BRANDEAU, ESTHER, young Jewish immigrant to New France, b. c. 1718, probably at Saint-Esprit near Bayonne, France; lived at Quebec 1738–39; d. at a date unknown.
The arrival of Esther Brandeau, a young woman about 20 years old who was disguised as a boy and gave her name as Jacques La Fargue, created a veritable stir at Quebec in September 1738. Chance having disclosed her true identity, Intendant Gilles Hocquart* had her arrested and taken to the Hôpital Général. On 15 September the commissary of Marine, Jean-Victor Varin*, subjected her to an interrogation that is one of the few sources of information about her past. On 21 April 1739 the minister wrote: “I do not know whether one can trust implicitly the declaration made by the so-called Esther Brandeau.” Be that as it may, according to this declaration Esther was the daughter of David Brandeau, a merchant at Saint-Esprit near Bayonne. Around 1733 her parents put her on a Dutch ship to send her to her brother and one of her aunts at Amsterdam. The ship was wrecked, she was saved by one of the crew, and was given shelter by a certain Catherine Churiau, a resident of Biarritz. It was from this time that she decided to wear male clothes. The commissary reporting her words explained her decision: “she [Catherine Churiau] made her eat pork and other kinds of meat that were forbidden to the Jews, and she resolved in due course never to return to the house of her father and mother, in order to enjoy the same liberty as the Christians.”
Subsequently Esther Brandeau led a somewhat nomadic existence. She was in turn a ship’s boy at Bordeaux, an errand boy for a tailor at Rennes, a domestic in the service of the Recollets at Clissoy (Clisson?), in the employ of a baker at Saint-Malo, in the service of a Sieur La Chapelle, an infantry captain at Vitré, arrested for theft at Noisel near Nantes, and finally hired at La Rochelle as a ship’s boy on the Saint-Michel, which was bound for Canada. All this, of course, under different assumed names.
At a period when a monolithic religious structure was firmly established, Brandeau’s arrival in New France was a source of intense embarrassment to Intendant Hocquart. Seeking instructions from the minister, he wrote: “Since her arrival at Quebec her conduct has been fairly restrained. She appears desirous of being converted to Catholicism.” The minister replied: “I shall be very gratified to learn of her conversion. You must furthermore treat her in accordance with the way she behaves in the colony.” It seems, however, that the “restrained” conduct of the beginning and the favourable disposition towards conversion did not last long. On 27 Sept. 1739 Hocquart wrote to the minister: “She is so flighty that she has been unable to adapt herself, either in the Hôpital Général or in several other houses . . . Her conduct has not been precisely bad, but she is so fickle, that at different times she has been as much receptive as hostile to the instructions that zealous ecclesiastics have attempted to give her; I have no alternative but to send her away.”
At the time the authorities of the colony considered it important, at least officially, that the inhabitants abide by Catholic orthodoxy. A non-Catholic immigrant in New France could anticipate either conversion or deportation. It was the same for non-orthodox Catholics [see Georges-François Poulet]. The deportation of Esther Brandeau very quickly became an “official matter”; even the king took a hand in it, and decided that the state would pay the young delinquent’s return passage. On 25 Jan. 1740 he wrote to the admiral of France: “My cousin the Sieur Hocquart . . . has embarked at Quebec on the ship Comte de Matignon of La Rochelle the so-called Esther Brandeau, a Jewess whom he had to send back to France in execution of my orders.” After this letter from the king we hear no more of Esther Brandeau. She had most probably re-embarked for France in the autumn of 1739.
Esther Brandeau had remained in the colony only a year – long enough, however, to attract the attention of the highest authorities in New France. She had been considered the first Jewish person to set foot in the colony, but it is likely that Jews who had apparently converted to Christianity privately practiced their religion after coming to New France. Her story has left its mark, especially on the authors and artists who have made her a heroine in literature and the theatre.
PAC Report, 1886, xxxiii-xxxv. P.-G. Roy, La ville de Québec, I, 147–48. B. G. Sack, History of the Jews in Canada, trans. Ralph Novek (Montreal, ), 6–9. Denis Vaugeois, Les Juifs et la Nouvelle-France (Trois-Rivières, 1968).
Bibliography for the revised version:
Pierre Anctil, Trajectoires juives au Québec (Québec, 2010). Simone Grossman, “Des Marranes au Québec? Tensions identitaires et judéité dans Une Juive en Nouvelle-France de Pierre Lasry,” Quebec Studies, 66 (2018): 121–136. Heather Hermant, “Esther Brandeau/Jacques La Fargue: an eighteenth-century multicrosser in the Canadian cultural archives,” in The Sephardic Atlantic: colonial histories and postcolonial perspectives, ed. Sina Rauschenbach and Jonathan Schorsch (Cham, Switzerland, 2018), 289–331.