Narrowing the Choice in Cultures for FE: Consequences (Part 3/3)

So last week (Feb. 17) I discussed how the learning module concerning the ‘Three Sisters’ had to be omitted from First Encounters, despite how interesting we find this Iroquois agricultural method to be. Now, here’s another really interesting learning point that may also not make the cut for First Encounters, precisely because it doesn’t coincide with Mi’kmaq culture. This is knowledge of The Tree of Life.

To be clear, I already discussed this point briefly in a previous post, back on Jan. 13, but that was weeks before it was decided we were only going to highlight Mi’kmaq culture. To recap, Jacques Cartier’s second voyage to North America almost proved to be disastrous by the end of the winter of 1536.  Cartier’s crew was gravely ill – all but 10 members of his 110-strong crew became afflicted with a horrible, unknown disease. Univeristy of California’s Don J.  Durzan states that “by mid-February 1536, of the 110 member crews, 8 were already dead and more than 50 past all hope of recovery.”   Cartier wrote in his journal (please excuse the graphic description) that those afflicted by the disease had lost all their strength and could no longer stand on their feet.  Their legs had begun to swell, and their tendons started turning black like coal. Other crew members’ skin began to get spotted with blood, starting at their feet and moving upwards along their bodies.  Their mouths began to stink and their gums began to rot, and all the flesh started to fall off, including the roots of the teeth…  Needless to say, Cartier did not know what to do about the situation at hand, not realizing that his crew was being affected by scurvy due to a lack of vitamin C (which, by the way, Cartier himself was getting enough of because he was the captain. His diet didn’t consist of mainly dried/smoked meat, as did his crew).

It was unseasonably cold that winter, and the Iroquois were also being affected by the disease.  Many of them were also dying, as Cartier took note when he went to Stadacona (an Iroquois village on the St. Laurent).  He even saw that Chief Donacona’s son, Dom Agaya, was also bed-ridden and suffering the same symptoms as his men.  A few days later, however, he saw Dom Agaya up and about, looking healthy as can be.  When he asked him how he got better, Dom Agaya let him know about a concoction made with the bark and leaves of the Annedda tree, which has a high vitamin C content.  (The tree’s identity is still contested by scholars today, though most point to the Eastern White Cedar as the most likely candidate).  Though some of Cartier’s men were hesitant at first to try the special brew, once they began drinking it they felt almost instantly better.  Literally days later, the remainder of Cartier’s crew was healthy again. 25 in total had perished that winter.

There are a couple points here that are quite interesting to note about this famed ‘scurvy episode’.  First, Dom Agaya’s openness in sharing the secret of the Annedda tree with Cartier demonstrates the natural reaction of the Stadaconans to include these newcomers into their society and help them with whatever they needed, an act that genuinely reflects the philosophy behind the Great Circle of Relations.  The other interesting point worth noting about this ‘imparting of knowledge’ is clearly explained by Don J. Durzan.  In an article published by the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, he notes that not only did this cure for scurvy become important for future naval explorations, it was also significant for the medical field in Europe of the time.  According to Durzan, “the medicinal value of the tree of life contributed to the resurrection of botany, which at that time struggled to free itself from pharmacy when medical men were still its masters.” Essentially, the Iroquois  thus became a integral facet in the advancement of European medicine.

Fascinating. It’s therefore unfortunate that such a learning module may have to be left out of First Encounters.  There is discussion of perhaps having a Mi’kmaq character give a lesson on the Annedda, explaining that this knowledge was learned from the Iroquois, though this may be straying too far from historical truth. I guess we’ll have to see what we can do after conferring with the academics working on this projects.  Stay tuned!



Duzan, Don J. “Anginine, scurvy and Cartier’s “Tree of Life”. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 5.5 (2009): n. pag. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

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