Mathieu de Costa
|Mathieu da Costa|
|Born||Lusofonia (African birth name)
Quebec City, Quebec
|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.
Mathieu da Costa was an interpreter and translator from the Benin Empire during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Benin Empire was "one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating perhaps to the Eleventh century." The original people and founders of the Benin Empire were the Edo people. The first European travelers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers in about 1485. A strong mercantile relationship developed, with the Edo trading tropical products such as ivory, pepper and palm oil with the Portuguese for European goods such as manila and guns.
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 and pidgin Basque, the dialect many Aboriginals used for trading purposes.
With the Portuguese
He was originally acquired by the Portuguese for his translating abilities, having learned their language so 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 focussed their efforts on South America.
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 un grumete in the Portuguese-speaking world. After learning the Language of the L'nug (Mi'kmaq) on a Portuguese expedition 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 for hire.
It is thought that he came to Canada at some time before 1603, using his visit to learn the Mi'kmaq dialect. One source has him coming to Acadie in a Portuguese ship where he learned the Eastern Algonquian language. A Rouen merchant then kidnapped him in Portugal or in the East Indies and sold or lent him to de Monts as an interpreter.
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.
Working for Du Gua
Less speculatively, French documents record him working for the leaders of Port Royal in 1608. 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. 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.
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.
In Canada, he likely travelled up the St. Lawrence River and worked at various locations along the Canadian Atlantic Coast. 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. His work in Canada is honoured at the Port Royal Habitation National Historic Site of Canada in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.
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 Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. It was unveiled in July 2005
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.
- 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.
- Robert W. Strayer, Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources, Bedford/St. Martin's: 2012, pp. 695-696
- Johnston, A. J. B. (2012). "Mathieu Da Costa and Early Canada: Possibilities and Probabilities*". Northern Blue Publishing. Retrieved 3 March 2012.
- "History", Town of Portugal Cove
- L'nug (Mi'kmaq)
- Map of Portuguese presence in Canada
- "Our French heritage: Fishermen were first to visit acadian homeland". doucetfamily. 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2009.
- 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.
- 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."
- "Mathieu Da Costa", Black History Canada
- "Who was Mathieu Da Costa?". Government of Canada. 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2009.
- Mathieu da Costa African Heritage Trail
- Ronald Rudin, Remembering and forgetting in Acadie: a historian's journey through public memory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), pp. 135-137.
- "The Mathieu Da Costa Challenge". Government of Canada. 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2009.
- "Mathieu Da Costa along the Coasts of Nova Scotia: Some Possibilities" by John Johnston; NSHS, Journal #4 (2001); pp. 13.