Mathieu Da Costa


Image: Mathieu Da Costa (courtesy Dr. Henry Bishop/Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia)


Mathieu Da Costa is one of the most fascinating (and elusive) figures in early Canadian history. We don't know a lot about him. But we do know enough to know that he qualifies as the first Black known to have visited Canada. Da Costa was a free Black African who in the early 1600s was employed as a translator by French and Dutch traders and explorers.

It was not unusual for Africans to act as translators for Europeans as it had been going on for 100 years before Champlain's time as Europeans explored their way down the African coast. This explains why Da Costa spoke French, Dutch, and Portuguese. But it is a mystery how Da Costa knew how to be an interpreter with the First Nations of America. He might have used "pidgin" Basque (a mixture of Basque and local), commonly used for trade in the Americas. (The Basques of northern Spain were frequent visitors to the fishery along the Atlantic coast.) This dialect was understood by the Mi'kmaq and Montagnais (who lived along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River). But it is also possible that Da Costa had previously spent time in the Americas and had learned the languages of one or more of the Aboriginal peoples.

The only real historical "fact" that we have about Mathieu Da Costa is a document showing that he was in Holland in February 1607. Apparently the Dutch had kidnapped him from the French. The following year, 1608, Da Costa signed a contract in Amsterdam that committed him to sail with or on behalf of Pierre Du Gua de Monts as an interpreter on voyages to Canada and Acadia.

Da Costa's contract with Du Gua de Monts was to last for three years and it paid a considerable salary. We can thus assume that Da Costa accompanied Du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain on one or more of their voyages to Acadia and the St Lawrence area.

The next bit of information that we have is evidence that Da Costa was put in prison in Le Havre, France, in December 1609. We don't know why but there were references to "insolences" suggesting that Da Costa had an independent spirit and spoke his mind.

Da Costa's appearance in Canada is commemorated at the Port-Royal National Historic Site, in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. The Mathieu Da Costa Challenge is an annual creative writing and artwork contest launched in 1996. The Challenge "encourages youth to discover how diversity has shaped Canada's history and the important role that pluralism plays in Canadian society."

Canadian Black History - An Interactive Experience
Search for clues about Black Canadian history in this interactive online treasure hunt presented by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.