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Jewish Women On The Road - Esther Brandeau

Eighteenth century woman Esther Brandeau's (c. 1718-?) desire for travel and adventure was so strong that she broke the restrictions of gender and the laws of the land to leave her home in La Rochelle, France, for the Americas. She arrived in Canada by a circuitous route. Her parents had sent her to live with relatives in Amsterdam. When her ship was wrecked on route to the Netherlands, she chose her own path, determining to "enjoy the same liberty as the Christians." She worked a series of different jobs under assumed male names in various parts of France. In 1738, when she was only 20, she became "Jaques La Fargue," the cabin boy on the "San Michel," a ship sailing to Quebec. It was as "Jacques" that Esther became the first Jew known to set foot in Canada.

Quebec City, 18th century, from the UC Davis History Project.

Esther's entry into Canada was illegal, since it was Canadian government policy to exclude all Jews and Huguenots. Unfortunately, Esther's gender and background were revealed on her arrival in Quebec, when her shipmates made "the remarkable discovery that the comely, spirited youth with such refined manners was in fact not "Jacques" but Esther."

Once discovered, Esther was arrested. She quickly became an administrative nightmare for the French-Canadian authorities, largely because she rejected the ministrations of Catholic priests, adamantly refusing to convert to Christianity. She asserted that she had left her home and dressed as a boy in order to have the same rights as Christian men, but still held fiercely to her Jewish background.

After years of legal wrangling between the governments of Canada and France, Esther was deported, and she vanished from the historical record. Her story shows the lengths eighteenth-century Jewish women had to go to in order to fulfill their dreams and explore the world beyond (and even within) their native lands.

Sources and excerpts for this page were drawn from Shalom Quebec, a website created for the 400th birthday of Quebec, highlight Jewish contributions to the city and Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Special thanks to Simon Jacobs of the Shalom Quebec project for his help.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Jewish Women On The Road - Esther Brandeau." (Viewed on August 1, 2014) <http://jwa.org/discover/throughtheyear/july/travel/brandeau>.

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