Cartier’s Plans Crushed!

Portrait of Jacques Cartier
From the Musée national des beaux-arts in Québec.

Jacques Cartier was more than an excellent navigator. He was a showman.

When he spent the winter of 1535 in Quebec, Cartier lost many of his men through scurvy.

“Out of 110 that we were, not ten were well enough to help the others, a pitiful thing to see.”

He wanted to tell King Francis the tale of a country further north, called the “Kingdom of Saguenay,” said to be full of gold, rubies and other treasures. He recognized that it was essential to put on a good show when he returned to France so he could return to Canada with the king’s blessing.

Chief Donnacona meeting Jacques Cartier
Cartier standing in a small paddle boat near where Donnacona stands onshore.

Before sailing from Quebec, he invited First Nations Chief Donnacona and some of his Iroquoian men to a feast. When they entered the stockade, he held them captive and brought them onboard the ship. Cartier didn’t exactly force them to accompany him to France, however he told Donnacona that they would treat him like a king and that they would give him and his men many gifts.

Donnacona agreed, but there was great weeping and wailing onshore. Donnacona explained the situation to the Iroquois from the deck and they were given gifts of frying pans and eight steel hatchets.

A 1934 stamp honoring Jacques Cartier
1934 stamp designed by George Arthur Gundersen (1910-1975) The design was engraved from a drawing in the Montreal offices of the British American Bank Note Company.

All went smoothly. This 14-month voyage was Cartier’s most profitable yet.

Cartier taught the Chief enough French to talk to the king and relied on Donnacona’s skill as a great spinner of tales. Indeed, King Francis was so impressed that he granted a large expedition to Canada.

Donnacona was treated well in France and looked after at the king’s expense. Cartier promised to bring Donnacona back in 12 moons.

Then Cartier’s plans went sour. King Francis appointed Sieur de Roberval, a Huguenot and friend of the king to be in charge of the expedition. He thought it was not good enough to have a mere sea captain to represent him.

Donnacona died of scurvy and all but one of the other Iroquois died too, except for a little girl, whose fate is unknown.

Cartier had grand plans to bring in some of the finest French builders to Canada to develop homes and establish an outpost. Roberval would not allow Cartier to recruit the men he needed. Instead, on March 9, 1541, he received a sanction to take criminals to Canada.

Disappointed, Cartier broke away from Roberval and travelled to Canada on his own on May 23, 1541, for his third voyage. And that’s a whole other story!

Below is a description of the Iroquois Natives from Cartier’s writings:

“They are by no means a laborious people and work the soil with short bits of wood about half a sword in length.  With these they hoe their corn which they call ozisy, in size as large as a pea. Corn of a similar kind grows in considerable quantities in Brazil. They have also a considerable quantity of melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, pease and beans of various colours and unlike our own. Furthermore they have a plant, of which a large supply is collected in summer for the winter’s consumption.

They hold in high esteem, though the men alone make use of it in the following manner. After drying it in the sun, they carry it about their necks in a small skin pouch in lieu of a bag, together with a hollow bit of stone or wood. Then at frequent intervals they crumble this plant into powder, which they place in one of the openings of the hollow instrument, and laying a live coal on top, suck at the other end to such an extent, that they fill their bodies so full of smoke, that it streams out of their mouths and nostrils as from a chimney. They say it keeps them warm and in good health and never go about without these things. We made a trial of this smoke. When it is in one’s mouth, one would think one had taken powdered pepper, it is so hot. The women of this country work beyond comparison more than the men, both at fishing, which is much followed, as well as at tilling the ground and other tasks. Both the men, women and children are more indifferent to the cold than beasts; for in the coldest weather we experienced, and it was extraordinary severe, they would come to our ships every day across the ice and snow, the majority of them almost stark naked, which seems incredible unless one has seen them. While the ice and snow last, they catch a great number of wild animals such as fawns, stags and bears, hares, martens, foxes, otters and others.”



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