A Petition for the Emperor

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The story behind A Petition for the Emperor

"A French Canadian lady in her winter dress, and a Roman Catholic priest," from John Lambert's Travels Through Canada and the United States of North America in the Years 1806, 1807 & 1808

“A French Canadian lady in her winter dress, and a Roman Catholic priest,” from John Lambert’s Travels Through Canada and the United States of North America in the Years 1806, 1807 & 1808

In the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs sits a letter addressed to “His Majesty, the Emperor of the French, Napoleon the First” from “the Habitants of Canada,” signed on March 1, 1805 at Saint-Constant by twelve French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec.

The letter, which is in French, says that two of the signatories’ compatriots, Jean-Baptiste Norau, age 64 years, and his son Jean-Baptiste, age 22, are going to France to inform Napoleon, by means of his ministers, of the “very pronounced intentions of the Canadian people to return to the Empire of France and again assume the glorious name of Frenchmen.” They advise Napoleon of their plans “to shake off the yoke of the English.” They wait for rifles to arm themselves so they can “strike a sure blow,” and are confident they can succeed “under a good French general, penetrated with duty and guided by honor.” They are willing to the “submit to the expense that this enterprise will demand” and are “ready to undertake everything” for the French, “whom we always regard as our brothers.” (1)

To show they have been planning this enterprise for some time, the petitioners enclose a document from the French consul of New York, which was given to them by way of Norau five years earlier. This letter is also in the French archives and, roughly translated, reads as follows

The bearer of the present came with his son near to me. He left with me the exposé that you made me of your cruel situation and the fidelity of your sentiments; for a long time I have been your friend, and for a long time I have fulfilled those duties, but the moment of justice has not yet come. However, do not despair; above all do not precipitate anything. It is sometimes wise to know how to suffer and dissimulate. Any imprudence would only produce new obstacles. Count on me as I count on you. Whether I remain on this continent, or whether I cross again to the old, I will always remember with pleasure the confidence that you have placed in me and I will do everything to justify it. In waiting, submission and prudence must be your order. Fear above all false brothers, the misfortune that one encounters too often. For the rest, the day when you will be able to relieve your battered faces cannot be far away. (2)

The letter is unsigned, a fact the petitioners question in their letter to Napoleon: “We note in the letter from the Consul of New York that he has put neither a date, nor a signature. What was the motive?”

The third document in the French archives is a letter to Napoleon from Jean-Baptiste Norau senior, dated September 19, 1805 from Bordeaux. This is the letter that appears near the end of “A Petition for the Emperor.” (3) Though the petition reached the French government, it is highly unlikely Napoleon ever saw it.

This quixotic episode in Canadian history is familiar to French Canadians, but virtually unknown in English Canada. French transcriptions of the petition are available on several websites – though on some the date is incorrectly given as March 20 (instead of March 1), 1805 and the list of signatories does not always tally with that given in Claude Galarneau’s La France devant l’opinion Canadienne (1760-1815), which is likely the more accurate transcription. (4)

I came across the petition when researching Napoleon in America, and gave Jean-Baptiste junior a brief appearance in the novel. The story caught my fancy and I wondered who Norau senior was and how he wound up making the journey that may have resulted in his death.

The most comprehensive source of information about Norau (or Noreau) is Robert Larin, Canadiens en Guyane: 1754-1805 (Paris, 2006). According to Larin, Norau was born at l’Ancienne-Lorrette (Quebec) on May 1, 1734, the son of Mathurin Noro (Norau) and Marie-Josèphe Marchet. Of course that birthdate does not tally with Norau being 64 in March 1805, as per the petition, so one might reasonably assume that Norau either was not sure of or lied about his age, or that he was actually born circa 1740.

In 1763, Norau arrived in Saint-Malo, France. Larin speculates that he had been in an English prison. (5) When Quebec fell to the British in 1759, hundreds of prisoners of war were sent overseas. Canadians of the Saint Lawrence Valley were also among the population deported from Louisbourg and the Gaspésie in 1758. In 1763, a large number of Acadians, released from English prisons, arrived in Saint-Malo; perhaps Norau was with this group.

In any case, on June 28, 1763 in Saint-Malo Norau married Anne Françoise Roberte Le Nouvel. On April 18, 1764 the couple embarked on the ship Fort to take part in the French government’s plan to set up another New France in Guiana. Their son, Pierre, was born on the Île d’Aix, off the west coast of France. The baby died on the voyage and was buried at Sinnamary in French Guiana shortly before November 13, 1764.

Disease and the tropical climate killed most of the French settlers. Norau and Anne, as well as her father, remained at Sinnamary until at least March 1, 1765, but were gone by 1767. By March 23, 1769 they were back in France, as on this date the president of the Council of the Navy wrote to inform Norau that the Crown could not pay for his passage to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, with the goal of going to Canada with his wife. The Noraus made it to Quebec regardless, as an infant was born to them at Quebec on July 31, 1770. Norau, a cooper, is listed as a member of the civil militia that found the American troops led by General Richard Montgomery who attempted to seize Quebec City on December 31, 1775. (6) Subsequent children were baptized at Quebec, Chambly and Terrebonne. (7)

After Norau writes his letter to Napoleon from Bordeaux in September 1805, he disappears from history. There is no record of his return to Canada, or of his death. Anne died in L’Acadie in 1821. They had nine or ten children, at least three of whom were named Jean-Baptiste.

I was also curious about the other petitioners. They were all male, with ages ranging from 50 to 70. It struck me that the last signatory was named André Norau, 66, from Longeuil. I wondered if he was related to Jean-Baptiste. Searching genealogical records, I learned that André was Jean-Baptiste’s brother. He was married to Élisabeth Couillard de Beaumont (1730-1811), of one of Quebec’s noble families. (8) It was her second marriage and they had no children. I began to see the basis for a story.

French Canadians were heavily influenced by their clergy, who favoured cooperation with the British. Joseph Signay (or Signaï, Nov. 8, 1778 – Oct. 3, 1850) was the curé of Saint-Constant parish at the time. I brought him into the tale, along with Bishop Pierre Denaut (July 20, 1743 – Jan. 17, 1806), who ordained Signay and lived at Longueil. The rest was a matter of imagining what might have happened.

If you’re interested in French Canadian views of Napoleon in the early 19th century, and vice versa, you might also enjoy my post on Napoleon in French Canada.

  1. The French transcription is in Claude Galarneau, La France devant l’opinion Canadienne (1760-1815), (Quebec and Paris, 1970), pp. 272-273.
  2. The French transcription is in Robert Larin, Canadiens en Guyane: 1754-1805 (Paris, 2006), p. 264. Louis Arcambal was interim French consul at New York from Aug. 30, 1799 to June 9, 1804; the letter presumably came from him.
  3. The French transcription and an image of the original letter appear in Larin, Op. cit., p. 263.
  4. See La Bibliothèque indépendantiste; Sylvain Pagé, “Le Canada et Napoléon,” Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, no. 430, août-sept. 2000, pp. 19-27; Alexandre Champagne, “Une petition pour l’empereur,” Cap-aux-Diamants: la revue d’histoire du Québec, no. 81, 2005, pp. 22-25; Jean-Claude Germain, “Dans l’ombre du Premier Consul et de l’Amiral,” L’Aut’Journal, no. 292, sept. 2010. The documents also appear in Jacques Lacoursière, Histoire populaire du Québec: de 1791 à 1841 (Sillery, Québec, 1996), pp. 84-85.
  5. Larin, Op. cit., p. 140.
  6. http://genforum.genealogy.com/noreau/messages/54.html. Accessed October 20, 2013.
  7. Larin, Op. cit., p. 196.
  8. http://genealogiequebec.info/testphp/info.php?no=239172. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Read “A Petition for the Emperor” on The Copperfield Review

[T]he day when you will be able to relieve your battered faces cannot be far away.

Louis Arcambal, French Consul in New York