BRASSEUR DE BOURBOURG, CHARLES-ÉTIENNE, secular priest, historian, specialist in American studies; b. 8 Sept. 1814; d. 8 Jan. 1874 at Nice, France.
Charles-Étienne Brasseur was born at Bourbourg, a small town, Flemish in appearance, 18 kilometres from Dunkirk. He studied philosophy and theology first at Ghent, Belgium, then at Rome, where he was ordained priest in 1845.
While still a student, Brasseur gave indications that he was destined to be a writer. In 1837 he contributed to the journal Le Monde (Paris), directed by Félicité-Robert de La Mennais; then, under the pseudonym of Ravensberg, he published historical accounts, such as Jerusalem, tableau de l’histoire et des vicissitudes de cette ville célèbre . . . , or novels inspired by primitive Christianity, such as Le Sérapéon. . . . A contributor to L’Univers (Paris) pointed out, in the issue dated 8 Aug. 1839, that the latter contained “unfortunate reminiscences” of Chateaubriand’s Martyrs; this kind of criticism, with its allegation of plagiarism, was to be levelled on many subsequent occasions against Brasseur de Bourbourg’s works.
These first publications had however won him a flattering reputation at Rome, where the Canadian Abbé Léon Gingras made his acquaintance in 1844. To his friend Abbé Charles-Félix Cazeau*, vicar general of Quebec, Gingras wrote of his enthusiasm for the “famous writer,” and of the desire he had soon come to feel, that Brasseur should be brought to Quebec: “It is to Quebec,” he wrote on 28 Oct. 1844, “that he must be attached by all possible means.” A month later, on 23 November, Gingras returned to the charge: “Once more, my dear Cazeau, move heaven and earth to ensure that such a splendid bird does not escape us and fly to Montreal, where it would be so highly thought of.” Finally, on the reiterated invitation of one of the superiors of the seminary, Abbé Brasseur arrived at Quebec in the autumn of 1845, after a brief stay at Boston. The directors requested him to undertake a course in ecclesiastical history, which, according to Abbé Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Ferland*, he did not continue beyond the eighth lesson.
Enjoying a period of enforced leisure, Abbé Brasseur busied himself with historical researches in the archdiocesan archives at Quebec. At the beginning of 1846 he published an Esquisse biographique sur Mgr de Laval. . . . The French abbé antagonized the priests of the seminary by the publication of this pamphlet, and in the spring he left Quebec to return to Boston, where for some months he served as a priest to the great satisfaction of the bishop, John Bernard Fitzpatrick, who conferred upon him the title of vicar general of his diocese when he left for Mexico the following summer.
Brasseur returned to Europe in 1851, and concerned himself particularly with the writing of an Histoire du Canada. . . . The work was dedicated “to His Excellency Jean-Bernard Fitzpatrick, bishop of Boston,” who had taken the author under his protection “when climate and circumstances had caused him to cross over from Quebec into his diocese.” Instead of a mere imprimatur, Abbé Brasseur had received from his hierarchical superior, Bishop Pierre-Louis Parisis, ultra-montane bishop of Arras and a friend of Louis Veuillot, a warm letter stating that his book offered “a description of the highest interest” of the work of the missionaries who had spread the gospel in Canada, of the courage and wisdom of the first governors who had been sent by France to found and organize that distant colony, and finally of the vicissitudes which that country, having become Christian and French, had undergone during three centuries. To stress further the merits of the work, if that were possible, the bishop added that “the historian had had at his disposal precious documents, which no writer before him had been in a position to examine,” a circumstance which gave “to his accounts a character of truth” that was “the first and principal interest of the history.”
As soon as the first copies of this work reached Quebec, curiosity was rapidly followed by indignation, for in the words of Henri d’Arles [Beaudé*] “our history was subjected to a veritable act of sabotage.” Abbé Ferland, who had recently been attached to the archbishopric of Quebec, set to work to point out the gross mistakes of every kind with which this strange historian, in an apparently gratuitous fashion, had embroidered his pages: errors of date, names misinterpreted, geographical absurdities, texts truncated or misquoted, faulty translations, obvious plagiarisms. Ferland’s work first appeared in the Journal de Québec on 22, 25, and 29 Jan. and 1 Feb. 1853, then as a pamphlet under the title Observations sur un ouvrage intitulé Histoire du Canada, etc., par M. l’abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg.
Pierre-Flavien Turgeon*, the archbishop of Quebec, after sending a copy of Ferland’s opuscule to Bishop Parisis and another to Louis Veuillot, asked the editor in chief of L’Univers, in a letter dated 18 Feb. 1853, to be good enough “to insert a few lines” in his journal, “to avenge the Church in Canada for the insults it had received from an unjust detractor.” Thanks to the good offices of Henry de Courcy, the New York correspondent of L’Univers, Abbé Ferland’s brochure, in an improved form, was republished in Paris by Charles Douniol, publisher of the liberal Catholic review Le Correspondant. Bishop Parisis, by a letter published in L’Univers on 3 March 1854, withdrew the approval he had given to Abbé Brasseur’s work.
But among the French public as a whole, the author of this history of Canada so hotly debated in Catholic circles had none the less established the basis of his reputation as a specialist in American studies. After 1852 he returned four times to America, on one occasion as chaplain of the French legation at Mexico City, on another as ecclesiastical administrator for the Indians of Rabinal, Guatemala, and finally as a French government envoy charged with scientific missions. He studied on the spot the primitive Mexican civilizations, collected important material on the geography, antiquities, and ethnology of Mexico and Central America, edited numerous curious texts such as the Manuscrit Troano . . . , and published works which, like the Lettres . . . , but especially the Histoire des nations . . . , assured him of a fine reputation as a scholar of America. In 1869, in an article in the Revue des questions historiques, Henry de Charencey placed Brasseur de Bourbourg “in the first rank among the learned men who have most contributed to reviving among us a liking for American studies.” But later specialists were not slow to expose the unsound elements in this literary production. The contrary would have been surprising, for if Abbé Brasseur, according to the author of the biographical notice devoted to him in La Grande Encyclopédie, worked with “extreme fervour,” “he often showed, in his hastily drafted works, a lack of the prudence and sagacity” that would have ensured for his writings less fragile foundations.
Brasseur de Bourbourg died on 8 Jan. 1874 in Nice at 59 years of age.
[The different travel accounts sent by Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg to the minister of education and religion from Mexico, Central America, and Spain are found in Archives Nationales (Paris), F17, 2942. Biographical details are found in Brasseur de Bourbourg, Histoire des nations civilisées . . . , and it provides the main biographical source for Justin Winsor, Narrative and critical history of America (8v., Boston, 1884–89), I, 170–72; The Catholic encyclopedia; Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastique (16v. parus, Paris, 1912– ); La grande encyclopédie (31v., Paris, [n.d.]). p.s.]
Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris), Z. Renan, 7829. C.-É. Brasseur de Bourbourg, Esquisse biographique sur Mgr de Laval, premier évêque de Québec (Québec, 1864); Histoire des nations civilisées du Mexique et de l’Amérique Centrale, durant les siècles antérieurs à Christophe Colomb . . . (4v., Paris, 1857–59); Histoire du Canada, de son Église et de ses missions depuis la découverte de l’Amérique jusqu’à nos jours, écrite sur des documents inédits compulsés dans les archives de l’archevêché et de la ville de Québec, etc. (2v., Paris, 1852); Lettres pour servir d’introduction à l’histoire primitive des nations civilisées de l’Amérique . . . (Mexico, 1851); Manuscrit Troano, étude sur le système graphique et la langue des Mayas (2v., Paris, 1869–70); Le Sérapéon, épisode de l’histoire du IVe siècle (Paris, 1839); Sommaire des voyages scientifiques et des travaux de géographie, d’histoire, d’archéologie et de philologie américaines (Saint-Cloud, France, 1862). Étienne de Ravensberg [C.-É. Brasseur de Bourbourg], Jérusalem, tableau de l’histoire et des vicissitudes de cette ville célèbre depuis son origine la plus reculée jusqu’à nos fours (Lille, France, 1843).
Journal de Québec, 22 janv., 25 janv., 29 janv., 1er févr. 1853. Le Monde (Paris), 1837. L’Univers (Paris), 8 août 1839, 18 fév. 1853, 3 mars 1854. J.-B.-A. Ferland, Observations sur un ouvrage intitulé Histoire du Canada par l’abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg . . . (Paris, 1854). Robert [Philippe] Sylvain, La vie et l’œuvre de Henry de Courcy, premier historien de l’Église catholique aux États-Unis (Québec, 1955), 189–224. Henri de Charency, “L’histoire et la civilisation du Mexique d’après les travaux de M. l’abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg,” Revue des questions historiques (Paris), VII (1869), 283.