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The First Voyage, Newfoundland and Labrador

It was on April 20, 1534, that Jacques Cartier sailed out of the port of St Malo on his first voyage in the service of Francis I. Before leaving their anchorage the commander, the sailing-masters, and the men took an oath, administered by Charles de Mouy, vice-admiral of France, that they would behave themselves truly and faithfully in the service of the Most Christian King. The company were borne in two ships, each of about sixty tons burden, and numbered in all sixty-one souls.

The passage across the ocean was pleasant. Fair winds, blowing fresh and strong from the east, carried the clumsy caravels westward on the foaming crests of the Atlantic surges. Within twenty days of their departure the icebound shores of Newfoundland rose before their eyes. Straight in front of them was Cape Bonavista, the 'Cape of Happy Vision,' already known and named by the fishermen-explorers, who had welcomed the sight of its projecting headlands after the weary leagues of unbroken sea. But approach to the shore was impossible. The whole coastline was blocked with the 'great store of ice' that lay against it. The ships ran southward and took shelter in a little haven about five leagues south of the cape, to which Cartier gave the name St Catherine's Haven, either in fond remembrance of his wife, or, as is more probable, in recognition of the help and guidance of St Catherine, whose natal day, April 30, had fallen midway in his voyage. The harborage is known to-day as Catalina, and lies distant, as the crow flies, about eighty miles north-westward of the present city of St John's in Newfoundland. Here the mariners remained ten days, 'looking for fair weather,' and engaged in mending and 'dressing' their boats.

At this time, it must be remembered, the coast of Newfoundland was, in some degree, already known. Ships had frequently passed through the narrow passage of Belle Isle that separates Newfoundland from the coast of Labrador. Of the waters, however, that seemed to open up beyond, or of the exact relation of the Newfoundland coastline to the rest of the great continent nothing accurate was known. It might well be that the inner waters behind the inhospitable headlands of Belle Isle would prove the gateway to the great empires of the East. Cartier's business at any rate was to explore, to see all that could be seen, and to bring news of it to his royal master. This he set himself to do, with the persevering thoroughness that was the secret of his final success. He coasted along the shore from cape to cape and from island to island, sounding and charting as he went, noting the shelter for ships that might be found, and laying down the bearing of the compass from point to point. It was his intent, good pilot as he was, that those who sailed after him should find it easy to sail on these coasts.

From St Catherine's Harbor the ships sailed on May 21 with a fine off-shore wind that made it easy to run on a course almost due north. As they advanced on this course the mainland sank again from sight, but presently they came to an island. It lay far out in the sea, and was surrounded by a great upheaval of jagged and broken ice. On it and around it they saw so dense a mass of birds that no one, declares Cartier, could have believed it who had not seen it for himself. The birds were as large as jays, they were colored black and white, and they could scarcely fly because of their small wings and their exceeding fatness. The modern enquirer will recognize, perhaps, the great auk which once abounded on the coast, but which is now extinct. The sailors killed large numbers of the birds, and filled two boats with them. Then the ships sailed on rejoicing from the Island of Birds with six barrels full of salted provisions added to their stores. Cartier's Island of Birds is the Funk Island of our present maps.

The ships now headed west and north to come into touch with land again. To the great surprise of the company they presently met a huge polar bear swimming in the open sea, and evidently heading for the tempting shores of the Island of Birds. The bear was 'as great as any cow and as white as a swan.' The sailors lowered boats in pursuit, and captured 'by main force' the bear, which supplied a noble supper for the captors. 'Its flesh,' wrote Cartier, 'was as good to eat as any heifer of two years.'

The explorers sailed on westward, changing their course gradually to the north to follow the broad curve of the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland. Jutting headlands and outlying capes must have alternately appeared and disappeared on the western horizon. May 24, found the navigators off the entrance of Belle Isle. After four hundred years of maritime progress, the passage of the narrow strait that separates Newfoundland from Labrador remains still rough and dangerous, even for the great steel ships of to-day. We can imagine how forbidding it must have looked to Cartier and his companions from the decks of their small storm-tossed caravels. Heavy gales from the west came roaring through the strait. Great quantities of floating ice ground to and fro under the wind and current. So stormy was the outlook that for the time being the passage seemed impossible. But Cartier was not to be baulked in his design. He cast anchor at the eastern mouth of the strait, in what is now the little harbor of Kirpon (Carpunt), and there day after day, stormbound by the inclement weather, he waited until June 9. Then at last he was able to depart, hoping, as he wrote, 'with the help of God to sail farther.'

Having passed through the Strait of Belle Isle, Cartier crossed over to the northern coast. Two days of prosperous sailing with fair winds carried him far along the shore to a distance of more than a hundred miles west of the entrance of the Strait of Belle Isle. Whether he actually touched on his way at the island now known as Belle Isle is a matter of doubt. He passed an island which he named St Catherine, and which he warned all mariners to avoid because of dangerous shoals that lay about it. We find his track again with certainty when he reaches the shelter of the Port of Castles. The name was given to the anchorage by reason of the striking cliffs of basaltic rock, which here give to the shore something of the appearance of a fortress. The place still bears the name of Castle Bay.

Sailing on to the west, Cartier noted the glittering expanse of Blanc Sablon (White Sands), still known by the name received from these first explorers. On June 10 the ships dropped anchor in the harbor of Brest, which lies on the northern coast of the Gulf of St Lawrence among many little islands lining the shore. This anchorage seems to have been known already in Cartier's time, and it became afterwards a famous place of gathering for the French fishermen. Later on in the sixteenth century a fort was erected there, and the winter settlement about it is said to have contained at one time as many as a thousand people. But its prosperity vanished later, and the fort had been abandoned before the great conflict had. begun between France and Great Britain for the possession of North America. Cartier secured wood and water at Brest. Leaving his ships there for the time being, he continued his westward exploration in his boats.

The careful pilot marked every striking feature of the coast, the bearing of the headlands and the configuration of the many islands which stud these rock-bound and inhospitable shores. He spent a night on one of these islands, and the men found great quantities of ducks' eggs. The next day, still sailing to the west, he reached so fine an anchorage that he was induced to land and plant a cross there in honor of St Servan. Beyond this again was an island 'round like an oven.' Still farther on he found a great river, as he thought it, which came sweeping down from the highlands of the interior.

As the boats lay in the mouth of the river, there came bearing down upon them a great fishing ship which had sailed from the French port of La Rochelle, and was now seeking vainly for the anchorage of Brest. Cartier's careful observations now bore fruit. He and his men went in their small boats to the fishing ship and gave the information needed for the navigation of the coast. The explorers still pressed on towards the west, till they reached a place which Cartier declared to be one of the finest harbors of the world, and which he called Jacques Cartier Harbor. This is probably the water now known as Cumberland Harbor. The forbidding aspect of the northern shore and the adverse winds induced Cartier to direct his course again towards the south, to the mainland, as he thought, but really to the island of Newfoundland; and so he now turned back with his boats to rejoin the ships. The company gathered safely again at Brest on Sunday, June 14, and Cartier caused a mass to be sung.

During the week spent in exploring the north shore, Cartier had not been very favorably impressed by the country. It seemed barren and inhospitable. It should not, he thought, be Called the New Land, but rather stones and wild crags and a place fit for wild beasts. The soil seemed worthless. 'In all the north land,' said he, 'I did not see a cartload of good earth. To be short, I believe that this was the land that God allotted to Cain.' From time to time the explorers had caught sight of painted savages, with heads adorned with bright feathers and with bodies clad in the skins of wild beasts. They were roving upon the shore or passing in light boats made of bark among the island channels of the coast. 'They are men,' wrote Cartier, 'of an indifferent good stature and bigness, but wild and unruly. They wear their hair tied on the top like a wreath of hay and put a wooden pin within it, or any other such thing instead of a nail, and with them they bind certain birds' feathers. They are clothed with beasts' skins as well the men as women, but that the women go somewhat straighter and closer in their garments than the men do, with their waists girded. They paint themselves with certain roan colors. Their boats are made with the bark of birch trees, with the which they fish and take great store of seals, and, as far as we could understand since our coming thither, that is not their habitation, but they come from the mainland out of hotter countries to catch the said seals and other necessaries for their living.'

There has been much discussion as to these savages. It has been thought by some that they were a southern branch of the Eskimos, by others that they were Algonquin Indians who had wandered eastward from the St Lawrence region. But the evidence goes to show that they belonged to the lost tribe of the 'Red Indians' of Newfoundland, the race which met its melancholy fate by deliberate and ruthless destruction at the hands of the whites. Cabot had already seen these people on his voyage to the coast, and described them as painted with 'red ochre.' Three of them he had captured and taken to England as an exhibit. For two hundred years after the English settlement of Newfoundland, these 'Red Indians' were hunted down till they were destroyed. 'It was considered meritorious,' says a historian of the island, 'to shoot a Red Indian. To "go to look for Indians" came to be as much a phrase as to "look for partridges." They were harassed from post to post, from island to island: their hunting and fishing stations were unscrupulously seized by the invading English. They were shot down without the least provocation, or captured to be exposed as curiosities to the rabble at fairs in the western towns of Christian England at twopence apiece.' So much for the ill-fated savages among whom Cartier planted his first cross.

On June 15, Cartier, disappointed, as we have seen, with the rugged country that he found on the northern shore, turned south again to pick up the mainland, as he called it, of Newfoundland. Sailing south from Brest to a distance of about sixty miles, he found himself on the same day off Point Rich on the west coast of Newfoundland, to which, from its appearance, he gave the name of the Double Cape. For three days the course lay to the south-west along the shore. The panorama that was unfolded to the eye of the explorer was cheerless. The wind blew cold and hard from the north-east. The weather was dark and gloomy, while through the rifts of the mist and fog that lay heavy on the face of the waters there appeared only a forbidding and scarcely habitable coast. Low lands with islands fringed the shore. Behind them great mountains, hacked and furrowed in their outline, offered an uninviting prospect. There was here no Eldorado such as, farther south, met the covetous gaze of a Cortez or a Pizarro, no land of promise luxuriant with the vegetation of the tropics such as had greeted the eyes of Columbus at his first vision of the Indies. A storm-bound coast, a relentless climate and a reluctant soil-these were the treasures of the New World as first known to the discoverer of Canada.

For a week Cartier and his men lay off the coast. The headland of Cape Anguille marks the approximate southward limit of their exploration. Great gales drove the water in a swirl of milk-white foam among the rocks that line the foot of this promontory. Beyond this point they saw nothing of the Newfoundland shore, except that, as the little vessels vainly tried to beat their way to the south against the fierce storms, the explorers caught sight of a second great promontory that appeared before them through the mist. This headland Cartier called Cape St John. In spite of the difficulty of tracing the storm-set path of the navigators, it is commonly thought that the point may be identified as Cape Anguille, which lies about twenty-five miles north of Cape Ray, the south-west 'corner' of Newfoundland.

Had Cartier been able to go forward in the direction that he had been following, he would have passed out between Newfoundland and Cape Breton island into the open Atlantic, and would have realized that his New Land was, after all, an island and not the mainland of the continent. But this discovery was reserved for his later voyage. He seems, indeed, when he presently came to the islands that lie in the mouth of the Gulf of St Lawrence, to have suspected that a passage here lay to the open sea. Doubtless the set of the wind and current revealed it to the trained instinct of the pilot. 'If it were so,' he wrote, 'it would be a great shortening as well of the time as of the way, if any perfection could be found in it.' But it was just as well that he did not seek further the opening into the Atlantic. By turning westward from the 'heel' of Newfoundland he was led to discover the milder waters and the more fortunate lands which awaited him on the further side of the Gulf.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Mariner of St Malo, A Chronicle of the Voyages of Jacques Cartier, 1915

 

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