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The Close of Cartier's Career

Great doubt and uncertainty surround the ultimate fate of Roberval's attempted colony, of which Cartier's expedition was to form the advance guard. Roberval, as already seen, had stayed behind in France when Cartier sailed in 1541, because his equipment was not yet ready for the voyage. Nor does he seem to have finally started on his expedition for nearly a year after the departure of Cartier. It has been suggested that Roberval did set sail at some time in the summer of 1541, and that he reached Cape Breton island and built a fort there. So, at least, a tradition ran that was repeated many years later by Lescarbot in his Histoire de la Nouvelle France. If this statement is true, it must mean that Roberval sailed home again at the close of 1541, without having succeeded in finding Cartier, and that he prepared for a renewed expedition in the spring of the coming year. But the evidence for any such voyage is not conclusive.

What we know is that on April 16, 1542, Roberval sailed out of the port of Rochelle with three tall ships and a company of two hundred persons, men and women, and that with him were divers gentlemen of quality. On June 8, 1542, his ships entered the harbor of St John's in Newfoundland. They found there seventeen fishing vessels, clear proof that by this time the cod fisheries of the Newfoundland Banks were well known. They were, indeed, visited by the French, the Portuguese, and other nations. Here Roberval paused to refit his ships and to replenish his stores. While he was still in the harbor, one day, to his amazement, Cartier sailed in with the five ships that he was bringing away from his abandoned settlement at Charlesbourg Royal. Cartier showed to his superior the 'diamonds' and the gold that he was bringing home from Canada. He gave to Roberval a glowing account of the country that he had seen, but, according to the meager details that appear in the fragment in Hakluyt's Voyages, he made clear that he had been compelled to abandon his attempt at settlement. 'He could not with his small company withstand the savages, which went about daily to annoy him, which was the cause of his return into France.'

Except what is contained in the few sentences of this record we know nothing of what took place between Roberval and Cartier. But it was quite clear that the latter considered the whole enterprise as doomed to failure. It is more than likely that Cartier was dissatisfied with Roberval's delay, and did not care to continue under the orders of a leader inferior to himself in capacity. Be this as it may, their final parting stands recorded in the following terms, and no historical document has as yet come to light which can make the exact situation known to us. 'When our general [Roberval], being furnished with sufficient forces, commanded him [Cartier] to go back with him, he and his company, moved as it seems with ambition, because they would have all the glory of the discovery of those parts themselves, stole privily away the next night from us, and, without taking their leaves, departed home for Brittany.' The story, it must be remembered, comes from the pen of either Roberval or one of his associates.

The subsequent history of Roberval's colony, as far as it is known, can be briefly told. His ships reached the site of Charlesbourg Royal late in July 1542. He landed stores and munitions and erected houses, apparently on a scale of some magnitude, with towers and fortifications and with great kitchens, halls, and living rooms. Two ships were sent home in the autumn with news of the expedition, their leader being especially charged to find out whether the rock crystals carried back by Cartier had turned out to be diamonds. All the other colonists remained and spent the winter in this place. In spite of their long preparation and of their commodious buildings, they seem to have endured sufferings as great as, or even greater than, those of Cartier's men at Stadacona seven years before. Supplies of food ran short, and even in the autumn before the stern winter had begun it was necessary to put the whole company on carefully measured rations. Disease broke out among the French, as it had broken out under Cartier, and about fifty of their number perished before the coming of the spring. Their lot was rendered more dreadful still by quarrelling and crime. Roberval could keep his colonists in subjection only by the use of irons and by the application of the lash. The gibbet, reared beside the fort, claimed its toll of their number.

The winter of their misery drew slowly to its close. The ice of the river began to break in April. On June 5, 1543, their leader, Roberval, embarked on an expedition to explore the Saguenay, 'leaving thirty persons behind in the fort, with orders that if Roberval had not returned by the first of July, they were to depart for France.' Whither he went and what he found we do not know. We read that on June 14. certain of his company came back with messages to the fort: that five days later still others came back with instructions that the company at the fort were to delay their departure for France until July 19. And here the narrative of the colony breaks off.

Of Roberval's subsequent fate we can learn hardly anything. There is some evidence to show that Cartier was dispatched from France to Canada to bring him back. Certain it is that in April 1544 orders were issued for the summons of both Cartier and Roberval to appear before a commission for the settling of their accounts. The report of the royal auditors credits Cartier apparently with a service of eight months spent in returning to Canada to bring Roberval home. On the strength of this, it is thought likely that Cartier, returning safely to France in the summer of 1542, was sent back again at the king's command to aid in the return of the colonists, whose enterprise was recognized as a failure. After this, Roberval is lost to sight in the history of France. Certain chroniclers have said that he made another voyage to the New World and perished at sea. Others have it that he was assassinated in Paris near the church of the Holy Innocents. But nothing is known.

Cartier also is practically lost from sight during the last fifteen years of his life. His name appears at intervals in the local records, notably on the register of baptisms as a godfather. As far as can be judged, he spent the remainder of his days in comfortable retirement in his native town of St Malo. Besides his house in the seaport he had a country residence some miles distant at Limoilou. This old house of solid and substantial stone, with a courtyard and stone walls surrounding it, is still standing. There can be no doubt that the famous pilot enjoyed during his closing years a universal esteem. It is just possible that in recognition of his services he was elevated in rank by the king of France, for in certain records of St Malo in 1549, he is spoken of as the Sieur de Limoilou. But this may have been merely the sort of courtesy title often given in those days to the proprietors of small landed estates.

It was sometimes the custom of the officials of the port of St Malo to mark down in the records of the day the death of any townsman of especial note. Such an entry as this is the last record of the great pilot. In the margins of certain documents of September 1, 1557, there is written in the quaint, almost unreadable penmanship of the time: 'This said Wednesday about five in the morning died Jacques Cartier.'

There is no need to enlarge upon the greatness of Cartier's achievements. It was only the beginning of a far-reaching work, the completion of which fell to other hands. But it is Cartier's proud place in history to bear the title of discoverer of a country whose annals were later to be illumined by the exploits of a Champlain and a La Salle, and the martyrdom of a Brebeuf; which was to witness, for more than half a century, a conflict in arms between Great Britain and France, and from that conflict to draw the finest pages of its history and the noblest inspiration of its future; a country upon whose soil, majestic in its expanse of river, lake, and forest, was to be reared a commonwealth built upon the union and harmony of the two great races who had fought for its dominion.

Jacques Cartier, as much perhaps as any man of his time, embodied in himself what was highest in the spirit of his age. He shows us the daring of the adventurer with nothing of the dark cruelty by which such daring was often disfigured. He brought to his task the simple faith of the Christian whose devout fear of God renders him fearless of the perils of sea and storm. The darkest hour of his adversity in that grim winter at Stadacona found him still undismayed. He came to these coasts to find a pathway to the empire of the East. He found instead a country vast and beautiful beyond his dreams. The enthusiasm of it entered into his soul. Asia was forgotten before the reality of Canada. Since Cartier's day four centuries of history have hallowed the soil of Canada with memories and associations never to be forgotten. But patriotism can find no finer example than the instinctive admiration and love called forth in the heart of Jacques Cartier by the majestic beauty of the land of which he was the discoverer.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

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

 

Chronicles of Canada


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