Sunday, January 18, 2009

Winter at Port Royal

For those of you who are reading this post in warmer climes, Annapolis Royal is in the middle of a cold spell. I realize that cold in Annapolis Royal is not like cold in Winnipeg or Edmonton, but when the temperature hits -20 degrees Celsius, I feel that you can officially refer to the weather as cold.

There is something about this time of year that makes me feel a bit of sympathy for the men who arrived and established the Port Royal Habitation in 1605. A handful of these men had survived the horrific winter of 1604 on Ile St Croix. This site was chosen since the French explorers figured that it would give them protection from potentially hostile native populations. Unfortunately, when the water around them froze and stranded them on the island away from water and food, things got very difficult. Of the 79 men who started the winter on the island, 39 would die from scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and another 20 would become seriously ill. These men, including Samuel Champlain, would have seen scurvy ravage their fellow inhabitants of the island. A general lethergy would have settled over the victims. Movement would become both difficult and painful. Eventually, their gums would swell and become bloody. Toward the end, teeth would fall out and old wounds such as mended broken bones would open up again. It was a very painful end.

In the Spring, the supply ship from France would have found a very sad group. A handful of the survivors decided to move the habitation to Port Royal. The remainder of the survivors, men who were here on contract, returned to France.

What would the new arrivals from France have thought? These men were also on contract. Would they share the same fate as the men on Ile Ste. Croix? Could they bear the winter in this harsh new land? The simple answer is that many of them would also die from scurvy. It was these painful deaths which caused Champlain to create the Order of Good Cheer in 1606. These elaborate dinner parties managed to increase the nutritional intake of the men and probably saved many lives.

So, while the weather stays cold, my thoughts will occasionally stray back some 400 years ago to a group huddled in Port Royal at l'Habitation. This group, unlike the Mi'Kmaq who had generations to adapt to the rigours of a winter in this part of the world, were totally unprepared for this climate. Cold winds blowing through animal skin windows and imperfectly made walls. The men trading whatever they could to get animal hides from the Mi'Kmaq in an attempt to stay warm. In the end, there was no way to really get warm and there was always the threat of a painful death lurking in the background.

All for now,
RGS

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