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Adventurer, turncoat, cannibal: the remarkable story of Pierre-Esprit Radisson

In his new book Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, Mark Bourrie examines the larger-than-life legacy of the French-Canadian fur trader 

  • Apr 29, 2019
  • 1,058 words
  • 5 minutes
Woodcut of Pierre-Esprit Radisson next to cover of Mark Bourrie's book Expand Image

Canadians might be familiar with Pierre Radisson, the 17th-century French fur trader often credited for his role in founding the Hudson’s Bay Company. But chances are they’re far less familiar with Pierre Radisson, the 17th-century Mohawk clan member, turncoat, pirate hanger-on and (occasional) cannibal.

With his book Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Espirit Radisson, a biography published earlier this month, Mark Bourrie hopes to change that. “It’s always about the Hudson’s Bay Company and the development of the economy and political system of Canada, because they came to govern so much of Canada, but nobody ever looks at his life,” Bourrie says.

To say Radisson lived an interesting life would be an understatement. Kidnapped and adopted by Mohawks as a teenage settler near Trois-Rivières in New France in 1652, his charm, curiosity and eagerness to see their country and learn their customs and language likely saved him from being killed. For two years, he lived happily as a Mohawk before defecting to the Dutch and sailing east for a brief stint in Europe, the second of many voyages he’d make overseas.

Over the next three decades, his life would be punctuated by long journeys as he criss-crossed the Atlantic, trading goods for furs with the Indigenous peoples of North America while trying to secure European funding to back a more ambitious expedition to the Hudson Bay.

Radisson claims to have made his first overland expedition to Hudson Bay during a trading trip near Lake Superior in 1660, aided by the geographical knowledge of the Cree people who knew and controlled the route to the “northern sea.” But Bourrie, who grew up near Georgian Bay and is familiar with the topography of the area, doesn’t buy it. “If he had gone where he said he went on some of his trips, he would have seen things that he would have remarked on,” he says, referring to distinctive flat-topped hills on the north shore of Lake Superior.

Throughout the book, Bourrie’s writing is grounded in a strong sense of place, partly because of his own extensive knowledge of the land and partly because of Radisson’s descriptive storytelling abilities; much of Bourrie’s book is sourced from Radisson’s autobiography, which was written in 1665 for King Charles II of England, as the two friends were biding their time at Windsor Castle, waiting for the Great Plague to die down in London.

Other than the purported 1660 Hudson Bay trip and an earlier expedition into the Mississippi Valley that Radisson claims to have been on (but, again, offers few details of), Bourrie doubts very little of what Radisson wrote — his vivid recollections of places and events check out, he says.

“An eager hustler with no known scruples”

But what was Radisson the person like? Bourrie describes him as “an eager hustler with no known scruples” and someone whose allegiances were, even for a time of great political instability, incredibly fluid. In some way or another, he double-crossed nearly everybody he worked for or with — French, English, Dutch and Indigenous alike — changing sides and abandoning allies as he saw fit.

He could also be ruthless, says Bourrie. On more than one occasion Radisson admits, with little to no remorse, to eating human flesh to survive. But, as Bourrie points out, the 17th century was a brutal time to be alive, regardless of what continent you were on. Radisson’s descriptions of torture, as carried out by the Mohawk, might be initially jarring, but when contextualized with the routine and public hangings and drawings-and-quarterings that were popular in medieval Europe, their shock value wanes.

Radisson was audacious, too. He rarely wrote about being afraid, brushing off being shipwrecked and marooned off the coast of Venezuela with hardened pirates and being robbed and dumped on the coast of Spain by even more ferocious freebooters. He should have been killed 1,000 times over. “His luck was amazing,” Bourrie says.

But what’s truly remarkable about Radisson’s story has little to do with transatlantic voyages, European politics or good fortune and instead stems from his deep-rooted respect for Indigenous peoples and his ability to understand and live within the nuances of their laws and customs. His accounts of 17th-century Indigenous life are unparalleled in comparison to other descriptions of that time, which were mostly written by Jesuit missionary priests and tainted with colonialist and xenophobic biases.

“The only thing he wanted from them were furs, which they were quite happy to trade him. He didn’t want their land, he wasn’t after gold and he didn’t want them to change,” Bourrie says. “He doesn’t dehumanize them in the way that colonialism requires.”

For Bourrie, it was important to publish Radisson’s story as a direct challenge to the colonial-historical narrative that so many Canadians are used to hearing.

“I wanted to attack the notion that there was empty land in Canada,” he says. “You look at the Mohawk, people who are wealthy by any standard of that time. They own land and they farm land. They have big surpluses, they have currency. They have a government that works and collects taxes, does public work, distributes land, engages in diplomacy, treaty-making and record-keeping. That is a full-blown society, by the standards of that time and the standards of now.”

As a minor historical figure, Radisson represents different things to different people, says Bourrie. Some Americans in Minneapolis credit him as their founder (mistakenly, notes Bourrie). To many of the French, he remains a traitor. And for Canadians, he’s an overlooked explorer, sidelined by the Hudson’s Bay Company and given little credit for his role in its formation. But for Bourrie, Radisson is first and foremost a phenomenal storyteller, offering a valuable and rare glimpse into 17th-century North America.

“He’s very human. There are all kinds of good things about him. And there are all kinds of things about him that are really bad,” Bourrie says. “I like his toughness, I like the fact that he didn’t quit. He’s rather sociopathic and that’s intriguing, I hate to say. I think he would have been a really captivating person to know.”

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