Author Tags: 1700-1800, Haida Gwaii

Next to La Pérouse, the most important 18th-century French explorer to reach the Pacific Northwest was Etienne Marchand, a merchant seaman who completed the second French circumnavigation of the globe. He was the first Frenchman to make a commercial voyage to British Columbia and he provided some of the first detailed descriptions of heraldic carvings among the Haida. (Louis Antoine Bougainville completed the first French circumnavigation in 1769.)

Marchand was born in the West Indies, in Grenada, in 1755. He became intrigued about the Pacific Northwest after meeting the fur trader Nathanial Portlock on the island of St. Helena in 1789. Portlock apprised him of the profits to be made from sea otter pelts. Upon his return to France, Marchand had the 300-ton Solide built in Marseilles. He set sail in December of 1790, accompanied by a surgeon named Claude Roblet who also kept a journal of their 20-month voyage. The Marchand expedition traded with the Tlingit for 100 pelts when they were anchored near present-day Sitka, in Alaska, but left after seeing signs of smallpox. Upon reaching the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, Marchand’s men made extensive forays along the shorelines of various islands. The Solide reached Vancouver Island on August 4, 1791, where Marchand traded at Barkley Sound for three days, then sailed for Hawaii on September 8, 1791. The Solide was sighted by Robert Gray on the Columbia but Marchand and Gray did not make any contact.

After a brief stopover in Hawaii, Marchand crossed the Pacific to Macao only to discover the Chinese mandarins were not buying any furs. He met the ailing trader Joseph Ingraham who was “in the same boat.” The physician Roblet tended to Ingraham. Still laden with furs, Marchand reluctantly sailed to Mauritius (then called the Ile de France), arriving on January, 30 1792. After an eleven-week stopover, he sailed home by the Atlantic, arriving in Toulon harbour on August 14, 1792. Having lost only one man, due to a stroke, Marchand’s expedition was an unusually safe one, but he had returned with his furs. His merchandising company sent the furs to Lyons where they were impounded by the Revolutionary government and eventually went rotten. Marchand sailed on the Sans-Souci and died on Reunion Island, known as Ile de Bourbon, on May 15, 1793.

The greatest accomplishment of Marchand’s travels turned out to be the posthumous, four-volume publication of his journals, edited by Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu. They include diaries by second-in-command Chanal and the surgeon Roblet, which contain observations of Tlingit and Haida villages. Visiting a Haida village on Langara Island, Marchand provided the following description of an ornate house and its entrance way. “This opening is made in the thickness of a large trunk of a tree which rises perpendicularly in the middle of one of the fronts of the habitation, and occupies the whole of its height; it imitates the form of a gaping human mouth, or rather that of a beast, and it is surmounted by a hooked nose, about two feet in length, proportional in point of size, to the monstrous face to which it belongs…. Over the door is seen the figure of a man carved in the attitude of a child in the womb, and remarkable for the extreme smallness of the parts which characterize his sex; and above this figure rises a gigantic statue of a man erect, which terminates the sculpture and the decoration of the portal; the head of this statue is dressed with a cap in the form of a sugar loaf, the height of which is almost equal to that of the figure itself. On the parts of the surface which are not occupied by the capital subjects, are interspersed carved figures of frogs or toads, lizards and other animals, the arms, legs, thighs and other parts of the human body….” The totems Marchand saw were decorated with bright red, black and apple-green colours. Similar artistry was absent from the houses on Graham Island.


Fleurieu, Charles Pierre Claret de: Voyage Autour du Monde, Pendant Les Annes 1790, 1791, et 1792 par Etienne Marchand, precede d'une Introduction Historique: Auquel on a Joint des Recherches sur les Terres Australes de Drake, et un Examen Critique du Voyage de Roggeween (Paris, 1798-1800) Four volumes.

Voyage Round the World, Performed During the Years 1790, 1791 and 1792 (London: T.N. Longman and O. Reese, 1801). Reprinted by Da Capo Press, 1970.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "QCI" "1700-1800" "French"