Olivier Le Jeune | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Olivier Le Jeune

We may never know the exact number of British ships that carried enslaved people from the continent of Africa to the New World (see Black Enslavement in Canada). However, the earliest record of enslaved Black Africans in New France is the sale of a boy from either Madagascar or Guinea. In 1629, the child, believed to have been around six years old, was brought to New France aboard a British ship as the chattel slave of Sir David Kirke, a trader and privateer for England’s King Charles I. The boy was later sold to a French clerk named Olivier Le Baillif, and then transferred to Guillaume Couillard. In 1633, the enslaved boy was baptized and given the name Olivier Le Jeune. Le Jeune remained in the colony of New France for the rest of his life until he died on 10 May 1654.

British Slave Ship Brookes

The First Recorded Black Slave in New France

Sir David Kirke was hired with his brothers to stage raids against the French in the New World. The purpose of these raids was to weaken France’s hold on the colony. In July 1629, the Kirkes forced a bloodless surrender from the beleaguered and starved French colonists. However, in 1632 Quebec reverted to French rule. Before leaving for England in July 1632, Kirke sold his young slave, then approximately 9 or 10 years of age, to Olivier Le Baillif, a French clerk who collaborated with the English. The purchase price was 50 écus. This amount was about the same that a skilled worker would make in six months.

This deal marks Le Jeune (as he would later be baptized) as the first recorded slave sold in New France. When Le Baillif subsequently left the country, the enslaved boy was transferred to Guillaume Couillard. It is not clear whether the boy was sold or given to Couillard.

The First Recorded Black Student in New France

The boy worked on Couillard’s estate but was also sent to school where he was tutored in Catholic religious instruction by Jesuit Father Paul Le Jeune. Father Le Jeune’s journals reveal insight into the thinking of this young boy:

Guillemette Hébert [the wife of Guillaume Couillard] …asked him if he wanted to become a Christian, and be baptized, so he could be like us, he said yes: but he also asked whether we would flay him during the baptismal ceremony: he must have been truly afraid, because he had seen poor savages flayed. And when he saw us laughing…he replied in his gibbering patois “You say that through baptism I will become like you: I am black and you were white, so you will have to flay my skin so I become like you,” whereupon we began to laugh even more, and seeing he had been mistaken, he laughed along with us.

After months of tutoring, on 14 May 1633 the boy was baptized Olivier Le Jeune – the name “Olivier” after clerk Olivier Le Tardif, and “Le Jeune” after Jesuit Father Paul Le Jeune. Olivier Le Jeune was the first Black student recorded in Quebec.

The First Recorded Black Prisoner in New France

This was not the last record of Olivier Le Jeune in New France. ln 1638, Le Jeune was in court accused of defamation. At the time, he would have been approximately 15 years old. Le Jeune had allegedly spread a false rumour about Nicholas Marsolet, an interpreter working for Samuel de Champlain. According to historian Marcel Trudel, Le Jeune claimed Marsolet had received a letter from the collaborator, Le Baillif, who at the time was now openly called a traitor. Outraged, Marsolet sued Le Jeune. After an investigation, Le Jeune was forced to admit before Guillaume and Guillemette Couillard that his claim was without merit. On August 20, 1638, the court ordered Olivier to seek Marsolet’s forgiveness, and to spend “twenty-four hours in chains.” As a result, Olivier Le Jeune became the first Black person, indeed the first Black juvenile, imprisoned in Quebec.

Legacy: “The Only One of his Kind in Canada”

No more is heard of Le Jeune until his death in 1654 when he would have been in his early thirties. His burial record is dated 10 May 1654 and lists his occupation as domestique. It appears that he served under this status for approximately 25 years. It was common for a slave to be called a domestique in Quebec records. It is, however, unclear to historians whether Olivier died a chattel slave under the Couillards, or as a free man who had chosen to remain in their service. What is clear is that as the first recorded Black slave, student and prisoner in Quebec at the time, he was, as historian Marcel Trudel noted, “the only one of his kind in Canada.”

In 2020, the Quebec government designated Olivier Le Jeune as a historical person. The federal government recognized him as a national historic person in 2022.