The "New" Continent

At the beginning of the 16th century, several European countries were determined to find a sea-route to the rich trading countries in the East  --  one that would bypass the treacherous overland journey through the Ottoman and Muslim empires. The Portugese, then the reigning masters of navigation, had just succeeded in finding such a route, but it involved braving the turbulent waters around the Cape of Good Hope, at the tip of Africa.

With Portugal soon dominating the African route and the southern parts of America under Spanish control, England and France had little choice but to look for another way. They surmised that the answer could lie to the north of Spain's American possessions.

Although the Cabots and the Corte Reals reported their sightings of northern North America, it was descriptions by European fishermen of these new lands and waters that had a substantial impact on the French. They were the first to pursue the Northwest Passage.

John Cabot: The English King's Italian Navigator

John Cabot (? - c. 1498)

Naturalized as a citizen of the Republic of Venice (now Italy) in 1476, the experienced navigator Giovani Caboto  --  known to the English as John Cabot  --  was hired by King Henry VII of England in the mid-1490s to make a voyage of discovery westward, looking for a route to Asia.

Cabot left Bristol in May 1497. One month later, he saw land and disembarked briefly. He then skirted the shore for some 30 days without seeing anyone, and returned to England at the beginning of August, full of enthusiasm and convinced that he had reached Asia.

In fact, Cabot was the first to report on a part of America after Christopher Columbus (1492) but his explorations were in colder regions, on the shores of what is Canada today. His landfall remains unknown. Neither a ship's log nor any authentic account of this voyage has been preserved. It is only because of numerous references found here and there that historians have been able to piece together Cabot's exploration in North America. On the whole, it is agreed that the navigator visited somewhere between Labrador and Cape Breton, most likely the east coast of Newfoundland.

In May 1498, John Cabot left Bristol to undertake another voyage of exploration (his third), from which he never returned. "He only found new lands at the bottom of the ocean" wrote one of his contemporaries. His son Sebastian, himself a navigator, undertook his father's explorations to North America.

The Cabots' explorations and those of the Corte Real brothers revealed the large schools of cod and whales near Labrador. Breton, Norman, Basque and Portuguese fishermen rushed to explore these by the beginning of the 16th century.

"In the yeere of our Lord 1494, John Cabot a Venetian, & his sonne Sebastian [...] discovered that land which no man before that time had attempted, on the 24 of June, about five of the clocke early in the morning. This land he called Prima Vista, [...] The inhabitants of this Island use to weare beasts skinnes, and have them in as great estimation, as we have our finest garments. [...] The soile is barren in some places, & yeeldeth little fruit, but it is full of white lions, & stags farre greater then ours. It yeeldeth plentie of fish, and those very great, as seales, and those which commonly we call salmons: there are soles also above a yard in length: but especially there is great abundance of that kinde of fish which the Salvages call Baccalaos. [...]"

(Hackluyt 1589, 511)

"C'est donc au cap Percé, et nulle part ailleurs, que selon la carte de 1544, Jean et Sébastien Cabot ont atterri; c'est là que, les premiers entre les navigateurs du XVe siècle, ils auraient foulé le sol du continent américain, et planté les bannières de Saint-Georges et de Saint-Marc, le samedi 24 juin 1497, à cinq heures du matin."

(Harrisse 1882, 66)

Sebastian Cabot (c. 1484 - 1557)

Sebastian Cabot, son of John Cabot, was born in Venice, Italy. In 1509, he was the first navigator to try to circumnavigate the New World by going north. He may have gotten as far as the entrance to Hudson Bay, which he took to be the passage to Cathay (China), but he had to turn back as his crew refused to go any further.

In 1512, Sebastian was hired by Spain whom he served, first as navy captain, then as pilot-major, from 1518 to 1547. At the age of 63, he retired to England, where he died in 1557.

The Corte Real brothers

Gaspar Corte Real (c. 1450 - c. 1501)
Miguel Corte Real (c. 1450 - c. 1502)
Vasco Añes Corte Real (?)

Portugal had been in the race to explore routes to Asia for more than a century when one of its explorers, Bartolomeo Dias, was the first to round the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1487. Satisfied with this success, King John II of Portugal turned down Christopher Columbus's 1489 proposal to look for a route to Asia by going west. Shortly thereafter, Columbus discovered America in the name of Spain. Some time later, it was learned that John Cabot had possibly reached Asia for England by going through the northwest.

In 1500, intent on preserving trade with Asia, Manuel I, King of Portugal since 1491, asked Gaspar Corte Real to find a passage to the land of silks and spices by going northwest as Cabot had done. Gaspar was the son of the governor of Terceira in the Azores archipelago. This archipelago, situated towards Newfoundland from Europe, was  --  and is still  --  one of the major landmarks for Atlantic voyages. Because of his connection to the Azores, the Atlantic was not entirely new to Gaspar.

"[…] les Portugais ayants descouvert toutes les rivages de l'Afrique en Orient, Colomb par la charge des Roys Catholiques feit le mesme en l'occident, & comme chaque nation vouloit avoir les Moluques en sa possession; Gaspar Cortereal l'an MCCCCC cherchant quelque passage aux terres des espiceries trouva un fleuve qu'il appella Nevado, à cause des neiges & grandes froidures: mais ne pouvant supporter une si excessive froidure, feit voiles vers le Midy, & descouvrit toutes ces terres jusques au cap de Malua".

(Wytfliet 1607, 133)

Gaspar Corte Real went in search of lands to the west and the King granted him the profits from anything he found. In 1500, he reached a cold, snow-covered land in the northwestern Atlantic. The following year, in 1501, Gaspar made a second voyage with three ships and found "Terra Verde" (Greenland), so called because of its tall trees. Only two of the ships returned, bringing 57 captured Beothuk, who were then sold as slaves to defray the costs of the voyage. The third ship, with Gaspar and all his crew on board, disappeared.

In the spring of 1502, Gaspar's brother Miguel left Lisbon to look for his brother. He, too, would disappear. In 1503, Vasco Añes, a third brother, was refused permission by the King to continue the search.

Like the Cabots, the Corte Reals did not leave descriptions of their voyages, but they reached the shores of eastern Newfoundland and perhaps Labrador, and they did leave a map, the "Cantino" chart. The coast of Labrador bears the name "Terra Cortereale" on many old maps.

Though he didn't return from his second voyage in 1501, Gaspar's ships brought Native people back to Portugal, making this voyage particularily significant for Europe. These were the first Native people of this part of North America that had been seen on the Iberian Peninsula. Like the Native people whom Columbus had brought back when he returned from the Caribbean, these 57 were extraordinary to the Europeans -- everybody wanted to see them. Sold into slavery, they died quickly.

The Portuguese fishermen were impressed by the reports of schools of fish near Newfoundland. Cod fishing developed so rapidly after the Corte Real voyages that, as of 1506, Portugal levied a tax on cod from Newfoundland. In fact, Newfoundland bears the name of "Terra de Bacallaos" ("land of cod") on some old maps.

Jacques Cartier: New land for the French king

Jacques Cartier (c. 1491 - 1557)

Born around 1491 in Saint-Malo, France, Jacques Cartier had been navigating for many years when the King of France, François I, sent him to discover "certaines îles et pays où l'on dit qu'il se doit trouver grande quantité d'or et autres riches choses" ["certain islands and lands where it is said there are great quantities of gold and other riches"] as well as, if possible, the route to Asia.

In 1534, with 61 men, Cartier explored and named the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only the Strait of Belle Isle was known to European fishermen at that time. He took possession of the new territory in the name of the King and then, as did most explorers of the time, returned to France with two Native people (Taignoagny and Domagaya) kidnapped in Gaspé in order, as Cartier wrote, to get information from them.

In 1535, guided by Taignoagny and Domagaya, Cartier became the first European to penetrate the St. Lawrence River to "Canada," an Iroquois name for part of the region that became known as Quebec. The Native people of Stadacona (Quebec) having refused to accompany him, Cartier found other guides near present-day Portneuf to lead him to Hochelaga (Montreal). Wanting to impress the inhabitants of Hochelaga, Cartier put on his dress uniform, ordered his sailors into formation and entered the Iroquoian village to the sound of "trompettes et autres instruments de musique" ["trumpets and other musical instruments,"] which the local people had not seen before. After the festivities, the hosts brought Cartier to the top of Mount Royal, from which they explained the major waterways by showing him the rivers on the horizon that came from huge freshwater seas to the west. They also told him that the gold, silver and copper objects in their possession came from the northwest. Cartier concluded that the passage to Asia could not be very far.

Original quotation, in Ramusio:
"Poscia ci mostrorono con segni, che passate dette tre cadute, si po teua navigar per detto fiume il spatio di tre lune: & che lungo di dette montagne che sono verso tramontana v'è un fiume grande, il quale descende da ponente come il detto fiume: Noi pensammo che quello sia il fiume che passa p il reame di Saguenay. & senza che li faces simo dimanda o segno alcuno presero la catena del subbiotto del Capitano che era d'argen to, & li manico del pugnale di uno de nostri compagni marinari, qual era d'ottone giallo quanto l'oro, & il pendeua dal fianco, & ci mostroron che quello veniua di sopra di detto fiume, & che vi sono di AGOVIONDA che vuol dire maluage genti, iquali vanno armati fino in cima delle dita, mostrandocianche la forma dell'arme loro, lequali sono fatte di corde & legno lavorate & tissute insierne, dandoci ad intendere che detti agouionda di continuo fanno guerra tra loro. ma per difetto di lingua non petemmo intender da loro quanto spatio v'era sino un detto paese. Il Capitan mostro loro del rame rosso, qual chiamano CAIGNETADZE dimostrandoli con segni voltandosi verso detto paese li dimandaua se veniua da quelle parti, & eglino cominciarono a crollar il capo volendo dir no, maben ne significarono che veniua da Saguenay, qual è dalla banda contraria del precedente, & [...]"

(Ramusio 1565, 448)

[french translation]
"Et il nous fut dit et montré par signes, par les trois hommes du pays qui nous avaient conduits, qu'il y avait trois autres sauts d'eau sur ledit fleuve, comme celui où étaient nos barques; mais nous ne pûmes comprendre quelle distance il y avait entre l'un et l'autre, par faute de langue. Puis ils nous montraient par signes que, passé lesdits sauts, l'on pouvait naviguer plus de trois lunes sur le fleuve. [...] et sans que nous leur fissions aucune demande ni signe, ils prirent la chaîne du sifflet du capitaine, qui est d'argent, et un manche de poignard, qui était de laiton jaune comme de l'or, lequel pendait au côté de l'un de nos compagnons mariniers, et montrèrent que cela venait de l'amont dudit fleuve, [...] Le capitaine leur montra du cuivre rouge, qu'ils appellent caignetdazé, indiquant vers ledit lieu et demandant par signes s'il venait de là. Et ils commencèrent à secouer la tête, disant que non, en montrant qu'il venait du Saguenay, qui est à l'opposé du précédent."

(Cartier 1992, 205-206)

Being unable to go over the Lachine rapids in his boats and very short on rations, Cartier returned to winter at Stadacona. The French exchanged European goods with the Native people for game but this food was not enough. Twenty-five Frenchmen died of scurvy before Cartier learned from the Native people that a tea called "annedda," made from some evergreen bark and foliage, could cure the disease in fewer than eight days. On May 6, 1536, Cartier again returned to France, this time with ten people from Canada, including Chief Donnacona, to repeat their stories of gold and silver found in "the Kingdom of Saguenay" situated in the northern interior of Québec. None would ever return to North America.

The King, convinced of the need to set up a colony and explore the country and its minerals further, named Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, one of his courtiers, to head a new expedition of some 400 to 700 men and women, whom he was to govern. Cartier was named Captain General and master pilot of the vessels. As Roberval was late in leaving, Cartier weighed anchor first and, in August 1541, landed at the spot known today as Cap-Rouge, where he set up the colony of Charlesbourg-Royal. This was the first attempt at colonization by the French in Canada. Cartier had some gold and quartz crystals extracted, which he thought were diamonds, before returning to Hochelaga with the intention of getting over the Lachine Rapids. The difficulty and the length of the portage, as well as the description of the numerous rapids that followed, discouraged his crew.

On his return to Charlesbourg-Royal, the hostility of the Native people revealed an important incident. Only Thévet's testimony and that of some Basque fishermen supply the facts. Some foolish French youth, who wanted to demonstrate the efficiency of their swords, had severed the limbs of some Native people. This led to a retaliation in which 35 of Cartier's men were killed. After a winter lived under the constant threat of attack, Cartier returned to France. He crossed paths with Roberval near Newfoundland, but refused to obey the order to turn back.

The explorer would be blamed for disobeying his superior, for the failure of this first attempt at settlement and for his false diamonds (and other minerals thought originally to be gold and silver). He died in St. Malo in 1557. As the first person to inform Europeans about the St. Lawrence River, its populations and its natural resources, Cartier has found a better reception in history than he received in his own time. However even Champlain, who had great regard for Cartier, later said that his predecessor could have accomplished more if he had left the safety of his own ships.

Thévet explains the reason for slow colonization in a passage describing how the Indians make torches.

"Ainsi se voulurent ils defendre contre les premiers, qui allerent decouvrir leur païs, faisans effort, avec quelques gresses & huiles, de mettre le feu la nuict es navires des autres abordées au rivage de la mer. Dont les nostres informez de ceste entreprise, y donnerent tel ordre, qu'ils ne furent aucunement incommodez. Toutefois j'ay entendu que ces pauvres Sauvages n'avoient machiné ceste entreprise, que justement & à bonne raison, consideré le tort qu'ils avoient receu des autres. C'est qu'estãs les nostres descenduz en terre, aucuns jeunes folastres par passetemps, vicieux toutefois & irraisonnables, comme par une maniere de tyrannie couppoient bras & jambes à quelques uns de ces pauvres gens, seulement disoient ils pour essayer, si leurs espées trenchoient bien, nonobstant que ces pauvres Barbares les eussent receu humainem?t avecques toute douceur & amytié. Et par ainsi depuis n'ont permis aucuns Chrestiens aborder & mettre pié à terre en leurs rivages & limites, [...]"

(Thévet 1558, 157)

Martin Frobisher: The pirate-explorer

Martin Frobisher (c. 1539 - 1594)

A poor student but with a keen interest in navigation, Martin Frobisher learned from his maternal uncle, Sir John York, with whom he was living, that Asia was a land of boundless riches. At the age of 14, in 1553, Frobisher went to Guinea for the first time. He was lucky  --  only one quarter of the expedition returned and he was among the survivors. The following year, during a voyage to the same country, an African chief took him hostage for some months. Until 1573, Frobisher was a privateer, but brought so much back to Queen Elizabeth's treasury that his imprisonments for piracy never lasted long. Wandering the ocean, Frobisher developed dreams of finding a passage to Asia through the northwest.

After 15 years of perseverance, Frobisher found investors to finance his project and attracted support from the Crown. On June 7, 1576, Frobisher left Ratcliff with 35 men on two ships. The Queen saw them off at Greenwich. Going through the Shetland Islands, they set sail west, towards Greenland. At the end of July, Frobisher's ship alone reached an unknown coast and entered a bay that the explorer assumed was a strait, and which he named "Frobisher." Toward the end of August, using sign language, Frobisher bartered red meat for trinkets with some Inuit. Five sailors visited the Inuit against orders and were never seen again. A short while later, Frobisher seized an Inuk and his kayak and brought them back to England. The Inuk and his craft were marvelled at by Londoners, just as the Spaniards and French had previously marvelled at Native peoples. Sadly, the Inuk died of a cold shortly thereafter. Of prime importance to Frobisher, however, an "expert" found gold in the piece of mineral that he had brought back, allowing him to find sponsors of a second expedition.

The ship owners of the first voyage regrouped under the name "Cathay Company" to sponsor Frobisher's second voyage. Queen Elizabeth granted him a considerable sum of money and a ship, the Ayde. This time, he was asked to mine for gold and to have only one ship explore. He left, on May 31, 1577, from Harwich with three ships and some 120 men, including 30 soldiers and 11 gentlemen. Frobisher looked for the five men who had disappeared the previous year and found their bloodied clothes. Before returning to England, he captured an Inuit man, woman and child to bring with him, and a battle ensued. The Inuit's bows and arrows got the better of the English harquebuses and bows and Frobisher was wounded. The captured Inuit would all die approximately one month after arriving in England, and the approximately 200 tons of mineral (marcasite) that Frobisher brought back would not be promising enough for the investors, who were becoming ambitious and required more.

"The day following, being the 19 of Julie [1577], our Captaine returned to the shippe, with good newes of great riches, which shewed it selfe in the bowels of those barren mountaines, wherwith we were all satisfied. A sudden mutation. The one part of us being almost swallowed up the night before, with cruell Neptunes force, and the rest on shoare, taking thought for their greedie paunches, how to find the way to New found land: at one moment we were all wrapt with joy, forgetting both where we were, and what we had suffered. Behold the glorie of man, to night contemning riches, and rather looking for death then otherwise: and tomorrowe devising howe to satisfie his greedie appetite with golde."

(Hakluyt 1589, 624)

The following year, Frobisher directed a fleet of 15 vessels carrying some 400 men, with the mission of setting up a colony and bringing back to England 2,000 tons of rock. Leaving on May 31, 1578, some of the fleet drifted for weeks in Hudson Strait due to ice and bad winds. One of the vessels sunk with some of the construction wood on board but the crew managed to save itself on the ice. The crew of another ship abandoned the fleet and returned to England. Frobisher managed to land with the rest in a little arm of Frobisher "Strait". He called this inlet "Countess of Warwick Sound", and from it he searched for minerals. With only coal for heating, Frobisher had a house built of stone and lime with a wooden roof, hoping to assess during a future voyage how these construction materials reacted to northern cold. Frobisher was to have left 100 men and continued mining, but lack of food, the breakage of the casks with the beer rations, and the loss of the construction wood for a house made a colony impossible.

Back in England the following autumn, Frobisher continued his career in the navy while the mineral that had been brought back was analyzed. The result: it contained no gold. The Cathay Company went bankrupt.

Frobisher finally managed to get to Asia in 1585. He was vice-admiral under Sir Francis Drake who, with 25 ships, inflicted heavy losses on the Spanish fleet and the Spanish colonies in the East Indies and returned with immense booty. In 1588, he was knighted for his services in important positions against the Spanish Armada. He continued to harass Spanish ships until 1594, when he took a bullet in his side during an assault. He died a few days later in Plymouth.

Frobisher's voyages to Baffin Island were the first European attempt to mine mineral wealth from the Canadian Arctic. However, because he did not return with any maps or detailed navigational descriptions, the English could not discern where he had been. Hakluyt and his contemporaries placed Frobisher's strait on the southern tip of Greenland.

John Davis: The Master Navigator

John Davis (1550 - 1605)

John Davis had the good luck to have very special childhood neighbours in his home and birthplace of Sandridge, Devonshire: Humphrey and Adrien Gilbert, as well as their half-brother, Walter Raleigh. All three would be famous for their explorations, their sea adventures and their relationship with Queen Elizabeth I. The first two were older than Davis, but Walter was his age. In addition, one of Davis's personal friends was John Dee, the great astronomer and mathematician. Thus, very early on, Davis was in touch with the explorers, cartographers and scientists of his time. We don't know where he studied but he was not yet 30 when his knowledge of navigation and scientific cartography was recognized. Like many of his contemporaries, he was convinced of the existence of a northwest passage that led to Asia, and his great ambition was to discover it. Through his friends, he met the Queen's secretary, who convinced the sponsors of Martin Frobisher's exploration a few years earlier, to finance his expedition. The motivation for the sponsors was that the Northwest Passage would allow the English to trade in Asia without crossing Portuguese and Spanish territories.

Davis left Dartmouth on June 7, 1585 with two ships, and followed the same route as Frobisher, passing south of Greenland, where he met some of the Inuit of that country. Heading up the west coast of Greenland, he then crossed to Exeter Bay, on the coast of Baffin Island. The observations he made during this first voyage led him to believe that the passage to Asia was either west through Cumberland Sound or north of Davis Strait.

The following year, Davis undertook another voyage in the same area. Two of the four ships of the expedition were sent to explore the east coast of Greenland. Davis sailed the other two into Davis Strait up the west coast of Greenland to 67º north latitude. A barrier of ice forced them to head southwest to Baffin Island and then south as far as the estuary of Hamilton Inlet, where Native people attacked the crew. Two men were killed and others wounded. Despite this incident, the English sailors took the time to fill their holds with cod before returning to England in October after a five-month voyage.

Not satisfied with his results so far, the persevering explorer took to sea again on May 19, 1587. This time, Davis reached 72º12' N on the west coast of Greenland before being pushed back by violent winds. He headed southwest  --  following the margins of the ice drifting from the Arctic to the coast of Baffin Island and sailing south to Cumberland Sound and Frobisher Bay anew. Passing by Hudson Strait, he was struck by strong water currents at that location. This phenomenon would be described as a "furious overfall" on the Hakluyt map and the Molyneux globe. The current and the ice prevented his going further with his light ship, so he headed south along the Labrador coast to a cape, which he named "Chidley," and entered the Labrador fjord which bears his name today (Davis Inlet). Before returning to England in mid-September, he passed by Hamilton Inlet again to cover at least part of the expedition's costs with a catch of cod.

(Davis' second voyage)

"The seventh of July, being very desirious to search the habitation of this countrey, I went my selfe with our new pinnesse into the body of the land, thinking it to be firme continent, and passing by a very large river, a great flaw of winde tooke me, whereby we were constrained to seeke succor for that night, which being had, I landed with the most part of my company, and went to the toppe of a high mountaine, hoping from thence to see into the county: but the mountaines were so many and so mighty as that my purpose prevailed not: [...] my selfe having esyyed a very strange sight, especially to me that never before saw the like, which was a mighty whirlwinde taking by the water in very great quantity, furiously mounting it into ayze, which whirlewinde was not for a puffe or blast, but continually for the space of three houres, with very little intermission, which fith it was in the course that it should passe, we were constrained that night to take by our lodging under the rocks."

(Hakluyt 1589, 783)

Davis primarily described the Inuit of Greenland, where he had stopped, but we can perhaps infer something about the Baffin Island Inuit from his observations. Davis's friendly approach towards the Inuit changed when he discovered that they had stolen his anchor. They had become displeased with their visitor earlier, when Davis interrupted their religious ceremonies. Davis's accounts tell of the many difficulties involved in the meeting between Europeans and Inuit.

Even though he did not progress further west in the continent than Frobisher did, Davis greatly contributed to Europe's knowledge of the Arctic and to the conducting of subsequent explorations. He drew maps of long stretches of the coast of Greenland, Baffin Island and Labrador, and recorded observations of the ice, relief, rock formations, temperature, vegetation and animal life of these areas. The log of his third voyage still served as a model for ships' logs three centuries later. Though the original maps of his voyages are lost, the results of his discoveries are found on the maps of his time, including the Hakluyt-Wright (1598-1600) map of the world and the Molyneux globe. The accounts of Davis's voyages were published by Hakluyt, beginning in 1598.

After his 1597 expedition Davis no longer returned to the Arctic, but he did reach Asia. He got there for the first time in 1598 as a pilot with one of the expeditions conducted for large commercial companies. In 1600, he became chief pilot for the first expedition of the East India Company. On his three voyages to the Indies, he drew geographical maps and records information that was important for navigating in the Orient. On 27 December 1605, off the coast of Malaysia, Davis was assassinated by one of the Japanese pirates whose ship he had just captured.

Waters of Riches

John Cabot was not searching for new fishing grounds when he discovered his "New found land" in 1497; he was seeking a new commercial route to Asia. Yet within just a few years, hundreds of ships carrying thousands of fishermen were sailing annually to the rich fishing grounds he had stumbled upon. Breton and Norman fishermen were voyaging to Newfoundland as early as 1504, soon to be joined by the Portuguese, the Basques, and the English. So many nationalities were represented in this new enterprise that historians commonly speak of the 16th century as the era of the "International Fishery."

The remarkable speed and intensity with which Europeans began exploiting these "waters of riches" reveals much about Europe in the 1500s. The vitality of the fishery was a result not only of the abundance of cod but also of the strength of market demands brought on by population expansion, urbanization, and commercial growth at home in Europe.

Europe's vigorous exploitation of the New World's fishing grounds was possible because the necessary seafaring skills, fishing technologies, curing methods, and markets had already been well developed, thanks to the long-existing European fisheries in the Irish Sea, off Iceland, and elsewhere. The Newfoundland fishery was an extension of a well-established domestic industry that served established domestic markets and employed tried and tested methods to catch, preserve, and deliver fish.

It is important to understand that fish was never the food of the poor. By the time fish from North American waters were caught, cured, transported and delivered to market, most Europeans could not afford them. Yet, as the population of Europe grew, and as Europe became more urbanized, there were enough Europeans who could afford it, and for whom a diet that included fish was desirable. There was soon a constant, ready market for fish delivered from the New World.

Perhaps most important to the development of the fishery was the fact that the fish found in such abundance in Newfoundland's waters was cod. Unlike herring, mackerel, or salmon, cod is relatively fat-free and preserves well using techniques involving salt and air-drying. In fact, the flesh can become so dehydrated that it becomes remarkably light in weight, making it perfect for transporting not only by sea but also overland. All these factors were significant to the fishery  --  the abundance of cod, the simplicity of catching it, the ease of preserving it, the relatively low cost of transporting it to markets both coastal and inland, and the growing demand in Europe by those able to afford it. Combined, these things made the fishing grounds of northeastern North America truly "waters of riches" that attracted the attention of Europeans from the moment they were discovered.

The Fabled Northwest Passage

When John Cabot ventured into the North Atlantic in the Matthew in 1497, his goal had nothing to do with fish, even though his discovery of the waters of riches was unquestionably the most dramatic result of that voyage. Cabot (like Columbus before him) hoped to prove that a direct sea route existed between Europe and Asia. He did not know that a continental landmass entirely unknown to Europeans blocked his way. As Europeans became aware that a "New World" existed across the Atlantic, many found ways to profit by the discovery through the fishery or by the fur trade. Others, however, remained determined to find a sea route to Asia. This belief led to the search for the fabled Northwest Passage, a search that persisted for centuries.

Such a search was only possible because several factors came together in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. These factors included the development of sturdy new ships that were capable of long-distance oceanic voyages, and the willingness and ability of merchants to risk some of their capital against the new commercial opportunities that a sea route to Asia would provide. Also, there was a growing confidence among mariners that they would survive oceanic voyages, thanks in part to the development of new navigational instruments and the accumulation of oceanic experience. Each exploration added to that experience and knowledge. Thus, the earliest voyages of Cabot, Corte Real, and others established for Europeans the existence of North America, while those of the next generation, such as Giovanni da Verrazano and Jacques Cartier in the 1520s, 1530s and 1540s, made clear that a sea route through North America did not exist. This left explorers searching for a northern passage around North America  --  the only other possibility was a sea route around the southern tip of the New World, and this would remain Spain's jealously guarded secret for several decades after being discovered by Magellan in 1520.

The most persistent efforts to discover a Northwest Passage were made by the English. The first significant expeditions were those of Martin Frobisher and John Davis in the 1570s and 1580s; then came renewed efforts in the 1610s and 1620s, including the ill-fated voyage of Henry Hudson as well as expeditions by Thomas Button, William Gibbons, Robert Bylot and William Baffin. These voyages succeeded only in proving that the Arctic was a forbidding and inhospitable place for Europeans, and that if a Northwest Passage did exist, it was unlikely to be a commercial success. By then, the Portuguese, Dutch, English and others had all come to the conclusion that the only practical route to Asia lay to the south, around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. Interest in a commercial Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia faded, although it resurfaced well into the 18th century. By the time the search to find the elusive Passage was revived with renewed vigour in the nineteenth century, the effort was driven more by scientific curiosity than by commercial ambition.


The ships used by early explorers such as Cabot and the Corte Reals were much different than the Viking knarrs of 500 years earlier. By the 16th century, sailing vessels were sophisticated pieces of technology, carrying vast expanses of canvas manipulated by many metres of ropes and spars. They had three masts and along with square sails they carried at least one lateen-rigged (triangular) sail that hung across the wind, making it easier to tack and steer.

Vessels were carvel-built; that is, the planks of their hulls formed a smooth skin rather the overlapping style favoured by the Vikings. They were broad vessels, built to withstand the heavy beating of the stormy North Atlantic, but they were not particularly large, since smaller vessels handled better in unknown, coastal waters. John Cabot's Matthew was only 50 tonnes (meaning it could carry 50 tonnes of cargo), with a crew of less than 20; Martin Frobisher's Gabriel was even smaller. Jacques Cartier penetrated the St Lawrence River in the Grande Hermine, somewhere between 100 and 120 tonnes in size with a crew of 60, but John Davis ventured into ice-choked Baffin Bay in a vessel of only 18 tonnes.

Life aboard these small vessels was uncomfortable to say the least. Crew's quarters were cramped, dirty and cold. Fires were lit only in calm weather and washing facilities were nonexistent. Food rations were very monotonous. Frobisher's men, for example, received daily a half-kilogram of dry biscuit, four litres of beer (preferable to water, which went stale), a kilogram of salt meat, some dried peas, a quarter of a salted fish, and some butter, cheese, rice, oatmeal, raisins and nuts. The absence of vitamins made scurvy a constant threat. One mariner of the time summed up the seafaring life: "a hard Cabbin, cold and salt Meate, broken sleepes, mouldy bread, dead beere, wet Clothes, want of fire."

Besides a compass, used to establish which direction was north, 16th-century navigators possessed a small number of instruments to help them find their way across the empty ocean. Using an astrolabe, a quadrant, or a cross-staff, they could measure the angle above the horizon of the North Star or the sun at noon and thereby calculate the ship's latitude (longitude being left pretty much to guesswork). Of course, skies were not always clear enough to permit the necessary observations. Next, speed was measured by trailing a line in the wake  --  knots tied in the line at equal intervals could be used to calculate how fast the ship was going. There were no coastal charts, and early explorers had to keep a constant lookout for shoals and rocks. They used a weighted line dropped into the water to keep track of their depth.

The ships that followed in the explorers of the early part of the century tended to be larger and heavier. They were working ships, designed to carry cargo or colonists. The remains of one of these vessels were recovered from the water of Red Bay on the south coast of Labrador in the Strait of Belle Isle. It was the San Juan, a 300-tonne galleon used by whalers from the Basque region of northern Spain. Wrecked in a storm in 1565 and preserved for more than 400 years in the mud at the bottom of the bay, the San Juan is one of the oldest shipwrecks located in Canada. Its discovery has revealed a great deal of information about the vessels used by the earliest European visitors.


The "Behaim Globe" of 1492  --  the same year that Columbus set out on his first voyage  --  depicts an empty ocean between Europe and Asia. Ten years later, the "Cantino Chart" (1502), originated by the survivors of the Gaspar Corte-Real voyages, was the first to depict any part of Canada. In the north central part of the chart is the southern tip of Greenland and the east coast of Newfoundland. A different outline of this area appeared a few years later with the La Cosa (1500-08), Contarini (1506) and Ruysch (1507) world maps, based on the hypothesis that Greenland and Newfoundland were joined, all part of a vast northeastern extension of Asia. The Ruysch map shows the earliest surviving place name in Canada: "In. Baccalauras" is now Baccalieu Island off Breakheart Point, between Trinity and Conception Bays.

In 1507, the geographer Martin Waldseemüller startled Europe with a new globe that suggested Columbus and his successors had travelled to a separate continent from Asia, one previously unknown to Europe. Waldseemüller's globe and an inset on his world map revolutionized the cartography of the New World and introduced the place name "America," after a minor Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. As the notion of a new continent slowly gained credibility, expeditions were sent to find a way through the inconvenient landmass.

Subsequent voyages by Verrazano (1524) and Gomes (1525) coasted from Florida to Newfoundland. Although they could not find a through-passage, they produced rough charts of the coast. The best of these were Spanish charts by Ribeiro (1529) and Santa Cruz (1541). All of these charts show Cabot Strait as a bay, and some, such as those by Santa Cruz, depict Nova Scotia as an island.

In 1534, King François I dispatched the first Cartier expedition to probe a westward opening north of Newfoundland (Strait of Belle Isle) that had been reported by Basque fishermen. With the three Cartier voyages (1534, 1535, and 1541-2) the geography of the St. Lawrence Valley first appeared on maps. None of Cartier's original charts have survived. Those believed to be closest to his originals are a chart of the first expedition drawn by the cartographer Jean Rotz (1542), and the 'Harleian Map' (1547) and two maps by Pierre Desceliers (1546 and 1550), of the later expeditions. These last three maps attached the name "Canada" to the north coast of the St. Lawrence, near Québec. According to Cartier, the word meant "a village" in the language of the Iroquoian people who lived there. In addition to these French maps there are others in Portuguese and Spanish, such as the beautiful Spanish map made for Nicolas Vallard in 1547.

Few printed maps of the period deserve consideration. The exception is the famous world chart by Gerard Mercator (1569). It introduced the Mercator map projection on which a straight line is a line of constant compass bearing. As such it became indispensible to navigators and consequently much copied. Practically all the maps showing Canada, to the end of the 16th century, were based on Mercator's map.

After Cartier's expeditions into the St. Lawrence Valley and the earlier ones south of Newfoundland showed that there was no western opening to Asia, further searches were abandoned. It was the English who now attempted to find a northern passage to the west. The existence of such a route was first theorized by Sebastian Cabot in 1508-09 and appeared on most early maps, but an effort to find it was first undertaken by Martin Frobisher in 1576. Only his first of three successive expeditions resulted in exploration. The other two were attempts to mine gold on Baffin Island.

The published maps, two by James Beare (1578), a captain of one of Frobisher's ships and one by Michael Lok (1582), were so crude that cartographers had little idea where Frobisher had been. On later maps the strait (Frobisher Bay) he thought was a western passage appeared on the southern tip of Greenland. John Davis's three voyages (1585-87) first appeared on maps in the 1590s. The maps by Mercator (1595) and Wytfliet (1597) are representative of Davis's contribution.

The magnificent world map by Edward Wright, published by Richard Hakluyt in 1599, best illustrates 16th century accomplishments. It is an honest depiction of the known world, uncluttered by myth and unsubstantiated hypothesis.

Significant maps of the period

Beare, James.

[World Map.] In George Best, A true discourse... . 1578.

[Frobisher's Straits.] 1578

"Carta du navigar... ." ["Cantino Chart."] [ca. 1502].

Contarini, Giovanni

[Contarini/Roselli World Map.] 1506.

[Desceliers, Pierre]

["World Map."] 1546.

Desceliers, Pierre.

["World Map."] 1550.

La Cosa, Juan de

["La Cosa World Map."] 1500, [1508].

Lok, Michael

Illustri Viro, Domino Philippo Sidneo... . 1582.

Mercator, Gerard

Nova Et Aucta Orbis Terrae... . 1569.

Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio. 1595.

Ribeiro, Diogo.

"Carta Universal... ." (Vatican version), 1529.

Rotz, Jean

["Map of North America and West Indies."] 1542.

[Rotz, Jean]

["Harleian Map"] [1542-44].

Ruysch, Johannes

Universalior Cogniti Orbis Tabula... . [1507-08].

Santa Cruz, Alonso de

["Chart of the North Atlantic," from the Islario General.]

["Nicolas Vallard Map."] 1547.

Waldseemüller, Martin

[Waldseemüller Globe] 1507.

Universalis Cosmographia... . (New World Inset) [1507].

[Wright, Edward]

[World Map.] Published by Hakluyt in Principal navigations... .1598.

Wytfliet, Cornelius

Estotilandia Et Labradoris Terra. 1597.

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