– Shabana Chowdhury Ahmed
In the 15th century English, French and Portuguese navigators in their sailing ships began the exploration of Canada’s Atlantic coast seeking a sea route to Asia. In 1534 Jacques Cartier explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the name of the French King. He built a settlement with his crew at Chaleur Bay and soon after Europeans came in hoards to Canada.
The arrival of traders missionaries soldiers and colonists in the newly discovered land caused an imbalance with the native Red Indian tribes. Many tribes were wiped out with European diseases to which they lacked immunity. They also began losing their lands and their way of life and culture. Some became slaves of the white people. Some died fighting. Some went into the deep mountains to start afresh.
The story teller tells her tale.
Brother Antonio was one of the passengers of a ship that left the harbour of La Havre in Normandie, France on its journey to Quebec. He was sent by the Catholic church to spread Christianity among the settlers and the natives. He also had a knowledge of herbal treatment to cure minor ailments. The ship’s journey took months and as such people became sea sick. Brother Antonio became a blessing for the passengers, who received physical and spiritual benefits from him.
On a bright sunny day after many months on the ship the watchman on top of the crow’s nest called out loudly Land Ahoy! On hearing the cry everyone on board rejoiced. The ship had reached Canada safely. Brother Antonio was met by Brother Peter, who took him to the church.
Once Brother Antonio had rested, he was eager to explore the coastal town. He met many people on the streets. As he came towards the town hall, he saw a crowd of people gathering in front of the town hall. Curiosity led him closer to the town hall. What his eyes saw filled his heart with deep sorrow. On a wooden platform he saw men, women and children of the Red Indian tribe chained together by iron chains. They were being auctioned to the highest bidder, who would take them to work on the plantations.
All the way back to his church Brother Antonio kept thinking about those unfortunate people being treated worse than animals by his fellow men. In the church he told the Bishop of his encounter with the slaves, who were sold as commodities. The Bishop told him that the church could not interfere with the administration of the Governor.
Brother Antonio spent his days preaching the gospels, feeding the poor and giving herbal treatments to ailing people. He would go far from town to look for herbs and roots in the wild. He enjoyed the sight and smell of nature. He would often sit on the river bank and listen to the birds.
One day he ventured far into the woods and lost his way. Evening was falling. He became agitated by the sounds of animals. He knelt down, closed his eyes and said a prayer. When he opened his eyes and stood up, he saw a wigwam in front of his eyes. Unable to believe what he saw, he rubbed his eyes and looked again. The wigwam still stood in front of his eyes. An old Red Indian man came out of the wigwam. He did not speak. He took a stick and drew on the soft ground two trees standing side by side with a passageway between them.
He also drew an arrow going between the trees and then turned to the right. Brother Antonio turned to look at the trees and when he turned back the old man and his wigwam had disappeared.
Unable to believe what had happened, he stood still in a trance! When he regained his senses, he ran towards the passageway between the trees and took a right turn. After some distance he came upon the outskirts of the settlement.
Days passed by but he could neither tell anyone, nor forget the strange incident that took place in the forest.
Life went on as usual till one day a run down ship with its rag tag crew sailed into the port of the settlement. The crew were very sick with the flu. They were taken to the hospital run by church. Brother Antonio was in charge of the treatment. The flu was very contagious and people in the settlement started becoming ill with deadly results. Chaos descended on the settlement. Brother Antonio’s herbal medicines were not strong enough to give relief or cure the deadly flu! He went to the chapel and prayed for divine guidance. With a heavy heart he was walking towards the hospital, when suddenly the old Red Indian man appeared before him. He had a heart shaped leaf in his hand. He crushed it and boiled it with water in a pot over a burning fire. Next moment he disappeared.
Brother Antonio asked a woman sitting near her husband in the hospital, if she has seen a tree with heart shaped leaves. She told him that these trees grew near the river bank. He hurried towards the river bank and saw the trees with heart shaped leaves swaying in the breeze. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he gathered the leaves in a basket and returned to the hospital. He boiled the leaves with water and made all the sick people drink it. After two days the fever broke and no further deaths occurred. People were grateful and brought food to the church.
Brother Antonio could not forget the old Red Indian man and why he appeared before him. There were many Red Indians, who had been taught the white man’s language. They worked as interpreters between the white settlers and the natives. Brother Antonio went to see one of the interpreters, who worked at the trading post. He told his strange story to the Red Indian man. The interpreter smiled and said to Brother Antonio that he was very lucky to have seen the ancient medicine man. The Red Indians believed that this medicine man possessed spiritual and magical powers. No one knows where he lives but he appears from time to time to cure sick people.
Brother Antonio was a man of God, who followed the Catholic church but now he was faced with the pagan worshippers belief in magic and spiritual powers of their medicine man. He became a changed man with a more open mind. He continued to work for the church. He never saw the old Red Indian medicine man again.
Life is full of mysteries that cannot be explained by science or religion. Keep an open mind and explore the possibilities or block your mind and follow blindly other people’s doctrines.