Champlain’s Statue, Nepean Point, Ottawa, Canada.
Barely a month after July 3, 1608, the day Samuel de Champlain and his fellow French colonists founded Quebec, what they hoped would be a permanent trading post and settlement, the Father of New France found himself at the center of an assassination plot. Using Champlain’s own words, this post looks at what led to the plot, how Champlain found out about it, and what was his response was.
Champlain Supervises the Building of the Habitation in 1608 – C.W. Jefferys
The story goes that in the early days of the French settlement, Captain Guillaume Le Testu* approached Champlain while he was busy gardening and asked to speak with him privately. After going into the woods together, Testu told Champlain that he had learned several men were plotting to murder him. Shocked, Champlain wanted to speak with the informant and had to agree to pardon the individual before being allowed to do so. (Champlain notes that he found it ridiculous that the man had been too scared to come to him directly). Testu left briefly and came back with one of the colony’s locksmiths, Antoine Natel. The fearful, but guilt-stricken Natel revealed the names of four men who were behind the scheme. He also named the other locksmith, Jean Duval, as the ringleader. Duval planned to hand over Quebec to either the Basque or the Spaniards in exchange for a hefty sum of cash. The men were in the process of trying to bring all the others within the colony over to their side so that Champlain would be isolated:
“In order to execute his wretched plan, by which he hoped to make his fortune, he suborned four of the worst characters, as he supposed, telling them a thousand falsehoods, and presenting to them prospects of acquiring riches. These four men, having been won over, all promised to act in such a manner as to gain the rest over to their side; so that, for the time being, I had no one with me in whom I could put confidence.” – Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, 1604-1618, pg. 132.
European exploration of the Americas (1492-1682)
European countries spent the Age of Exploration (late 1400s-1700s) trying to grab as much land and resources for themselves as possible. However, expeditions and founding settlements were expensive, highly risky ventures because they were prone to mishaps and failure. An easier way to obtain a foothold in new area would be to have someone else to do it for you. This is the mentality that led to the plot to kill Champlain. It wasn’t personal; it was all financial. The unknown Basque and/or Spanish conspirators set their sights on Quebec for the same reason the French wanted it: it was fertile land in a prime location for trading and defense.
According to Champlain, the conspirators’ plan was to either strangle him when he was unarmed or give a false alarm at night and shoot Champlain the moment he went to investigate. After obtaining the information he needed, Champlain had Testu and Natel return to their work as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile Champlain began to plan his next move. He decided to extend the four men an invitation to join him on Testu’s ship for an evening of wine and entertainment. Apparently not finding this suspicious, the men readily accepted his invitation. However…
It was around 10 o’clock at night when all this went down. Champlain then went ashore along with armed crew members and woke up the sleeping settlers. He informed them of what had happened. Champlain knew that Duval and his co-conspirators had been working to get all the men on-board with the assassination plan so Champlain gave everyone a “choice.” They could either confess the truth and be pardoned or die. Everyone single one of the men confessed and turned on the four would-be assassins.
The next day Champlain organized a tribunal to get the trial of the four underway. The tribunal consisted of himself, Testu, François Gravé Du Pont (aka Pont-Gravé, one of the senior navigators for the French expeditions), and Bonnerme, the colony’s surgeon. All of the men testified against the four prisoners. In the face of overwhelming evidence each of the conspirators confessed and begged for mercy, including Duval. Champlain found himself in a difficult position. The four were sentenced to death. He could pardon them, but Champlain notes that he could tell the men in the colony “feared that [he would] pardon them, and that they would avenge themselves upon them for revealing their wicked design.” Quebec did not have the provisions yet for long-term prisoners. So Champlain decided to make an example of Duval and had the other three sent back to France to face trial when Pont-Gravé sailed home in September.
Champlain executed Duval immediately…and by executed I mean he hanged Duval in a manner that strangled him to death. Then he chopped Duval’s head off and stuck it on a pike that was “set up in the most conspicuous place on our fort.” Right where everyone inside and outside of the fort can see it.
Gruesomeness aside, historian David Hackett Fischer notes that mutinies happened lot in early colonies and this generally led to the destruction of the colony. (For example, the short-lived French colonies of Charlesfort and Fort Caroline in modern-day Florida). Champlain wanted to squash the internal dissent and send a message to the Basque and Spanish in the area who had plotted his death. CBC suggests that Champlain also wanted to send a message to the Indigenous Peoples living in the area, such as the Wendat and Montagnais, that he could be a strong ally against their own enemies. Champlain makes no mention of this in his writing however. Nevertheless, Champlain was successful at preventing any further dreams of mutiny, he notes that following the incident the men of the colony “conducted themselves correctly in the discharge of their duty.” There were no further uprisings.
* Note: The Captain Testu referred to in this article was named after his grandfather, Guillaume Le Testu, the French navigator who sailed with Sir Francis Drake…and got his head chopped off by the Spanish in 1573. [Source]
Who was Jean Duval? Fischer states that was a “skilled locksmith with a special expertise in the repair of gunlocks and access to weapons.” Generally, not much is known about Duval and what is known comes from people who didn’t like him. Champlain notes that Duval had ignored his orders in the past. His friend and fellow colonist, Marc Lescarbot, wrote that when Duval survived an attack by Indigenous warrior, “It would have been better if he had died there.” [Source]
Fischer, David Hackett, Champlain’s Dream, Toronto: Random House Canada (2008). Pg. 248-249.
Champlain, Samuel de, and W L. Grant (Ed). Voyages of Samuel De Champlain, 1604-1618. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1907. Pg. 132-136. [Online] Accessed from: https://archive.org/stream/voyagessam00chamrich/voyagessam00chamrich_djvu.txt.
Trudel, Marcel, “DUVAL, JEAN,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–. Accessed from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/duval_jean_1E.html.