- The Hero and the Historians: Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier
On April 20, 1534, Jacques Cartier set sail from Saint-Malo in search of a western passage to Asia. Instead of discovering a lucrative trading route, however, Cartier passed through the Strait of Belle Isle, which separates Newfoundland and Labrador, and explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Later that year, Cartier arrived at the Gaspé, where he erected a large cross that was interpreted by the Iroquois chief Donnacona to be an attempt to claim the territory for the King of France. Cartier then abducted two of the Chief’s sons, promising to bring them back the following year, and returned to France. The following year, Cartier returned to the Gulf with his captives, as he had said he would, and went on to discover, with the help of his Native guides, the St. Lawrence River. Making his way up the river, Cartier came upon the Iroquoian villages of Stadacona and Hochelaga, on the present-day sites of Quebec City and Montreal. Intrigued by tales of enormous riches to be found in the “Kingdom of the Saguenay,” Cartier would return to the area on a final voyage in 1541 only to be disappointed to find that little of value was to be found in Canada. Rather than navigate a new passage to Asia, Cartier had found a river that would prove to be crucial in French efforts to penetrate into the continent and to establish settlements in North America. However, unlike figures like Samuel de Champlain, who established the first permanent settlement in Quebec City in 1608, or Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who established a settlement in Montreal, Cartier has not enjoyed a prominent place in the official histories of French Canada or in the public’s imagination.
In his new book, The Hero and the Historians, Alan Gordon investigates the reasons that Cartier has been marginalized in the history of French Canada. By tracing Cartier’s evolution from a relatively minor historical figure during the eighteenth century into a heroic one in the nineteenth century and then his return to a secondary place in the twentieth century, Gordon has produced a sophisticated meditation on the writing of history that offers insights into the nature of historical consciousness in French-speaking Canada. In his first book, Making Public Pasts, Gordon explored the ways in which public monuments reflected the assumptions and ambitions of particular individuals and organizations. [End Page 165] Given its focus on the single figure of Cartier, The Hero and the Historians is much more narrowly conceived, but it is clear that Gordon is using Cartier to illustrate the ways in which larger shifts in historical writing, as well as the transition to modernity in the nineteenth century, altered French-Canadian society.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, historians acknowledged Jacques Cartier’s efforts as a navigator but tended not to celebrate him as one of the heroes in the history of New France. Because he had neither established a permanent settlement nor led an explicitly Catholic mission to proselytize the Native peoples, Cartier’s explorations did not fit easily into the existing narratives of the period. Not until the middle decades of the nineteenth century would conservative nationalist writers begin to take another look at Cartier. If Cartier’s apparently secular outlook and as well as his commercial ambitions had made him a less than satisfying figure to the clerical writers of the eighteenth century, by the 1830s and 1840s these realities would be downplayed by a conservative and clerical elite that had become much more interested in restoring the sense of order thought to have been lost in the lead-up to the Rebellions. Conservative nationalists now emphasized the religious aspects of Cartier’s story, focusing on the role that priests might have played on his voyages and pointing to the erection of the cross in the Gaspé. Having been re-imagined as a figure who advanced the objectives of the Church, Cartier was presented as...