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1.2 Arrival & Contact 8

There are many theories about who was the first European to make contact with the indigenous peoples of America. Some experts believe that the first encounters may not have been between First Nations and Europeans at all. Instead, the first meeting may have been between South Americans and North African and/or Middle-Eastern peoples.

The theory is not as crazy as you might think. This is because art and artifacts produced by the indigenous peoples of South America seem to have incorporated certain elements of the Middle-Eastern style. The possible reason for the similarities? Sailors from the famed maritime cultures of Carthage and/or Phoenicia made their way to the New World. And while they were visiting something called cultural flow (trade) took place between the two societies.


The pot on the left is Phoenician in origin and the one on the right was made by Aztecs. Note the similarities in line and contour of the two pots. Could societies separated by 2500 miles of ocean accidentally create things so similar to one another in appearance? Yes. But the probability of this happening is relatively low.

The most likely candidate for earliest European was an Irish monk named Brendan the Navigator; it is believed that Brendan sailed west from Ireland with several followers looking for a new Holy Land of sorts. (This claim is now in question, in that, a fox that was tagged by scientists made its way from Norway to Canada in 2019 (a path human beings may well have followed) see: Instead, he found Iceland. There is even evidence that suggests Brendan may have sailed as far west as Newfoundland. For instance, in a 9th Century Latin book entitled Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis (Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot), Brendan describes sailing in a little ox-hide boat with a band of monks to distant lands. He also mentions ice floes which were probably icebergs off the northern coast of Newfoundland. But Brendan also writes about talking whales and an island inhabited by birds that spoke Latin. Though the account is interesting in a Beatles White Album sort of way, it definitely does not make for compelling evidence.

The first people to actually record their experience (and not meet talking whales in the process) were the Norse in 1,000 AD. Based on the archaeological record, the Norse established small settlements in Labrador. They were likely the first Europeans to make contact with the ill-fated Beothuk First Nation.

The Vikings established fishing communities on the northern coast of Newfoundland. Remnants of their sod houses can still be seen today at archaeological sites around the province. According to the Norse Sagas, the relationship between the Vikings and the native peoples was less than satisfactory.

globe Click here to watch the "Vikings" movie from the Historica web site.

The Norse called the Beothuk Skraelings (taken from the Norwegian word skraelingjar meaning "small and withered"). The Beothuk apparently reminded the Norse of trolls and were described as "ill-favored men with ugly hair on their heads." The skirmishes between the two groups continued until the Vikings finally gave up on colonization and left.

Don't Go West Young Man 9

The next recorded visit did not occur for another five-hundred years. An Italian named Giovanni Caboto sailing for England "re-discovered" Newfoundland in the 16th Century. If he didn't see the Beothuk, they likely saw him. The oral tradition of the Beothuk had prepared them for the eventual return of the white man.

The spiritual teachers of the Mi'kmaq prepared their people by telling them that the spirit Kluskap had prepared them a place where, "No white person can ever come. No white person shall ever enter there. And this place will be a place where you may not come while you are alive. You will only travel there after you die on the Earth World."

And then there were the Wyandot who insisted a person had to head west in order to escape the white people; however, this escape technique was not much of a solution since the Wyandot also believed that "going west" meant you were on the road to the world of the dead. I thought myths were supposed to be consoling?

When the Squamish first made contact with Spaniards the natives thought they were in the presence of the living dead: "The people did not know what it was. At first they believed that the ship was a floating island with sticks growing on it, and cobwebs were hanging from the sticks. As they approached this monstrous [ship] they could see that it was a canoe of tremendous size... Then as they rested their paddles and looked at this great canoe, they saw a man on board. He [the Spaniard] was waiting on the deck. They thought he was dead—walking. They thought he might be from the spirit world, and that he was carrying his coffin on his back. You must understand that this man had a big beard, which was something new to the people, and above this great mass of black beard his face was white. Now, the only pale faces the people had ever seen [before] were on dead men."

Even though the Europeans were not death in the Grim Reaper sense, they brought death with them to North America. In fact, as much as 90% of the First Nations population of the Eastern Woodlands died as a result of exposure to European diseases, I.e. Small pox, measles, diphtheria, typhus, and mumps.

Societies invariably influence one another when they come into contact. It is impossible to deny that the First Nations way of living was more affected than the European due to contact. The table below lists both the positive and negative European influences on the First Nations. Note that the negative list is longer than the positive (I can't help being cynical. I'm a Generation X-er).

The Explorers: Columbus, Cabot & Cartier 10 &

The kings of the Middle Ages liked their Hossenpfeffer. In order to keep their jobs (and their heads), cooks used pepper to improve the taste of their meals. Spices enhanced the flavor of such things as soup, wine, and yes, even Scottish food. Unfortunately, to borrow a quote from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the "royal ugly noble dudes" had to pay crazy prices for spices; and worse still, it took forever for the taste enhancing products to reach England because they had to be imported from distant India.

By the early 15th Century, the spice trade was an integral part of the European economy.  Pepper, in particular, achieved a ridiculous value in France. Back in the day a pound of pepper was worth about the equivalent of $1,000 American dollars today. The possibility of making a profit encouraged people to develop more efficient technologies to travel to India and China.

Before the New World was discovered, there were two routes available to merchants wanting to get to India: the first method was a dangerous and expensive overland route: merchants would have to travel through Muslim controlled lands and pay huge sums of money to travel "safely" along what became known as the Silk Road. The second method required a person to sail around the tip of South Africa. This treacherous journey took months and was fraught with all sorts of danger from pirates, disease, or just plain old bad luck.

But merchants were capitalists. They looked for ways to reduce expenses and increase profits. Capitalism was the driving force behind improving exploration techniques, and consequently, influenced the European colonization of North America.

After being rejected by the kings of France and England, Columbus managed to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his planned western voyage. On August 3, 1492, Columbus' three ships—the Santa Maria, Nina and the Pinta—sailed westward into the unknown.  About two months later on October 12, at two o'clock in the morning, a lookout on the Pinta spotted land.  Jamaica had been rediscovered.

Initially, Columbus and crew believed they had reached the shores of either Japan or China. However, when they went ashore they began to notice that there weren't any Chinese or Japanese people milling around. Being a smart guy Columbus put one and one together and got five when he said to himself: "If this isn't China then I must be in India."

Actually, he had reached the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea (south-east of Florida). He mistakenly thought he was somewhere near the East Indies in the Pacific Ocean (five thousand miles to the west). His mistake led him to call the native Jamaicans Indians. The term Indian, for good or for bad, has since pretty much stuck as a moniker for the natives of North America ever since.

In a culturally sensitive maneuver, Columbus claimed Jamaica in the name of Spain. Some natives of the island were present at what must have been for them a confusing land claiming ceremony. I imagine the natives felt sort of like I did when Denmark claimed (stole?) a tiny Canadian arctic island off the west coast of Greenland called Hans Island. I really hope the Canadian Government introduces conscription soon...

John Cabot

John Cabot (previously referred to as Giovanni Caboto) sailed around the same time (1497 AD) as Columbus. Cabot held the same view as Columbus about the earth: it was round (you know, like all the other planets, the sun, and the moon) and wasn't flat. Actually, the idea that Europeans of the Middle Ages or Renaissance believed the Earth was flat is a complete myth.

In reality, even before the time of Christ the various peoples of Europe by and large believed the Earth to be a sphere. Why do many peole in the 21st Century continue to believe otherwise? You can thank Washington Irving's book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (published in 1828). In this book, Irving claimed Columbus and members of the Catholic Church argued over whether or not the Earth was flat. Irving claimed Columbus believed the Earth was round and launched his famous voyage to prove this very point. The author also claimed that the Church supported the idea of a flat Earth. Irving was right aboue one thing: there was a dispute. However, Columbus and the Church disagreed over the size of the Earth's sphere and not over whether or not it was flat. Irving's book (along with numerous documentaries on Columbus) was flat-out wrong (pun intended). Click here to view the origin of this historical myth and several others.

flat earth

What makes the whole flat earth hypothesis even more foolish is that if you were to go back as far as the 1st Century AD, you would find a cartographer in Egypt named Ptolemy who had determined that the earth was round. Moreover, recent scholarship has revealed that the majority of "educated people" around the world did not believe in a flat earth.

Nevertheless old habits die hard: as of 2013, there are still people, albeit few, who continue to argue the Earth is flat despite the fact Satellites orbit around the Earth taking pictures of the planet. A "Flat Earth Society" was established in the 19th Century and continued until the late 1990s. The organization went into decline upon the death of its leader Charles Johnson. Numerous web sites have since appeared parodying (pretending to be serious but actually poking fun at) the Flat Earth Society. If you're looking for the real site it will be hard to find.

Cabot was in Spain when news of Columbus' discovery of Jamaica broke. Considering the historical importance of the discovery, there really wasn't much excitement in Europe (at least initially). Cabot, however, was pretty stoked about the prospect of leading an expedition of his own. The only problem was he had no money or boat. Therefore, he determined to go to England in search of financial support from the wealthy spice merchants of Bristol.

Luckily for John Cabot King Henry VII regretted not supporting Columbus when he had the chance. Therefore, he resolved not to make that mistake a second time. So, he forced Cabot to dress up like Columbus and speak with a Genoese accent. Haha. I kid, I kid. Henry gave Cabot his approval for an English expedition *cough* but no money.

Did I?  Did I?  Did I?To make up for a lack of cash, Cabot convinced the merchants of Bristol to support his plan to sail west.  Like Columbus, Cabot was convinced a westward course would eventually lead him to China.  But by taking a more northerly route he hoped to avoid the islands Columbus had bumped into in the Caribbean.

Having made all the necessary preparations Cabot left England for China. However, as Cabot was an obsessive compulsive he turned his ship around and headed back to England because he couldn't remember if he had left his home stove on or not... Mmmmm, don't be silly you say? Very well. He actually did cut his trip short but only because the weather turned bad (the fact he couldn't remember whether he left his stove on or not was completely immaterial).

Having checked his stove twenty times to make sure it was in fact off, Cabot and his crew set out for China again (this time in May, 1497). They sailed aboard his ship the Matthew and five weeks later, on June 24th, a lookout sighted land. He had missed Jamaica only to bump into Canada. He has since been called the discover of Canada; but I am personally inclined to give that honor to some unknown descendant of the First Nations peoples.

Jacques Cartier

On April 20, 1534, Jacques Cartier arrived at Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland.  For some strange reason Cartier's written account of the voyage does not mention much about sailing or exploring; nevertheless, he made up for this deficiency by including more than enough useless information. For instance, did you know that his crew chased, killed, and ate a polar bear on May 24, 1534. Pretty important, huh? He didn't mention that he and his crew probably subsequently suffered from explosive diarrhea for the next three days. Bear meat should generally not be eaten. (Google the word Trichinosis and you'll know what I mean.)

Cartier's written accounts describe how poor weather compelled him to find a sheltered harbor along the coast of Newfoundland. After waiting out the storm, he continued sailing southward into what he thought was a bay (it was actually the entrance to the St. Lawrence River).

The north shore of the St. Lawrence was extremely rocky, lacking vegetation. The sight influenced Cartier to write his famous observation that this must have been the "land that God gave to Cain." Actually, God had given it to the Iroquois.

On June 12, Cartier caught sight of some natives (probably Iroquois). Then on July 24, 1534, Cartier took possession of the whole territory (modern day Labrador and Quebec) in the name of the King of France.  A number of Iroquois were present when Cartier planted a 30 foot tall cross during a land claiming ceremony.  As soon as the French were back aboard ship, a canoe arrived bearing an Iroquoian chieftain named Donnacona.  Donnacona protested that the planting of the cross was a violation of his people's territory.

Cartier's account of the incident read as follows: “He [Donnacona] indicated to us the land all around, as if he wanted to say that all the land was his and that we should not have put up the cross without his permission.”  Cartier ended up forcibly seizing Donnacona's two sons that had come to the ship with him. Cartier indicated that he wished to take the Iroquoian men back to France to show his king.  On July 25, Cartier said good-bye to the Iroquois and sailed back to France with Donnacona's sons.

Cartier later established a small settlement near the spot where he had planted the controversial cross.  The Iroquois and the French, at least in the beginning, appeared to be on good terms.

How Canada Got its Name 11

In my reading, I have come across a number of interesting theories about the origin of the word Canada. For example:

1). Portuguese explorers looking for slaves and not finding any scribbled the words acada nada meaning "nothing here" on their maps

2). Although there were no German explorers Canada somehow received its name from the German words keine dah (pronounced "kana dah") which also means "nothing there"

3). In reality, Canada is a country probably named by mistake. While sailing down the St. Lawrence, Cartier overheard Donnacona's sons refer to their village as kanata. Cartier apparently misunderstood what they were saying and assumed the word—which he pronounced as "Canada"—referred to the entire Eastern woodlands region.

globe Click here to watch the "Jacques Cartier" video from the Historica web site.

Cartier Establishes a Colony
Cartier managed to convince Donnacona to visit the king of France. The chief agreed to the plan but never returned home again. I think he is currently buried in a cemetery somewhere in Paris. He probably died of tuberculosis or the plague or diphtheria or typhoid or leprosy. Take your pick. It's amazing that anyone was alive in Europe considering how much disease there was....

When Cartier returned to the Iroquois without Donnacona in 1541, he probably thought to himself, "Awkward." Not surprisingly the Iroquois were a little irritated that their chief had not been returned to them. Consequently, Cartier's small colony was attacked by the Iroquois and thirty-five colonists were killed. Not too long after that Cartier gave up on colonization and sailed home (but not before he checked to see if he had turned off the sink).