If you lived back in the 17th century and wanted to undertake a successful exploration mission to discover new lands, what sort of people would you have had on your crew? Experienced sailors? Definitely. Navigators/cartographers? Sure. Traders? Possibly. How about a skilled translator? New lands meant new people who can speak all sorts of languages seldom heard by European ears before. As such, adventurous, multilingual individuals who had a gift for picking up new languages found themselves heavily desired by those who led expeditions to North America.
This is how Mathieu Da Costa, the first (recorded) free Black man in Canada, earned his living. We don’t know a whole lot about him, but what we do know is that he led a pretty interesting life.
Author’s Note: Due to the lack of written records, many of the dates and the timeline of events listed below are speculative. Da Costa left no documentation of his travels and so our knowledge of him comes from limited European records.
Benin Empire (1180-1897)
Mathieu Da Costa, whose birth name was Lusofonia, was born sometime during the late 16th century. His early life remains shrouded in mystery, but we do know that he was from the Benin Empire, (not to be confused with the modern-day country called Benin; the Benin Empire was located today’s southern Nigeria). In 1485, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish trading relations with the Benin Empire. Given that the Portuguese and Beninians (as well as other African nations) did not share a common language, a lingua franca or pidgin language developed so both sides could communicate.
Fun Fact: As the pidgin language evolved it came to be known as Crioulo, or Creole as we know it today. (However, as this would have been a Portuguese-based Creole. It is not the French version that is still spoken today in Louisiana).
Africans learned Crioulo, but apparently the Portuguese and many other Europeans could not be bothered with learning it or other native African languages. Many preferred to hire Africans to work as their translators. Skilled African translators came to be known to the Portuguese as grumetes. The idea of linguistic superiority extended to Indigenous languages as well and led to the use of African translators in the early days of North American exploration. These individuals not only worked as intermediaries, but often they were active in trading and navigation too.
There is question over how Da Costa was able to pick up other languages so quickly. Some speculate that he had a mixed background (Beninian/Portuguese) and therefore was exposed to the European language early on. Other suggest that he picked it up merely from his interactions with the Portuguese and that prior to his seafaring days, he possibly worked as a translator for merchants and members of his community. Regardless, the Portuguese hired Da Costa for their expeditions because of his command of both languages. He traveled to Newfoundland sometime before 1603 and learned the Eastern Algonquian dialect by spending time with the Mi’kmaq people who resided there.
Pierre Du Gua de Monts (aka Sieur de Monts)
Samuel de Champlain
Da Costa’s skills made him sought out by other European explorers. He began to work for the French in the St. Lawrence area and Acadia which brought him into contact with explorers like Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Du Gua de Monts. Hence, he was part of the early days of bridging the cultural gap between Indigenous Peoples and the French.
Sometime between 1606 and 1607, Da Costa got wrapped up in a trade dispute. While sailing with de Monts near Tadoussac, an important New France trading post, he was kidnapped by the Dutch and brought to the Netherlands. Documentation shows that he was in Amsterdam in 1607. During this time Da Costa managed to learn the Dutch language as well.
He wasn’t there for long though, in 1608 de Monts went to Amsterdam to protest the Dutch seizure of his vessels and the kidnapping. Da Costa found a way to escape his predicament and he reconnected with his former employer. He signed a three-year contract with de Monts that paid a decent salary, (an annual salary of 60 crowns). This contract was supposed to commence in 1609. Unfortunately, Da Costa got in trouble again. This time it was with French authorities and he was put in jail in Le Havre, France for “insolences.” (Basically he was arrested for speaking his mind).
Da Costa working as an interpreter for Champlain. [Source]
How Da Costa got out of jail is unknown, but he eventually made it back to New France. There he resumed working with Champlain, de Monts, and Indigenous communities along the St. Lawrence as well as along the Atlantic coast. At this point, Da Costa all but disappears from European records. His name does appear in a French court case involving de Monts, but whether he was actually part of the legal proceedings is unknown.
By the time he died, (sometime after 1619 in Quebec City) Da Costa spoke Beninian, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Crioulo, Basque (Spanish) pidgins, as well as several different Algonquin dialects. He was a fixture in early Quebec City. It must be noted though that Da Costa is an anomaly; most Africans who came to New France did not share the same fate. Da Costa is important though because he is not only representative of early cross-cultural interaction in Canada, but his interpretative abilities helped to reduce cultural and communication barriers between early French explorers and Indigenous Peoples.
Bakker, Peter. “First African into New Netherland, 1613-1614.” De Halve Maen 68, no. 3 (1995): 50-53.
Johnston, A. J. B., Mathieu Da Costa and Early Canada: Possibilities and Probabilities, Parks Canada, Halifax. Accessed from: http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ns/portroyal/edu/edu1/edu1f.aspx
Taveira, Carlos, Mateus Da Costa e os trilhos de Megumaagee English: Matthew da Costa and the Trails of Megumaagee (in Portuguese) (2006 ed.).