Into The Wilderness – Pierre-Esprit Radisson

Curiously enough, if you type the word Radisson in Google searches, you will be directed to a hotel. There is some poetry in the fact that, searching for an explorer and adventurer from the past, you may go on some adventurous (we hope) voyage nowadays. But the point is that Radisson, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, or his companion and brother-in-law, Medard des Groseilliers, are not precisely well-known heroes of the Age of Discovery.

They belong to the XVII century, which is a pity, given that the next two centuries were, allegedly, the golden era of exploration, and the two prior were the era of Columbus and the Spanish conquistadores. Bur, alas, it seems that the XVII is gone blank in what respects to what the discovering of new lands or the adventure of travelling in the wilderness was at the moment, not being thermal clothes and GPS devices available

Another trouble with Radisson is that, albeit he wrote a volume on his travels, everyone regards it with some suspicion of non accuracy, not allowing comparison with the astounding success of Franklin and his account of his own polar expeditions. Yet another one is the known fact that the man was a consummate turncoat: he changed allegiances several times between England and France, which, at the time, was the worst thing a man could do to earn himself a good reputation. In subsequent centuries, as capitalism became the dominant philosophy, that would not be considered such a crime, as far as it is motivated by profit. But this is still the XVII century.

So, by now, we have a perfect stranger somewhat related with modern age mass tourism, a liar, and a well-known turncoat. Then, you may well think, who are you trying to pass as a hero? There is nothing heroic in Radisson…

But there is a lot of heroic stuff about Radisson. As a boy, he was captured by Mohawk Indians, then adopted. Late in his life, while hunting he was captured by white men and tortured, the kind of thing Indians, not Europeans, were supposed to do. In spite of his previous bad experience, he decided freely to go back to the white settlements, serving as an interpreter, which may count as his first (or second) turning of the coat. Later on , always with Groseilliers, he explored the wilderness of what now is Canada, in extension, established first contact with the Sioux tribe, were caught by Dutch privateers while on the Atlantic, spent years in still unknown locations, exploring, travelling, trading with the natives, making some profit that the always changing laws reduced very much in the way of taxes and fines.

That was a reason for changing masters. In the end, they were just trying to earn a living, and if the English could pay better…simple entrepreneurship. Besides the knowledge and the political support that Radisson and Groseilliers gained in England led to the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was to be capital to the colonization of the North, back there in America.

Certainly, he changed sides again when a great French offer was put on the table. But the truth was that everyone in France had second thoughts about the duo, and Radisson ended as a midshipman in the very unfortunate d’Estrées Fleet, almost dying drowned at Las Aves disaster. So, he spent his later years, coming back and forth between America and Europe and English and French allegiance, always trading furs, always having problems with taxes, licenses, political problems, war, peace ( when peace could be a disturbance for business it is that something has gone completely wrong). Even with a very patriotic father in law who would not allow his English daughter, and Radisson’s wife, to go and live with his husband in France any time he was serving the French.

What, then, made a hero of Pierre-Esprit Radisson? The fact that better men, in not so appalling circumstances, surrendered or fell through while he kept on doing what he did best: trade in furs and, in the meantime, unveil a large portion of the American continent. And all through this, he seemed not resentful to whatever life throw upon him, or the mistreatment his always suspicious masters could inflict. He complained, of course, but he kept business as usual going were the money was without a fuss. He persevered, through thick and thin, trying to make a living in and off the wilderness. Surely enough, he was not a very ethical man, he did not achieve glory, lands or wealth beyond imagination. But he was a common man, under not really common circumstances, and he did well enough to get three cities and a hotels group named after him. A common hero, although a seeming contradiction, is something quite rare to see since being a hero began to be a profession itself; welcome then, Pierre Radisson, a common, defective, plain, sometimes detestable man. A hero of truly human scale.

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