Samuel de Champlain. As a Canadian hero, the French explorer, writer and founder of Canada has been under-exploited: no TV mini-series, no new Canadian ersatz wine (“the Champlain of ginger ales”). But Champlain has a true booster in Joe Armstrongcivil servant, neophyte collector and born-again Canadian. Armstrong, who considers the explorer the “undiscovered, unequivocal champion of our nation,” has bought and brought home from the United States one of only 25 known copies of the book Les Voyages
de Samuel de Champlain 1613, a book that Armstrong calls “the most important document in Canadian history—a dynamite piece of Canadiana.”
The book may well be a Canadian version of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Says Rod Brinkman, a private book dealer, “It’s profusely illustrated and would rate as the cornerstone of any Canadiana collection.” According to Leon Warmski of the Archives of Ontario, which is putting the book on display starting Nov. 15: “We’re bringing it in as a celebrity item. It will add charisma to the show.”
Meanwhile Les Voyages, insured for $60,000 and purchased for more than $30,000, has been tucked away in a bank vault.
The book covers Champlain’s three voyages to Canada from 1604 to 1612. With its numerous drawings, maps and charts, most of them by Champlain himself, Les Voyages ranks as the explorer’s most graphic work. But the real coup is a pair of large fold-out maps, one of which is the rare first state of the Carte Géographique de la Nouvelle Franse, which is depicted without the Ottawa River. All other known copies include the river, which may mean that Armstrong lucked onto the earliest edition.
Genealogy had nothing to do with Armstrong’s fascination with Champlain; his father James was agent-general for Ontario and familiarly known as “Mr. Ontario.” And he is not just a canny private investor (although the price of Les Voyages can only rise). Armstrong wants to share his find, and his enthusiasm. His hope is also that more Canadian private collectors will follow his lead and complement the efforts of archives and other institutions. “I want to get this stuff out. I want Canadians to revere their own country.”
There has never been a problem getting Americans to revere Canada. Armstrong’s major goal now is to repatriate Champlain’s famous astrolabe, a circular observational instrument dated 1603 and allegedly insured for $1 million, which belongs to the New York Historical Society—a fact that Armstrong finds “damn insulting.”
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