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Mathieu Da Costa and Early Canada: Possibilities and Probabilities*

by A. J. B. Johnston Parks Canada, Halifax


Mathieu Da Costa was an interpreter of African descent who likely travelled extensively throughout the "Atlantic world" in the late 1500s and early 1600s. As an interpreter, he was sought after by both the French and the Dutch to help in their trading with Aboriginal peoples. Da Costa likely spoke French, Dutch, Portuguese, as well as "pidgin Basque." The last-named language was the most common trade language used in dealing with Aboriginal peoples in the era of early contact. The tradition of Europeans relying on Black interpreters was more than a century old by Da Costa's time. It began with voyages off the African coast and continued as Europeans and Africans came across to the Americas. Mathieu Da Costa probably sailed on many different voyages, travelling up the St. Lawrence River and all along the coast of what is now Atlantic Canada.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance and advice provided by several people in the preparation of this paper. First and foremost, the research carried out by Hilary Russell and Barbara Schmeisser on Mathieu Da Costa has been invaluable. Thanks are also due to David States and Ruth Whitehead for the suggestions they made as I was exploring the topic. The linguistic analyses undertaken by Peter Bakker are of fundamental importance to the interpretation that follows.

            Mathieu Da Costa is one of the most intriguing figures in Canadian history. The evidence is sketchy, but it is clear that Da Costa (whose name is spelled in various ways) was a free Black man who in the early 1600s was sought by Europeans, both French and Dutch, to act as a translator or interpreter on voyages to North America. Unfortunately, there are not enough details to determine exactly where and when he might have worked along the coasts of Atlantic Canada. Nonetheless, we are able to suggest a range of possibilities to explain how it was that Da Costa likely found himself along the coasts of Atlantic Canada at the turn of the 17th century. Our starting point is in Africa, a century or more before Da Costa was born.

            Europeans, led by the Portuguese, began to explore and trade along the west coast of Africa in the mid-1400s. It was not long before a makeshift trading language, known as a pidgin, developed. It offered a blend of Portuguese vocabulary interspersed with African terms and it followed African grammar and syntax. In time, the pidgin evolved into a more formal language known as a creole.

            The Europeans were not inclined to learn either the native African languages or the new creole. They preferred to hire Africans as their interpreters. Over time, a number of Portuguese men chose, or were selected, to live ashore among the Africans in the principal trade posts. The men were permitted by the Africans to take wives from the local population. Many of the trade interpreters, perhaps a majority, came from these mixed marriages. We are unlikely ever to know for sure, but it is a strong possibility that the individual we have come to know as Mathieu Da Costa was from such a background. That would explain the references to him as a "naigre," the Portuguese-sounding name by which he was identified, and his occupation as an interpreter on a trading venture. Depending on his age, Da Costa may possibly have been a third or fourth generation descendant of an original marriage or relationship between a European man and an African woman. On the other hand, Da Costa might have been an African mariner with no European background, for Portuguese vessels were known to have crews of diverse racial origins.

            Yet even if Mathieu Da Costa came from a background of a family line of trade interpreters, how could he (and other Blacks - for Da Costa was not the only one) have acquired a familiarity with one or more languages of the Americas, so as to be hired by the French and the Dutch to sail as an interpreter to North America in the early 1600s? There are three main possibilities. First, Mathieu Da Costa had spent sufficient time in the Americas before 1607 to learn the languages of one or more of the Aboriginal peoples from the other side of the Atlantic. Second, he had met Amerindians in Europe who had taught him enough of their language(s) so he could serve as an interpreter when he eventually made the trans-Atlantic crossing in person. Third, the pidgin language(s) that worked in Africa also worked well, with some variations, in the North American context.

            Careful analysis of early European travel accounts reveals that pidgin languages were used to carry on trades with Amerindians along the northeastern coast of North America, just as had happened in Africa. Whichever trade language developed first, a Basque pidgin became the most commonly used. Marc Lescarbot observed on one occasion that the Aboriginal peoples of the Atlantic region used their own language when they were communicating among themselves, but "for the sake of convenience they speak to us in a language which is more familiar to us, with which much Basque is mingled." The Aboriginal nations who used the Basque pidgin the most, according to linguistic scholar Peter Bakker, were the Mi'kmaq and Montagnais (who lived along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River). Other coastal peoples, like the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy, apparently adopted a Basque-influenced trade language to a lesser extent. When we combine the linguistic evidence from northeastern North America with the likelihood that Da Costa was a second- or third-generation Euro-African or African interpreter, we arrive at a plausible explanation for how and why this Black man was hired to accompany trading and colonizing ventures to northeastern North America in the 1500s and early 1600s. In that interpretation, Da Costa and other Black men like him, carried with them a body of skills and experience in using pidgin languages to carry out trades on behalf of European interests around the Atlantic world.

Mathieu Da Costa: The Literal Evidence
            Documents generated in Europe between 1607 and 1619 provide the only "facts" there are that relate to Mathieu Da Costa. The first document dates from February 1607, when Da Costa was in Holland. At issue was the apparent enticement or kidnapping of Da Costa by the Dutch away from the French. Implied but not stated was that Da Costa had been working as an interpreter, or had contracted to do so, when Dutch interests had intervened. One might conclude that Da Costa had been involved in the Pierre Dugua de Mons' trading activities along the St. Lawrence River, but that is not stated. The following year, 1608, Da Costa signed a contract in Amsterdam that committed him to sail with or on behalf of Dugua de Mons as an interpreter "pour les voyages de Canada, Cadie et ailleurs."

            It is significant that the relevant documents specified voyages in the plural, and perhaps as well that Canada was mentioned before Acadia ("Cadie"). The expectation was undoubtedly to make use of Da Costa's talents in trading voyages around the Atlantic region, certainly including up the St. Lawrence River (which is what was meant by the reference to Canada). Da Costa's contract with Dugua was to take effect in January 1609 and to last for three years. The annual salary was to be 60 crowns, about 195 livres, which was a significant amount. Unfortunately for Dugua de Mons, the monopoly that the French Protestant trader possessed was not renewed at the end of 1608. He never made it back to Port Royal. Nor was there any French presence at that post from late 1607 to 1610. Nevertheless, the Sieur de Mons "continued to participate actively in the Canadian trade and to encourage the exploration and settlement of the country until 1617." Perhaps Da Costa participated in some of those voyages? He well might have, yet not in the first few months of his contractual relationship. In the spring of 1609, Mathieu Da Costa was not on board a ship heading for North America; he was in Rouen. The next reference has him imprisoned in Le Havre in December 1609. What had occurred is not known but the mention of "insolences" suggests that Da Costa possessed an independent spirit and spoke his mind freely.

Mathieu Da Costa: In Conclusion
             Uncertain though we are about the details of Da Costa's family and occupational background, we do know that he was referred to as a Black. As for his skills as an interpreter in matters of trade with Amerindians, Da Costa had presumably either demonstrated those abilities on previous voyages with the French and/or Dutch prior to 1607-08, or else he had established such a reputation that he was sought to obtain those services. That suggests that the interpreter was not starting out on his career in 1607-08. To have fulfilled his role(s), Mathieu Da Costa would have needed a good understanding of French, Dutch, Basque pidgin, Portuguese pidgin, and maybe other languages through which trade and other discussions were carried on between Amerindians and Europeans at the time.

            The question of where Mathieu Da Costa might have travelled either before or after the documents that date from the 1607-1609 period is impossible to answer with certainty, at least at this time. Within the northeastern corner of North America, stretching from New York to Newfoundland and up the St. Lawrence River, there were innumerable trading and exploration voyages throughout the late 1500s and into the early 1600s. Da Costa may have participated in several or many of them, working for the French, the Dutch, or other employers. The harbours and coasts most commonly identified as places of contact between Europeans and Amerindians are the most likely spots where he would have travelled. Places like Canso, the Bay of Fundy, and up the St. Lawrence River come to mind. By the early 1600s Mathieu Da Costa could have made trips to many different locations in the service of a variety of captains and merchant backers.