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BRANDEAU, ESTHER, young Jewish girl, b. c. 1718, probably at Saint-Esprit near Bayonne, in the diocese of Dax; lived at Quebec 1738–39; d. at a date unknown.

The arrival of Esther Brandeau, a young girl 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 Hocquart* had her arrested and taken to the Hôpital Général. On 15 September the commissary of Marine, Varin*, subjected her to an interrogation which is our only source of information about her past. On 21 April 1739 the minister wrote in this connection: “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 thus: “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 unsettled 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 Clissay, 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 borrowed names.

At a period when a monolithic religious structure was so firmly established, her 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 look forward only to conversion or deportation. It was the same with non-orthodox Catholics [see 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 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 was certainly the first Jewish person – and at the time perhaps the only one – to set foot in the colony.

Gaston Tisdel

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, [1965]), 6–9. Denis Vaugeois, Les Juifs et la Nouvelle-France (Trois-Rivières, 1968).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Gaston Tisdel, “BRANDEAU, ESTHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 17, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brandeau_esther_2E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brandeau_esther_2E.html
Author of Article: Gaston Tisdel
Title of Article: BRANDEAU, ESTHER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1969
Year of revision: 1969
Access Date: April 17, 2014