Cartier’s First Voyage
After John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to North America, it wasn’t until 1534 and Jacques Cartier that a major expedition was sent out to the northern part of of North America.
King Francis I of France commissioned the sailor, born in St. Malo, in Brittany on the French coast, to cross the Atlantic in search of riches and a route to China.
The King hoped Cartier would find a new passage to the Orient, by a route around or through the North American continent. If that proved unsuccessful, at least he might find gold, as the Spanish had in South America.
This official voyage may not have been Cartier’s first excursion across the Atlantic — it’s possible that he had gone to Newfoundland as a sailor before his voyages of discovery. But on April 20th, 1534, Cartier left St. Malo on a sure course for Newfoundland.
Arriving on May 10, he passed through the fishing waters off its shores, then went north, through the Straits of Belle Isle. Cartier was in new territory now, searching for a waterway that he presumed would deliver him to Asia, but he could barely penetrate Northern America’s eastern coast.
Cartier — shown in profile in one portrait, as hawk-nosed, dressed as a nobleman, almost scowling — had a poor opinion of the new land. “I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land God gave to Cain,” Cartier wrote in his first, famous, impression of the country. He couldn’t see a cartload of soil; it was a barren, unwelcoming place.
Cartier meticulously marked each new bay and promontory on his charts: Baie des Chasteaux, Ile de l’Assumption, Baie du St. Laurent. He also noted the native people he met at each new place.
“There are people on this coast, whose bodies are fairly well formed, but they are wild and savage folk,” he wrote, possibly of the Micmac, who approached them to trade.
“As soon as they saw us they began… making signs… that they had come to barter with us… and held up some skins of small value, with which they clothe themselves.”
“We likewise made signs to them that we wished them no harm,” Cartier wrote in the ship’s log, “and sent two men ashore, to offer them some knives and other iron goods, and a red cap to give to their chief… they bartered all they had to such an extent that all went back naked without anything on them; and they made signs to us that they would return on the morrow with more skins.”
On one occasion when Cartier and some of his men were exploring the coast in only one of their longboats they sighted a flotilla of more than forty canoes. Several of them approached and surrounded the lone boat.
“All came after our longboat, dancing and showing many signs of joy, and of their desire to be friends,” noted Cartier. Despite their intent, he was nervous of their numbers and motioned them to turn back. “And seeing that no matter how much we signed to them, they would not go back, we shot off over their heads two small cannon.” The Micmacs turned and paddled away.
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