Rogue, roustabout and cannibal, new book reveals much about Pierre-Esprit Radisson

This drawing by Charles William Jeffreys imagines Radisson meeting an Indigenous leader.

As a child, one of my heroes was Pierre-Esprit Radisson, in large part because of a CBC TV series back then showing the 17th century explorer as a swashbuckling adventurer fearlessly paddling his canoe across Canada.

The Americans had “King of the Frontier” Davy Crockett. We had Radisson and his sidekick brother-in-law, Médard des Groseilliers, better known by his English nickname, Gooseberries. My parents gave me a Davy Crockett fringed jacket for Christmas but my heart was really with Radisson.

The CBC series, it turns out, did not tell everything about Radisson. His fur-trading exploits were filled with treachery and even cannibalism. To get a fuller story, pick up the newly published book, Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson (Biblioasis), by Ottawa author, lawyer and historian Mark Bourrie, who spent years researching records, including some of Radisson’s own detailed autobiographical writings stored in the Royal Archives in The Round Tower of Windsor Castle.

First of all, Bourrie says Radisson does not deserve to be called an “explorer” because he never “discovered” anything that was not already known and seen by other Europeans. Example: Radisson claimed he was the first European to cross overland from the Great Lakes area to reach Hudson Bay in 1660. Actually, all the evidence indicates the trip was, in Donald Trump’s vocabulary, “fake news.”

“In claiming to be the first European to make this trip, Radisson pulled off another con job, just as he had when he wrote an entire story about travelling with Groseilliers to the Mississippi years before,” Bourrie writes.

Radisson did not just tell tall tales. He was a bigamist, with one wife at a time in England and possibly several more spread around Indigenous communities in North America. He was disloyal, not only to the Mohawk family that saved his life and adopted him when he was 15, but later to business partners in Canada, England and France. He would lie, murder and cheat when it suited him. Basically, says Bourrie, Radisson was “an eager hustler with no known scruples.”

The most eyebrow-raising accusation is that Radisson was a cannibal. The book includes two incidents in which Radisson, in his own memoirs, admits to joining Indigenous allies in eating the flesh of other Indigenous people. Apparently, Groseilliers had a much stronger yen for human delicacies and generally was far more sneaky and treacherous than Radisson.

On the plus side, Radisson did help found the Hudson’s Bay Company, North America’s oldest surviving company. He had a wondrous ability to learn languages, speaking French, English, Dutch and at least six Indigenous tongues. Unlike most Europeans of the day, he had great respect for Indigenous people. He was physically attractive, very charismatic and totally fearless, characteristics that so charmed the Mohawks that they did not torture him to death after kidnapping him in 1652 from the Trois-Rivieres area where he lived with a half-sister and her family.

But to Bourrie, the most interesting thing about Radisson is his role as the Forrest Gump of his time, having the luck to witness first-hand so many important events of the 1600s.

Mark Bourrie.

“He’s living with Indigenous people in North America. He’s with Charles II of England and his court of scoundrels, traitors, and ex-pirates. He’s in England during the Great Plague. He’s in London during the Great Fire. He’s set upon by spies. He’s in the Arctic. Then he’s with pirates in the Caribbean. After that, he’s at Versailles. And then the Arctic again. Along the way, he crosses paths with the most interesting people of his day.”

Radisson’s witnessing of all these great events of the 1600s is both a blessing and a curse. The author spends far more time setting the geo-political scene surrounding all these events than he does in painting a portrait of Radisson. A reader ends up longing for more Radisson and less context. We never really get into Radisson’s head but we do learn much about 17th century history on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bourrie is an experienced journalist and non-fiction author. Some of his previous books include The Fog of War, Fighting Words and Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know.

He deals in facts rather than speculation. So, we get scant information on Radisson’s love life because the philanderer did not write about his sweethearts in Europe and in North American Indigenous communities, where his mixed-race descendants now number in the hundreds. Those omissions leave a hole in our understanding of Radisson but fortunately there are enough other facets of his life described in detail to make the book entertaining and informative.

Overall, the writing is lively, the descriptions of 17th century Indigenous life are cinematic and, despite Radisson’s many personal flaws, it is easy to admire his chutzpah even if he is not quite the hero I worshipped decades ago.

He certainly deserved more than the notation about him as a “decay’d gentleman” in the church register in Westminster, where Radisson was buried. He had been destitute after failing to get a decent stipend in his old age from the Hudson’s Bay Company he helped found.

In an interview, Bourrie says he admires Radisson despite his flaws. “He reminds me of various rogues I have known in my life.” The author is certainly attracted to “rogues” and, if he had the time and resources, he would write a book about another 17th century “rogue” – the Dutch artist we know simply as Rembrandt.

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