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The first person of African heritage to arrive in Canada

 

123RF/Corey A Ford

How many languages can you speak? Back in the 1600s, an intelligent young man from nearly halfway around the world arrived on the shores of what would eventually be known as Canada, speaking and understanding at least five different languages! He was also the first black person, or person of African heritage, to visit and live in Canada. Let's find out a little more about the life of Mathieu Da Costa.

Where was he from?

a drawing of Benin City

Drawing of Benin City, the capital of Benin Empire, made by an English officer in 1897. (Wikimedia/Public domain)

Details about Mathieu's early life are hard to find, but historians believe that his family was from the African kingdom of Benin (southern part of Nigeria), though Mathieu himself may have been born in the Azore Islands (near Portugal and Morocco).

When and why did he come?

Portrait of Mathieu da CostaMathieu, a well-educated man, was able to speak several languages including French, Dutch and Portuguese. He also spoke a language used by fishermen on the Atlantic coast that was a mix of a French-Spanish dialect and First Nations languages including Mi' kmaq. In the early 1600s, fur trader and governor of Acadia, Pierre Dugua de Mons, had Mathieu use his ability to speak and understand several languages to serve as an interpreter between the explorers and First Nations people living in New France (Quebec).

What did he get done?

Painting of Mathieu Da Costa landing in Montreal with Champlain and engaging in negotiations.

Mathieu Da Costa landing in Montreal with Champlain and engaging in negotiations. (Photo by Library and Archives Canada licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It is said that Mathieu was able to help the European settlers and explorers and the First Nations people living along the Canadian Atlantic Coast live peacefully. Well-known explorers such as Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua de Mons valued Mathieu's skills as an interpreter, and he assisted them on many expeditions.

Who would he become?

Mathieu Da Costa is remembered and celebrated as a skilled interpreter and the first man of African heritage to visit and live in Canada. He lived in Port Royal (Nova Scotia) for a short time, and a plaque to honour his life and time spent there has been placed on a monument at the Port-Royal National Historical Site. A school in Toronto, and a street in Montreal and Quebec City have been named after him. Canada Post has also created a stamp with a picture of Mathieu Da Costa, The African interpreter who first arrived in Canada in the early 1600s is now regarded as a national hero.

Canada Post stamp for Mathieu Da Costa

Canada Post©2017. Reprinted with permission