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Ch. 3: The Gulf of St. Lawrence


On June 25 Cartier turned his course away from Newfoundland
and sailed westward into what appeared to be open sea.
But it was not long before he came in sight of land again.
About sixty miles from the Newfoundland shore and thirty
miles east from the Magdalen Islands, two abrupt rocks
rise side by side from the sea; through one of them the
beating surf has bored a passage, so that to Cartier's
eye, as his ships hove in sight of them, the rocks appeared
as three. At the present time a lighthouse of the Canadian
government casts its rays from the top of one of these
rocky islets, across the tossing waters of the Gulf.
Innumerable sea-fowl encircled the isolated spot and
built their nests so densely upon the rocks as to cover
the whole of the upper surface. At the base of one of
these Bird Rocks Cartier stopped his ships in their
westward course, and his men killed great numbers of the
birds so easily that he declared he could have filled
thirty boats with them in an hour.

The explorers continued on their way, and a sail of a
few hours brought them to an island like to none that
they had yet seen. After the rock-bound coast of the
north it seemed, indeed, a veritable paradise. Thick
groves of splendid trees alternated with beautiful glades
and meadow-land, while the fertile soil of the island,
through its entire length of about six miles, was carpeted
with bright flowers, blossoming peas, and the soft colours
of the wild rose. 'One acre of this land,' said Cartier,
'is worth more than all the New Land.' The ships lay off
the shore of the island all night and replenished the
stores of wood and water. The land abounded with game;
the men of St Malo saw bears and foxes, and, to their
surprise they saw also great beasts that basked upon the
shore, with 'two great teeth in their mouths like
elephants.' One of these walruses,--for such they doubtless
were,--was chased by the sailors, but cast itself into
the sea and disappeared. We can imagine how, through the
long twilight of the June evening, the lovely scene was
loud with the voices of the exultant explorers. It was
fitting that Cartier should name this island of good omen
after his patron, the Seigneur de Brion, admiral of
France. To this day the name Brion Island,--corrupted
sometimes to Byron Island,--recalls the landing of Jacques

From this temporary halting-place the ships sailed on
down the west coast of the Magdalen Islands. The night
of June 28 found them at anchor off Entry Island at the
southern end of the group. From here a course laid to
the south-west brought the explorers into sight of Prince
Edward Island. This they supposed to be, of course, the
mainland of the great American continent. Turning towards
the north-west, the ships followed the outline of the
coast. They sailed within easy sight of the shore, and
from their decks the explorer and his companions were
able to admire the luxuriant beauty of the scene. Here
again was a land of delight: 'It is the fairest land,'
wrote Cartier, 'that may possibly be seen, full of goodly
meadows and trees.' All that it lacked was a suitable
harbour, which the explorers sought in vain. At one point
a shallow river ran rippling to the sea, and here they
saw savages crossing the stream in their canoes, but they
found no place where the ships could be brought to anchor.

July 1 found the vessels lying off the northern end of
Prince Edward Island. Here they lowered the boats, and
searched the shore-line for a suitable anchorage. As they
rowed along a savage was seen running upon the beach and
making signs. The boats were turned towards him, but,
seized with a sudden panic, he ran away. Cartier landed
a boat and set up a little staff in the sand with a
woollen girdle and a knife, as a present for the fugitive
and a mark of good-will.

It has been asserted that this landing on a point called
Cap-des-Sauvages by Cartier, in memory of the incident,
took place on the New Brunswick shore. But the weight of
evidence is in favour of considering that North Cape in
Prince Edward Island deserves the honour. As the event
occurred on July 1, some writers have tried to find a
fortunate coincidence in the landing of the discoverer
of Canada on its soil on the day that became, three
hundred and thirty-three years later, Dominion Day. But
the coincidence is not striking. Cartier had already
touched Canadian soil at Brest, which is at the extreme
end of the Quebec coast, and on the Magdalen Islands.

Cartier's boats explored the northern end of prince Edward
Island for many miles. All that he saw delighted him.
'We went that day on shore,' he wrote in his narrative,
'in four places, to see the goodly sweet and smelling
trees that were there. We found them to be cedars, yews,
pines, white elms, ash, willows, With many other sorts
of trees to us unknown, but without any fruit. The grounds
where no wood is are very fair, and all full of peason
[peas], white and red gooseberries, strawberries,
blackberries, and wild corn, even like unto rye, which
seemed to have been sowed and ploughed. This country is
of better temperature than any other land that can be
seen, and very hot. There are many thrushes, stock-doves,
and other birds. To be short, there wanteth nothing but
good harbours.'

On July 2, the ships, sailing on westward from the head
of Prince Edward Island, came in sight of the New Brunswick
coast. They had thus crossed Northumberland Strait, which
separates the island from the mainland. Cartier, however,
supposed this to be merely a deep bay, extending inland
on his left, and named it the Bay of St Lunario. Before
him on the northern horizon was another headland, and to
the left the deep triangular bay known now as Miramichi.
The shallowness of the water and the low sunken aspect
of the shore led him to decide, rightly, that there was
to be found here no passage to the west. It was his hope,
of course, that at some point on his path the shore might
fold back and disclose to him the westward passage to
the fabled empires of the East. The deep opening of the
Chaleur Bay, which extended on the left hand as the ships
proceeded north, looked like such an opening. Hopes ran
high, and Cartier named the projecting horn which marks
the southern side of the mouth of the bay the Cape of
Good Hope. Like Vasco da Gama, when he rounded South
Africa, Cartier now thought that he had found the gateway
of a new world. The cheery name has, however, vanished
from the map in favour of the less striking one of Point

Cartier sailed across the broad mouth of the bay to a
point on the north shore, now known as Port Daniel. Here
his ships lay at anchor till July 12, in order that he
might carry on, in boats, the exploration of the shore.

On July 6, after hearing mass, the first boat with an
exploring party set forth and almost immediately fell in
with a great number of savages coming in canoes from the
southern shore. In all there were some forty or fifty
canoes. The Indians, as they leaped ashore, shouted and
made signs to the French, and held up skins on sticks as
if anxious to enter into trade. But Cartier was in no
mind to run the risk of closer contact with so numerous
a company of savages. The French would not approach the
fleet of canoes, and the savages, seeing this, began to
press in on the strangers. For a moment affairs looked
threatening. Cartier's boat was surrounded by seven canoes
filled with painted, gibbering savages. But the French
had a formidable defence. A volley of musket shots fired
by the sailors over the heads of the Indians dispersed
the canoes in rapid flight. Finding, however, that no
harm was done by the strange thunder of the weapons, the
canoes came flocking back again, their occupants making
a great noise and gesticulating wildly. They were, however,
nervous, and when, as they came near, Cartier's men let
off two muskets they were terrified; 'with great haste
they began to flee, and would no more follow us.' But
the next day after the boat had returned to the ships,
the savages came near to the anchorage, and some parties
landed and traded together. The Indians had with them
furs which they offered gladly in exchange for the knives
and iron tools given them by the sailors. Cartier presented
them also with 'a red hat to give unto their captain.'
The Indians seemed delighted with the exchange. They
danced about on the shore, went through strange ceremonies
in pantomime and threw seawater over their heads. 'They
gave us,' wrote Cartier, 'whatsoever they had, not keeping
anything, so that they were constrained to go back again
naked, and made us signs that the next day they would
come again and bring more skins with them.'

Four more days Cartier lingered in the bay. Again he sent
boats from the ships in the hope of finding the westward
passage, but to his great disappointment and grief the
search was fruitless. The waters were evidently landlocked,
and there was here, as he sadly chronicled, no thoroughfare
to the westward sea. He met natives in large numbers.
Hundreds of them--men, women, and children--came in their
canoes to see the French explorers. They brought cooked
meat, laid it on little pieces of wood, and, retreating
a short distance, invited the French to eat. Their manner
was as of those offering food to the gods who have
descended from above. The women among them, coming
fearlessly up to the explorers, stroked them with their
hands, and then lifted these hands clasped to the sky,
with every sign of joy and exultation. The Indians, as
Cartier saw them, seemed to have no settled home, but to
wander to and fro in their canoes, taking fish and game
as they went. Their land appeared to him the fairest that
could be seen, level as a pond; in every opening of the
forest he saw wild grains and berries, roses and fragrant
herbs. It was, indeed, a land of promise that lay basking
in the sunshine of a Canadian summer. The warmth led
Cartier to give to the bay the name it still bears--Chaleur.

On July 12 the ships went north again. Their progress
was slow. Boisterous gales drove in great seas from the
outer Gulf. At times the wind, blowing hard from the
north, checked their advance and they had, as best they
could, to ride out the storm. The sky was lowering and
overcast, and thick mist and fog frequently enwrapped
the ships. The 16th saw them driven by stress of weather
into Gaspe Bay, where they lay until the 25th, with so
dark a sky and so violent a storm raging over the Gulf
that not even the daring seamen of St Malo thought it
wise to venture out.

Here again they saw savages in great numbers, but belonging,
so Cartier concluded, to a different tribe from those
seen on the bay below. 'We gave them knives,' he wrote,
'combs, beads of glass, and other trifles of small value,
for which they made many signs of gladness, lifting their
hands up to heaven, dancing and singing in their boats.'
They appeared to be a miserable people, in the lowest
stage of savagery, going about practically naked, and
owning nothing of any value except their boats and their
fishing-nets. He noted that their heads were shaved except
for a tuft 'on the top of the crown as long as a horse's
tail.' This, of course, was the 'scalp lock,' so suggestive
now of the horrors of Indian warfare, but meaning nothing
to the explorer. From its presence it is supposed that
the savages were Indians of the Huron-Iroquois tribe.
Cartier thought, from their destitute state, that there
could be no poorer people in the world.

Before leaving the Bay of Gaspe, Cartier planted a great
wooden cross at the entrance of the harbour. The cross
stood thirty feet high, and at the centre of it he hung
a shield with three fleurs-de-lis. At the top was carved
in ancient lettering the legend, 'VIVE LE ROY DE FRANCE.'
A large concourse of savages stood about the French
explorers as they raised the cross to its place. 'So soon
as it was up,' writes Cartier, 'we altogether kneeled
down before them, with our hands towards heaven yielding
God thanks: and we made signs unto them, showing them
the heavens, and that all our salvation depended only on
Him which in them dwelleth; whereat they showed a great
admiration, looking first at one another and then at the

The little group of sailors kneeling about the cross
newly reared upon the soil of Canada as a symbol of the
Gospel of Christ and of the sovereignty of France, the
wondering savages turning their faces in awe towards the
summer sky, serene again after the passing storms,--all
this formed an impressive picture, and one that appears
and reappears in the literature of Canada. But the first
effect of the ceremony was not fortunate. By a sound
instinct the savages took fright; they rightly saw in
the erection of the cross the advancing shadow of the
rule of the white man. After the French had withdrawn to
their ships, the chief of the Indians came out with his
brother and his sons to make protest against what had
been done. He made a long oration, which the French could
not, of course, understand. Pointing shoreward to the
cross and making signs, the chief gave it to be understood
that the country belonged to him and his people. He and
his followers were, however, easily pacified by a few
gifts and with the explanation, conveyed by signs, that
the cross was erected to mark the entrance of the bay.
The French entertained their guests bountifully with food
and drink, and, having gaily decked out two sons of the
chief in French shirts and red caps, they invited these
young savages to remain on the ship and to sail with
Cartier. They did so, and the chief and the others departed
rejoicing. The next day the ships weighed anchor, surrounded
by boat-loads of savages who shouted and gesticulated
their farewells to those on board.

Cartier now turned his ships to the north-east. Westward
on his left hand, had he known it, was the opening of
the St Lawrence. From the trend of the land he supposed,
however, that, by sailing in an easterly direction, he
was again crossing one of the great bays of the coast.
This conjecture seemed to be correct, as the coastline
of the island of Anticosti presently appeared on the
horizon. From July 27 until August 5 the explorers made
their way along the shores of Anticosti, which they almost
circumnavigated. Sailing first to the east they passed
a low-lying country, almost bare of forests, but with
verdant and inviting meadows. The shore ended at East
Cape, named by Cartier Cape St Louis, and at this point
the ships turned and made their way north-westward, along
the upper shore of the island. On August 1, as they
advanced, they came in sight of the mainland of the
northern shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence, a low, flat
country, heavily wooded, with great mountains forming a
jagged sky-line. Cartier had now, evidently enough, come
back again to the side of the great Gulf from which he
had started, but, judging rightly that the way to the
west might lie beyond the Anticosti coast, he continued
on his voyage along that shore. Yet with every day progress
became more difficult. As the ships approached the narrower
waters between the west end of Anticosti and the mainland
they met powerful tides and baffling currents. The wind,
too, had turned against them and blew fiercely from the

For five days the intrepid mariners fought against the
storms and currents that checked their advance. They were
already in sight of what seemed after long searching to
be the opening of the westward passage. But the fierce
wind from the west so beat against them that the clumsy
vessels could make no progress against it. Cartier lowered
a boat, and during two hours the men rowed desperately
into the wind. For a while the tide favoured them, but
even then it ran so hard as to upset one of the boats.
When the tide turned matters grew worse. There came
rushing down with the wind and the current of the St
Lawrence such a turmoil of the waters that the united
strength of the thirteen men at the oars could not advance
the boats by a stone's-throw. The whole company landed
on the island of Anticosti, and Cartier, with ten or
twelve men, made his way on foot to the west end. Standing
there and looking westward over the foaming waters lashed
by the August storm, he was able to realize that the goal
of his search for the coast of Asia, or at least for an
open passage to the west, might lie before him, but that,
for the time being, it was beyond his reach.

Turning back, the party rejoined the ships which had
drifted helplessly before the wind some twelve miles down
the shore. Arrived on board, Cartier called together his
sailing-master, pilots, and mates to discuss what was to
be done. They agreed that the contrary winds forbade
further exploration. The season was already late; the
coast of France was far away; within a few weeks the
great gales of the equinox would be upon them. Accordingly
the company decided to turn back. Soon the ships were
heading along the northern shore of the Gulf, and with
the boisterous wind behind them were running rapidly
towards the east. They sailed towards the Newfoundland
shore, caught sight of the Double Cape and then, heading
north again, came to Blanc Sablon on August 9. Here they
lay for a few days to prepare for the homeward voyage,
and on August 15 they were under way once more for the
passage of Belle Isle and the open sea.

'And after that, upon August 15,' so ends Cartier's
narrative, 'being the feast of the Assumption of our
Lady, after that we had heard service, we altogether
departed from the port of Blanc Sablon, and with a happy
and prosperous weather we came into the middle of the
sea that is between Newfoundland and Brittany, in which
place we were tossed and turmoiled three days long with
great storms and windy tempests coming from the east,
which with the aid and assistance of God we suffered:
then had we fair weather, and upon the fifth of September,
in the said year, we came to the port of St Malo whence
we departed.'

Stephen Leacock

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