Episode 62: The Mystery of Esther Brandeau (Transcript)

Episode 62: The Mystery of Esther Brandeau

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. In this episode, we bring you another story from JWA’s updated Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.

Heather Hermant: This historical figure who I call Esther Brandeau-Jacques LaFargue, we find out about through an interrogation record in the French colonial archives.

Man speaking in French followed by English: September 15th, 1738, here before us, Marine Commissariat, in charge of the Navy Police at Quebec City appeared Esther Brandeau, aged about twenty years old, and who boarded at La Rochelle as a passenger in boys' clothes under the name Jacques La Fargue.

Nahanni: Esther Brandeau was born around 1718 in Saint Esprit, a Jewish community on the outskirts of Bayonne, France. Her people were descendants of exiles from the Portuguese and Spanish inquisitions. Brandeau is the first known Jew to have set foot on Canadian soil, but she didn’t stay long. Historian and performing artist Heather Herman tells the story, based on sparse but intriguing historical records. You’ll hear Heather refer to Esther Brandeau-Jacques LeFarge as she, they, and “this historical figure”.

[Theme music fades]

Heather: This story starts in the 1730s, 1733 to be precise and this historical figure, who I call Esther Brandeau- Jacques LaFarge… This figure is being sent to family in Amsterdam, on a Dutch ship, but this Dutch boat runs aground. She's rescued and then ensues a five-year journey. She doesn't go back to her family. She stays for time in Biarritz, which is a coastal town nearby, for a little while, and then sets off, as a young man. 


Heather: And travels all along coastal, uh, France, working on boats between Bordeaux and Nantes, for example, deserting at Nantes, continues on to Rennes in Brittany, where they work for a tailor, then for a time in Saint Malo where they worked for a baker, and then they work for a time in a religious order and they work for a retired soldier. And then ultimately at some point they're arrested and suspected as a thief, but then released 24 hours later. And then eventually, they board a ship at La Rochelle, a typical starting point for transatlantic voyages to what the French empire called New France. Um, what we today call Quebec. Quebec city in particular, which is Wendat territory. 


Heather: There is only one, um, account written by a woman about this story from that time period, written by a nun in a letter to a friend... 

[Quill-scratching sound]

Heather: ...in which she sort of says, this happened in Canada, this person arrived who turned out to be a Jewish, uh, young, Jewish, um, girl. 

Woman speaking in French followed by English: Il est venu cette année en Canada une fille juive déguisée en matelot, on le soupçonnait... There came this year to Canada a Jewish girl disguised as a sailor. She was suspected of being a woman on the ship, but she did not admit to it. Monsieur the intendant interrogated her, she told him the truth and that she had fled from her parents, because she was less loved by them than one of her sisters. It has been five years that she has been traveling all over the place dressed like this.


Heather: Somewhere along the line of this transatlantic journey, or upon arrival, we don't know for sure which, this young man named Jacques LaFargue is doubly outed as both Jewish and female. And then they're held there, held under house arrest essentially, in Quebec city, and interrogated. We know of two interrogations during which time many efforts were made to convert Esther Brandeau to Christianity. 

Man speaking in French followed by English: Depuis son arrivée à Québec, elle a eu une conduite assez retenue...15 September, 1739. Since her arrival at Quebec her conduct has been fairly restrained. She appears desirous of being converted to Catholicism.

Heather: And then there's just kind of like the intendant reporting, like the religious orders are making very zealous efforts to convert her. It seems promising. He also asks at one point, like if she, if she converts, what should I do if she doesn't convert? What should I do? And the vibe of those correspondences is kind of like, should we let her go? so there was something desirable about keeping her. And in the end she refuses or at least that's what the official claims in his reports to superiors. 

Man speaking in French followed by English: Elle est si volage qu’elle n’a pu s'accommoder, ny à l’Hôpital Général, ny dans plusieurs autres maisons. Elle n’a pas tenu... 27 Sept. 1739. 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.

Heather: They were quite possibly one of Canada's earliest deportees. Because at that time, you had to be Catholic to be in new France. And so that was part of the motivation at the attempts at conversion. A deportation order was arranged, and after this deportation order, we don't know if it was actually carried out. The threads just kind of fall away. We don't know if this person arrived back in France. 


Heather: There is a cemetery record from Bayonne. There is an Ester Brandeau, there are a couple—not spelled that way though, because the name is different in, in Bayonne proper—that could be this person. And if that was the case, then they would have died at around age 26 back in the place of the start of this five year journey. 


Heather: I mean, I have a suspicion that, that, um, that, that, uh, um, burial record could be her, but there's no way to conclusively know that. So the possibilities start to multiply rather than to become conclusive. 


Heather: The story is significant to me for a number of reasons. It wasn't actually unusual at the time, or at least more common than most people would assume, for women to pass as men in early modern Europe. Women passed as men for a number of reasons. The most commonly assumed one, which is also a real one, is that women sometimes followed lovers and husbands into, for example, the army or the Navy. There are recorded cases like that. But there were also, I mean, some scholars who have done really deep archival research on this call it a tradition, the tradition of what they have of gender crossing for women, from women to men, in early modern Europe. And it was most often like an economic need, driven by essentially poverty. Women didn't have access to the kinds of economic opportunities that men did, so in order to access those, they could pass as men. And quite often people were able to do so for considerable lengths of time, and of course there were probably a lot more than we have accounts of. But having said that, this particular case is a case of what I call a multi-crosser, and I think that's what's so significant. That we don't have so many accounts of people who crossed in multiple directions concurrently. In this case, across gender, across a religion or ethnicity, also across obviously geography and language, age and status—class status.


Heather: The story has resonances for queer artists and scholars and the public like myself, not because we can across centuries attribute a queer identity or a, a queer sexuality to this person. We just can't, in large part because those terms and conceptions, the ways that people identify themselves were so dramatically different hundreds of years ago. But because there's this long history of passing in queer cultures, there's also a long history of passing among, uh, Sephardic Jews from the Iberian peninsula, from Spain and Portugal. So this is like an entrenched, and known history. So for that intersection to be embodied in this story is really compelling.


Heather: You know, a lot of people who have thought about the story have thought of it as, as, uh, it's about excluding Jews, which, which clearly at the time, you had to be Catholic to be, or to land in Quebec. But in her case, the gender and the Jewishness can't be disentangled. She was desirable to the crown at the time for being a marriageable age woman or female, um at a time when there was a shortage of marriageable age Catholic women. So that might explain why there were such efforts put toward conversion. And the success of this person spending five years living-- it's not just gender passing. Like they were able to live for five years as a man, because they lived as a Christian man, so you can't again, take away the Jewishness from the gender pass.


Heather: This person lived at least one other named identity, which was Pierre Monsiet, or Alon Siet. And we don't know which ones for how long. We just know that the person that arrived was named Jacques LaFargue. But we don't know how they experienced those identities. So it's possible that a person who passes is not just passing so that they can, I don't know, travel somewhere and find a condition in which they could then not pass. So in other words, lots of people have ascribed to this figure, that at the end of the day, she wanted to be she, and circumstances constrained that. But that's an assumption that doesn't take into account the reality and the possibility that a person who passes may actually kind of identify with and want to continue to live this way. So I think part of my motivation for switching between “she” and “they” is to kind of trouble assumptions, but with a recognized recognition that I'm also kind of on a tight rope around kind of imposing 21st century notions on the early-18th century.


Heather: There's contradictions in terms of what she claimed or they claimed their reasons were for continuing to pass or for setting out on the adventure in the first place, like you heard the nun says that she said she wasn't as well loved as her, one of her sisters that she, um, and then, and then the official record, the interrogation record says it's because she'd eaten pork and other like non-kosher meats. And so she couldn't go back. Um, then there's the other motivation that's given that she wanted to enjoy the same freedoms as Christians, um, which is another motivation given. And one can read into that, like when you say the same freedoms afforded Christians, that in her case, that probably meant the freedoms afforded Christian men. So there's contradiction around it. We don't actually know what the motivation was. And there's something about, especially in the case of a, of a passer, a gender passer that usually the stories that we know of have come to be known through kind of violent outing, like violent, whether physically violent or just the violence of like what it might, what that experience might be to be outed. Generally when we think about passing, it's the person intends to pass, intends to not be outed. So there's something that I always sat uncomfortably with in my research, like chasing this figure down so that I could conclusively pin them down seemed ironically kind of similar to seeking to out a person. So there's something kind of, um, compelling about the fact that we can't know.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Some tellings of this story take Brandeau’s refusal to convert to Catholicism as evidence of her devotion to being a Jew. But it could also be that she knew if she became a Catholic woman in the 18th century French colony of Quebec, she would soon be compelled to marry a colonist. As Heather Hermant says, we just can’t know… it’s one of the mysteries about Esther Brandeau-Jacques La Fargue. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard original music by Toronto-based musician Jaron Freeman-Fox, composed and performed live for "Ribcage: This Wide Passage," a performance piece about Esther Brandeau-Jacques La Fargue written and performed by Heather Hermant and directed by Diane Roberts. You also heard the voices of Lucas Chartier-Dessert and Anne-Marie Saheb. Special thanks to Heather Hermant for telling Esther Brandeau’s story for Can We Talk? and for JWA’s updated Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. The Encylopedia’s new edition will be unveiled in late June. Join us on June 27th and 28th for a celebratory global day of learning, with sessions based on the Encyclopedia’s new content. Sign up at jwa.org/events! I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.

[Theme music fades]


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 62: The Mystery of Esther Brandeau (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-62-mystery-esther-brandeau/transcript>.


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