Encountering the Cat for the First Time

A Chicago Boyz discussion about cats reminded me of a passage in Robert Carse’s book The River Men…I was going to post it but didn’t have the book available. Now I do, so here it is belatedly.

Brother Gabriel Sagard was a French missionary working in what is now Canada. In the winter of 1624, he stayed with the Huron Indians, and in appreciation of their hospitality he invited them to a feast at the nearest convent. For each of his Huron friends he selected an appropriate gift–for one of them, the captain of the canoe which had brought him from the village to the convent, he chose a large house cat. These Hurons had no prior experience with cats.

This good Captain thought the cat had a rational mind, seeing that when he was called, he would come and play with one, and so he conjectured that the cat understood French perfectly. After admiring this animal, he asked us to tell the cat that he should let himself be carried home to his country, and that he would love the cat like his own son. “Oh, Gabriel!” he cried, he will have plenty to live on at home! You say that he is very fond of mice, and we have any amount of them. So let him come freely to us!” So saying, he tried to embrace the cat; but that wicked creature, who did not understand his way of caressing, immediately thrust out all his claws and made him let go quicker than he had clasped him.

“Ho, ho, ho!” said the good man. “So that’s the way he treats me! Ongaron ortischat! He’s ugly, he’s bad! Speak to him!” Finally, having got the cat with a great deal of trouble into a birchbox box, he carried the him off in his arms to the canoe, and fed him through a little hole with bread that he had received at our convent.

But when he tried to give the cat some sagamite, to his despair the cat escaped and flew up on a tree and they could not get him down again. And as far as calling him down, nobody home (personne a la mason); he didn’t understand any Huron, and they didn’t know how to call a cat in French, and so they were forced to turn their backs on them and leave him in the tree, very unhappy at losing him, and the cat very worried about who was going to feed him in the future.

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