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Ch. 1: 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 rumour, 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

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 harbour
thus formed, and rises within the harbour 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 harbour, 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 protege 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 groweth 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.

Stephen Leacock

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