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The Second Voyage, Winter at Stadacona

On returning to his anchorage before Quebec, Cartier found that his companions whom he had left there had not been idle. The ships, it will be remembered, lay moored close to the shore at the mouth of the little river Lairet, a branch of the St Charles. On the bank of the river, during their leader's absence, the men had erected a solid fortification or rampart. Heavy sticks of lumber had been set up on end and joined firmly together, while at intervals cannon, taken from the ships, had been placed in such a way as to command the approach in all directions. The sequel showed that it was well, indeed, for the French that they placed so little reliance on the friendship of the savages.

Donnacona was not long in putting in an appearance. Whatever may have been his real feelings, the crafty old chief feigned a great delight at the safe return of Cartier. At his solicitation Cartier paid a ceremonial visit to the settlement of Stadacona, on October 13, ten days after his return. The gentlemen of the expedition, together with fifty sailors, all well armed and appointed, accompanied the leader. The meeting between the Indians and their white visitors was similar to those already described. Indian harangues and wild dancing and shouting were the order of the day, while Cartier, as usual, distributed knives and trinkets. The French were taken into the Indian lodges and shown the stores of food laid up against the coming winter. Other objects, too, of a new and peculiar interest were displayed: there were the 'scalp locks' of five men--'the skin of five men's heads,' says Cartier,--which were spread out on a board like parchments. The Indians explained that these had been taken from the heads of five of their deadly enemies, the Toudamani, a fierce people living to the south, with whom the natives of Stadacona were perpetually at war.

A gruesome story was also told of a great massacre of a war party of Donnacona's people who had been on their way down to the Gaspe country. The party, so the story ran, had encamped upon an island near the Saguenay. They numbered in all two hundred people, women and children being also among the warriors, and were gathered within the shelter of a rude stockade. In the dead of night their enemies broke upon the sleeping Indians in wild assault; they fired the stockade, and those who did not perish in the flames fell beneath the tomahawk. Five only escaped to bring the story to Stadacona. The truth of the story was proved, long after the writing of Cartier's narrative, by the finding of a great pile of human bones in a cave on an island near Bic, not far from the mouth of the Saguenay. The place is called L'Isle au Massacre to-day.

The French now settled down into their winter quarters. They seem for some time to have mingled freely with the Indians of the Stadacona settlement, especially during the month which yet remained before the rigor of winter locked their ships in snow and ice. Cartier, being of an observing and accurate turn of mind, has left in his narrative some interesting notes upon the life and ideas of the savages. They had, he said, no belief in a true God. Their deity, Cudragny, was supposed to tell them the weather, and, if angry, to throw dust into their eyes. They thought that, when they died, they would go to the stars, and after that, little by little, sink with the stars to earth again, to where the happy hunting grounds lie on the far horizon of the world. To correct their ignorance, Cartier told them of the true God and of the verities of the Christian faith. In the end the savages begged that he would baptize them, and on at least one occasion a great flock of them came to him, hoping to be received into the faith. But Cartier, as he says, having nobody with him 'who could teach them our belief and religion,' and doubting, also, the sincerity of their sudden conversion, put them off with the promise that at his next coming he would bring priests and holy oil and cause them to be baptized.

The Stadacona Indians seem to have lived on terms of something like community of goods. Their stock of food--including great quantities of pumpkins, peas, and corn--was more or less in common. But, beyond this and their lodges, their earthly possessions were few. They dressed somewhat scantily in skins, and even in the depth of winter were so little protected from the cold as to excite the wonder of their observers. Women whose husbands died never remarried, but went about with their faces smeared thick with mingled grease and soot.

One peculiar custom of the natives especially attracted the attention of their visitors, and for the oddity of the thing may best be recorded in Cartier's manner. It is an early account of the use of tobacco. 'There groweth also,' he wrote, 'a certain kind of herb, whereof in summer they make a great provision for all the year, making great account of it, and only men use it, and first they cause it to be dried in the sun, then wear it about their necks, wrapped in a little beast's skin made like a little bag, with a hollow piece of wood or stone like a pipe. Then when they please they make powder of it, and then put it in one of the ends of the said cornet or pipe, and laying a coal of fire upon it, at the other end suck so long that they fill their bodies full of smoke till that it cometh out of their mouth and nostrils, even as out of the funnel of a chimney. They say that it doth keep them warm and in health: they never go without some of it about them. We ourselves have tried the same smoke, and, having put it in our mouths, it seemed almost as hot as pepper.'

In spite of the going and coming of the Indians, Cartier from first to last was doubtful of their intentions. Almost every day in the autumn and early winter some of them appeared with eels and fish, glad to exchange them for little trinkets. But the two interpreters endeavored to make the Indians believe that the things given them by the French were of no value, and Donnacona did his best to get the Indian children out of the hands of the French. Indeed, the eldest of the children, an Indian girl, escaped from the ships and rejoined her people, and it was only with difficulty that Cartier succeeded in getting her back again. Meanwhile a visiting chief, from the country farther inland, gave the French captain to understand that Donnacona and his braves were waiting only an opportunity to overwhelm the ships' company. Cartier kept on his guard. He strengthened the fort with a great moat that ran all round the stockade. The only entry was now by a lifting bridge; and pointed stakes were driven in beside the upright palisade. Fifty men, divided into watches, were kept on guard all night, and, at every change of the watch, the Indians, across the river in their lodges of the Stadacona settlement, could hear the loud sounds of the trumpets break the clear silence of the winter night.

We have no record of the life of Cartier and his followers during the winter of their isolation among the snows and the savages of Quebec. It must, indeed, have been a season of dread. The northern cold was soon upon them in all its rigor. The ships were frozen in at their moorings from the middle of November till April 15. The ice lay two fathoms thick in the river, and the driving snows and great drifts blotted out under the frozen mantle of winter all sight of land and water. The French could scarcely stir from their quarters. Their fear of Indian treachery and their ignorance of the trackless country about them held them imprisoned in their ships. A worse peril was soon added. The scourge of scurvy was laid upon them--an awful disease, hideous in its form and deadly in its effect. Originating in the Indian camp, it spread to the ships. In December fifty of the Stadacona Indians died, and by the middle of February, of the hundred and ten men that made up Cartier's expedition, only three or four remained in health. Eight were already dead, and their bodies, for want of burial, lay frozen stark beneath the snowdrifts of the river, hidden from the prying eyes of the savages. Fifty more lay at the point of death, and the others, crippled and staggering with the onslaught of disease, moved to and fro at their tasks, their fingers numbed with cold, their hearts frozen with despair.

The plague that had fallen upon them was such as none of them had ever before seen. The legs of the sufferers swelled to huge, unsightly, and livid masses of flesh. Their sinews shriveled to blackened strings, pimpled with purple clots of blood. The awful disease worked its way upwards. The arms hung hideous and useless at the side, the mouth rotted till the teeth fell from the putrid flesh. Chilled with the cold, huddled in the narrow holds of the little ships fast frozen in the endless desolation of the snow, the agonized sufferers breathed their last, remote from aid, far from the love of women, and deprived of the consolations of the Church. Let those who realize the full horror of the picture think well upon what stout deeds the commonwealth of Canada has been founded.

Without the courage and resource of their leader, whose iron constitution kept him in full health, all would have been lost. Cartier spared no efforts. The knowledge of his situation was concealed from the Indians. None were allowed aboard the ships, and, as far as might be, a great clatter of hammering was kept up whenever the Indians appeared in sight, so that they might suppose that Cartier's men were forced by the urgency of their tasks to remain on the ships. Nor was spiritual aid neglected. An image of the Virgin Mary was placed against a tree about a bow-shot from the fort, and to this all who could walk betook themselves in procession on the Sunday when the sickness was at its height. They moved in solemn order, singing as they went the penitential psalms and the Litany, and imploring the intercession of the Virgin. Thus passed the days until twenty-five of the French had been laid beneath the snow. For the others there seemed only the prospect of death from disease or of destruction at the hands of the savages.

It happened one day that Cartier was walking up and down by himself upon the ice when he saw a band of Indians coming over to him from Stadacona. Among them was the interpreter Domagaya, whom Cartier had known to be stricken by the illness only ten days before, but who now appeared in abundant health. On being asked the manner of his cure, the interpreter told Cartier that he had been healed by a beverage made from the leaves and bark of a tree. Cartier, as we have seen, had kept from the Indians the knowledge of his troubles, for he dared not disclose the real weakness of the French. Now, feigning that only a servant was ill, he asked for details of the remedy, and, when he did so, the Indians sent their women to fetch branches of the tree in question. The bark and leaves were to be boiled, and the drink thus made was to be taken twice a day. The potion was duly administered, and the cure that it effected was so rapid and so complete that the pious Cartier declared it a real and evident miracle. 'If all the doctors of Lorraine and Montpellier had been there with all the drugs of Alexandria,' he wrote, 'they could not have done as much in a year as the said tree did in six days.' An entire tree--probably a white spruce--was used up in less than eight days. The scourge passed and the sailors, now restored to health, eagerly awaited the coming of the spring.

Meanwhile the cold lessened; the ice about the ships relaxed its hold, and by the middle of April they once more floated free. But a new anxiety had been added. About the time when the fortunes of Cartier's company were at their lowest, Donnacona had left his camp with certain of his followers, ostensibly to spend a fortnight in hunting deer in the forest. For two months he did not return. When he came back, he was accompanied not only by Taignoagny and his own braves, but by a great number of savages, fierce and strong, whom the French had never before seen. Cartier was assured that treachery was brewing, and he determined to forestall it. He took care that his men should keep away from the settlement of Stadacona, but he sent over his servant, Charles Guyot, who had endeared himself to the Indians during the winter. Guyot reported that the lodges were filled with strange faces, that Donnacona had pretended to be sick and would not show himself, and that he himself had been received with suspicion, Taignoagny having forbidden him to enter into some of the houses.

Cartier's plan was soon made. The river was now open and all was ready for departure. Rather than allow himself and his men to be overwhelmed by an attack of the great concourse of warriors who surrounded the settlement of Stadacona, he determined to take his leave in his own way and at his own time, and to carry off with him the leaders of the savages themselves. Following the custom of his age, he did not wish to return without the visible signs of his achievements. Donnacona had freely boasted to him of the wonders of the great country far up beyond Hochelaga, of lands where gold and silver existed in abundance, where the people dressed like the French in woolen clothes, and of even greater wonders still,--of men with no stomachs, and of a race of beings with only one leg. These things were of such import, Cartier thought, that they merited narration to the king of France himself. If Donnacona had actually seen them, it was fitting that he should describe them in the august presence of Francis I.

The result was a plot which succeeded. The two ships, the Grande Hermine and the Emerillon, lay at anchor ready to sail. Owing to the diminished numbers of his company, Cartier had decided to abandon the third ship. He announced a final ceremony to signalize the approaching departure. On May 3, 1536, a tall cross, thirty-five feet high was planted on the river bank. Beneath the cross-bar it carried the arms of France, and on the upper part a scroll in ancient lettering that read, 'FRANCISCUS PRIMUS DEI GRATIA FRANCORUM REX REGNAT' Which means, freely translated, 'Francis I, by the grace of God King of the French, is sovereign.' Donnacona, Taignoagny, Domagaya and a few others, who had been invited to come on board the ships, found themselves the prisoners of the French. At first rage and consternation seized upon the savages, deprived by this stratagem of their chief. They gathered in great numbers on the bank, and their terrifying howls and war-cries resounded throughout the night. But Donnacona, whether from simplicity or craft, let himself be pacified with new presents and with the promise of a speedy return in the year following. He showed himself on the deck of the captain's ship, and his delighted followers gathered about in their canoes and swore renewed friendship with the white men, whom they had, in all likelihood, plotted to betray. Gifts were exchanged, and the French bestowed a last shower of presents on the assembled Indians. Finally, on May 6, the caravels dropped down the river, and the homeward voyage began.

The voyage passed without incident. The ships were some time in descending the St Lawrence. At Isle-aux-Coudres they waited for the swollen tide of the river to abate. The Indians still flocked about them in canoes, talking with Donnacona and his men, but powerless to effect a rescue of the chief. Contrary winds held the vessels until, at last, on May 21, fair winds set in from the west that carried them in an easy run to the familiar coast of Gaspe, past Brion Island, through the passage between Newfoundland and the Cape Breton shore, and so outward into the open Atlantic.

'On July 6, 1536,' so ends Cartier's chronicle of this voyage, 'we reached the harbor of St Malo, by the Grace of our Creator, whom we pray, making an end of our navigation, to grant us His Grace, and Paradise at the end. Amen.'


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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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