Lahontan, Excerpts from Dialogues with Kondiaronk (1703)


Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, baron de Lahontan (1666-1716) was a French aristocrat and soldier who spent several years traveling in the colony New France (Canada). He had frequent contacts with the indigenous peoples of the region and in 1703 published his account of his experiences, New Voyages to North America. The second volume featured a series of dialogues between Lahontan and Kondiaronk (c. 1649-1701, called “Adario” in the book), a Huron political leader, in which they two men discussed their views of their respective societies. Kondiaronk is portrayed as having visited France and as being sharply critical of the society which he observed there. While there is no other evidence that Kondiaronk ever traveled to Europe or expressed the precise opinions described by Lahontan, he had reputation as for intelligence and eloquence, and we know that several other indigenous people did cross the Atlantic during this era.

Lahontan….But in regard to the good of the society consists in doing justice and following these laws, there’s the necessity of punishing the wicked and rewarding the good; for without that precaution murders, robberies and defamations would spread everywhere, and in a word, we should be the most miserable people upon the face of the earth.

Adario. Nay, you are miserable enough already, and indeed I can’t see how you can be more such. What sort of men must the Europeans be? What species of creatures do they retain to? The Europeans, who must be forced to do good and have no other prompter for the avoiding of evil than the fear of punishment. If I asked you, what a man is, you would answer me, He’s a Frenchman, and yet I’ll prove that your man is rather a beaver. For man is not entitled to that character upon the score of his walking upright upon two legs, or of reading and writing, and showing a thousand other instances of his industry. I call that creature a man, that has a natural inclination to do good, and never entertains thoughts thoughts of doing evil.

    You see we have no judges; and what’s the reason of that? Why? We neither quarrel nor sue one another. And what’s the reason we have no law suits? Why? Because we are resolved to neither to receive nor to know silver. But why do we refuse admission to silver among us? The reason is this-- we are resolved to have no laws, for since the world was a world our ancestors lived happily without them. In fine, as I intimated before, the word laws does not signify just and reasonable things as you use it, for the rich make a just of them and it is only the poor wretches that pay any regard to them.

    But, pray, let’s look into these laws, as you call them. For these fifty years, the governors of Canada have still alleged that we are subject to the laws of their great captain. We content ourselves in denying all manner of dependence, excepting that upon the Great Spirit, as being born free and join brethren, who are all equally masters; whereas you are all slaves to one man. We do not put in any such answer to you, as if the French depended upon us; and the reason of out silence upon that head is that we have no mind to quarrel. But, pray tell me, what authority or right is the pretended superiority of your great captain grounded upon? Did we ever sell ourselves to the great captain? Were we ever in France to look after you? It is you that came hither to find out us. Who you all the countries that you now inhabit, and by what right to you possess them? They always belonged to the Algonquins before. In earnest, my dear brother. I’m sorry for you from the bottom of my soul.
    Take my advice and turn Huron; for I see plainly a vast difference between your condition and mine. I am master of my own body, I have absolute disposal of myself, I do what I please, I am the first and last of my own nation, I fear no man, and I depend only on the Great Spirit; whereas your body, as well as your soul, are doomed to a dependence upon your great captain; your viceroy disposes of you; you have not the liberty of doing what you have a mind to, you are afraid of robbers, false witnesses, assassins, etc., and you depend upon an infinity of persons whose places have raised them above you.

    It is true, is it not? Are these things either improbable or invisible? Ah! My dear brother, you see plainly that I am in the right of it and yet you chose rather to be a French slave than a free Huron. What a fine spark does a Frenchman make with his fine laws, who taking himself to be mighty wise is assuredly a great fool; for as much as he continues in slavery and a state of dependence, while the very brutes enjoy that adorable liberty, and like us fear nothing but foreign enemies.

***

Lahontan
. I gave you to know before that you ought not to give credit to all that every fool whispers in your ear. You give ear to some blockheads that have not a tincture of common sense, and that spread lies under the notion of half truths. These bad judges, that they speak of, are as uncommon as white beavers; for it is a question if there are four such judges in all France. Our judges are men that love virtue, and have souls to be saved as well as you and I; and being invested with a public capacity, they are to answer to the conduct before a judge who had no respect to persons, and before whom the greatest monarch is no more than a slave. There’s scarce any of these men, who would not choose to die, rather than wound their conscience or violate the laws. Money is too base a metal to tempt them, and women warm them no more than ice. Friends and great lords make less impression upon their minds, than the waves upon the rocks. They curb libertinism, the redress disorders, and do justice to all that sue for it; without the least regard to what we call interest.

    As for my own part, I have lost my whole estate by being cast in three or four law-suits at Paris; but I would be loath to believe that the judges are at fault, notwithstanding that my adversaries found both money and friends to back bad causes. It was the law that gave it against me, and I take the law to be just and reasonable, imputing my surprise upon the matter, to my unacquaintedness with that study.

Adario
. I protest I don’t understand one word of what you have said; for I know contrary of what you say to be true, and those who informed me so of the judges are men of honor and sense. But if nobody had given me any such information, I am not so dull-headed as not to see with my own eyes, the injustice of your laws and your judges. I’ll tell you one thing my dear brother; I was going one day from Paris to Versailles, and about half way, I met a boor that was going to be whipped for having taken partridges and hares with traps. Between Rochel and Paris, I saw another that was condemned to the galleys for having a little bag of salt about him.

    These poor men were punished by your unjust laws for endeavoring to get sustenance to their families; at a time when a million women were got with child in the absence of their husbands, when the physicians murdered three fourths of the people, and the gamesters reduced their families to a starving condition, by losing all they had in the world; and all this with impunity. If things go at this rate, where are your just and reasonable laws; where are those judges that have a soul to be saved as well as you or I? After this, you’ll be ready to brand the Hurons for beasts. In earnest, we should have a fine time of it if we offered to punish one of our brethren for killing a hare or a partridge; and a glorious fight it would be, to see our wives enlarge the number of our children while we are engaged in warlike expeditions against our enemies, to see p
hysicians poison our families, and gamesters lose the beaver skins they’ve gotten in hunting. In France, these things are looked upon as trifles, which do not fall within the verge of their fine laws. Doubtless, they must be very blind, that they are acquainted with us, but do not imitate our example.

(Language and orthography modernized somewhat from the original translation).


Baron de Lahontan, New Voyages to North America, translated by Reuben Gold Thwaites, Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1905, pp. 552-555; 559-561