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Early Life

In the town hall of the seaport of St Malo there hangs a portrait of Jacques Cartier, the great sea-captain of that place, whose name is associated for all time with the proud title of 'Discoverer of Canada.' The picture is that of a bearded man in the prime of life, standing on the deck of a ship, his bent elbow resting upon the gunwale, his chin supported by his hand, while his eyes gaze outward upon the western ocean as if seeking to penetrate its mysteries. The face is firm and strong, with tight-set jaw, prominent brow, and the full, inquiring eye of the man accustomed both to think and to act. The costume marks the sea-captain of four centuries ago. A thick cloak, gathered by a belt at the waist, enwraps the stalwart figure. On his head is the tufted Breton cap familiar in the pictures of the days of the great navigators. At the waist, on the left side, hangs a sword, and, on the right, close to the belt, the dirk or poniard of the period.

How like or unlike the features of Cartier this picture in the town hall may be, we have no means of telling. Painted probably in 1839, it has hung there for more than seventy years, and the record of the earlier prints or drawings from which its artist drew his inspiration no longer survives. We know, indeed, that an ancient map of the eastern coast of America, made some ten years after the first of Cartier's voyages, has pictured upon it a group of figures that represent the landing of the navigator and his followers among the Indians of Gaspe. It was the fashion of the time to attempt by such decorations to make maps vivid. Demons, deities, mythological figures and naked savages disported themselves along the borders of the maps and helped to decorate unexplored spaces of earth and ocean. Of this sort is the illustration on the map in question. But it is generally agreed that we have no right to identify Cartier with any of the figures in the scene, although the group as a whole undoubtedly typifies his landing upon the seacoast of Canada.

There is rumor, also, that the National Library at Paris contains an old print of Cartier, who appears therein as a bearded man passing from the prime of life to its decline. The head is slightly bowed with the weight of years, and the face is wanting in that suggestion of unconquerable will which is the dominating feature of the portrait of St Malo. This is the picture that appears in the form of a medallion, or ring-shaped illustration, in more than one of the modern works upon the great adventurer. But here again we have no proofs of identity, for we know nothing of the origin of the portrait.

Curiously enough an accidental discovery of recent years seems to confirm in some degree the genuineness of the St Malo portrait. There stood until the autumn of 1908, in the French-Canadian fishing village of Cap-des-Rosiers, near the mouth of the St Lawrence, a house of very ancient date. Precisely how old it was no one could say, but it was said to be the oldest existing habitation of the settlement. Ravaged by perhaps two centuries of wind and weather, the old house afforded but little shelter against the boisterous gales and the bitter cold of the rude climate of the Gulf. Its owner decided to tear it down, and in doing so he stumbled upon a startling discovery. He found a dummy window that, generations before, had evidently been built over and concealed. From the cavity thus disclosed he drew forth a large wooden medallion, about twenty inches across, with the portrait of a man carved in relief. Here again are the tufted hat, the bearded face, and the features of the picture of St Malo. On the back of the wood, the deeply graven initials J. C. seemed to prove that the image which had lain hidden for generations behind the woodwork of the old Canadian house is indeed that of the great discoverer. Beside the initials is carved the date 1704.. This wooden medallion would appear to have once figured as the stern shield of some French vessel, wrecked probably upon the Gaspe coast. As it must have been made long before the St Malo portrait was painted, the resemblance of the two faces perhaps indicates the existence of some definite and genuine portrait of Jacques Cartier, of which the record has been lost.

It appears, therefore, that we have the right to be content with the picture which hangs in the town hall of the seaport of St Malo. If it does not show us Cartier as he was,--and we have no absolute proof in the one or the other direction,--at least it shows us Cartier as he might well have been, with precisely the face and bearing which the hero-worshipper would read into the character of such a discoverer.

The port of St Malo, the birthplace and the home of Cartier, is situated in the old province of Brittany, in the present department of Ille-et-Vilaine. It is thus near the lower end of the English Channel. To the north, about forty miles away, lies Jersey, the nearest of the Channel Islands, while on the west surges the restless tide of the broad Atlantic. The situation of the port has made it a nursery of hardy seamen. The town stands upon a little promontory that juts out as a peninsula into the ocean. The tide pours in and out of the harbor thus formed, and rises within the harbor to a height of thirty or forty feet. The rude gales of the western ocean spend themselves upon the rocky shores of this Breton coast. Here for centuries has dwelt a race of adventurous fishermen and navigators, whose daring is unsurpassed by any other seafaring people in the world.

The history, or at least the legend, of the town goes back ten centuries before the time of Cartier. It was founded, tradition tells us, by a certain Aaron, a pilgrim who landed there with his disciples in the year 507 A.D., and sought shelter upon the sea-girt promontory which has since borne the name of Aaron's Rock. Aaron founded a settlement. To the same place came, about twenty years later, a bishop of Castle Gwent, with a small band of followers. The leader of this flock was known as St Malo, and he gave his name to the seaport.

But the religious character of the first settlement soon passed away. St Malo became famous as the headquarters of the corsairs of the northern coast. These had succeeded the Vikings of an earlier day, and they showed a hardihood and a reckless daring equal to that of their predecessors. Later on, in more settled times, the place fell into the hands of the fishermen and traders of northern France. When hardy sailors pushed out into the Atlantic ocean to reach the distant shores of America, St Malo became a natural port and place of outfit for the passage of the western sea.

Jacques Cartier first saw the light in the year 1491. The family has been traced back to a grandfather who lived in the middle of the fifteenth century. This Jean Cartier, or Quartier, who was born in St Malo in 1428, took to wife in 1457 Guillemette Baudoin. Of the four sons that she bore him, Jamet, the eldest, married Geseline Jansart, and of their five children the second one, Jacques, rose to greatness as the discoverer of Canada. There is little to chronicle that is worth while of the later descendants of the original stock. Jacques Cartier himself was married in 1519 to Marie Katherine des Granches. Her father was the Chevalier Honore des Granches, high constable of St Malo. In all probability he stood a few degrees higher in the social scale of the period than such plain seafaring folk as the Cartier family. From this, biographers have sought to prove that, early in life, young Jacques Cartier must have made himself a notable person among his townsmen. But the plain truth is that we know nothing of the circumstances that preceded the marriage, and have only the record of 15199 on the civil register of St Malo: 'The nuptial benediction was received by Jacques Cartier, master-pilot of the port of Saincte-Malo, son of Jamet Cartier and of Geseline Jansart, and Marie Katherine des Granches, daughter of Messire Honore des Granches, chevalier of our lord the king, and constable of the town and city of Saint-Malo.'

Cartier's marriage was childless, so that he left no direct descendants. But the branches of the family descended from the original Jean Cartier appear on the registers of St Malo, Saint Briac, and other places in some profusion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The family seems to have died out, although not many years ago direct descendants of Pierre Cartier, the uncle of Jacques, were still surviving in France.

It is perhaps no great loss to the world that we have so little knowledge of the ancestors and relatives of the famous mariner. It is, however, deeply to be deplored that, beyond the record of his voyages, we know so little of Jacques Cartier himself. We may take it for granted that he early became a sailor. Brought up at such a time and place, he could hardly have failed to do so. Within a few years after the great discovery of Columbus, the Channel ports of St Malo and Dieppe were sending forth adventurous fishermen to ply their trade among the fogs of the Great Banks of the New Land. The Breton boy, whom we may imagine wandering about the crowded wharves of the little harbor, must have heard strange tales from the sailors of the new discoveries. Doubtless he grew up, as did all the seafarers of his generation, with the expectation that at any time some fortunate adventurer might find behind the coasts and islands now revealed to Europe in the western sea the half-fabled empires of Cipango and Cathay. That, when a boy, he came into actual contact with sailors who had made the Atlantic voyage is not to be questioned. We know that in 1507 the Pensee of Dieppe had crossed to the coast of Newfoundland and that this adventure was soon followed by the sailing of other Norman ships for the same goal.

We have, however, no record of Cartier and his actual doings until we find his name in an entry on the baptismal register of St Malo. He stood as godfather to his nephew, Etienne Nouel, the son of his sister Jehanne. Strangely enough, this proved to be only the first of a great many sacred ceremonies of this sort in which he took part. There is a record of more than fifty baptisms at St Malo in the next forty-five years in which the illustrious mariner had some share; in twenty-seven of them he appeared as a godfather.

What voyages Cartier actually made before he suddenly appears in history as a pilot of the king of France and the protégé of the high admiral of France we do not know. This position in itself, and the fact that at the time of his marriage in 1519 he had already the rank of master-pilot, would show that he had made the Atlantic voyage. There is some faint evidence that he had even been to Brazil, for in the account of his first recorded voyage he makes a comparison between the maize of Canada and that of South America; and in those days this would scarcely have occurred to a writer who had not seen both plants of which he spoke. 'There growth likewise,' so runs the quaint translation that appears in Hakluyt's 'Voyages,' 'a kind of Millet as big as peason [i.e. peas] like unto that which groweth in Bresil.' And later on, in the account of his second voyage, he repeats the reference to Brazil; then 'goodly and large fields' which he saw on the present site of Montreal recall to him the millet fields of Brazil. It is possible, indeed, that not only had he been in Brazil, but that he had carried a native of that country to France. In a baptismal register of St Malo is recorded the christening, in 1528, of a certain 'Catherine of Brezil,' to whom Cartier's wife stood godmother. We may, in fancy at least, suppose that this forlorn little savage with the regal title was a little girl whom the navigator, after the fashion of his day, had brought home as living evidence of the existence of the strange lands that he had seen.

Out of this background, then, of uncertainty and conjecture emerges, in 1534, Jacques Cartier, a master-pilot in the prime of life, now sworn to the service of His Most Christian Majesty Francis I of France, and about to undertake on behalf of his illustrious master a voyage to the New Land.


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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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