ACOUTSINA (also written Acountsina), Inuk (Eskimo) girl, about 20 years old in 1717, captive of Augustin Le Gardeur de Courtemanche at the latter’s trading post on Baie de Phélypeaux (previously Baie des Espagnols and today Brador Bay), on the north shore of the St Lawrence, at the entrance to the Strait of Belle Isle. She lived there from 1717 to 1719.
With a young companion, whose name we do not know, Acoutsina played the part of family helper, and was considered as a member of the Courtemanche family. She learned enough French to serve as an interpreter when need arose, and to teach the rudiments of the Inuit or Eskimo language to Courtemanche’s successor, his step-son, François Martel* de Brouague. Brouague’s and Antoine-Denis Raudot’s writings refer to her habitually as “the young slavegirl,” “the young Indian girl,” the “esquimaude” (which takes this grammatical form back at least 250 years), the “esquimaute,” or the “esquimote.”
The young captive was the daughter of the chief Ouibignaro, who came to the fort on the Baie de Phélypeaux in 1719 and took his daughter back. He was accompanied on that occasion by numerous Eskimos and by another chief, Camerlique, who seems to have been of European origin if we interpret the girl’s statements correctly. We possess very little information about these three persons. Acoutsina’s accounts, noted down at the time and known only in manuscript form, likewise contained brief descriptions of Eskimo customs and legends. In particular, Acoutsina informed her “French family” that there existed in the north beings “without a fundament” and pygmies; she thus led Raudot to believe that certain of Jacques Cartier*’s tales, reported to be mythical, might not be entirely void of truth.
The problem that first arises is to ascertain whether Acoutsina and her people were really Eskimos. Indeed J. A. Burgesse has shown that the “Eskimos” in the first register of births, marriages, and deaths of the Tadoussac domain were Papinachois or Naskapis (of the Algonkian family). The word esquimau, a French term dating from the beginning of the colony, is derived from an Algonkian word eisimeow (or its equivalent), meaning “eater of raw flesh.” Originally, therefore, this word applied not only to the real Eskimos, but equally to nordic Amerindians leading a rather wretched life, such as the Naskapis. One might more readily believe that Acoutsina and her people were Beothuks, the true “Red Indians” who lived in Newfoundland; these disappeared entirely with Shawandithit* who died in captivity in 1829, when a belated effort was being made to save this ethnic group; unfortunately no other Beothuks was ever discovered.
These two hypotheses must be eliminated. Acoutsina and her people are indeed Eskimos. The following facts allow us to affirm this. Courtemanche, like his contemporary Pierre Constantin* and their predecessor Louis Jolliet*, had set up fur-trading posts on the borders of the Eskimo country, between the Strait of Belle Isle and Mingan. Their object was even to establish friendly relations with these people and bring them into the orbit of French commerce. They frequently met Eskimos and attempted to organize trade with them. They could hardly be mistaken as to their identity. They had in their service Montagnais Indians who spoke a dialect closely allied to that of the Naskapis, and who could not have been mistaken as to the ethnic relationship of the Eskimos in question. Moreover, these Montagnais hunters were well acquainted with the Beothuks, the “red men” who were at that time confined to central Newfoundland. The names of the Indians and Eskimos, transcribed after being heard by ears trained to French sounds, underwent inevitable distortion; however, the three names quoted above can easily be interpreted as Eskimo terms. According to Roderick MacGregor, Acoutsina seems to be a transformation of akutsiarq, which could be translated as “the beautiful apron”(aku referring to the wide back part of the mother’s parka). The nearest word to Ouibignaro is uiviquartok, meaning “inclined to be difficult.” Camerlique can be explained by kamilik, meaning “he has boots.” For anyone acquainted with the Eskimo language, in which the phoneme r is often reduced to a single very attenuated roll, the two forms seem almost homonyms. Furthermore, these names are quite consistent with Eskimo thinking. Brouague, who learned from Acoutsina to speak a little Eskimo, quotes from his vocabulary the word annanâ, which in that language means “mother.” Finally, several ethnological traits described by Acoutsina are characteristics of Eskimo culture.
Acoutsina and Ouibignaro – for we must leave aside Camerlique, who was probably of foreign origin – do not seem to have been the only Eskimos in contact with the French in this period. Indeed, a letter from a Father François dated 20 Oct. 1732 contains this passage: “I counted on having the privilege of giving you a detailed account of matters relating to the Eskimo natives, but it will be extremely brief, for this is all I could get out of the young Eskimo woman who lives at Beauport; not being very familiar as yet with the French language, she could not express herself adequately, or even understand clearly what she was being asked.” According to the few pieces of information that one can glean from this letter, it is clear that reference is being made to Eskimos and not to Naskapis or to Beothuks. In this period it was only the Eskimos who were able to come and steal from the French fishermen on the north bank of the St Lawrence.
Acoutsina’s story and the statements she made permit us to assess Euro-Eskimo relations a century after the establishment of the French colony. Of the three linguistic families in eastern Canada (the Algonkian, the Iroquoian, and the Eskimo), only the small Eskimo-speaking tribes remained long hostile to the European element. Their coastal territory, of arctic type, ran southwest from the Strait of Belle Isle to near the Mingan Islands. Beyond, to the west, lived their traditional enemies the Montagnais, whom they always designated in their language by terms of contempt – erpalik, for example, which meant “who has nits” – or “the enemy.” Seasonal cod-fishermen and Eskimos encroached on each other. The Eskimos wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get nails, and like the Beothuks of Newfoundland they could think of nothing more practical than burning the boats.
The French posts on the Strait of Belle Isle attempted, however, to establish friendly contacts with them, in order to organize fur-trading with these refractory Amerindians. It was at this point that the Sieur de Courtemanche appeared on the scene. On 16 Oct. 1716 M. Lair, Courtemanche’s chaplain, wrote from Baie de Phélypeaux to Madame de Courtemanche, who was then, at Bayonne: “All conceivable means must be employed to win over the Eskimos. Those means are: 1) forbid the French to fire on them; 2) try to entice or catch a few of them, treat them well in all sorts of ways, and send them back with gifts for themselves and their compatriots; 3) urge a few bold and clever Frenchmen to go among them in order to try to bring them round, or at least to appeal to the Frenchmen who are believed to be among them [for deserters sometimes banded together with the natives] to persuade them to trade with the French. To this end promise to give good rewards to these Frenchmen. . . .”
Madame de Courtemanche was apparently a masterful woman who had her say in the affairs of the post. We may wonder whether the chaplain was not trying to obtain the agreement of the mistress of the house first, in order to win over the husband subsequently. Or he may have assumed responsibility for a plan conceived by Courtemanche, in order to get it more readily accepted by the wife. Both hypotheses can be put forward.
In the autumn of 1716 Courtemanche met some Eskimos, and urged them to return the following year for fur-trading. They came on 25 May 1717, faithful to the rendezvous, and camped within gunshot of the fort. With 18 men (French and Montagnais), Courtemanche went to the Eskimo camp, where they threatened to ill-treat him. While he was exhorting the chief, the natives took to their shallops; the women, first in, were quickly joined by the men, who began to shoot arrows at the French Courtemanche therefore intercepted a shallop occupied by 12 persons, and managed to seize a woman, two girls, and a small boy. The latter died shortly after being duly baptized.
After Courtemanche’s death in June 1717, his step-son Brouague directed the fur-trading post on Baie de Phélypeaux. During the next two years nothing more was seen of the Eskimos. Brouague’s letters no longer mention the woman, but only the two girls, and particularly the elder of the two, Acoutsina, who was 18 or 20 years old. Both girls were still living at the post in 1719.
Meanwhile Brouague (letter dated 9 Sept. 1718) was applying himself to the task of learning the Eskimo language from Acoutsina, who was living with Madame de Courtemanche as a member of the family. Despite her easy life among understanding whites who assumed the role of parents in relation to their captives, Acoutsina “still has a strong desire to return to her nation,” wrote Brouague in September 1718. “I consoled her by giving her the hope,” he added, “that she would be returned to her parents.”
What French she had learned enabled Acoutsina to convey information to her masters concerning Eskimo customs, and also mythical ideas or legends based on false interpretations. She likewise told them how certain Europeans had settled among them, one being a shipwrecked sailor whom they apparently called “good old Nicolas,” and with whom the administration at Quebec tried to get into contact. Raudot’s correspondence contains a letter, written after 1717, to “good old Nicolas,” seeking his collaboration in the task of bringing the two peoples together. We have no idea whether the letter reached its destination, the more so because we do not know whether this person really existed.
In September 1719, having become commandant “of all the shore of Bras d’Or with power to settle disputes there,” Brouague reported the following: his scouts, who were constantly on the watch, informed him of the presence of Eskimos on Île aux Bois, an opportunity he had long been waiting for. Leaving his men at a distance, he advanced unarmed towards the Eskimos, accompanied only by Acoutsina, who made herself known. Her father, chief Ouibignaro, was with the group. At sunset he went with Brouague to the fort, entreating him to leave his daughter with him, and saying that he would bring her back the next day. Some 30 Eskimos then came to join them and feasted at the fort. Ouibignaro recognized Acoutsina’s young companion as a relation of his, and begged to have both girls, to which Brouague readily agreed. To the eager expressions of gratitude addressed to Madame de Courtemanche, who had treated the girls so well, a pessimistic note was added. Camerlique, one of their principal chiefs despite his foreign origin (if Acoutsina’s information was correct), declared that they must all be killed, including Madame de Courtemanche. Acoutsina began to weep, but she was reassured instantly, and the Eskimos even promised no longer to burn the shallops of the French fishermen. During the reunion the chaplain, Lair – no doubt Acoutsina’s French teacher – handed her a book so that she could give her kindred a demonstration of her knowledge. After the exchange of gifts the two parties separated, and thus ends the story of Acoutsina, who was not heard of again.
This fine beginning had no sequel. The Eskimos did not return; they continued their depredations against the French fishermen, then against the English and carried on like this until the Moravian Brethren, Protestant missionaries from central Europe and the spiritual descendants of John Huss, came 50 years later to settle on the coast of Labrador.
The Sieur de Brouague’s letters, the main source of information about Acoutsina, Camerlique, and Ouibignaro, are found in AN, Col., C11A, 109. C11A, 122 contains various documents of which Raudot’s letters correspond, except for minute differences, to letters 44–89 in Relation par lettres de l’Amérique septentrionale, années 1709 et 1710, éd Camille de Rochemonteix (Paris, 1904) Raudot’s letters in C11A, end with these words: “Here is the end by M. Raudot, the younger. I have already sent you the first lot and half of the second.” At this point Pierre Margry adds: “This statement was made by Raudot the younger about the Sieur de Louvigny’s memoir about the savages See his letter of 24 Sept 1709.” For some of Brouague’s other letters see AN, Col., C11A, 37, f.405; 41, ff.57–63; 43, fr 149–61 [j.r]
“Mémoire de M. de Brouague, commandant pour le roi à la cote de Labrador . . . ,” APQ Rapport, 1922–23, 368–74. La Morandière, Hist. de la pêche française de la morue. J. A. Burgesse, “Esquimaux in the Saguenay,” Primitive Man (Washington), XXII (1949), 23–32 Charles de La Morandière, “Les Français au Labrador au XVIIIe siècle,” Académie de marine, Communications et mémoires, II (Paris, 1956–57), 24–59. Jacques Rousseau, “Le dernier des Peaux-Rouges,” Cahiers des Dix, XXVII (1962), 47–76; “L’origine et l’évolution du mot esquimau,” Cahiers des Dix, XX (1955), 179–98.