Corporal Punishment as Religious Colonialism

In her essay “‘Wonderful Affection': Seventeenth-Century Missionaries to New France on Children and Childhood,”  Harvard University’s Clarissa W. Atkinson examines how Jesuit missionaries to Canada interacted with the Huron (or Wyandot), indigenous peoples of North America. These missionaries from France brought Roman Catholicism across the ocean “with the single, burning intention to bring souls to Christ”; however, they soon realized that it was “necessary for them to deal with children” as the Huron parents were not particularly convinced by Christianity (p. 227).

Understandably, working with children created conflict since the French had dramatically different perspectives on child rearing and discipline than the Huron (and of course the French believe their ways superior and enlightened, and the Hurons’ ways “Savage”). Jesuit education of the Huron became the primary vehicle for the French to religiously manipulate, subdue, and colonize the natives, and the most important component of that vehicle was strict and unforgiving corporal punishment.

The following excerpt is from Atkinson’s “‘Wonderful Affection': Seventeenth-Century Missionaries to New France on Children and Childhood,” published in Marcia J. Bunge’s The Child in Christian Thought, 2001, p. 236-239:

The most striking and significant comments by Jesuits on cultural differences concern the discipline, punishment, and “spoiling” of children. From the very beginning, the missionaries were both struck by the Indians’ love for their children and horrified at the way they raised them: “They treat their children with wonderful affection, but they preserve no discipline, for they neither themselves correct them nor allow others to do so” (JR 1:277). This attitude and behavior interfered with instruction and conversion. The theme is repeated over and over: children had to be taught in boarding schools away from home because their parents would not allow them to be properly trained—that is, subjected to the corporal punishment that was taken for granted in French homes and schools. LeJeune recognized the problem and proposed a solution in 1632:

These people may be converted by means of seminaries; and how necessary it is to educate at Kebec the children of the Savages, who belong to settlements farther up the river. We shall them [the children] at last; for they will give them, if they see that we do not send them to France. As to the children of this section, they must be sent up there. The reason is that the Savages prevent their instruction; they will not tolerate the chastisement of their children, whatever they may do; they permit only a simple reprimand…

The French never did comprehend or become resigned to the fact that corporal punishment was simply not acceptable to the Huron. The Jesuits, enthusiastic proponents of the widespread belief in physical discipline among early modern Europeans, insisted upon such punishment in their French schools. Neither their humanist tradition nor their dedication to education countered their acceptance of the general view that beating a child was a necessary and appropriate part of moral and intellectual training. Indeed, when it was suggested that they employ a lay person to administer beatings to recalcitrant boys, they objected on the grounds that students would lose respect for masters who did not wield the rod themselves. With that attitude and such habits, it is not surprising that the Jesuits found the Huron treatment of children threatening as well as shocking. A striking example of this central cultural difference appears in the story of a French drummer boy who hit an Indian with his drumstick, apparently accidentally, but sharply enough to draw blood. The Indians demanded compensation, which they expected in the form of gifts; the French version of appropriate compensation was to whip the child. The Indians begged them to desist, and one of them shielded the boy, offering his own body for the beating. According to the Jesuits’ account of the incident, they were primarily concerned with the interference with proper discipline and its implication for their program: ‘All the Savage tribes of these quarters, and of Brazil, as we are assured, cannot chastise a child or see one chastised. How much trouble with this give us in carrying out our plans of teaching the young!” (JR 5:221).

Children had to be removed from their parents as far as possible ‘because these Barbarians cannot bear to have their children punished, nor even scolded, not being able to refuse anything to a crying child… Upon the slightest pretext they would take them away from us, before they were educated” (JR 6:153). When the French inquired about this behavior, they were told by “some Savages…that one of the principal reasons why they showed so much indulgence towards their children, was that when the children saw themselves treated by their parents with some severity, they usually resorted to extreme measures and hanged themselves, or ate of a certain root…which is a very quick poison” (JR 14:37). This passage is difficult to interpret in the absence of more specific information, but we may infer at least that native parents understood the young to be extremely sensitive to adult disapproval and punishment, to which they did not subject their own children. Anecdotes in the JR [Jesuit Review] make it clear that French schooling created problems of its own, for the missionaries frequently had to deal with depressed, sad children and with runaways. The Jesuits may have chosen to understand these behaviors as characteristic of native children rather than as consequences of their own teaching and discipline. Marie, too, interpreted the inability to endure “sadness” as a native characteristic, observing that some of the little girls were ‘like birds on the wing, staying with us only until they become sad, a condition which the character of the savages cannot endure. As soon as they grow sad their parents will take them away, fearful that they will die. On this score we leave them free, for we win more this way than by constraint.”

It is remarkable that the Jesuits, supposed experts in Christianity, failed to recognize that the Huron man who offered his own body to beat in exchange for the little child’s became Jesus to all of them. The Huron, not the Jesuits, “took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Isaiah 53:4). In sacrificing himself for the child’s sin, the Huron man was more of an example of Jesus than any of the Jesuits who stood ready to “cast stones” upon the child.

Featured image: C.W. Jefferys, “A Jesuit Preaching to the Indians,” 1933.

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