched these Spanish seamen at work and was amazed by their skill. He paid close attention as the fleet set its course and steered along a rhumb line south-southwest from Sanlucar, running before a remarkably “steady and very sharp wind” nearly eight hundred miles down the coast of Africa, on a course for the Canary Islands. The prevailing winds and currents gave them a quick passage. After six days, by Champlain’s reckoning, lookouts in the rigging sang out that the islands were in sight.39
The Spanish navigators passed through the Canaries and searched carefully for seamarks in what they called le goulphe de las damas, Ladies’ Gulf. They watched the wind with close attention, for they were approaching a pivot point in their voyage. Beyond the islands they picked up the strong trade winds that blew steadily in that latitude. Once again the helmsmen shifted their heavy tillers, and seamen hauled away on sheets and braces. The great galleons turned downwind in unison and settled on a new course, sailing due west toward the setting sun.40
A Spanish navigator using an astrolabe to find his latitude from a fix on the sun at noon. In 1599, Champlain sailed to America with these men, and learned much from their experience about seamanship and navigation in the North Atlantic.
Once more Champlain marveled at the steady wind astern, vente en pouppe, that swept them across the ocean toward the West Indies. Every day precisely at noon, the navigators shot a daily sunline with their circular astrolabes. At dusk when the line of the horizon could still be seen, and stars began to appear in the northern sky, they brought out their cross staffes and calculated the elevation of Polaris. They used these methods to find the sixteenth parallel, which was the latitude of a small West Indian island that Christopher Columbus had named Deseade, the Desired One. It is now La Désirade, a French possession five miles east of Guadeloupe.41
That was their destination, and after six weeks at sea they made their landfall exactly on course. Lookouts high in the rigging would have been the first to see the distinctive high headland of Deseade, visible from a great distance at sea. Champlain sketched the island and noted that Spanish navigators had long used it as a landmark for their voyages to the West Indies. He studied these highly skilled men, and learned from them to navigate the North Atlantic.42
At Deseade, the ships parted company and sailed in different directions. Don Francisco Coloma was worried about Puerto Rico. He was under orders to land a new garrison of four hundred men as quickly as possible. Most of his fleet sailed there directly without making the customary stop for water at Guadeloupe. San Julian went a different way. Don Francisco reported that the battered old ship had begun to leak early in the voyage, and at a dangerous rate. The crew was barely able to keep up with the pumps. Perhaps her seams had opened, or fastenings had worked loose, or rot had got into her planking. Whatever the cause, the Spanish commander reported he was “a hundred times” on the verge of ordering San Julian to be abandoned.43 After the fleet turned north toward Puerto Rico, Champlain tells us, his ship stopped at Guadeloupe and anchored in a harbor he called Nacou, today’s Grande Bay. The leaking ship was probably ordered there so that her bottom could be inspected and repairs made. Working alongside was her small tender, the patache Sandoval.44
While they were at Guadeloupe the crews rowed ashore for water and fresh fruit. Champlain went with them and explored the island, which he described as “very mountainous, full of trees, and inhabited by savages.” He wrote, “As we landed, we saw more than three hundred savages, who fled into the mountains, without our being able to overtake a single one of them, they being more nimble in running.”45
Champlain had no designs upon them. He merely wanted to meet and talk. Here again he was fascinated by the variety of humanity in the world and by the diversity of their ways. But the Indians of Guadaloupe had met Europeans with other purposes in mind, and they ran for their lives. It must have made a striking scene on that beautiful beach at Guadeloupe. Young Champlain splashed ashore, perhaps with a sword at his side, and he walked toward a crowd of curious Indians. They watched him from a distance, then turned and ran toward the mountains. Champlain hitched up his sword and struggled after them through the sand, while his companions on the beach roared with laughter.46
This comic scene touched a matter of serious importance in Champlain’s life. It was the first sign of a continuing theme in his career: a deep interest in native Americans. He always regarded them as human beings like himself, and remarked on their intelligence. Often he commented on their physique and appearance, which was much superior to European contemporaries. Champlain was interested in the Indians for themselves and also for what they could teach him about the new world. He always tried to learn from them, mostly about humanity itself. That attitude first appeared in 1599, in this comic scene on a beach in Gaudeloupe, but it was a very serious business, and it continued all his life.47
* * *
In 1599, Champlain landed on the island of Guadeloupe, saw American Indians for the first time, and was consumed with curiosity. He approached in amity, but they fled into the hills. This watercolor by Champlain himself shows that moment, which marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in native Americans.
While Champlain tried in vain to make contact with the Indians, the crews of San Julian and her tender Sandoval replenished their water and provisions. It is probable that some hasty repairs were made, and the two ships got underway for Puerto Rico. They sailed together as far as the Virgin Islands. Perhaps at that point it was clear that San Julian could reach Puerto Rico without assistance, and Sandoval departed on a special mission of high priority in the Spanish empire. Every year the Spanish treasure fleet sent a small vessel five hundred miles south to the Isla de Margarita off the coast of Venezuela.48
“Margarita” is the Latin word for pearl. The island was a great center for pearl fishing in the Spanish empire. Champlain tells us that he got permission to make this side voyage aboard Sandoval, which allowed him to visit another part of the empire and observe an important source of its wealth. Little Sandoval made a swift passage southward across the Caribbean Sea from the Virgin Islands to the coast of South America, and arrived safely. Champlain studied Margarita with great attention and made an accurate map of the island. He also wrote a detailed description of the pearl fisheries. Every day he observed that three hundred canoes put to sea, carrying slaves who were compelled to make “free dives” in deep water, with small baskets under their arms. They brought up oysters and other mollusks, and extracted large quantities of pearls, some of great size.49
Champlain sailed south to Margarita Island, center of the pearl fisheries in the Spanish empire. He observed the exploitation of Indian and African slaves who were forced to dive for pearls. His Brief Discours included many paintings of Spanish cruelty to American Indians, which shocked and off ended him.
The pearl fisheries were a brutal business. The “free dives” were the only free thing about this cruel industry. Indian divers had been conscripted by the Spanish, and were soon destroyed by ruthless exploitation. In Champlain’s time they were replaced by the African slaves who were diving when he was there. He was deeply interested in the condition of these ethnic underclasses of the Spanish empire, and his concern increased with every contact. The cruelty of the pearl fisheries inspired one of the first antislavery movements in America, led by the Spanish monk Bartolomé de Las Casas, who described the suffering of the pearl slaves in harrowing detail. The industry was also very harsh in its environmental impact. When Champlain visited Margarita in 1599, the pearl fisheries were already in decline. One of its historians has written that it was the first recorded instance of “resource declines in any of the world’s marine fisheries, brought about by intensive harvesting.”50
At Margarita Island, Sandoval took aboard her precious cargo and set sail for Puerto Rico. This was another long voyage of five hundred miles across the Caribbean, routine in the life of the Spanish empire and vital to its prosperity. Every year the annual crop of pearls from Margarita was carried in small fast sailing vessels to expert pearl merchants in San Juan and Santo Domingo. They sorted and graded the pearls for shipment in the annual treasure fleet.51
Sandoval made the voyage successfully, and anchored in the harbor of San Juan among the great galleons of Don Francisco’s fleet. “The harbor is very good,” Champlain observed, “and sheltered from all winds except the northeast, which blows straight into it,” as is still the case.52 He was shocked by the condition of the town. It had been wrecked by the Earl of Cumberland’s freebooters, in an orgy of senseless destruction. The English had anchored down the coast, attacked in the night, surprised the defenders, destroyed the fortress of San Juan, and removed its cannon. Champlain noted that “most of the houses were burned, and not four persons were to be found, except a few negroes who told us that the merchants had mostly been carried away as prisoners by the English treasure fleet, and the rest had fled into the mountains, fearing the return of the English.” The raiders had taken most things of value, and filled twelve ships with booty. They left behind big piles of sugar, ginger, cassia, molasses, and hides, rotting in the tropical climate.53
Champlain found that the reconstruction of San Juan had already begun. It was a remarkable effort that demonstrated the energy and resources of the Spanish empire at its peak. Don Francisco replaced the garrison at San Juan with four hundred troops, and rearmed the fort with forty-seven bronze cannon that had been in Blavet. The Spanish authorities also sent another 300 men from Santo Domingo (today’s Hispaniola) to Puerto Rico, with orders to rebuild the ruined fortress of San Juan. Champlain noted that most of the workers were Indians, and others were African. Once again he sought them out and talked with them.54
Champlain was able to explore parts of the big island. He wrote, “Puerto Rico is very agreeable, however a little mountainous,” and drew a charming small map of the island.55 He was deeply impressed by the magnificent forests, and the profusion of species that he had never seen before. To explore Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Forest today, with its towering trees and wild impatiens blooming brilliantly in the half-light underneath the dense canopy, is to share Champlain’s impression. He made many drawings of plants and animals, noting that they were from direct observation. Among Champlain’s many wonders was a “tree called sombrade [from the Spanish sombra, shade], the tops of whose branches, as it grows, drooping to the earth take root immediately and produce other branches which fall over and take root in the same way. I have seen one of these trees of such an extent that it covered a league and a quarter.” Champlain also described dense old Mangrove swamps, which are still to be seen in the same condition on the coast of Puerto Rico between San Juan and the old settlement of Loiza Aldea to the east. He was observing the wonders of a new world for himself.56
While Champlain studied the scenery in Puerto Rico, Don Francisco Coloma divided his fleet into three squadrons and sent them in different directions. The commander himself took one squadron to Cartagena (in today’s Colombia), and sent another to Panama. A third squadron, commanded by Joannes de Urdayre received orders for Vera Cruz in Mexico. It included three large ships, among them San Julian. Each galleon had a smaller tender. Once again San Julian was assigned Sandoval.57
Urdayre’s squadron departed from San Juan and sailed westward along the north coast of Puerto Rico. Their destination was the island of San Domingo.58 They followed the north coast of San Domingo and put in at the harbors of Puerto Plata, Manzanello, Port Moustique, Monte Christi Bay, and Cap St. Nicolas. Champlain made sketches of the towns and their fortifications.59 This coast was the northern edge of the Caribbean, often visited by interlopers from England, France, and the Low Countries. Some were pirates who came to fight and steal. Others were merchants who wished to trade. Many were freebooters who combined both roles. Their ships were built for speed and rigged in ways that allowed them to point close into the wind, or to run freely before it. They were nimble, heavily armed, very fast, and not easy to catch. Urdayre’s squadron was ordered to clear the north coast of the Caribbean of these unwelcome visitors. The Spanish were very cruel to interlopers. Those who were caught were tortured, executed, or sent to the galleys, from which few returned. So brutal was the treatment of galley slaves in that cruel era that some were compelled to wear pear-shaped wooden gags to muffle their cries when they were whipped.
At Port Moustique, now a very beautiful bay on the coast of Haiti, the Spanish ships caught two small French vessels from Dieppe. Their crews fled ashore and disappeared into the forest, all but one unfortunate seaman who was too lame to run. The Spaniards persuaded him to tell what he knew, and he spoke of “thirteen large ships, French, English and Flemish, fitted out half for war, half for trading,” lying at anchor beyond Cap St. Nicolas on the west coast of what is now Haiti. The Spanish commander, although outnumbered two to one, did not hesitate. Urdayre ordered his three large ships and four pataches to attack. They sailed quickly around Cap St. Nicolas and found the interlopers in a bay behind the cape. A wind was blowing from the shore, and the Spanish squadron was unable to enter the bay. Urdayre anchored for the night and planned to attack in the morning. During the night he sent soldiers ashore to block the flight of their crews.60
The interlopers did not wait to be attacked. At dawn they seized the initiative, and sailed boldly through the Spanish squadron while it lay at anchor. Spanish crews worked frantically to get underway, cutting their anchor cables with axes—but too late. The interlopers passed quickly between the great Spanish ships, which could bring only a few of their guns to bear. Once at sea, in Champlain’s words, they “took the wind of us,” seized the weather gage, and sailed blithely away, leaving the great Spanish ships lumbering after them against the wind. Even then, the interlopers were not done. They confused the Spanish by yet another stratagem. A small vessel, with all sail set, was sent directly through the Spanish fleet. Champlain wrote, “many cannon shots were fired at it, but it kept going before the wind. Finally two small Spanish pataches came alongside and found that nobody was on board. The superstitious sailors refused to board it, saying that the little vessel was “steered by the Devil.” Champlain wrote that it “gave all something to laugh about,” except Commodore Urdayre, who was not amused. He blamed two junior officers and punished them severely. Champlain blamed Commodore Urdayre and the senior Spanish officers. He was more sympathetic to the interlopers, even as he stood on a Spanish deck.61
Champlain was deeply interested in the condition of African slaves and Indians on San Domingo. Once again, as at Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico and the Isla de Margarita, he was drawn to them. In Puerto Plata and perhaps at Gonaives or Cap St. Nicolas he appears to have found a way to make contact with African slaves, and to meet with Caribbean Indians. He talked with them and wrote that they were “a good natured people (gens de bonne nature), and very friendly to the French nation, with whom they traffic as often as they can, but this is without knowledge of the Spaniards.”62
Champlain also studied the Spanish system of security against interlopers on Santo Domingo, and discovered a secret network of coast watchers, African slaves who watched for foreign vessels, with a promise of emancipation if they discovered an intruder. Champlain reported, “These negroes will go a hundred and fifty leagues on foot, night and day, to give such notice and acquire their liberty.”63
Commodore Urdayre’s Spanish squadron departed from Santo Domingo with San Julian, and sailed south and west on a course for Vera Cruz. Champlain wrote that they “coasted the island of Cuba on the south side, where the land is rather high,” and he made an accurate description of that arid shore, with the Sierra Maestra rising behind it.64 They sailed past the pale green waters of Guantanamo Bay and continued due west through “some small islands called the Caymans.” They stopped there for a day, and once again Champlain managed to explore two of them. He accurately described the flora and fauna, and was fascinated by the enormous flocks of birds, and the big iguanas that are still in residence.65
From the Caymans they continued west across the Sound of Campeche toward the coast of Mexico. Their course took them through a tricky channel, edged with dangerous shoals. “The leadline must always be in hand, when passing through this channel,” Champlain wrote. One of their small pataches foundered there, “without our being able to learn the cause.” In mid-passage, Champlain wrote, his ship lay to for a few hours and the crew went fishing. They brought up large quantities of a beautiful fish he had never seen before, “the size of a dory, of a red color and very good if eaten fresh.” This was an accurate description of the red snapper that abound in these waters. Champlain greatly admired its flavor. He noted that this fish was not suited for salting and keeping, but it brought fresh food for the crew, always important to the health and spirits of the ship’s company. He observed that experienced Spanish captains were careful to seize opportunities for fresh water, fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish. From much experience they were more successful than north Europeans in controlling dietary illnesses such as scurvy, which they called the English or Dutch disease. Here again, Champlain learned from them, and acted on their example throughout his career.66
After a voyage of eight days, they reached the coast of Mexico and steered for the port of St. Jean de Luz.67 It was an extraordinary place, an island about half a mile off the coast, also known as San Juan de Ulúa. In Champlain’s time it was, in his words, “the first port of New Spain, where the king’s galleons gathered every year to carry their cargos of silver and gold, pearls and precious stones and cochineal.”68
The site was chosen for security rather than convenience. It was surrounded by shoals, and very difficult to approach by land or sea. Spanish authorities turned the entire island into a fortress. Treasure galleons moored directly to heavy bronze rings set in massive stone walls—not a comfortable berth. Champlain wrote, “The ships are so crowded together that when the wind comes from the north, the most dangerous quarter, the vessels grind against one another, though they are moored fore and aft.” Around the fort a seaborne town grew up, with strange houses rising on piles above the shallows.69
On the mainland, fifteen miles along the coast, was Vera Cruz, the terminus of a great road that led to Mexico City about two hundred miles distant. Champlain wanted very much to go there. An opportunity presented itself when Commodore Urdayre sent two officers to Mexico City with orders to arrange the shipment of silver to the squadron. The commander of this mission was Captain Jeronomino de Vallebrera, master of San Julian. Champlain tells us that Urdayre gave him permission to go along, and he remained “an entire month in Mexico.” Spanish documents confirmed the journey as 39 days long, without mentioning Champlain.70
Champlain was fascinated by what he saw of Mexico. Nearly half of his written account is devoted to this trip. His journey took him through dense tropical forests near the coast, “filled with the most beautiful trees that one could hope to imagine,” and birds of bright plumage. The road continued through “great plains, stretching as far as the eye can see, and covered with immense herds of horses, mules, oxen, cattle, sheep and goats, which have pastures always fresh in every season, there being no winter.” He marveled at the fertility of the Mexican soil, which yielded two crops of grain each year, and orchards that were “never bare of fruit.” He saw grapes as big as plums, and other fruits and vegetables in proportion. Altogether, he wrote, “it is not possible to see or to desire a more beautiful country.”71
Much of Champlain’s account was devoted to the flora, which fascinated him. He described accurately the major fruits and vegetables and field crops. Still more amazing to him were the fauna. He could scarcely believe the strange creatures that he observed: rattlesnakes, fireflies, hermit crabs, llamas from Peru, crocodiles thirty feet long “and very dangerous,” and turtles “of marvellous size, such that two horses would have enough to do to drag one of them.”72
Like many naturalists of his era, Champlain was interested in describing “true wonders” that he discovered. Always there was a tension between what was true and what was wonderful. Behind his approach was an expanding interest in truth-seeking and truth-telling—an attitude that was fundamental to the history of science in Champlain’s generation. We may observe this search for true wonders at work when Champlain heard reports in Mexico of dragons of strange shape, having a head like an eagle, wings like a bat, a body like a lizard, large feet, and a scaly tail. He carefully reported what he had heard, but made clear that he had not seen it with his own eyes.73 In the same spirit he also described the legendary Quezal bird, which was said to have no feet at all, and spent all its life flying. Champlain wrote cautiously, “I have only seen one, which our general bought for 150 crowns.” He was aware that Mexican entrepreneurs had a flourishing business in amputating the feet from dead birds and selling the remains to credulous visitors. Champlain hedged his account of these true wonders, as he would later do in Canada, but he reported what he heard.74
As Champlain made his way into the highlands of Mexico, he found that the natural wonders of the countryside were nothing compared with the marvels of Mexico City, “which I had not believed could be so superbly built of handsome temples and fine houses.” He had no idea of its size before he saw it, and estimated the population at 12,000 or 15,000 Spaniards plus six times that number of Indians—about 100,000 altogether.
As his travels continued, Champlain became more sympathetic to the native people of Mexico. He described them as fully equal to Europeans in intellect, and wrote that they “are of a melancholy disposition, but nevertheless have a very quick intelligence.”75He was appalled by the treatment they received from Spanish conquerors. Champlain noted a widespread pattern of tyranny, cruelty, and exploitation throughout the Spanish dominions. He reported that the silver mines of Mexico were worked by forced labor, as were the pearl fisheries, the construction of cities, the manning of galleys, and many industries. Champlain attributed this regime directly to the king of Spain, who “reserved the right of employing in them a great number of slaves, to get from the mines, for his profit, as much as they can; and he draws besides the tenth part of all that lessees get, so that these mines can produce a very good revenue to the king of Spain.”76
Champlain was even more horrified by the system of religious tyranny that the Spanish imposed upon the Indians. He wrote that the king of Spain, “at the commencement of his conquests, had established the Inquisition among them, and enslaved them or put them cruelly to death in such great numbers, that the mere account of it arouses compassion.”77 Champlain strongly favored the spread of Christianity in the new world, but not by cruelty and violence. He reported that the Indians were so outraged by their treatment that they made war against the Spaniards, and killed and ate them. So strong was the resistance of the Indians that “the Spaniards were constrained to take away the Inquisition, and allow them more personal liberty, granting them a milder and more tolerable rule of life.”
But even in this more moderate regime, Champlain reported that Indians who did not attend mass were beaten severely by Catholic priests and given “thirty or forty blows with a stick outside the church before all the people. This is the system adopted to keep them in the faith, in which they live partly from fear of being beaten.” Champlain’s horror at this system appeared not only in his text but also in his vivid illustrations of Indians being burned by Catholic inquisitors and beaten at the church door for not attending mass.78
Champlain’s account of Mexico contained many errors. Some things were kept secret from him. He could not discover the location of the silver mines and was not allowed to go near them. He did not understand the source of cochineal, an enormously valuable scarlet dye that was guarded as a state secret in Spanish America. Champlain mistakenly believed that it came from a plant; perhaps he was deliberately misled by Spanish informants. He also confused cacao with the maguey, or agave. But altogether he was a very keen observer, and what he saw had a deep impact on his thinking. Champlain’s visit to New Spain would be fundamental to his career in New France.79 It turned his thoughts to another idea of empire, where Indians and Europeans could live together in a different spirit.
After returning from Mexico, Champlain’s squadron remained for a time at St. Jean de Luz. He reported that he seized another opportunity and “embarked in a patache that was going to Porto Bello, 400 or 500 leagues distant,” near the Isthmus of Panama. “I found a very bad land indeed,” he wrote, “this place of Porto Bello being the most evil and unhealthy residence in the world.” He described a climate of constant rain and extreme heat, and a country so unhealthy that the “greater part of the newly arrived soldiers or sailors die.” He noted the excellent harbor, guarded by two strong castles, but also reported a way to attack it by an unguarded approach.80
Champlain was interested in the Isthmus of Panama, but it appears from his account that he did not explore it. Perhaps he was forbidden to do so. Gold and silver from Peru and Bolivia were brought by sea to the Pacific coast of Panama, and then carried by mule across the Isthmus to Porto Bello. Champlain observed, “If an enemy of the king of Spain held the said Porto Bello, he could prevent anything from leaving Peru, except with great difficulty and risk, and with more expense than profit.”81
Champlain was quick to see the potential for a canal across the Isthmus, and a passage to the “South Sea.” He reckoned that the canal needed only to be four leagues in length to connect two rivers. He underestimated the distance and made an error in his account, writing that one of these rivers flowed through Porto Bello when in fact it went through Colon. Otherwise, his description was accurate.82
Champlain’s patache hastened back to St. Jean de Luz, where the great ships in the squadron were careened on the shore, and their hulls were repaired in preparation for the long voyage home. This was a heavy labor for hard-worked crews, who had to unload each ship, work her ashore, and haul her on her beam ends with block and tackle until her bottom was exposed. Then came the work of scraping and cleaning the hull to remove the heavy growth of weed and barnacles that reduced the ship’s speed and threatened the integrity of her planking. Champlain wrote that the work was finished in fifteen days and Commodore Urdayre’s squadron made ready to sail for Havana, where the treasure ships assembled for their return to Spain.83
It was well that the Spaniards had repaired their ships. As they made their way into the Caribbean Sea, they ran headlong into a huge storm such as Champlain had never met before. “A hurricane from the north caught us with such fury, that we were all lost,” he wrote. The San Julian began to leak again, more dangerously than ever. “Our ship made so much water, that we thought we could not escape this peril,” Champlain remembered. “If we took half an hour’s rest, without pumping out the water, we were obliged to work for two hours without ceasing.”84
The ships lost sight of each other, and San Julians pilot had no idea where he was. Luckily they met a small vessel and were warned that they were sailing into danger. It was a miraculous deliverance. “Had we not met with a patache which set us on our course again,” Champlain wrote, “we should have gone to our destruction on the coast of Campeche … our pilot had completely lost his reckoning, but by God’s grace who sent this patache across our path, we made our way to Havana.”85 There they found Don Francisco Coloma, who had arrived safely with his galleons from Cartagena by July 27. The storm-beaten ships of Urdayre’s squadron straggled into Havana harbor during the days of August.86
At this point, Champlain’s narrative became very thin and incomplete. After the hurricane, by his own account, he was in Spanish territory from August of 1599 to the spring of 1601. His Brief Discours covers this period of twenty-one months in only three pages. By comparison, he gave thirty-six pages to his travels from January to August in 1599—a period of seven months. His sketchy account of the later period was rushed and grossly incomplete. Unlike the bulk of his Brief Discours, these last three pages do not match information from other sources. We know from documents in Spanish archives that Don Francisco Coloma surveyed the battered San Julian, judged her to be unfit for sea, and sold her in Havana. Her officers were reassigned to other vessels in the fleet. Champlain’s narrative makes no reference to San Julian’s fate, and mentions no other ship by name.87 He does tell us that he made another voyage from Havana to Cartegena in South America, with a passport from Coloma, who allowed him free access to that magnificent port. He was there a month and a half, and returned to Cuba in December 1599. “I returned to Havana to find our general [Coloma], who gave me a very good reception, for having viewed by his commandement the places where I had been.”88
En route from Mexico to Cuba, Champlain’s fleet was nearly destroyed by a hurricane, and almost wrecked on the treacherous coast of Campeche. His shattered ship, the San Julian, barely survived, and was condemned in Havana, but Champlain’s sense of mission grew stronger with every test.
Champlain tells us that he remained in Cuba for another four months, explored the island, and admired the town and harbor of Havana, “one of the finest I have seen in all the Indies.” He studied its fortifications and the great iron chain across the narrow entrance to keep enemies at bay. Once again he was deeply interested in Indians and African slaves, and described in brutal detail the slave rancheros who hunted livestock with hooked lances, hamstrung the animals, skinned their hides, and left the carcasses to be eaten by wild dogs. It was another dark image of life in the Spanish empire.89
That period of four months in Cuba took him to the spring of 1600. Some scholars suggest that he visited Florida. Champlain added a brief account of its resources, terrain, soil, and vegetation in only a few sentences, but they were accurate and very revealing of his own purposes. Champlain described Florida as “one of the best countries that could have been desired, for it is very fertile if it were cultivated, but the king of Spain takes no account of it because there are in it no mines of gold and silver.” As always he studied the new world mainly as a place for permanent settlement, and he was contemptuous of Spanish purposes. He was also deeply interested in the Indians of Florida, and wrote of the “great numbers of savages who make war against the Spaniards.” He described the fort at St. Augustine, and his description of natural features had the feel of an eyewitness account.90
In the spring of 1600, Champlain tells us, “the whole fleet of the Indies” gathered in Havana’s huge harbor “from all parts” of the Spanish empire. He sailed home with it, probably leaving in the same season. He reported an uneventful trip, north through the strait between Florida and Cuba, past the Bahamas, where he mistook the long mass of Andros Island for San Domingo. They sailed north with the prevailing winds to the latitude of Bermuda (about 32 degrees), then east at about 39 degrees to the Azores, with their high sugar-loaf peaks that are visible for many miles at sea. He marveled at the storms around Bermuda, with “waves as high as mountains,” and was fascinated by the flying fish and their enemies the sharks. They steered for home through waters infested with privateers, and captured two English ships, “fitted out for war.” At last they arrived in Cadiz Bay, probably on August 11, 1600.91
Champlain went to visit his uncle Captain Provençal, who was living at Cadiz in the house of a Spanish friend named António de Villa. The old Captain was very ill, and Champlain decided to move in and look after him. Captain Provençal’s commercial affairs were in disarray, and he asked his nephew to take them in hand. It was a big job. Official papers in Spanish archives give us some idea of what Champlain had to deal with. There was the matter of a trading ship of 150 tons and “merchandise from the vessel” that had been left with associates at the village of San Sebastian, near Vizcaya on the northeastern coast of Spain, very far from Cadiz in the extreme southwest.92
Captain Provençal thought he was owed money by Spanish officials for the charter of San Julian, and for the cargo and supplies that had been in her hold. There were investments in various parts of Spain, and real estate in France as well. It was all a great tangle. Champlain probably had to travel on many commercial errands. He was still at this task on June 26, 1601, when Captain Provençal lay on his deathbed. The dying man summoned a large circle of friends and neighbors, and dictated a new will that made Champlain his heir.
The will was drawn in Spanish, and recorded under the name of Guillermon Elena. It left a large estate to Champlain. The tone of the document tells us much about them both. The dying man wrote, “I say that I have very much love and bequeath to the Frenchman, Samuel Zamplen [sic], born at Brouage in the province with the name Santonze, that he is my heir, for much good work he did for me in my illness, and he came when I needed him.” The captain added that he made Champlain his heir “also for the great love I feel for being married to his aunt, his mother’s sister and also for other reasons and for the just respect I have for him; this moves me to prove for all of these reasons of my own free will and in the greatest way that I can give, and I know that I do thank him with a donation of as much as is necessary for the said Samuel Zamplen.”
A week after the will was signed, Captain Provençal died. By his order the estate passed immediately to Champlain. No inventory or other probate record has been found, but it appears to have been large. The will was drawn under a Spanish law for estates worth more than five hundred times the average income of a laborer in Spain. The dying man swore that “this donation exceeds the quantity mentioned of 500 salaries.” Champlain inherited a landed estate near La Rochelle, “land enough to plant an orchard,” fields, vineyards, houses, and warehouses, along with all its “roads and exits, uses, customs and servants.” He also inherited commercial property in Spain and a ship of 150 tons, along with cash, investments, and merchandise. The generosity of his uncle made Champlain master of a landed estate, and holder of much other property.93
While Champlain was in Cadiz, he began to draft a “Brief Discours” on his travels in the Spanish empire. It was written for a single reader, Henri IV. In a later work, he wrote of his relationship to “the late King Henry le Grand, of happy memory, who ordered me to make the most exact researches and discoveries that I found possible.”94
Champlain probably had not been able to keep a journal or consult maps and charts during his travels—understandably so, given the sensitive nature of his mission. As he wrote, the facts were beginning to blur in his memory. He rarely referred to calendar dates, but constructed a rough and often inaccurate chronology, reckoned by the passage of days and weeks. The circumstances in which he was working may explain the character of the document, which was very rough and uneven. Its early sections were more finished and polished. The latter parts of the text bore the marks of haste, heavy pressure, and frequent distraction. The last three pages were very thin, and filled with gaps and errors. Always Champlain combined his own observations with reports from other sources, a method that he would use throughout his career. He always tried to work from first-hand observation, but did not hesitate to use other material when only that was available. The purpose of his mission appeared in patterns of description. He carefully observed the military condition of New Spain, described its major fortifications, and noted the vulnerability of towns in Panama. Overall he found great strength in the defenses of New Spain, and very little opportunity for France.95 He also painted images of New Spain as a system of violence and exploitation and in that way an example of how not to run an empire.
After a draft of this document was in hand, Champlain returned to France and went directly to Henri IV. Once again he appears to have had no difficulty getting access to the king. “I went to court,” Champlain later wrote, “having just arrived from the West Indies, where I had been nearly two and a half years, after the Spaniards had left Blavet, and made peace in France.” Champlain presented the king with his Brief Discours as a book-length intelligence report, with many maps and illustrations. The king appears to have been very pleased. He granted Champlain an annual pension and ordered him to remain at court.96
Champlain himself wrote later that he felt bound by “His Majesty’s orders, to whom I was under an obligation not only by birth but also by a pension wherewith he honored me as a means to keep me about his person.” At this point Champlain began to receive a regular pension from Henri IV for faithful service.97 The patronage of the king had an impact on Champlain’s material condition. He had already inherited a sizable estate from his uncle, and at some point he also acquired title to several houses in Brouage from his family. His pension from the king also gave him an annual income. Altogether, Samuel de Champlain had become a man of means by about the age of thirty. Later in his life he mentioned this condition of independence in his writings. Of his relations with merchants and major investors in New France, he wrote in 1632, “I am not dependent on them.” He was able to act as his own master, subject only to God and the king, and to the fulfillment of obligations that he had freely chosen to accept. He began to live his life in that spirit.98
Independence gave Champlain a new range of choices. If he wished, he could retire to his estate near La Rochelle, settle down, raise a family, and live the quiet life of a country gentleman. He might also become a courtier in the king’s daily service. Or he could go another way, toward a career of exploration and discovery in the new world. He could do these things on his own terms. Champlain was now his own master, free to follow his dreams.