The First Black Man to Set Foot in Canada

Carol RoachStarred Page By Carol Roach, 7th Nov 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

Very little is really known of The First Black Man to Set Foot in Canada. It is not even for certain that Mathieu Da Costa ever existed.


Have you ever wondered who was the first Black man or woman or first Italian, Chinese person, or whomever to come to America? Well we know that the first Black man to come to Canada was a man by the name of Mathieu Da Costa. Or at least that is what we think we know.

Mathieu da Costa

Da Costa was a free Black man, not a slave, who was a translator or interpreter. He was hired by the French and Dutch in 1600's to sail on ships to the New World. His services were in such demand that a court case ensued between the French and Dutch over them.

The court case dragged on for 10 years, (1609 - 1619). Da Costa did sign a contract for his services between himself and Pierre Dugua de Mons, the head of the colonization efforts in Saint Croix. He is said to have landed in Port Royal, Nova Scotia. But according to the Nova Scotia government source site, there is no evidence that he actually crossed the Atlantic Ocean, even after signing the contract.

Did Da Costa actually come to Canada?

The story or legend of Mathieu Da Costa has been fragmented and steeped in mystery and intrigue. Though it is wonderful to have a date and a name and a figure, did this man actually come to Canada? This is something that historians are still trying to figure out.

Centuries before his birth, the famous Portuguese navigators sailed the coasts of Africa especially around the Gold Coast, looking for spoils and of course the lucrative slave trade emerged. They, however, tried to keep their new find well hidden, forbidding their seamen from telling their countrymen where they had been. Eventually ,of course the French and Dutch became aware of the great wealth of manpower and resources in Africa and they began making expeditions to the "Dark Continent" as well.

In the early trading days, the language barrier between the Portuguese and the African traders posed a problem but soon enough a language sufficient for trading purposes was developed, called lingua franca, or pidgin, which is a mixture of Portuguese and African terms. The Language is referred to as Black Portuguese, or crioulu, and this dialect of Creole as we know it in North America is still spoken by some Africans today. However, the Portuguese did not learn the language, they hired African interpreters to translate for them. Eventually the French, Dutch and English would do the same.

These Portuguese African Interpreters were known as Grumetes. They were highly valued individuals and often acted as a trade and bartering agents on behalf of the Portuguese. These Grumetes often assisted the navigation of the ships along the African coast. So as you can see, people like Mathieu Da Costa ,who came a century or so later, were still a very valuable paid servant for the European trade into Africa and elsewhere.

Lancados were Portuguese traders who lived at the trade stations in Africa, and they were allowed to take African wives. The most infamous slave trade post in West Africa was called Elmina in the Gold Coast and slaves were transported directly into North America. The Lancados were a mixture of Euro African culture and it is believed that Mathieu Da Costa was of this mixed heritage.

Historian calculate that the Da Costa known as a nigre by the Portuguese was probably a third or fourth generation descendant of the Portuguese lancados/African mother union. Or he might have been pure African descent, a Grumete or third or fourth generation son of a Grumete.

Either way Da Costa had to be an influential man in his day, well known already by the Dutch, and possibility the official interpreter between African and Europe in the early 16th century.

Or the Dutch may have come in contact with him during a Portuguese ship raid in the 1590's. Many of the Portuguese crew at the time where non white and a theory postulates that when the Dutch captured these ships these men were sent to the Dutch settlements in the Americas.

Other theories postulate that Da Costa was a descendant of King Alonso I of the Kongo and these descendants were sent to Europe as early as the 1400's to study as priests. A less likely possibility is that Mathieu Da Costa came over as a slave and showed such potential with languages that he was hired to work for the Portuguese.

What would make this man so valuable that the French and Dutch would be fighting over him? There are three main theories:

Mathieu spent time in the Americas and was able to learn the aboriginal languages of the people. By the 1500's there were hundreds of transatlantic voyages by European mariners looking for cod and trading for furs with the Amerindians. Da Costa may have been hired as an interpreter for the Mi kmaqs.

In 1521 a Portuguese explorer by the name of Joao Alvares de Fagundes attempted to establish a colony in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia and a relative of Da Costa may have been employed on that expedition as a translator.

He met aboriginal people in Europe who taught him enough about their language that he was able to get by. Hundreds of Amerindians were taken as slaves and brought back to Europe during the 1500's and Da Costa may have learned the language from them while still in Europe.

The Creole he knew from Africa was enough for him to be understood by Native American aboriginal peoples and thus made him very valuable as a translator on the North American trade expeditions.

We only know that Da Costa signed a contract in 1608 to work for Pierre Dugua de Mons in 1609. We know also there was another black man employed by the Dutch as an interpreter in 1613-1614 who was described as a mulatto by the name of Jan Rodriques. Rodriques was employed in the Dutch colony that would later become New York State. It is believed that Rodriques was originally from the Santa Domingo in the West Indies. There are documents showing that still another Black man, Marc Lescarbot who died onboard ship to the Port Royal, Nova Scotia, but his occupation was not recorded. We do know that the employment of African interpreters lasted well into the 1700's.

There are references found that indicate that Da Costa was not on board ship in 1609 but in prison in Rouyn for insolence. The court case that ensued over the rights to Da Costa's services between the Dutch or French prohibited Da Costa from traveling until the mess was sorted out.

Unfortunately there is not enough historical backing to prove that Mathieu Da Costa ever made it to Canada, he may have came earlier than 1609, or he may have traveled to the USA with the Dutch when he was held captive. We just do not have all the facts yet to determine this important era of history.

All photos taken from the public domain

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Africa, Black History, Black Portuguese, Canadian History, Crioulu, Dark-Continent, Early Navigators, Grumetes, Interpreters, Portugal, Sailing, Seamen, Slaves Traders

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author avatar Carol Roach
Retired therapist and author of two books, freelance writer, newsletter editor, and blogger. I write, health, mental health, women's issues, animal , celebrity, history, and SEO articles.

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author avatar Souvik
10th Nov 2015 (#)

Very informative piece Carol. I learned something new.

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
10th Nov 2015 (#)

Nice post!

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