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The First Voyage, The Gulf of St. Lawrence

On June 25 Cartier turned his course away from Newfoundland and sailed westward into what appeared to be open sea. But it was not long before he came in sight of land again. About sixty miles from the Newfoundland shore and thirty miles east from the Magdalen Islands, two abrupt rocks rise side by side from the sea; through one of them the beating surf has bored a passage, so that to Cartier's eye, as his ships hove in sight of them, the rocks appeared as three. At the present time a lighthouse of the Canadian government casts its rays from the top of one of these rocky islets, across the tossing waters of the Gulf. Innumerable sea-fowl encircled the isolated spot and built their nests so densely upon the rocks as to cover the whole of the upper surface. At the base of one of these Bird Rocks Cartier stopped his ships in their westward course, and his men killed great numbers of the birds so easily that he declared he could have filled thirty boats with them in an hour.

The explorers continued on their way, and a sail of a few hours brought them to an island like to none that they had yet seen. After the rock-bound coast of the north it seemed, indeed, a veritable paradise. Thick groves of splendid trees alternated with beautiful glades and meadow-land, while the fertile soil of the island, through its entire length of about six miles, was carpeted with bright flowers, blossoming peas, and the soft colors of the wild rose. 'One acre of this land,' said Cartier, 'is worth more than all the New Land.' The ships lay off the shore of the island all night and replenished the stores of wood and water. The land abounded with game; the men of St Malo saw bears and foxes, and, to their surprise they saw also great beasts that basked upon the shore, with 'two great teeth in their mouths like elephants.' One of these walruses,--for such they doubtless were,--was chased by the sailors, but cast itself into the sea and disappeared. We can imagine how, through the long twilight of the June evening, the lovely scene was loud with the voices of the exultant explorers. It was fitting that Cartier should name this island of good omen after his patron, the Seigneur de Brion, admiral of France. To this day the name Brion Island,--corrupted sometimes to Byron Island,--recalls the landing of Jacques Cartier.

From this temporary halting-place the ships sailed on down the west coast of the Magdalen Islands. The night of June 28 found them at anchor off Entry Island at the southern end of the group. From here a course laid to the south-west brought the explorers into sight of Prince Edward Island. This they supposed to be, of course, the mainland of the great American continent. Turning towards the north-west, the ships followed the outline of the coast. They sailed within easy sight of the shore, and from their decks the explorer and his companions were able to admire the luxuriant beauty of the scene. Here again was a land of delight: 'It is the fairest land,' wrote Cartier, 'that may possibly be seen, full of goodly meadows and trees.' All that it lacked was a suitable harbor, which the explorers sought in vain. At one point a shallow river ran rippling to the sea, and here they saw savages crossing the stream in their canoes, but they found no place where the ships could be brought to anchor.

July 1 found the vessels lying off the northern end of Prince Edward Island. Here they lowered the boats, and searched the shore-line for a suitable anchorage. As they rowed along a savage was seen running upon the beach and making signs. The boats were turned towards him, but, seized with a sudden panic, he ran away. Cartier landed a boat and set up a little staff in the sand with a woolen girdle and a knife, as a present for the fugitive and a mark of good-will.

It has been asserted that this landing on a point called Cap-des-Sauvages by Cartier, in memory of the incident, took place on the New Brunswick shore. But the weight of evidence is in favor of considering that North Cape in Prince Edward Island deserves the honor. As the event occurred on July 1, some writers have tried to find a fortunate coincidence in the landing of the discoverer of Canada on its soil on the day that became, three hundred and thirty-three years later, Dominion Day. But the coincidence is not striking. Cartier had already touched Canadian soil at Brest, which is at the extreme end of the Quebec coast, and on the Magdalen Islands.

Cartier's boats explored the northern end of prince Edward Island for many miles. All that he saw delighted him. 'We went that day on shore,' he wrote in his narrative, 'in four places, to see the goodly sweet and smelling trees that were there. We found them to be cedars, yews, pines, white elms, ash, willows, With many other sorts of trees to us unknown, but without any fruit. The grounds where no wood is are very fair, and all full of peason [peas], white and red gooseberries, strawberries, blackberries, and wild corn, even like unto rye, which seemed to have been sowed and ploughed. This country is of better temperature than any other land that can be seen, and very hot. There are many thrushes, stock-doves, and other birds. To be short, there wanteth nothing but good harbors.'

On July 2, the ships, sailing on westward from the head of Prince Edward Island, came in sight of the New Brunswick coast. They had thus crossed Northumberland Strait, which separates the island from the mainland. Cartier, however, supposed this to be merely a deep bay, extending inland on his left, and named it the Bay of St Lunario. Before him on the northern horizon was another headland, and to the left the deep triangular bay known now as Miramichi. The shallowness of the water and the low sunken aspect of the shore led him to decide, rightly, that there was to be found here no passage to the west. It was his hope, of course, that at some point on his path the shore might fold back and disclose to him the westward passage to the fabled empires of the East. The deep opening of the Chaleur Bay, which extended on the left hand as the ships proceeded north, looked like such an opening. Hopes ran high, and Cartier named the projecting horn which marks the southern side of the mouth of the bay the Cape of Good Hope. Like Vasco da Gama, when he rounded South Africa, Cartier now thought that he had found the gateway of a new world. The cheery name has, however, vanished from the map in favor of the less striking one of Point Miscou.

Cartier sailed across the broad mouth of the bay to a point on the north shore, now known as Port Daniel. Here his ships lay at anchor till July 12, in order that he might carry on, in boats, the exploration of the shore.

On July 6, after hearing mass, the first boat with an exploring party set forth and almost immediately fell in with a great number of savages coming in canoes from the southern shore. In all there were some forty or fifty canoes. The Indians, as they leaped ashore, shouted and made signs to the French, and held up skins on sticks as if anxious to enter into trade. But Cartier was in no mind to run the risk of closer contact with so numerous a company of savages. The French would not approach the fleet of canoes, and the savages, seeing this, began to press in on the strangers. For a moment affairs looked threatening. Cartier's boat was surrounded by seven canoes filled with painted, gibbering savages. But the French had a formidable defense. A volley of musket shots fired by the sailors over the heads of the Indians dispersed the canoes in rapid flight. Finding, however, that no harm was done by the strange thunder of the weapons, the canoes came flocking back again, their occupants making a great noise and gesticulating wildly. They were, however, nervous, and when, as they came near, Cartier's men let off two muskets they were terrified; 'with great haste they began to flee, and would no more follow us.' But the next day after the boat had returned to the ships, the savages came near to the anchorage, and some parties landed and traded together. The Indians had with them furs which they offered gladly in exchange for the knives and iron tools given them by the sailors. Cartier presented them also with 'a red hat to give unto their captain.' The Indians seemed delighted with the exchange. They danced about on the shore, went through strange ceremonies in pantomime and threw seawater over their heads. 'They gave us,' wrote Cartier, 'whatsoever they had, not keeping anything, so that they were constrained to go back again naked, and made us signs that the next day they would come again and bring more skins with them.'

Four more days Cartier lingered in the bay. Again he sent boats from the ships in the hope of finding the westward passage, but to his great disappointment and grief the search was fruitless. The waters were evidently landlocked, and there was here, as he sadly chronicled, no thoroughfare to the westward sea. He met natives in large numbers. Hundreds of them--men, women, and children--came in their canoes to see the French explorers. They brought cooked meat, laid it on little pieces of wood, and, retreating a short distance, invited the French to eat. Their manner was as of those offering food to the gods who have descended from above. The women among them, coming fearlessly up to the explorers, stroked them with their hands, and then lifted these hands clasped to the sky, with every sign of joy and exultation. The Indians, as Cartier saw them, seemed to have no settled home, but to wander to and fro in their canoes, taking fish and game as they went. Their land appeared to him the fairest that could be seen, level as a pond; in every opening of the forest he saw wild grains and berries, roses and fragrant herbs. It was, indeed, a land of promise that lay basking in the sunshine of a Canadian summer. The warmth led Cartier to give to the bay the name it still bears--Chaleur.

On July 12 the ships went north again. Their progress was slow. Boisterous gales drove in great seas from the outer Gulf. At times the wind, blowing hard from the north, checked their advance and they had, as best they could, to ride out the storm. The sky was lowering and overcast, and thick mist and fog frequently enwrapped the ships. The 16th saw them driven by stress of weather into Gaspe Bay, where they lay until the 25th, with so dark a sky and so violent a storm raging over the Gulf that not even the daring seamen of St Malo thought it wise to venture out.

Here again they saw savages in great numbers, but belonging, so Cartier concluded, to a different tribe from those seen on the bay below. 'We gave them knives,' he wrote, 'combs, beads of glass, and other trifles of small value, for which they made many signs of gladness, lifting their hands up to heaven, dancing and singing in their boats.' They appeared to be a miserable people, in the lowest stage of savagery, going about practically naked, and owning nothing of any value except their boats and their fishing-nets. He noted that their heads were shaved except for a tuft 'on the top of the crown as long as a horse's tail.' This, of course, was the 'scalp lock,' so suggestive now of the horrors of Indian warfare, but meaning nothing to the explorer. From its presence it is supposed that the savages were Indians of the Huron-Iroquois tribe. Cartier thought, from their destitute state, that there could be no poorer people in the world.

Before leaving the Bay of Gaspe, Cartier planted a great wooden cross at the entrance of the harbor. The cross stood thirty feet high, and at the centre of it he hung a shield with three fleurs-de-lis. At the top was carved in ancient lettering the legend, 'VIVE LE ROY DE FRANCE.' A large concourse of savages stood about the French explorers as they raised the cross to its place. 'So soon as it was up,' writes Cartier, 'we altogether kneeled down before them, with our hands towards heaven yielding God thanks: and we made signs unto them, showing them the heavens, and that all our salvation depended only on Him which in them dwelleth; whereat they showed a great admiration, looking first at one another and then at the cross.'

The little group of sailors kneeling about the cross newly reared upon the soil of Canada as a symbol of the Gospel of Christ and of the sovereignty of France, the wondering savages turning their faces in awe towards the summer sky, serene again after the passing storms,--all this formed an impressive picture, and one that appears and reappears in the literature of Canada. But the first effect of the ceremony was not fortunate. By a sound instinct the savages took fright; they rightly saw in the erection of the cross the advancing shadow of the rule of the white man. After the French had withdrawn to their ships, the chief of the Indians came out with his brother and his sons to make protest against what had been done. He made a long oration, which the French could not, of course, understand. Pointing shoreward to the cross and making signs, the chief gave it to be understood that the country belonged to him and his people. He and his followers were, however, easily pacified by a few gifts and with the explanation, conveyed by signs, that the cross was erected to mark the entrance of the bay. The French entertained their guests bountifully with food and drink, and, having gaily decked out two sons of the chief in French shirts and red caps, they invited these young savages to remain on the ship and to sail with Cartier. They did so, and the chief and the others departed rejoicing. The next day the ships weighed anchor, surrounded by boat-loads of savages who shouted and gesticulated their farewells to those on board.

Cartier now turned his ships to the north-east. Westward on his left hand, had he known it, was the opening of the St Lawrence. From the trend of the land he supposed, however, that, by sailing in an easterly direction, he was again crossing one of the great bays of the coast. This conjecture seemed to be correct, as the coastline of the island of Anticosti presently appeared on the horizon. From July 27 until August 5 the explorers made their way along the shores of Anticosti, which they almost circumnavigated. Sailing first to the east they passed a low-lying country, almost bare of forests, but with verdant and inviting meadows. The shore ended at East Cape, named by Cartier Cape St Louis, and at this point the ships turned and made their way north-westward, along the upper shore of the island. On August 1, as they advanced, they came in sight of the mainland of the northern shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence, a low, flat country, heavily wooded, with great mountains forming a jagged sky-line. Cartier had now, evidently enough, come back again to the side of the great Gulf from which he had started, but, judging rightly that the way to the west might lie beyond the Anticosti coast, he continued on his voyage along that shore. Yet with every day progress became more difficult. As the ships approached the narrower waters between the west end of Anticosti and the mainland they met powerful tides and baffling currents. The wind, too, had turned against them and blew fiercely from the west.

For five days the intrepid mariners fought against the storms and currents that checked their advance. They were already in sight of what seemed after long searching to be the opening of the westward passage. But the fierce wind from the west so beat against them that the clumsy vessels could make no progress against it. Cartier lowered a boat, and during two hours the men rowed desperately into the wind. For a while the tide favored them, but even then it ran so hard as to upset one of the boats. When the tide turned matters grew worse. There came rushing down with the wind and the current of the St Lawrence such a turmoil of the waters that the united strength of the thirteen men at the oars could not advance the boats by a stone's-throw. The whole company landed on the island of Anticosti, and Cartier, with ten or twelve men, made his way on foot to the west end. Standing there and looking westward over the foaming waters lashed by the August storm, he was able to realize that the goal of his search for the coast of Asia, or at least for an open passage to the west, might lie before him, but that, for the time being, it was beyond his reach.

Turning back, the party rejoined the ships which had drifted helplessly before the wind some twelve miles down the shore. Arrived on board, Cartier called together his sailing-master, pilots, and mates to discuss what was to be done. They agreed that the contrary winds forbade further exploration. The season was already late; the coast of France was far away; within a few weeks the great gales of the equinox would be upon them. Accordingly the company decided to turn back. Soon the ships were heading along the northern shore of the Gulf, and with the boisterous wind behind them were running rapidly towards the east. They sailed towards the Newfoundland shore, caught sight of the Double Cape and then, heading north again, came to Blanc Sablon on August 9. Here they lay for a few days to prepare for the homeward voyage, and on August 15 they were under way once more for the passage of Belle Isle and the open sea.

'And after that, upon August 15,' so ends Cartier's narrative, 'being the feast of the Assumption of our Lady, after that we had heard service, we altogether departed from the port of Blanc Sablon, and with a happy and prosperous weather we came into the middle of the sea that is between Newfoundland and Brittany, in which place we were tossed and turmoiled three days long with great storms and windy tempests coming from the east, which with the aid and assistance of God we suffered: then had we fair weather, and upon the fifth of September, in the said year, we came to the port of St Malo whence we departed.'

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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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