History Opinions & Features April 04, 2021 at 09:00 am

What if Davey Crockett had been Black? Scratching the surface of historical whitewashing

Nick Douglas April 04, 2021 at 09:00 am

April 04, 2021 at 09:00 am | History, Opinions & Features

Mathieu Da Costa is one of the most famous and mysterious characters in Canadian history. He could very well be the father of the Canadian Davey Crockett, Jean Côtè. (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Henry Bishop/Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia)

If Davey Crockett had been black, would he have been celebrated in songs and TV shows created about him? Canadians may soon have to answer that question for their own Davey Crockett, a man named Jean Côtè.

The usual narratives about the Americas express little interest in chronicling the history of people of color. These accounts have gone to incredible lengths to overlook or hide the contributions of people of color. But if we scratch the surface of these narratives, we begin to see an untold history.  

Mathieu Da Costa is one of the most famous and mysterious characters in Canadian history. He could very well be the father of the Canadian Davey Crockett, Jean Côtè. Da Costa is firmly acknowledged, even by white Canadian historians, to be the first African to set foot in Canada. As an interpreter and explorer for the first French governor of New France, Pierre Du Gua de Mont, Da Costa was instrumental in helping the French settle in Canada. He is assumed to have died after 1619 in Quebec.

Thought to be of Portuguese/African ancestry, Da Costa helped the Portuguese, Spanish, French and Dutch explore Canada and communicate with and learn the culture of the Native Americans of Nova Scotia and Quebec. Da Costa not only spoke Spanish, French, Dutch and Portuguese but was a grumete (translator) who spoke the pidgin and Mi’Kmaq languages of the Indians of Nova Scotia.

Many Canadian historians have let Da Costa’s story end there. But historians of color have begun to scratch the surface of this story to uncover another historical narrative. It likely started more than 100 years earlier, on the coast of Africa.

In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers began to venture down from the North of Africa to the West Coast of Africa to trade for gold, pepper and other goods. The trading was so lucrative that the Portuguese forbade sailors to speak of where they had been, but inevitably other European powers discovered the secret. 

Eventually, Portuguese sailors were allowed to settle in African towns like Elmina on the Gold Coast. These settlers were called lançados. They married into local families, usually influential ones, to strengthen social ties with their trading partners. 

Because the Portuguese and other Europeans found African languages too hard to learn, they relied on translators called grumetes. These grumetes understood the language, but more importantly the traditions and business approaches of both cultures. They became indispensable to white traders. 

When French explorers came to the West Coast of Africa after the Portuguese, they used similar tactics to form strong relationships with the Africans they traded with. They too married into influential families. The new class of Afro-French offspring became known as signares. The French would carry this custom further by taking Native American women as wives in the New World. 

How did Da Costa first come to Canada? It’s very plausible that he was a descendant of a Portuguese lançado and an African mother who was hired as a grumete in Africa and the New World. Or that he was an African sailor who was aboard a Spanish or Portuguese vessel that visited fishing areas off the coast of Canada.

Portuguese and Spanish vessels were known for having diverse crews. For example, Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria was piloted by a free black man named Pedro Alonzo Niño. Hernando De Soto (the Spaniard who discovered the mouth of the Mississippi) was known to have left a free African crewman in Louisiana with friendly Indians. 

It is likely that Da Costa accompanied Portuguese or Spanish fishing expeditions to Nova Scotia in the late 1500s. The Native Americans and the first Spanish and Portuguese fishermen to visit Canada developed a “pidgin” language that was used for trade. Da Costa had an affinity for learning languages. To have learned the pidgin and Mi’Kmaq language and the Native culture as he did, Da Costa probably stayed in the area for lengths of time and married a Native woman. This was a common method used by the first explorers to be accepted into and learn Native culture and language. We know that Da Costa came back to Canada with Samuel de Champlain in 1605 aboard the Jonas from New Rochelle, France. 

Da Costa was signed to a lucrative three-year contract to help Canada’s first French governor. His talents were so valued that when the Dutch seized two French ships in 1607, the French sent negotiator Jean Rallau not only to retrieve the seized ships but also to retrieve the valuable translator Da Costa, who was on board. 

A growing number of historians of color including myself believe that Da Costa had a son with a Native American, and that son was Jean Côtè. Jean Côtè and his wife Anne Martin are considered to be one of the first Canadian families. Their children and descendants married into other prominent first families of Canada. Like frontiersman Davey Crockett of the U.S., Côtè helped settle and tame the French frontier in Canada. Most historians agree that Jean Côtè worked for the second French governor Jacques Hualt de Montmagny. He served as a grumete, translating Native American languages for the French, as had Da Costa.  

Where did Jean Côtè learn the Mi’Kmaq language? If he was the child of Da Costa, he would have learned the language from his Native American mother and Da Costa. As a native speaker of Mi’Kmaq, Côtè would have been the logical candidate to be sent to France to be educated, so he could return to Canada and use that education to help the fledgling settlement. Some historians believe that as a child, Jean Côtè was sent to France to be educated and lived with a French foster family named Loisel, then returned to Canada in 1634. This was a common practice. For example, in 1687, my Canadian ancestor François Hazeur sent his son back to France to be educated by the Jesuits. My ancestor returned to Canada from studying in France and was also married there. His father François Hazeur was my 8th –great-grandfather, and also the grandson of Ann Martin, Jean Côtè’s wife.

Some historians believe Jean Côtè was born in France to Abraham Côtè and Françoise Loisel and came to Canada in 1634 for the first time. Yet no genealogists have been able to provide evidence of Jean Côtè being born in France. This narrative can’t explain how Jean Côtè learned languages in one year that French and Dutch explorers found so difficult that they instead relied on highly-paid interpreters. This narrative also denies the importance of African and metis (of mixed heritage) families in the founding and settling of Canada.

On November 17, 1635, Jean Côtè married Ann Martin, a woman of Native American and Scottish ancestry. She was a member of the Wendat Clan who the French derisively called Hurons. After their marriage, Jean Côtè and Ann Martin became one of the first couples in a settlement of Wendat (Huron) Christian converts established by the Jesuits on Île d’Orléans in Quebec.

At the time of Jean Côtè and Ann Martin, there were just a few hundred French settlers living in and around Quebec City. The French were incredible bureaucrats and they had relatively few births and baptisms to keep track of them. If either Jean Côtè or Ann Martin had been of solely French ancestry, it would have been very likely that their births and baptisms would have been recorded. However, neither was recorded. Only their marriage was recorded by the Jesuits after they converted to Christianity.

It makes sense that Jean Côtè and his bride Ann Martin were both metis. Jean Côtè would have been Native American and African; Ann Martin was Scottish and Native American. Otherwise why would they have lived in Île d’Orléans, a settlement established specifically for Native American Christian converts? 

Jean Côtè and Ann Martin had eight children. Of special interest is their son Mathieu, born in 1642, who was likely named after Jean Côtè’s father Mathieu Da Costa. In 1644, they had another son, Jean Côtè. He was known as Le Noir and Le Frise, French for the “black” and “frizzy-haired”. 

White historians and genealogists controlled the story of Mathieu Da Costa, Jean Côtè and other narratives for over 400 years, and shaped them into comfortable stories of European dominance. The idea that one of the first prominent families in Canada were African and Native American and all their descendants were metis, flies in the face of the historical narrative of white domination in Canada and the U.S. As black genealogists and historians increasingly share their research and are allowed to have a forum to contribute, they are revealing how history has been whitewashed to obscure the important contributions of people of color.

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