In the footsteps of Jacques Cartier: the first voyage (1/3)

Perce Rock

After so many trips around the world, are you looking for a change of dimension? Great expeditions are for you! Discover a French adventure, that of Jacques Cartier in the (once) unknown lands of Canada.

It all began when a Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus discovered the American continent on behalf of the Spanish crown. From then on, it was a race against time towards the New World and its riches. While the Spanish and Portuguese had taken over the south, France followed suit, but to the north. Towards one of today’s most visited countries: Canada.

This adventure of the Kingdom of France began in 1534, when King François I gave the green light to a sailor from Saint-Malo: a certain Jacques Cartier. Generation Voyage invites you to follow in the footsteps of the famous Breton navigator, following the route of his very first voyage.

The Asian dream

As we said, the discovery of America in 1492 inspired the various European kingdoms to set out to conquer the New World. They all sought a way to reach Asia by sea, heading west to lay their hands on its riches.

However, the Iberian kingdoms soon realized that Columbus had not set sail for the Indies, but for an unknown continent. France, the great loser of the first conquests, also wanted to take the plunge. Unlike its neighbors to the south, the kingdom of France headed north. But how did she know that there were lands to be found in the North?

Jacques Cartier & François Ier

Photo credits: Shutterstock – Morphart Creation | Wikipedia – Oakenchips

As it happens, a secret was long kept by European fishermen. Far, far away from the coasts of the Old Continent, a land and its coastline have been sighted. It was Newfoundland. There, European fishermen discovered an astonishing shoal of cod. Jacques Cartier knew the secret, having sailed there with his father. As he grew older, Cartier took to the skies once again, sailing off the Atlantic towards Brazil and then Africa. This was enough to earn him a reputation in his home town of Saint-Malo.

At home, François I protested against the Treaty of Tordesillas. But the monarch was not finished with the challenge of the Indies, and was determined to conquer new lands to make his way to Asia. In 1524, he commissioned a Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazzano, to sail to the New World. Although the navigator found America, he was unable to find a passage to Asia. However, François I did not give up on the idea of finding this famous route.

In 1534, the abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel introduced him to Jacques Cartier. After extolling his merits, the navigator convinced François I, blinded by the promise of gold. Thus began Jacques Cartier’s voyage to America on April 20, 1534.

The plunge into the Strait of Belle Isle and arrival in Gaspésie

As far as we’re concerned, our journey begins in Newfoundland. An exceptional natural landscape, where the land is scarce but the sea is omnipresent. As if we’d just found the end of the world. A feeling contrary to that felt by Jacques Cartier, for whom the sight of the coast was synonymous with arrival in the New World, after twenty days’ sailing.

Paysage de Terre Neuve

Photo credit: Shutterstock – rustycanuck

It’s not a pure discovery, however, as it’s the famous fishing coastline. In fact, Cartier came across a ship from La Rochelle to fish for cod. This was the last known European contact for the navigator and his crew, until their return. Following in Jacques Cartier’s footsteps, let’s continue our journey to the north of the island. Indeed, during his voyage, Cartier decided to skirt Newfoundland from the north. This choice led his men to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Welcome to the Strait of Belle Isle.

The landscape is magnificent, both simple and immense. It was here that Jacques Cartier truly entered the unknown. He even spotted new animals, such as polar bears, walruses and great auks (now extinct). For us, to see such wildlife would be a true miracle.

Nevertheless, the view from the mouth of the river remains a grandiose spectacle. It’s the image of Canada: everything is bigger, more impressive.

Sur les traces de Jacques Cartier : Terre Neuve et Belle Île

Photo credits: Shutterstock – Pi-Lens | oksana.perkins

If the beginning of this adventure is already magnificent, the rest will be even more so. It’s time to follow the mouth of the river and dive in. From now on, the land becomes more and more present. And after passing Anticosti Island, the American continent opens up to us, just as it did for Jacques Cartier five centuries ago.

The first coastline you see is that of the Magdalen Islands, which Cartier once rounded on his way to Prince Edward Island. Opposite each other, the islands look very similar and are easily recognizable, thanks to their ochre-colored sand and rock, offering an unparalleled panorama of color. Where the blue of the Atlantic predominates. Let’s take the time to admire these lands, to look at them with our own eyes, without cameras.

We’re in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. A place that’s both wild and electric with history, but also soothing.

Le rouge des Îles de la Madeleine et de l'Île du Prince Edouard

Photo credits: Shutterstock – Richard Cavalleri | Vadim.Petrov

Jacques Cartier didn’t take this time, and continued to plunge into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Enough to enter an indentation: the Baie des Chaleurs. Welcome to Gaspésie. The environment is reminiscent of Norman and British beaches, as the water rushes head-on over huge cliffs, giving the impression that the land has come to a screeching halt.

Next to such a feat, it’s impossible not to feel tiny. Yet none of this is enough to frighten our navigator, who sets course for land.

Baie des Chaleurs

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Colin Woods

Meeting the Amerindians

As soon as they arrived on the mainland, the French came face to face with the Micmacs, an indigenous people. The two ethnic groups did not hesitate to trade, on good terms, until Jacques Cartier placed an enormous granite cross there, inscribed with the words « Vive le roy de France » (« Long live the King of France »).

Croix de Granite, similiare à celle plantée par Jacques Cartier

Photo credit: Shutterstock – De meunierd

Yes, Cartier was looking for Asia and riches, but he also intended to colonize these new lands. Later, another tribe, the Iroquois, guessed the Malouin’s intention. But a lie (that it was a landmark) was enough to calm relations. Although the cross no longer exists today, it has been reproduced identically and installed in the same location in Gaspé.

As for the Micmacs, they still live in Gaspésie. Their reserves (some of which can be visited) allow us to feel the fascination felt by our ancestors in the West, faced with a completely new culture, far removed from European customs. But the fascination is shared. Indeed, the Amerindians (and particularly the Iroquois chief Donnacona) fell under the spell of the European women on board. So much so that the Micmacs and Iroquois ask Cartier’s crew to trade them…

Rencontre entre Jacques Cartier et Donnacona

Photo credit: Wikipedia – GreenC

Our navigator is also interested in Native culture and its various tribes. But his intentions are not the most peaceful… The Breton invites the natives to a big party and takes advantage of the occasion to betray the trust established between the two peoples, by kidnapping two young Iroquois!

One of them is none other than Chief Donnacona’s son. The French set sail for the Old Continent. But Jacques Cartier has no intention of stopping there, and has an idea in mind…

Find out in Episode 2, where we’ll be following in the footsteps of Jacques Cartier’s second voyage. See you soon!

Continue your adventure in the footsteps of Jacques Cartier with Episode 2