"They Punish Murderers, Thieves, Traitors and Sorcerers": Aboriginal Criminal Justice as Reported by Early French Observers


  • Desmond H. Brown


A common theme in the writings of European explorers, historians, and religious emissaries who were among the first to comment on the inhabitants of the western hemisphere was the absence in Aboriginal society of any concept of law. In some cases these early commentators may not have interpreted what they saw correctly, and they used French words with specific legal definitions that were not relevant in the context of the behaviour they attempted to describe. Evidence from their writings, especially those of the Jesuits, shows that there was in fact law among the Native peoples of the northeast, and particularly criminal law, albeit of a different kind and process than French law. In France, with retribution or deterrence as the objective of the judicial system, the individual alone was responsible for his or her actions and suffered punishment accordingly. In contrast, apart from cases of sorcery or betrayal, which were punishable by death, Aboriginal justice sought to restore social cohesion and harmony among the group by restitution, which was a collective responsibility.