Visiting Saint Vincent Cathedral, in Saint-Malo – a historic walled town on the coast of Brittany, France – I was intrigued by a marble sign on the floor. It was placed on the exact spot where, on April 20th, 1534, a seaman called Jacques Cartier knelt down to receive blessings from the local bishop, before sailing to what is now Canada. It was a gift from Quebec City, now Saint-Malo twin sister, and I thought it was a beautiful tribute to him.
I had never heard of Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) before, but in Saint-Malo his name is everywhere. He was the town’s most famous explorer, the one who discovered Canada. Cartier was the first European to travel inland in North America, map it out and explore it, claiming the newly discovered lands for France. He was the one who baptized the new land Canada, although he used the Huron-Iroquois name kanata (village or settlement), referring only to the area around what is now Quebec City.
Brittanica says that “when in 1534 king Francis I of France decided to send an expedition to explore the northern lands, in the hope of discovering gold, spices, and a passage to Asia, Cartier received the commission. He sailed from Saint-Malo on April 20th, 1534, with two ships and 61 men. Reaching North America a few weeks later, Cartier traveled along the west coast of Newfoundland, discovered Prince Edward Island, and explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Having seized two Indians at the Gaspe Peninsula, he sailed back to France.”
Historian W.J. Eccles writes that “Cartier’s voyage awakened the curiosity of French king Francis I sufficiently for him to send him back the following year, with three ships and 110 men. Guided by the two Indians he had brought back, Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence as far as Quebec, and established a base near an Iroquois village. He proceeded with a small party as far as the island of Montreal, where he was warmly welcomed by the resident Iroquois. The Indians told him that two rivers led farther west to lands where gold, silver, copper, and spices abounded.”
Jacques Cartier ended up losing his position as the leader of Canada’s exploration to a nobleman called Jean-Francois de la Roque de Roberval, sent in 1541 by king Francois I to secure French title against counterclaims of Spain, and to establish a colony in the new lands. But the discovery of Canada is something that o one else can claim, only Jacques Cartier.
Because of him, half of Canada still speaks French today. Ask the Quebecois, and they will tell you how proud of it they are. When French president Charles de Gaulle’s spoke the controversial phrase ‘Vive le Quebec libre’, during a visit to Canada in 1967, he was just paying tribute to the seaman from Saint-Malo who had discovered and claimed the new lands for France, many centuries before. Jacques Cartier has not been forgotten.