Mathieu de Costa

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Mathieu da Costa
Mathieu da costa.jpg
Born Lusofonia [1]
date unknown
Died after 1619
Quebec City, Quebec
Nationality Canadian
Other names Mathieu da Costa (sometimes d'Acosta)
Occupation Translator and Explorer
Known for First recorded black person in Canada, Exploration of New France, Bridge between the Aboriginal peoples in Canada and the European explorers through his translation

Mathieu da Costa (sometimes d'Acosta) is the first recorded free black person in Canada. He was a member of the exploring party of Pierre Dugua, the Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain in the early 17th century.


There is little documentation about da Costa, but he is known to have been a freeman favoured by explorers for his multilingual talents. His portfolio of languages is thought to include Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Mi'kmaq, and pidgin Basque, the dialect many Aboriginals used for trading purposes.[2]

With the Portuguese[edit]

He was originally engaged by the Portuguese as a translator, having learned their language quickly. It was thought that his skills would be valuable in future cartography expeditions to the new world. As early as 1499 João Fernandes Lavrador explored Greenland and the north Atlantic coast of Canada. The following year brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real explored what is today the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Greenland, claiming these lands for Portugal. João Álvares Fagundes and Pêro de Barcelos established fishing outposts in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia around 1521; however, these were later abandoned, as the Portuguese shifted their focus to South America.[3]

The tradition of Europeans depending on such translators was more than a century old by this time. An interpreter, translator, and general go-between such as da Costa was known as um grumete in the Portuguese-speaking world. Da Costa would later be sought by both the English and the Dutch to help in their contacts with Aboriginal peoples, but it would be the French that secured his services.

In Holland[edit]

Mathieu da Costa was in Amsterdam, Holland, in February 1607. Apparently the Dutch had seized Du Gua's ships near Tadoussac in a trade dispute, and took Da Costa as well. His abduction strongly suggests that his talents helped bridge the gap between the Europeans and the First Nations of Canada.[4]

Working for Du Gua[edit]

Less speculatively, French documents record him working for the leaders of Port Royal in 1608.[5] In 1608 he was hired for three years by Pierre Du Gua de Monts. It may be assumed that Da Costa accompanied Du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain on one or more of their voyages to Acadia and the St Lawrence area.[6] However, in 1609, his presence is recorded in Rouen, France, and in a jail in Le Havre, France, in December, leaving the matter of a visit to Canada in that year open to question.[2]

Du Gua's activities in Canada only ended in 1617 and a court case involving expenses incurred by Nicolas de Bauquemare of Rouen to support da Costa dragged on until 1619, though there is no positive indication that Mathieu da Costa was personally present.

There is controversy as to how he had learned to communicate with the Aboriginals, with one answer being that the North American cultural context was very similar to the African one.


His translation and communication skills helped reduce the cultural gap between early French explorers and the First Nations.[7] His work in Canada is honoured at the Port-Royal National Historic Site in Port Royal, Annapolis County, Nova Scotia.[7]


A domestic rate postage stamp honoring da Costa was issued by Canada Post on February 1, 2017, in conjunction with Black History Month.[8]

A plaque at Port Royal, Nova Scotia commemorates da Costa's contribution. It is part of the Mathieu da Costa African Heritage Trail, a series of monuments marking African Nova Scotian history in the Annapolis Valley.[9] It was unveiled in July 2005[10]

The Mathieu da Costa Challenge is an annual creative writing and artwork contest launched in 1996 by the Department of Canadian Heritage. The challenge encourages youth to discover how diversity has shaped Canada’s history and the important role that pluralism plays in Canadian society.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Carlos Taveira. Mateus Da Costa e os trilhos de Megumaagee English: Matthew da Costa and the Trails of Megumaagee (in Portuguese) (2006 ed.). Texto. p. 317. ISBN 972-47-3145-6. 
  2. ^ a b Johnston, A. J. B. (2012). "Mathieu Da Costa and Early Canada: Possibilities and Probabilities*". Northern Blue Publishing. Retrieved 3 March 2012. 
  3. ^ "History", Town of Portugal Cove
  4. ^ Johnston, A.J.B. (2001). "Mathieu Da Costa along the Coasts of Nova Scotia? Some Possibilities,". Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society. 4. 
  5. ^ William J. Switala. Underground Railroad in New Jersey And New York (July 2006 ed.). Stackpole Books; annotated edition. p. 182. ISBN 0-8117-3258-4. 
    pg 139 - "The first black person mentioned in Canada was Mathieu de Costa, who appeared in French records from 1608 as being a "negro servant" to the government of Port Royal."
  6. ^ "Mathieu Da Costa", Black History Canada
  7. ^ a b "Who was Mathieu Da Costa?". Government of Canada. 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2009. 
  8. ^ Black History - Mathieu Da Costa: Permanent Domestic Stamps, Canada Post shop, 2017
  9. ^ Mathieu da Costa African Heritage Trail
  10. ^ Ronald Rudin, Remembering and forgetting in Acadie: a historian's journey through public memory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), pp. 135-137.
  11. ^ "The Mathieu Da Costa Challenge". Government of Canada. 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2009. 

Other readings

  • "Mathieu Da Costa along the Coasts of Nova Scotia: Some Possibilities" by John Johnston; NSHS, Journal #4 (2001); pp. 13.

External links[edit]