Monday, June 8, 2020

The Mariner of St Malo: A Chronicle of the Voyages of Jacques Cartier by Stephen Leacock

Mostly just the wheres and whens
Jacques Cartier
The Mariner of St Malo was published in 1914 as Volume 2 of the Chronicles of Canada, a series of books on Canadian history that would ultimately amount to 32 volumes. This second volume is devoted to the French explorer Jacques Cartier, who first arrived in Canada in 1534. Cartier is popularly known as the “Discoverer of Canada,” or by some the “Father of Canada,” but to non-Canadian readers it is not readily apparent why, since he was not the first European to set foot on Canadian lands. Even if one overlooks the Norse explorers who established settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador around the year 1000, European fishing voyages to these coasts were not uncommon by Cartier’s time. Nor was Cartier the first explorer to touch upon Canadian shores. That would be Englishman John Cabot in 1497, followed by João Fernandes Lavrador of Portugal and Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine who sailed for France (all of whom are covered in the first volume of the Chronicles of Canada series). Cartier, however, was the one who first named the land Canada and claimed it for France. He voyaged beyond the Atlantic Coast into the Saint Lawrence River to the Iroquoian villages of Stadacona (at what is now Quebec City) and Hochelaga (now Montreal). Cartier made three voyages to Canada, the last of which established the first French Canadian settlement at the site of present-day Quebec City.

The author of this account of Cartier’s voyages is Stephen Leacock, a well-known and much respected writer in Canadian literary history. Though he wrote other works of history and biography, Leacock is primarily known as a humorist and author of fiction. There is certainly nothing wrong with Leacock’s writing here, but he seems a bit reined in by the format of the Chronicles of Canada series. Far from an attempt at a comprehensive or authoritative account, this reads more like a book from one of the Time-Life series that were so popular in America a few decades ago. There are only 120 pages of text, and what you get is really just a bare-bones summary. It often reads like simply a list of places where Cartier landed, and the dates in which he was anchored there.

The text goes into a little more detail regarding his interactions with the First Nations people. The events are told, however, in a very romanticized style that depicts Canada as a veritable Garden of Eden, much like America is depicted in folkloric tales of its first Thanksgiving. Cartier’s treatment of the Indigenous is less reprehensible than most other explorers of his century, but the text does mention a few questionable acts that are quickly glossed over. The most interesting chapter in the book discusses what happened after Cartier’s three voyages. The first French settlement, Charlesbourg-Royal, became Canada’s equivalent to America’s lost colony of Roanoke. Leacock also reveals indications that Cartier may have made an undocumented fourth trip to Canada.

The Mariner of St Malo provides an adequate overview of Cartier’s discoveries, but the minimal level of detail makes for a largely unsatisfying exploration narrative. Leacock is not entirely at fault since part of the blame can likely be attributed to Cartier himself for the scant source material he left behind. This book piqued my interest enough, however, to make me want to read Cartier’s original account. The Public Archives of Canada published an annotated English translation of Cartier’s writings in 1924 entitled The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, edited by H. P. Biggar, which promises a more thorough history than this Chronicles of Canada volume.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment