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Ch. 7: Winter at Stadacona

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 rigour 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 endeavoured
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 rigour. 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 shrivelled 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 woollen 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 harbour 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.'

 

Stephen Leacock

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