Canada: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

The Early Discoverers

Canada, which is now bounded by the Atlantic on the east and the Pacific on the west, was at one time a small province on the St. Lawrence, the name as used by the Indians meaning nothing more than a village.

The history of Canada begins with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, though there are stories that, as long ago as A.D. 1000, the island of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were discovered by Norsemen who went exploring from their homes in Greenland. There are two old sagas, or songs, of the Icelanders, which tell of the heroic deeds of these Norsemen, but their adventures belong to the days of legend. Real history does not begin until Columbus opened to Europe the way to the West.

While Spain, through Columbus, was getting rich with the wealth of the West Indies and Central America, England turned her attention to the north of the wonderful New World that had just been discovered. She was the first to set foot in Canada, little dreaming that it would in after-centuries become such an important part of the British Empire. John Cabot, an Italian sailor from Venice, appealed to Henry VII. of England for permission to discover some of the unknown lands in his name. Cabot had appealed first to the Kings of Spain and of Portugal, but these monarchs had been too much occupied with the lands they had already discovered to give him any support. Henry VII. was anxious to obtain a share in the wealth and honour which were being showered upon Spain and Portugal, so he willingly granted a patent to the bold sailor and his son Sebastian. But, being both cautious and mean, he gave them nothing else. They were to provide the whole cost of the expedition themselves.

The Cabots set sail from Bristol in the spring of 1497, and discovered Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador. The next year they started off again, and travelled all down the coast from the bleak shores of Labrador to South Carolina, finding an open sea in the North which they hoped would lead to Cathay and the spice islands of the East. These spice islands were the great attraction for all the adventurous spirits of the sixteenth century, who were fired with the desire to find a new and quicker way to the wealth of India and China, instead of the long and dangerous journey round Africa. All classes of people shared their enthusiasm. Kings were eager for new lands to be added to their dominions, merchants for new openings for trade, sailors for the joy of discovery, and priests for more souls to be won for Christianity.

England did not follow up the discoveries of the Cabots, and until quite the end of the sixteenth century, did not trouble to find out more of the North American continent. Her bold sailors spent their energies sailing round the world, pushing into the Arctic, or fighting Spain among the beautiful islands of the West Indies which Spain claimed as her own. But in the meantime other countries had been sending out navigators to find out more of the northern continent. Spain was entirely occupied over her possessions in Central and South America, finding it work enough to keep her hold upon these. But Portugal, thinking if others were looking for a better way to her spice islands in the East, she should be the first to discover it, sent Cortereal, who made his way to Labrador and Newfoundland in the year 1500.

France was slower than her more energetic rivals in Europe in discovering the great importance of the New World. But when Francis I. came to the throne in 1515, he began to realize the wealth and importance that Spain had gained by her vast new possessions. In a letter written by him to his life-long enemy, the Emperor Charles V., who was also King of Spain, he said he was not aware that "our first father Adam had made the Spanish and Portuguese Kings his sole heirs to the earth." During the first quarter of the sixteenth century three voyages were made by French navigators to the region of Canada, but it was not until 1534 that the first great effort was made which gave France a new empire which she was to hold for over two centuries.

A daring Breton sailor, Jacques Cartier, left the port of St. Malo in Brittany in the spring of 1534, keen to add land and glory to France in the New World. He was in the prime of life, a man of good family, and of a courageous temperament, well suited to the difficult task he had undertaken. He was aided by influence at Court, where a young nobleman, Philippe de Brion-Chabot, brought his schemes to the notice of King Francis. Cartier and his crew of 120 men, in two small ships, had an easy voyage across the Atlantic, reaching Newfoundland on May 10. They sailed through the Straits of Belle Isle on the north of the island, separating it from Labrador, and came out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. After skirting the islands in the Gulf, Cartier directed his little vessels along the coast of New Brunswick, where he and his men were delighted with the wonderful beauty of the shore. They passed the mouths of many rivers, down to whose banks came forests of maple and pine, and meadows rich with wild flowers. Travelling to the north the voyagers reached a promontory, which they named Gaspe. Here Cartier erected upon the shore a huge cross, thirty feet high; to it was affixed a shield, bearing the arms of France. At this point, Cartier was at the mouth of the great river of Canada, the St. Lawrence, but he was not aware of it. As the season was advanced he determined to return home at once. He repaid the Indians, who had been trustful and friendly, with base ingratitude, for he captured two of them and took them with him to France.

Cartier reached St. Malo at the beginning of September and was welcomed with the greatest enthusiasm. The spirit of adventure, of curiosity, of lust for wealth, and of ardent religious zeal, so marked in the sixteenth century, excited the whole nation, and a new expedition was speedily got ready. This time Cartier was accompanied not merely by brave Breton sailors, but numbered among his company members of some of the greatest families of France.

Jacques Cartier


On his second expedition to the New World, in the following spring, Cartier did not have such a successful voyage across the Atlantic. Severe storms drove his three little ships apart, so that the summer was well advanced before they met again at the Straits of Belle Isle. Cartier, after leaving the straits, kept along the north coast, naming a bay after St. Lawrence, on whose festal day it was discovered. The name was afterwards given to the whole gulf, and to the river which empties its vast waters into it. On this occasion Cartier did not turn his back upon the great river, but sailed up it, he and his companions gazing with wonder at its huge cliffs, and the awesome darkness of its tributary, the Saguenay. Upon its waters the Frenchmen were met by Indians, who gathered round them in their light canoes, made of yellow birch-bark. Leaving the Saguenay to be explored later, Cartier continued up the main stream, passing islands rich in vegetation, till he came to one which he called the Isle of Bacchus, owing to the masses of wild vines that they found upon it. It has since then been renamed the Ile d'Orleans. They were soon surrounded by Indians, who came up in their noiseless canoes, but who proved to be quite friendly. Just beyond the island, near which Cartier had anchored, the river narrowed, running between precipitous rocks and forming a basin. Towering above it on the northern side was a great shoulder of rock, the famous promontory, crowned to-day by the city of Quebec. A native village, called Stadacona, clustered on the summit of the rock, round which a lazy stream wound its way to the main river. Donnacona, the chief of the Indians, welcomed the strangers, but tried to hinder their progress up the river by persuasion and argument, and, finally, by terrible stories of the disasters that would befall them if they ventured farther. Cartier only laughed, and persisted in his journey, leaving his two larger vessels behind and going on in the smallest, accompanied by several boats. He pushed on up the beautiful river until he reached a fertile island rising into a wooded mountain. Under the shelter of this height was the large Indian village of Hochelaga, surrounded by high palisades, and containing fifty long bark-covered houses. Cartier and his men were received with great joy, the Indians regarding the strange white men as wonderful, if not divine. Sick people were brought to them to be cured, and were made happy by being merely touched. After distributing little presents among the Indians, Cartier got some of them to guide him to the top of the mountain, from which he gazed far over the surrounding country, all covered with forest, just beginning to blaze with the beautiful colours of autumn. He named the mountain Mount Royal, a name which now includes the site of stately Montreal, which stands where the palisaded town of Hochelaga once stood.

As winter was approaching Cartier went back to Stadacona and built a little fort underneath the cliff of Quebec, where they were to wait till the spring returned. Cartier did not anticipate a very severe winter, so that when the terrible snow-storms swept over them, he and his men suffered terrible hardships. Illness broke out among them, and nearly a quarter of the small company died, the rest becoming so feeble that Cartier was afraid the Indians might set upon them if they knew how weak they had become. He therefore ordered all who were well enough to make as much noise as possible, and to hammer on the walls, so that the savages might think them very active. The Indians, however, were themselves suffering from scurvy, the same illness that had attacked the Frenchmen, and were not capable of any fighting. One of them eventually told Cartier of a medicine made from an evergreen, which soon cured his men. Directly spring returned Cartier set sail for France, taking with him by force the kind chief Donnacona and four other chiefs, to tell of their wonderful country to the people of France. He told the Indians of Stadacona that the chiefs were anxious to go with him to see the country from which he had come.

Jacques Cartier


Having returned safely to St. Maio in June, 1536, Cartier does not seem to have been anxious to re-visit the St. Lawrence, after the experiences of the winter. Besides, the chiefs whom he had so deceitfully carried away with him, had all died far away from their home and kindred. As for King Francis, he was too busy with wars in Europe to think of Canada. But when peace came his mind turned once more to plans of conquest in the New World, and a new expedition was fitted out. This time a settlement was to be made, the beginning of a colony from which the heathen should be converted. A French nobleman, De Roberval, was appointed Governor of Canada, and Cartier was given the post of Captain-General under him.

Cartier started on his third voyage to Canada in May, 1541. He had with him five ships, containing many intending colonists, and carrying implements and all that was necessary for founding a colony. De Roberval, who was to follow him at once, did not turn up at Newfoundland, the meeting-place agreed upon, and, after waiting some time, Cartier went on without him. When he reached Stadacona he told the Indians that Donnacona was dead, but that the other chiefs were too happy in France to return. Finding that the Indians, though still outwardly friendly, had begun to suspect and hate him, Cartier did not venture to take up his old quarters at Stadacona, but went farther up the river to Cap Rouge, where he started building a fort and preparing for a permanent settlement. The winter which followed was not a severe one, but in the spring, as De Roberval had not appeared, Cartier put all the colonists on board ship and prepared to return to France. At Newfoundland he discovered De Roberval and his ships, who had arrived just a year late. Cartier pretended to agree to the command of the Governor that he should turn back to the St. Lawrence, but in the night he went off secretly and got back to France safely. After this he undertook no more adventurous voyages, but led a life of ease and comfort in his native land.

De Roberval, in the meantime, persisted in his attempt to found a colony on the spot selected by Cartier, who had called it Charlesbourg Royal. The colonists set to work to parcel out the land and sow crops, and all went well under the Governor's stern rule until the winter came, when it was found that there were not enough provisions to last till the spring. Many died, and when the long winter was over De Roberval sailed, with all that were left, back to France, where he had to confess a miserable tale of failure.

After this, France forgot Canada for half a century. She was busy with religious wars at home, and her only connection with the New World lay in the daring fishermen from the Bay of Biscay, who ventured across the Atlantic to engage in the cod-fisheries of Newfoundland.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert


At the latter end of the century, England sent out an expedition under Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, to start a settlement in Newfoundland, which holds the proud position of being England's oldest colony. Gilbert was given a charter granting him an enormous tract of land, and on arriving at the island in August, 158 3, he took possession in the name of Queen Elizabeth. Though it had a good start the colony was not a success, because the colonists were more anxious to search for silver than to plant crops. With winter and scarce food they began to get afraid, and so forced Gilbert to sail for home. He was in the smallest vessel of his fleet, the Squirrel, a tiny boat of only ten ton's burden, when, out in the Atlantic a terrific storm arose. But he refused to leave his tiny craft, saying to his men before the ship went down: "Cheer up, lads; we are as near heaven by sea as by land."