Sunday, August 23, 2009

Live-blogging the siege of Quebec+250 #52

Thursday August 23, 1759: In June 1759, when the siege of Quebec was looming, the Bishop Pontbriand of Quebec wrote to his parishes: “If by chance the enemy come into a parish, the parish priest will greet them as courteously as possible, asking them to spare human lives and the churches.” Throughout the war, the vast majority of parish priests fulfilled this instruction. In the parishes downriver from Quebec, however, the British have been destroying crops, seizing livestock, and burning buildings systematically for weeks, and resistance among the residents was growing. Father Philippe-René Robinau de Portneuf, 52, the longtime parish priest of St-Joachim, on the north shore of Quebec roughly opposite the eastern tip of the Ile d’Orleans, has decided it is time to stop turning the other cheek.

Father de Portneuf is the son and brother of officers in the colonial regular troops and a diocesan priest (that is, he is not a member of one of the religious orders). He’s been corresponding with Governor Vaudreuil with reports of British ship movements in the river channel, and Vaudreuil in reply has urged him to ensure that “the habitants be united, that they be constantly on the watch and able to put up the most vigorous resistance to the British.” Father de Portneuf takes this to heart. He stands with a group of his parishioners (fifty? A hundred?) who are determined to defend their homes, or at least to seek some retribution for the destruction falling upon them.

Captain Knox, who yesterday noted the dispatch of a force to quell the resistance at St Joachim, describes the encounter at St-Joachim from the British viewpoint: "They were attack’d by a Party of French, who had a Priest for their Commander; but our Party kill'd and scalp'd 31 of them, and likewise the Priest, their Commander. They did our People no Damage." *

In the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, historian Jean-Pierre Asselin has compiled French reports of Father de Portneuf’s death:
After having overcome the priest and his parishioners, these “cruel enemies” in cold blood had “his throat cut . . . in his own church.” Another account speaks of the priest “whose head was split wide open and completely scalped,” without explaining how these two operations could be combined. In still another, the priest, after being killed, is blamed by the British “for having abandoned his priestly role and roused some habitants to insult them.” By way of adding some spice, one author specifies that the priest and his parishioners were “on their knees crying for quarter. . . .”
It’s sometimes said the battle of the Plains of Abraham lasted eight minutes. Live-blog the siege daily, and you begin to feel what a long, vicious horror it really was. Recall that for the people of New France, the war had been continuous since early in the decade.

* [Correction: this description comes from A Journal of the Expedition up the River St. Lawrence, written by an anonymous Sergeant Major of the 40th Regiment’s Grenadiers (part of the Louisbourg Grenadiers) and available online here.]
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