Who was Jacques Cartier, the Christopher Columbus of Canada?

This navigator from Saint-Malo is credited with the discovery of Canada, in 1534, on behalf of the King of France. But at the time, his three successive expeditions were considered as many failures. After Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), it took the French a century to try the Canadian adventure again.

Little is known about Jacques Cartier before the expeditions that made him famous. Born in Saint-Malo around 1493, he belonged to the caste of notables of the port city and frequented Jean Le Veneur, bishop of Saint-Malo and abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel. The latter introduced him to François I in 1532, promising that he would be able to “lead ships to the discovery of new lands in the new world”. For the King of France was then trying, by all means, to find the famous West-North passage, to reach the mythical kingdoms of Cathay and Cipango (present China and Japan).

Before Jacques Cartier, the failure of Giovanni da Verrazzano

At the beginning of the 16th century, and particularly since the voyages of Christopher Columbus, there was an awareness that there was a new continent, which was beginning to be called America,” explains Virginie Adane, lecturer in modern history at the University of Nantes and a specialist in colonial America. A feat had just been accomplished in the 1520s by Magellan and Elcano: to sail around the world. But to do so, they had to go through the South, where the route was long, dangerous, and finally, not so profitable. So they looked for a route through the North.”

Jacques Cartier’s predecessor, Giovanni da Verrazzano, disembarked in 1524 in what is now North Carolina, from where he painstakingly sailed up the east coast of America. He finally returned to France and told the Court that the strait he had hoped for did not exist and that it was impossible to reach Asia from the North.

A few years later, François, I mandated Jacques Cartier to resume the aborted adventure of Verrazzano. From one thing to another,” summarizes Virginie Adane, “he had to find the route to China and Japan, or to unearth riches, especially gold, in these new lands of the West.

In search of the mythical kingdom of Saguenay

His first voyage, which began on April 20, 1534, went smoothly and after three weeks at sea, Cartier reached Newfoundland before entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He quickly made contact with the local population, the Micmacs, with whom he exchanged glassware and trinkets for furs. In July, he set foot on land in Gaspé, where he met the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Half-heartedly, half-strongly, he embarked with two sons of the local chief, Donnacona, and took them back to France. When they arrived at the king’s court,” Virginie Adane recounts, “the two Indians spoke of a mythical kingdom, the northern counterpart of El Dorado: Saguenay. They made the king dream of fabulous riches, gold, precious stones…” Enchanted, François I ordered a new expedition.

The second voyage of Cartier took place in 1535, without much success. He brought his sons back to Chief Donnacona, then sailed up St. Lawrence to the fortified town of Hochelaga, which he named “Mount Royal” – the ancestor of Montreal. His expedition turned back and reached Stadacona, which would become Quebec. Cartier returned to France in 1536, this time accompanied by Chief Donnacona himself. The Iroquois chief also praised the splendors of the Saguenay to François I, no doubt to encourage him to establish commercial relations with his people. But he chose to stay in France, leaving Jacques Cartier to go back alone in 1541 to colonize and evangelize St. Lawrence. It was the military man Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval who was appointed to lead this first French colonial attempt in Canada, which turned into a fiasco.

The fake diamonds of Canada

Cartier returned to Stadacona and built the fort of Charlesbourg-Royal at the confluence of St. Lawrence and the Cap-Rouge rivers. Leaving Roberval in charge of organizing the colonization, he wintered on St. Lawrence, accumulating “gold and diamonds” negotiated with the Iroquois. The following year, he returned to France, crowned – he thought – with glory and riches… only to learn that they were pyrite and quartz, as pretty as they were worthless. “Cartier’s adventure was a failure,” concludes Virginie Adane. Not only did he not find the Northwest Passage, but he brought back neither gold nor diamonds. And to top it all off, his relations with the Amerindians eventually deteriorated.” In 1543, the French decided to leave Canada and abandon all colonial aspirations. They would not return until the beginning of the 17th century, with Samuel de Champlain.

In the past, historiography has not been kind to Jacques Cartier: Fernand Braudel spoke of a “colonial bankruptcy”, Marcel Trudel of “vain attempts” to establish American settlements… However, the commodities he discovered during his expeditions, which were of no interest to anyone at the time, would later contribute to the wealth of New France. The fur trade and cod fishing, in particular, attracted settlers to the cold Canadian lands, and a real economy was built on relations with the Amerindians.

Surprisingly for the time, the natives were indeed able to stand up to the French presence. “There was no real desire to settle there on the part of the French,” analyses Virginie Adane. Not to mention that the Iroquoians were perceived as Indians who were a bit… lame. At that time, the Spaniards had already made fall the Inca Empire. They were establishing themselves in Peru and publishing stories of extraordinary civilizations, with streets paved with gold, monumental buildings, rulers adorned with feathered headdresses… Beside them, for Jacques Cartier, the Indians of Canada seemed disappointing.” Above all, the Iroquois nations were in no way destabilized by their first contacts with the Europeans who, for their part, multiplied their clumsiness. Relations were strained, the French fell victim to the harshness of winter and scurvy. Finally, the number and organization of the natives, contrary to Cartier and his acolytes, explains in a large part the failure of the French implantation in these regions.