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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.

Corte-Real directed his course northward, until he found himself off the coast of Greenland. He sailed for some distance along those rugged and forbidding shores, a land of desolation, with jagged mountains and furrowed cliffs, wrapped in snow and ice. No trace of the lost civilization of the Norsemen met his eyes. The Portuguese pilot considered Greenland at its southern point to be an outstanding promontory of Asia, and he struggled hard to pass beyond it westward to a more favored region. But his path was blocked by 'enormous masses of frozen snow floating on the sea, and moving under the influence of the waves.' It is clear that he was met not merely by the field ice of the Arctic ocean, but also by great icebergs moving slowly with the polar current. The narrative tells how Corte-Real's crew obtained fresh water from the icebergs. 'Owing to the heat of the sun, fresh and clear water is melted on the summits, and, descending by small channels formed by the water itself, it eats away the base where it falls. The boats were sent in, and in that way as much was taken as was needed.'

Corte-Real made his way as far as a place (which was in latitude 60 degrees) where the sea about him seemed a flowing stream of snow, and so he called it Rio Nevado, 'the river of snow.' Probably it was Hudson Strait.

Late in the same season, Corte-Real was back in Lisbon. He had discovered nothing of immediate profit to the crown of Portugal, but his survey of the coast of North America from Newfoundland to Hudson Strait seems to have strengthened the belief that the best route to India lay in this direction. In any case, on May 15, 1501, he was sent out again with three ships. This time the Portuguese discovered a region, so they said, which no one had before visited. The description indicates that they were on the coast of Nova Scotia and the adjacent part of New England. The land was wooded with fine straight timber, fit for the masts of ships, and 'when they landed they found delicious fruits of various kinds, and trees and pines of marvelous height and thickness.' They saw many natives, occupied in hunting and fishing. Following the custom of the time, they seized fifty or sixty natives, and crowded these unhappy captives into the holds of their ships, to carry home as evidence of the reality of their discoveries, and to be sold as slaves. These savages are described by those who saw them in Portugal as of shapely form and gentle manner, though uncouth and even dirty in person. They wore otter skins, and their faces were marked with lines. The description would answer to any of the Algonquin tribes of the eastern coast. Among the natives seen on the coast there was a boy who had in his ears two silver rings of Venetian make. The circumstance led the Portuguese to suppose that they were on the coast of Asia, and that a European ship had recently visited the same spot. The true explanation, if the circumstance is correctly reported, would seem to be that the rings were relics of Cabot's voyages and of his trade in the trinkets supplied by the merchants.

Gaspar Corte-Real sent his consort ships home, promising to explore the coast further, and to return later in the season. The vessels duly reached Lisbon, bringing their captives and the news of the voyage. Corte-Real, however, never returned, nor is anything known of his fate.

When a year had passed with no news of Gaspar Corte-Real, his brother Miguel fitted out a new expedition of three ships and sailed westward in search of him. On reaching the coast of Newfoundland, the ships of Miguel Corte-Real separated in order to make a diligent search in all directions for the missing Gaspar. They followed the deep indentations of the island, noting its outstanding features. Here and there they fell in with the natives and traded with them, but they found nothing of value. To make matters worse, when the time came to assemble, as agreed, in the harbor of St John's, only two ships arrived at the rendezvous. That of Miguel was missing. After waiting some time the other vessels returned without him to Portugal.

Two Corte-Reals were now lost. King Manoel transferred the rights of Gaspar and Miguel to another brother, and in the ensuing years sent out several Portuguese expeditions to search for the lost leaders, but without success. The Portuguese gained only a knowledge of the abundance of fish in the region of the Newfoundland coast. This was important, and henceforth Portuguese ships joined with the Normans, the Bretons, and the English in fishing on the Grand Banks. Of the Corte-Reals nothing more was ever heard.

The next great voyage of discovery was that of Juan Verrazano, some twenty years after the loss of the Corte-Reals. Like so many other pilots of his time, Verrazano was an Italian. He had wandered much about the world, had made his way to the East Indies by the new route that the Portuguese had opened, and had also, so it is said, been a member of a ship's company in one of the fishing voyages to Newfoundland now made in every season.

The name of Juan Verrazano has a peculiar significance in Canadian history. In more ways than one he was the forerunner of Jacques Cartier, 'the discoverer of Canada.' Not only did he sail along the coast of Canada, but did so in the service of the king of France, the first representative of those rising ambitions which were presently to result in the foundation of New France and the colonial empire of the Bourbon monarchy. Francis I, the French king, was a vigorous and ambitious prince. His exploits and rivalries occupy the foreground of European history in the earlier part of the sixteenth century. It was the object of Francis to continue the work of Louis XI by consolidating his people into a single powerful state. His marriage with the heiress of Brittany joined that independent duchy, rich at least in the seafaring bravery of its people, to the crown of France. But Francis aimed higher still. He wished to make himself the arbiter of Europe and the over-lord of the European kings. Having been defeated by the equally famous king of Spain, Charles V, in his effort to gain the position and title of Holy Roman Emperor and the leadership of Europe, he set himself to overthrow the rising greatness of Spain. The history of Europe for a quarter of a century turns upon the opposing ambitions of the two monarchs.

As a part of his great design, Francis I turned towards western discovery and exploration, in order to rival if possible the achievements of Columbus and Cortes and to possess himself of territories abounding in gold and silver, in slaves and merchandise, like the islands of Cuba and San Domingo and the newly conquered empire of Montezuma, which Spain held. It was in this design that he sent out Juan Verrazano; in further pursuit of it he sent Jacques Cartier ten years later; and the result was that French dominion afterwards, prevailed in the valley of the St Lawrence and seeds were planted from which grew the present Dominion of Canada.

At the end of the year 1523 Juan Verrazano set out from the port of Dieppe with four ships. Beaten about by adverse storms, they put into harbor at Madeira, so badly strained by the rough weather that only a single seaworthy ship remained. In this, the Dauphine, Verrazano set forth on January 17, 1524, for his western discovery. The voyage was prosperous, except for one awful tempest in mid-Atlantic, 'as terrible,' wrote Verrazano, 'as ever any sailors suffered.' After seven weeks of westward sailing Verrazano sighted a coast 'never before seen of any man either ancient or modern.' This was the shore of North Carolina. From this point the French captain made his way northward, closely inspecting the coast, landing here and there, and taking note of the appearance, the resources, and the natives of the country. The voyage was chiefly along the coast of what is now the United States, and does not therefore immediately concern the present narrative. Verrazano's account of his discoveries, as he afterwards wrote it down, is full of picturesque interest, and may now be found translated into English in Hakluyt's Voyages. He tells of the savages who flocked to the low sandy shore to see the French ship riding at anchor. They wore skins about their loins and light feathers in their hair, and they were 'of color russet, and not much unlike the Saracens.' Verrazano said that these Indians were of 'cheerful and steady look, not strong of body, yet sharp-witted, nimble, and exceeding great runners.' As he sailed northward he was struck with the wonderful vegetation of the American coast, the beautiful forest of pine and cypress and other trees, unknown to him, covered with tangled vines as prolific as the vines of Lombardy. Verrazano's voyage and his landings can be traced all the way from Carolina to the northern part of New England. He noted the wonderful harbor at the mouth of the Hudson, skirted the coast eastward from that point, and then followed northward along the shores of Massachusetts and Maine. Beyond this Verrazano seems to have made no landings, but he followed the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He sailed, so he says, as far as fifty degrees north, or almost to the Strait of Belle Isle. Then he turned eastward, headed out into the great ocean, and reached France in safety. Unfortunately, Verrazano did not write a detailed account of that part of his voyage which related to Canadian waters. But there is no doubt that his glowing descriptions must have done much to stimulate the French to further effort. Unhappily, at the moment of his return, his royal master was deeply engaged in a disastrous invasion of Italy, where he shortly met the crushing defeat at Pavia (1525) which left him a captive in the hands of his Spanish rival. His absence crippled French enterprise, and Verrazano's explorations were not followed up till a change of fortune enabled Francis to send out the famous expedition of Jacques Cartier.

One other expedition to Canada deserves brief mention before we come to Cartier's crowning discovery of the St Lawrence river. This is the voyage of Stephen Gomez, who was sent out in the year 1524. by Charles V, the rival of Francis I. He spent about ten months on the voyage, following much the same course as Verrazano, but examining with far greater care the coast of Nova Scotia and the territory about the opening of the Gulf of St Lawrence. His course can be traced from the Penobscot river in Maine to the island of Cape Breton. He entered the Bay of Fundy, and probably went far enough to realize from its tides, rising sometimes to a height of sixty or seventy feet, that its farther end could not be free, and that it could not furnish an open passage to the Western Sea. Running north-east along the shore of Nova Scotia, Gomez sailed through the Gut of Canso, thus learning that Cape Breton was an island. He named it the Island of St John-or, rather, he transferred to it this name, which the map-makers had already used. Hence it came about that the 'Island of St John' occasions great confusion in the early geography of Canada. The first map-makers who used it secured their information indirectly, we may suppose, from the Cabot voyages and the fishermen who frequented the coast. They marked it as an island lying in the 'Bay of the Bretons,' which had come to be the name for the open mouth of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Gomez, however, used the name for Cape Breton island. Later on, the name was applied to what is now Prince Edward Island. All this is only typical of the difficulties in understanding the accounts of the early voyages to America. Gomez duly returned to the port of Corunna in June 1525.

We may thus form some idea of the general position of American exploration and discovery at the time when Cartier made his momentous voyages. The maritime nations of Europe, in searching for a passage to the half-mythical empires of Asia, had stumbled on a great continent. At first they thought it Asia itself. Gradually they were realizing that this was not Asia, but an outlying land that lay between Europe and Asia and that must be passed by the navigator before Cathay and Cipango could rise upon the horizon. But the new continent was vast in extent. It blocked the westward path from pole to pole. With each voyage, too, the resources and the native beauty of the new land became more apparent. The luxuriant islands of the West Indies, and the Aztec empire of Mexico, were already bringing wealth and grandeur to the monarchy of Spain. South of Mexico it had been already found that the great barrier of the continent extended to the cold tempestuous seas of the Antarctic region. Magellan's voyage (1519-22) had proved indeed that by rounding South America the way was open to the spice islands of the east. But the route was infinitely long and arduous. The hope of a shorter passage by the north beckoned the explorer. Of this north country nothing but its coast was known as yet. Cabot and the fishermen had found a land of great forests, swept by the cold and leaden seas of the Arctic, and holding its secret clasped in the iron grip of the northern ice. The Corte-Reals, Verrazano, and Gomez had looked upon the endless panorama of the Atlantic coast of North America--the glorious forests draped with tangled vines extending to the sanded beaches of the sea--the wide inlets round the mouths of mighty rivers moving silent and mysterious from the heart of the unknown continent. Here and there a painted savage showed the bright feathers of his headgear as he lurked in the trees of the forest or stood, in fearless curiosity, gazing from the shore at the white-winged ships of the strange visitants from the sky. But for the most part all, save the sounds of nature, was silence and mystery. The waves thundered upon the sanded beach of Carolina and lashed in foam about the rocks of the iron coasts of New England and the New Found Land. The forest mingled its murmurs with the waves, and, as the sun sank behind the unknown hills, wafted its perfume to the anchored ships that rode upon the placid bosom of the evening sea. And beyond all this was mystery--the mystery of the unknown East, the secret of the pathway that must lie somewhere hidden in the bays and inlets of the continent of silent beauty, and above all the mysterious sense of a great history still to come for this new land itself--a sense of the murmuring of many voices caught as the undertone of the rustling of the forest leaves, but rising at last to the mighty sound of the vast civilization that in the centuries to come should pour into the silent wildernesses of America.

To such a land--to such a mystery--sailed forth Jacques Cartier, discoverer of Canada.


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

 

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