Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 6 - 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 endeavouring 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 travellers
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 favoured 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 marvellous 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 harbour 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

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

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 harbour 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 colour 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
harbour 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.


The Icelandic sagas contain legends of a discovery of
America before Columbus. Benjamin de Costa, in his
'Pre-Columbian Discovery of America', has given translations
of a number of these legends. Other works bearing on this
mythical period are: A. M. Reeves's 'The Finding of
Wineland the Good'; J. E. Olson's 'The Voyages of the
Northmen' in Vol. I of the 'Original Narrative of Early
American History', edited by J. F. Jameson; Fridtjof
Nansen's 'In Northern Mists'; and John Fiske's 'The
Discovery of America'. A number of general histories have
chapters bearing on pre-Columbian discovery; the most
accessible of these are: Justin Winsor's 'Narrative and
Critical History of America'; Charlevoix's 'Histoire et
description generale de la Nouvelle France' (1744),
translated with notes by J. G. Shea (1886); Henry Harrisse's
'Discovery of North America'; and the 'Conquest of Canada',
by the author of 'Hochelaga'.

There are numerous works in the Spanish, French, Italian,
and English languages dealing with Columbus and his time.
Pre-eminent among the latter are: Irving's 'Life of
Columbus'; Winsor's 'Christopher Columbus and how he
Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery'; Helps's
'Life of Columbus'; Prescott's 'History of Ferdinand and
Isabella'; Crompton's 'Life of Columbus'; St John's 'Life
of Columbus'; and Major's 'Select Letters of Columbus'
(a Hakluyt Society publication). Likewise in every
important work which deals with the early history of
North or South America, Columbus and his voyages are

The literature dealing with the Cabots is quite as
voluminous as that bearing on Columbus. Henry Harrisse's
'John Cabot, the Discoverer of North America and Sebastian,
his Son; a Chapter of the Maritime History of England
under the Tudors, 1496-1557', is a most exhaustive work.
Other authoritative works on the Cabots are Nichols's
'Remarkable Life, Adventures, and Discoveries of Sebastian
Cabot', in which an effort is made to give the chief
glory of the discovery of America not to John Cabot, but
to his son Sebastian; Dawson's 'The Voyages of the Cabots,
1497 and 1498', 'The Voyages of the Cabots, a Sequel',
and 'The Voyages of the Cabots, Latest Phases of the
Controversy', in 'Transactions Royal Society of Canada';
Biddle's 'Memoir of Sebastian Cabot'; Beazley's 'John
and Sebastian Cabot, The Discovery of North America';
and Weare'S 'Cabot's Discovery of America'.

A number of European writers have made able studies of
the work of Verrazano, and two American scholars have
contributed valuable works on that explorer's life and
achievements; these are, De Costa's 'Verrazano the
Explorer: a Vindication of his Letter and Voyage', and
Murphy's 'The Voyage of Verrazano'.

In addition to the general histories already mentioned,
the following works contain much information on the
voyages of the forerunners of Jacques Cartier: Parkman's
'Pioneers of France'; Kohl's 'Discovery of Maine';
Woodbury's 'Relation of the Fisheries to the Discovery
of North America' (in this work it is claimed that the
Basques antedated the Cabots); Dawson's 'The St Lawrence
Basin and Its Borderlands'; Weise's 'The Discoveries of
America'; 'The Journal of Christopher Columbus', and
'Documents relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and
Gaspar Corte-Real', translated with Notes and an
Introduction by Sir Clements R. Markham; and Biggar's
'The Precursors of Jacques Cartier, 1497-1534'. This last
work is essential to the student of the early voyages to
America. It contains documents, many published for the
first time, in Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and
French dealing with exploration. The notes are invaluable,
and the documents, with the exception of those in French,
are carefully though freely translated.

For the native tribes of America the reader would do well
to consult the 'Handbook of American Indians North of
Mexico', published by the Bureau of American Ethnology,
and the 'Handbook of Indians of Canada', reprinted by
the Canadian Government, with additions and minor
alterations, from the preceding work, under the direction
of James White, F.R.G.S.

Stephen Leacock

Sorry, no summary available yet.