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Ch. 2: Newfoundland and Labrador

The First Voyage: NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR

It was on April 20, 1534, that Jacques Cartier sailed
out of the port of St Malo on his first voyage in the
service of Francis I. Before leaving their anchorage the
commander, the sailing-masters, and the men took an oath,
administered by Charles de Mouy, vice-admiral of France,
that they would behave themselves truly and faithfully
in the service of the Most Christian King. The company
were borne in two ships, each of about sixty tons burden,
and numbered in all sixty-one souls.

The passage across the ocean was pleasant. Fair winds,
blowing fresh and strong from the east, carried the clumsy
caravels westward on the foaming crests of the Atlantic
surges. Within twenty days of their departure the icebound
shores of Newfoundland rose before their eyes. Straight
in front of them was Cape Bonavista, the 'Cape of Happy
Vision,' already known and named by the fishermen-explorers,
who had welcomed the sight of its projecting headlands
after the weary leagues of unbroken sea. But approach to
the shore was impossible. The whole coastline was blocked
with the 'great store of ice' that lay against it. The
ships ran southward and took shelter in a little haven
about five leagues south of the cape, to which Cartier
gave the name St Catherine's Haven, either in fond
remembrance of his wife, or, as is more probable, in
recognition of the help and guidance of St Catherine,
whose natal day, April 30, had fallen midway in his
voyage. The harbourage is known to-day as Catalina, and
lies distant, as the crow flies, about eighty miles
north-westward of the present city of St John's in
Newfoundland. Here the mariners remained ten days, 'looking
for fair weather,' and engaged in mending and 'dressing'
their boats.

At this time, it must be remembered, the coast of
Newfoundland was, in some degree, already known. Ships
had frequently passed through the narrow passage of Belle
Isle that separates Newfoundland from the coast of
Labrador. Of the waters, however, that seemed to open up
beyond, or of the exact relation of the Newfoundland
coastline to the rest of the great continent nothing
accurate was known. It might well be that the inner waters
behind the inhospitable headlands of Belle Isle would
prove the gateway to the great empires of the East.
Cartier's business at any rate was to explore, to see
all that could be seen, and to bring news of it to his
royal master. This he set himself to do, with the
persevering thoroughness that was the secret of his final
success. He coasted along the shore from cape to cape
and from island to island, sounding and charting as he
went, noting the shelter for ships that might be found,
and laying down the bearing of the compass from point to
point. It was his intent, good pilot as he was, that
those who sailed after him should find it easy to sail
on these coasts.

From St Catherine's Harbour the ships sailed on May 21
with a fine off-shore wind that made it easy to run on
a course almost due north. As they advanced on this course
the mainland sank again from sight, but presently they
came to an island. It lay far out in the sea, and was
surrounded by a great upheaval of jagged and broken ice.
On it and around it they saw so dense a mass of birds
that no one, declares Cartier, could have believed it
who had not seen it for himself. The birds were as large
as jays, they were coloured black and white, and they
could scarcely fly because of their small wings and their
exceeding fatness. The modern enquirer will recognize,
perhaps, the great auk which once abounded on the coast,
but which is now extinct. The sailors killed large numbers
of the birds, and filled two boats with them. Then the
ships sailed on rejoicing from the Island of Birds with
six barrels full of salted provisions added to their
stores. Cartier's Island of Birds is the Funk Island of
our present maps.

The ships now headed west and north to come into touch
with land again. To the great surprise of the company
they presently met a huge polar bear swimming in the open
sea, and evidently heading for the tempting shores of
the Island of Birds. The bear was 'as great as any cow
and as white as a swan.' The sailors lowered boats in
pursuit, and captured 'by main force' the bear, which
supplied a noble supper for the captors. 'Its flesh,'
wrote Cartier, 'was as good to eat as any heifer of two
years.'

The explorers sailed on westward, changing their course
gradually to the north to follow the broad curve of the
Atlantic coast of Newfoundland. Jutting headlands and
outlying capes must have alternately appeared and
disappeared on the western horizon. May 24, found the
navigators off the entrance of Belle Isle. After four
hundred years of maritime progress, the passage of the
narrow strait that separates Newfoundland from Labrador
remains still rough and dangerous, even for the great
steel ships of to-day. We can imagine how forbidding it
must have looked to Cartier and his companions from the
decks of their small storm-tossed caravels. Heavy gales
from the west came roaring through the strait. Great
quantities of floating ice ground to and fro under the
wind and current. So stormy was the outlook that for the
time being the passage seemed impossible. But Cartier
was not to be baulked in his design. He cast anchor at
the eastern mouth of the strait, in what is now the little
harbour of Kirpon (Carpunt), and there day after day,
stormbound by the inclement weather, he waited until June
9. Then at last he was able to depart, hoping, as he
wrote, 'with the help of God to sail farther.'

Having passed through the Strait of Belle Isle, Cartier
crossed over to the northern coast. Two days of prosperous
sailing with fair winds carried him far along the shore
to a distance of more than a hundred miles west of the
entrance of the Strait of Belle Isle. Whether he actually
touched on his way at the island now known as Belle Isle
is a matter of doubt. He passed an island which he named
St Catherine, and which he warned all mariners to avoid
because of dangerous shoals that lay about it. We find
his track again with certainty when he reaches the shelter
of the Port of Castles. The name was given to the anchorage
by reason of the striking cliffs of basaltic rock, which
here give to the shore something of the appearance of a
fortress. The place still bears the name of Castle Bay.

Sailing on to the west, Cartier noted the glittering
expanse of Blanc Sablon (White Sands), still known by
the name received from these first explorers. On June 10
the ships dropped anchor in the harbour of Brest, which
lies on the northern coast of the Gulf of St Lawrence
among many little islands lining the shore. This anchorage
seems to have been known already in Cartier's time, and
it became afterwards a famous place of gathering for the
French fishermen. Later on in the sixteenth century a
fort was erected there, and the winter settlement about
it is said to have contained at one time as many as a
thousand people. But its prosperity vanished later, and
the fort had been abandoned before the great conflict
had. begun between France and Great Britain for the
possession of North America. Cartier secured wood and
water at Brest. Leaving his ships there for the time
being, he continued his westward exploration in his boats.

The careful pilot marked every striking feature of the
coast, the bearing of the headlands and the configuration
of the many islands which stud these rock-bound and
inhospitable shores. He spent a night on one of these
islands, and the men found great quantities of ducks'
eggs. The next day, still sailing to the west, he reached
so fine an anchorage that he was induced to land and
plant a cross there in honour of St Servan. Beyond this
again was an island 'round like an oven.' Still farther
on he found a great river, as he thought it, which came
sweeping down from the highlands of the interior.

As the boats lay in the mouth of the river, there came
bearing down upon them a great fishing ship which had
sailed from the French port of La Rochelle, and was now
seeking vainly for the anchorage of Brest. Cartier's
careful observations now bore fruit. He and his men went
in their small boats to the fishing ship and gave the
information needed for the navigation of the coast. The
explorers still pressed on towards the west, till they
reached a place which Cartier declared to be one of the
finest harbours of the world, and which he called Jacques
Cartier Harbour. This is probably the water now known as
Cumberland Harbour. The forbidding aspect of the northern
shore and the adverse winds induced Cartier to direct
his course again towards the south, to the mainland, as
he thought, but really to the island of Newfoundland;
and so he now turned back with his boats to rejoin the
ships. The company gathered safely again at Brest on
Sunday, June 14, and Cartier caused a mass to be sung.

During the week spent in exploring the north shore,
Cartier had not been very favourably impressed by the
country. It seemed barren and inhospitable. It should
not, he thought, be Called the New Land, but rather stones
and wild crags and a place fit for wild beasts. The soil
seemed worthless. 'In all the north land,' said he, 'I
did not see a cartload of good earth. To be short, I
believe that this was the land that God allotted to Cain.'
From time to time the explorers had caught sight of
painted savages, with heads adorned with bright feathers
and with bodies clad in the skins of wild beasts. They
were roving upon the shore or passing in light boats made
of bark among the island channels of the coast. 'They
are men,' wrote Cartier, 'of an indifferent good stature
and bigness, but wild and unruly. They wear their hair
tied on the top like a wreath of hay and put a wooden
pin within it, or any other such thing instead of a nail,
and with them they bind certain birds' feathers. They
are clothed with beasts' skins as well the men as women,
but that the women go somewhat straighter and closer in
their garments than the men do, with their waists girded.
They paint themselves with certain roan colours. Their
boats are made with the bark of birch trees, with the
which they fish and take great store of seals, and, as
far as we could understand since our coming thither, that
is not their habitation, but they come from the mainland
out of hotter countries to catch the said seals and other
necessaries for their living.'

There has been much discussion as to these savages. It
has been thought by some that they were a southern branch
of the Eskimos, by others that they were Algonquin Indians
who had wandered eastward from the St Lawrence region.
But the evidence goes to show that they belonged to the
lost tribe of the 'Red Indians' of Newfoundland, the race
which met its melancholy fate by deliberate and ruthless
destruction at the hands of the whites. Cabot had already
seen these people on his voyage to the coast, and described
them as painted with 'red ochre.' Three of them he had
captured and taken to England as an exhibit. For two
hundred years after the English settlement of Newfoundland,
these 'Red Indians' were hunted down till they were
destroyed. 'It was considered meritorious,' says a
historian of the island, 'to shoot a Red Indian. To "go
to look for Indians" came to be as much a phrase as to
"look for partridges." They were harassed from post to
post, from island to island: their hunting and fishing
stations were unscrupulously seized by the invading
English. They were shot down without the least provocation,
or captured to be exposed as curiosities to the rabble
at fairs in the western towns of Christian England at
twopence apiece.' So much for the ill-fated savages among
whom Cartier planted his first cross.

On June 15, Cartier, disappointed, as we have seen, with
the rugged country that he found on the northern shore,
turned south again to pick up the mainland, as he called
it, of Newfoundland. Sailing south from Brest to a distance
of about sixty miles, he found himself on the same day
off Point Rich on the west coast of Newfoundland, to
which, from its appearance, he gave the name of the Double
Cape. For three days the course lay to the south-west
along the shore. The panorama that was unfolded to the
eye of the explorer was cheerless. The wind blew cold
and hard from the north-east. The weather was dark and
gloomy, while through the rifts of the mist and fog that
lay heavy on the face of the waters there appeared only
a forbidding and scarcely habitable coast. Low lands with
islands fringed the shore. Behind them great mountains,
hacked and furrowed in their outline, offered an uninviting
prospect. There was here no Eldorado such as, farther
south, met the covetous gaze of a Cortez or a Pizarro,
no land of promise luxuriant with the vegetation of the
tropics such as had greeted the eyes of Columbus at his
first vision of the Indies. A storm-bound coast, a
relentless climate and a reluctant soil-these were the
treasures of the New World as first known to the discoverer
of Canada.

For a week Cartier and his men lay off the coast. The
headland of Cape Anguille marks the approximate southward
limit of their exploration. Great gales drove the water
in a swirl of milk-white foam among the rocks that line
the foot of this promontory. Beyond this point they saw
nothing of the Newfoundland shore, except that, as the
little vessels vainly tried to beat their way to the
south against the fierce storms, the explorers caught
sight of a second great promontory that appeared before
them through the mist. This headland Cartier called Cape
St John. In spite of the difficulty of tracing the
storm-set path of the navigators, it is commonly thought
that the point may be identified as Cape Anguille, which
lies about twenty-five miles north of Cape Ray, the
south-west 'corner' of Newfoundland.

Had Cartier been able to go forward in the direction that
he had been following, he would have passed out between
Newfoundland and Cape Breton island into the open Atlantic,
and would have realized that his New Land was, after all,
an island and not the mainland of the continent. But this
discovery was reserved for his later voyage. He seems,
indeed, when he presently came to the islands that lie
in the mouth of the Gulf of St Lawrence, to have suspected
that a passage here lay to the open sea. Doubtless the
set of the wind and current revealed it to the trained
instinct of the pilot. 'If it were so,' he wrote, 'it
would be a great shortening as well of the time as of
the way, if any perfection could be found in it.' But it
was just as well that he did not seek further the opening
into the Atlantic. By turning westward from the 'heel'
of Newfoundland he was led to discover the milder waters
and the more fortunate lands which awaited him on the
further side of the Gulf.

 

Stephen Leacock

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