THE POLAR EXPEDITIONS AND THE SEARCH FOR THE NORTH-WEST PASSAGE, II
John Verrazzano—Jacques Cartier and his three voyages to Canada—The town of Hochelaga—Tobacco—The scurvy—Voyage of Roberval—Martin Frobisher and his voyages—John Davis—Barentz and Heemskerke—Spitzbergen—Winter season at Nova Zembla—Return to Europe—Relics of the Expedition.
From 1492 to 1524, France had stood aloof, officially at least, from enterprises of discovery and colonization. But Francis I. could not look on quietly while the power of his rival Charles V. received a large addition by the conquest of Mexico. He therefore ordered John Verrazzano, a Venetian who was in his service, to make a voyage of exploration. We will pause here for a short time, although the various places may have already been visited on several occasions, because for the first time the banner of France floats over the shores of the New World. This exploration besides, was to prepare the way for those of Jacques Cartier and of Champlain in Canada, as well as for the unlucky experiments in colonization of Jean Ribaut, and of Laudonnière, the sanguinary voyage of reprisals of Gourgues, and Villegagnon's attempt at a settlement in Brazil.
We possess no biographical details with regard to Verrazzano. Under what circumstances did he enter the service of France? What was his title to the command of such an expedition? Nothing is known of the Venetian traveller, for all we possess of his writings is the Italian translation of his report to Francis I. published in the collection of Ramusio. The French translation of this Italian translation exists in an abridged form in Lescarbot's work on New France and in the Histoire des Voyages. For our very rapid epitome we shall make use of the Italian text of Ramusio, except in some passages where Lescarbot's translation has appeared to give an idea of the rich, original, and marvellously modulated language of the sixteenth century.
Having set out with four vessels to make discoveries in the ocean, says Verrazzano in a letter written from Dieppe to Francis I. on the 8th July, 1524, he was forced by a storm to take refuge in Brittany with two of his vessels, the Dauphine and the Normande, there to repair damages. Thence he set sail for the coast of Spain, where he seems to have given chase to some Spanish vessels. We see him leave with the Dauphine alone on the 17th of January, 1524, a small inhabited island in the neighbourhood of Madeira, and launch himself upon the ocean with a crew of fifty men, well furnished with provisions and ammunition for an eight months' voyage.
Twenty-five days later he has made 1500 miles to the west, when he is assailed by a fearful storm; and twenty-five days afterwards, that is to say on the 8th or 9th of March, having made about 1200 miles, he discovers land at 30° north latitude, which he thought had never been previously explored. "When we arrived, it seemed to us to be very low, but on approaching within a quarter of a league we saw by the great fires which were lighted along the harbours and borders of the sea, that it was inhabited, and in taking trouble to find a harbour in which to land and make acquaintance with the country, we sailed more than 150 miles in vain, so that seeing the coast trended ever southwards, we decided to turn back again." The Frenchmen finding a favourable landing-place, perceived a number of natives who came towards them, but who fled away when they saw them land. Soon recalled by the friendly signs and demonstrations of the French, they showed great surprise at their clothes, their faces, and the whiteness of their skin. The natives were entirely naked, except that the middle of the body was covered with sable-skins, hung from a narrow girdle of prettily woven grasses, and ornamented with tails of other animals, which fell to their knees. Some wore crowns of birds' feathers. "They have brown skins," says the narrative, "and are exactly like the Saracens; their hair is black, not very long, and tied at the back of the head in the form of a small tail. Their limbs are well proportioned, they are of middle height, although a little taller than ourselves, and have no other defect beyond their faces being rather broad; they are not strong, but they are agile, and some of the greatest and quickest runners in the world." It was impossible for Verrazzano to collect any details about the manners and mode of life of these people, on account of the short time that he remained among them. The shore at this place was composed of fine sand interspersed here and there with little sandy hillocks, behind which were scattered "groves and very thick forests which were wonderfully pleasant to look upon." There were in this country, as far as we could judge, abundance of stags, fallow deer and hares, numerous lakes, and streams of sparkling water, as well as a quantity of birds.
This land lies at 34°. It is therefore the part of the United States which now goes by the name of Carolina. The air there is pure and salubrious, the climate temperate, the sea is entirely without rocks, and in spite of the want of harbours it is not unfavourable for navigators.