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Forerunners of Jacques Cartier

We have seen that after the return of the second expedition of the Cabots no voyages to the coasts of Canada of first-rate importance were made by the English. This does not mean, however, that nothing was done by other peoples to discover and explore the northern coasts of America. The Portuguese were the first after the Cabots to continue the search along the Canadian coast for the secret of the hidden East. At this time, we must remember, the Portuguese were one of the leading nations of Europe, and they were specially interested in maritime enterprise. Thanks to Columbus, the Spaniards had, it is true, carried off the grand prize of discovery. But the Portuguese had rendered service not less useful. From their coasts, jutting far out into the Atlantic, they had sailed southward and eastward, and had added much to the knowledge of the globe. For generations, both before and after Columbus, the pilots and sailors of Portugal were among the most successful and daring in the world.

For nearly a hundred years before the discovery of America the Portuguese had been endeavoring to find an ocean route to the spice islands of the East and to the great Oriental empires which, tradition said, lay far off on a distant ocean, and which Marco Polo and other travelers had reached by years of painful land travel across the interior of Asia. Prince Henry of Portugal was busy with these tasks at the middle of the fifteenth century. Even before this, Portuguese sailors had found their way to the Madeiras and the Canary Islands, and to the Azores, which lie a thousand miles out in the Atlantic. But under the lead of Prince Henry they began to grope their way down the coast of Africa, braving the torrid heats and awful calms of that equatorial region, where the blazing sun, poised overhead in a cloudless sky, was reflected on the bosom of a stagnant and glistening ocean. It was their constant hope that at some point the land would be found to roll back and disclose an ocean pathway round Africa to the East, the goal of their desire. Year after year they advanced farther, until at last they achieved a momentous result. In 1487, Bartholomew Diaz sailed round the southern point of Africa, which received the significant name of the 'Cape of Good Hope,' and entered the Indian Ocean. Henceforth a water pathway to the Far East was possible. Following Diaz, Vasco da Gama, leaving Lisbon in 1497, sailed round the south of Africa, and, reaching the ports of Hindustan, made the maritime route to India a definite reality.

Thus at the moment when the Spaniards were taking possession of the western world the Portuguese were establishing their trade in the rediscovered East. The two nations agreed to divide between them these worlds of the East and the West. They invoked the friendly offices of the Pope as mediator, and, henceforth, an imaginary line drawn down the Atlantic divided the realms. At first this arrangement seemed to give Spain all the new regions in America, but the line of division was set so far to the West that the discovery of Brazil, which juts out eastward into the Atlantic, gave the Portuguese a vast territory in South America. At the time of which we are now speaking, however, the Portuguese were intent upon their interests in the Orient. Their great aim was to pass beyond India, already reached by da Gama, to the further empires of China and Japan. Like other navigators of the time, they thought that these places might be reached not merely by southern but also by the northern seas. Hence it came about that the Portuguese, going far southward in Africa, went also far northward in America and sailed along the coast of Canada.

We find, in consequence, that when King Manoel of Portugal was fitting out a fleet of twenty ships for a new expedition under da Gama, which was to sail to the Indies by way of Africa, another Portuguese expedition, setting out with the same object, was sailing in the opposite direction. At its head was Gaspar Corte-Real, a nobleman of the Azores, who had followed with eager interest the discoveries of Columbus, Diaz, and da Gama. Corte-Real sailed from Lisbon in the summer of 1500 with a single ship. He touched at the Azores. It is possible that a second vessel joined him there, but this is not clear. From the Azores his path lay north and west, till presently he reached a land described as a 'cool region with great woods.' Corte-Real called it from its verdure 'the Green Land,' but the similarity of name with the place that we call Greenland is only an accident. In reality the Portuguese captain was on the coast of Newfoundland. He saw a number of natives. They appeared to the Portuguese a barbarous people, who dressed in skins, and lived in caves. They used bows and arrows, and had wooden spears, the points of which they hardened with fire.

The Dawn of Canadian History, A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada, 1915


Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada

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