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When America was first made known to Europe, the part assumed by France on the borders of that new world was peculiar, and is little recognized. While the Spaniard roamed sea and land, burning for achievement, red-hot with bigotry and avarice, and while England, with soberer steps and a less dazzling result, followed in the path of discovery and gold-hunting, it was from France that those barbarous shores first learned to serve the ends of peaceful commercial industry.
A French writer, however, advances a more ambitious claim. In the year 1488, four years before the first voyage of Columbus, America, he maintains, was found by Frenchmen. Cousin, a navigator of Dieppe, being at sea off the African coast, was forced westward, it is said, by winds and currents to within sight of an unknown shore, where he presently descried the mouth of a great river. On board his ship was one Pinzon, whose conduct became so mutinous that, on his return to Dieppe, Cousin made complaint to the magistracy, who thereupon dismissed the offender from the maritime service of the town. Pinzon went to Spain, became known to Columbus, told him the discovery, and joined him on his voyage of 1492.
To leave this cloudland of tradition, and approach the confines of recorded history. The Normans, offspring of an ancestry of conquerors,-- the Bretons, that stubborn, hardy, unchanging race, who, among Druid monuments changeless as themselves, still cling with Celtic obstinacy to the thoughts and habits of the past,--the Basques, that primeval people, older than history,--all frequented from a very early date the cod-banks of Newfoundland. There is some reason to believe that this fishery existed before the voyage of Cabot, in 1497; there is strong evidence that it began as early as the year 1504; and it is well established that, in 1517, fifty Castilian, French, and Portuguese vessels were engaged in it at once; while in 1527, on the third of August, eleven sail of Norman, one of Breton, and two of Portuguese fishermen were to be found in the Bay of St. John.
From this time forth, the Newfoundland fishery was never abandoned. French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese made resort to the Banks, always jealous, often quarrelling, but still drawing up treasure from those exhaustless mines, and bearing home bountiful provision against the season of Lent.
On this dim verge of the known world there were other perils than those of the waves. The rocks and shores of those sequestered seas had, so thought the voyagers, other tenants than the seal, the walrus, and the screaming sea-fowl, the bears which stole away their fish before their eyes, and the wild natives dressed in seal-skins. Griffius--so ran the story--infested the mountains of Labrador. Two islands, north of Newfoundland, were given over to the fiends from whom they derived their name, the Isles of Demons. An old map pictures their occupants at length,--devils rampant, with wings, horns, and tail. The passing voyager heard the din of their infernal orgies, and woe to the sailor or the fisherman who ventured alone into the haunted woods. "True it is," writes the old cosmographer Thevet, "and I myself have heard it, not from one, but from a great number of the sailors and pilots with whom I have made many voyages, that, when they passed this way, they heard in the air, on the tops and about the masts, a great clamor of men's voices, confused and inarticulate, such as you may hear from the crowd at a fair or market-place whereupon they well knew that the Isle of Demons was not far off." And he adds, that he himself, when among the Indians, had seen them so tormented by these infernal persecutors, that they would fall into his arms for relief; on which, repeating a passage of the Gospel of St. John, he had driven the imps of darkness to a speedy exodus. They are comely to look upon, he further tells us; yet, by reason of their malice, that island is of late abandoned, and all who dwelt there have fled for refuge to the main.
While French fishermen plied their trade along these gloomy coasts, the French government spent it's energies on a different field. The vitality of the kingdom was wasted in Italian wars. Milan and Naples offered a more tempting prize than the wilds of Baccalaos. Eager for glory and for plunder, a swarm of restless nobles followed their knight-errant King, the would-be paladin, who, misshapen in body and fantastic in mind, had yet the power to raise a storm which the lapse of generations could not quell. Under Charles the Eighth and his successor, war and intrigue ruled the day; and in the whirl of Italian politics there was no leisure to think of a new world.
Yet private enterprise was not quite benumbed. In 1506, one Denis of Honfleur explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence; 2 two years later, Aubert of Dieppe followed on his track; and in 1518, the Baron de Lery made an abortive attempt at settlement on Sable Island, where the cattle left by him remained and multiplied.
The crown passed at length to Francis of Angouleme. There were in his nature seeds of nobleness,--seeds destined to bear little fruit. Chivalry and honor were always on his lips; but Francis the First, a forsworn gentleman, a despotic king, vainglorious, selfish, sunk in debaucheries, was but the type of an era which retained the forms of the Middle Age without its soul, and added to a still prevailing barbarism the pestilential vices which hung fog-like around the dawn of civilization. Yet he esteemed arts and letters, and, still more, coveted the eclat which they could give. The light which was beginning to pierce the feudal darkness gathered its rays around his throne. Italy was rewarding the robbers who preyed on her with the treasures of her knowledge and her culture; and Italian genius, of whatever stamp, found ready patronage at the hands of Francis. Among artists, philosophers, and men of letters enrolled in his service stands the humbler name of a Florentine navigator, John Verrazzano.
He was born of an ancient family, which could boast names eminent in Florentine history, and of which the last survivor died in 1819. He has been called a pirate, and he was such in the same sense in which Drake, Hawkins, and other valiant sea-rovers of his own and later times, merited the name; that is to say, he would plunder and kill a Spaniard on the high seas without waiting for a declaration of war.
The wealth of the Indies was pouring into the coffers of Charles the Fifth, and the exploits of Cortes had given new lustre to his crown. Francis the First begrudged his hated rival the glories and profits of the New World. He would fain have his share of the prize; and Verrazzano, with four ships, was despatched to seek out a passage westward to the rich kingdom of Cathay.
Some doubt has of late been cast on the reality of this voyage of Verrazzano, and evidence, mainly negative in kind, has been adduced to prove the story of it a fabrication; but the difficulties of incredulity appear greater than those of belief, and no ordinary degree of scepticism is required to reject the evidence that the narrative is essentially true.
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Pioneers of France in the New World -by- Francis Parkman