Da Costa and Champlain

Shunpiking magazine, Black History & African Heritage Supplement
February / March 1999, Volume 4, Number 24

MONTREAL _LM-MAKER Michael Jarvis' grandmother's oral history lesson was a major inspiration in the making of a _lm about an almost forgotten African-born interpreter who is reportedly the _rst free Black man to travel to North America when this continent was colonized by Europeans in the _fteenth century.

It was Jarvis' grandmother, Doris Barton, a ninth generation descendant of black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, who told him stories about Mathieu Da Costa, the interpreter, navigator, free man, and one of the only Black role models to emerge from the annals of early Canada.

After studying cinema at Montreal's Concordia University, Jarvis decided to marry his directing ambitions with the story of Da Costa's place in Canadian history. What he didn't anticipate was the paucity of information written about the interpreter's life.

"There's a reason why we didn't hear (very much) about him and it all starts with why the Europeans decided to come here in the _rst place. They came here to get power and to have more that somebody else," Jarvis said without rancour.

History bears this out. Legions of white European explorers decimated many of the aboriginal populations, exploited natural resources and instituted the brutal slave trade that drove much of the agrarian-based economy of this continent until the last century.

As historical accounts were rarely objective, it was usually the lives and accomplishments of the European men of privilege and power who "settled" North America that were chronicled. The lives of non-whites (and for the record, women of any ethnicity), either aboriginal or free or enslaved Africans, were generally deemed unimportant and ancillary in these romanticized tales of daring and boundary pushing.

Therefore, Mathieu Da Costa became a footnote, a mere helper to the French explorer Samuel de Champlain.

According to the scant passages written about him, Da Costa came to Port Royal, New France (in what is now Nova Scotia) in 1604-1606, serving as an interpreter to a French colonizing party. He reportedly spoke several languages including French, Portuguese, Mi'kmaq, English and Dutch. (His knowledge of Mi'kmaq points to Da Costa being in North America before this recorded journey, but no accounts exist to verify this.) According to Bridglal Pachai's book Blacks (one in the series of Peoples of the Maritimes), "Da Costa, whose name can be traced to his former status as a slave of the Portuguese, was one of the many Blacks pressed into the service of European colonizers and adventurers from the _fteenth century onwards."

After six years of cash-strapped research and production, and almost $40,000 later, Mr. Jarvis' 18-minute _lm, Mathieu Da Costa: The Untold Story, Part I, was released in 1997; it won the Reel Black Award at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival. Unfortunately, Maritime _lm goers weren't given the opportunity to see the _lm at last year's Atlantic Film Festival. It wasn't chosen by the selection jury.

"I submitted it to the Festival but I never heard from them at all," he said.

The _lm strives to show that Da Costa was Champlain's equal -- an integral link in the success of the fur trade. "I had a dream when I _rst thought about this project and I sat down and thought about all the languages that he knew -- he embodies North America, really," Jarvis explained. "In this power struggle is somebody, probably the _rst, who shows up on this scene and is a knowledgeable person who wanted to learn about the world. That's who I think Mathieu Da Costa was."

Jarvis insists he's not a "political" _lm-maker, and doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as a director who only works on projects about "Black subject matter." He asserts that in choosing the story of Da Costa and in his latest _lm -- about the wrongful conviction and execution of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a black slave accused of burning down much of the city of Montreal in 1734 -- he's making political statements. "I think indirectly my _lms have an effect and I would like to see a change for people in general, when it comes to problems of prejudice and being represented in mainstream culture. But these _lms are for me and when I get older and have kids I want them to know where they came from and that they belong here as much as anybody else."

After the Montreal premier of Angélique in April, Jarvis plans to start work on a full-length _lm of the Da Costa story and the mystery that surrounds the end of his life. While some historians believe he died of scurvy in Port Royal in 1607, Jarvis says this isn't the case. Without giving away too much of the story, he's found evidence that Da Costa was involved in a court case in Holland involving French and Dutch explorers who battled for his services as an interpreter. "After the case he disappears and no one knows what happened to him after that. I'm taking the approach that he had a con_ict inside himself and had to deal with the issue of why he didn't go back to Africa and help his people," Jarvis said.

"Mathieu Da Costa embodies what the youth is today -- trying to _ght for what they deserve and that they belong here no matter what anybody says."

Michael Jarvis

Mathieu Da Costa: The Untold Story Part I made its international debut at the African Film Festival 98' in Toronto on February 12. Michael Jarvis is expected to tour with the _lm across Canada and the United States, and has already spoke at numerous conferences and schools about the importance of Black History.

He is a jury member of the Mathieu Da Costa Awards program in Ottawa for the Canadian Teachers Federation, a member of The Round Table on Black History Month, president of The Educational Drawing Contest for Black History Month, animator for the Leaders of Tomorrow Conference for Le Conseil Des Relations Intercullturelle et MRCI, animator for the opening ceremonies of Black History Month 1999, workshop host for the National Board of Black Educators Conference 1998, workshop host for the Black Film and Video Networks annual script writing conference an Animator for the Tolerance Campaign for the Canadian Jewish Congress.

For your information
Black directors average low (US)

- Figures released by the Directors' Guild of America reveal that the average percentage of films directed by black directors at the top nine film production companies is 4.47 per cent over a ten-year period (1988-1997).

- 58 films were made by black directors between 1988 and 1997.

- The production company with the highest percentage of black directors was New Line Cinema with 11 of 115 films (9.6 per cent) directed by blacks.

- The production companies with the lowest percentages were Warner Bros. (3.3 per cent), Sony (3.0 per cent) and Paramount (2.7 per cent).

Source: DGA study reported in September 1998 Black Talent News

*Fiona Traynor is a journalist and frequent contributor to shunpiking magazine. She resides in Halifax.

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