The inexorable forces of expansion, jumping the coast battlements of Newfoundland and Cape Breton, pushed westwards to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the great hinterland of the unknown country which lay behind and which, if rumour be but true, was indeed the stony way to the more immediate attractions of trading in fur. If fish was the fuel of the toilers of the day, fur was the status symbol of their betters. In Europe, rising burghers used it for trimming the gowns of guild and council, and among the nobility and courtiers who scrambled for position in innumerable royal menages, rich garments were the normal sign of rank and station in society. As for women, fur had always found favour and, the fact was, everyone wanted it.
Carrier in 1534 had sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, the following year, had ascended the great river to the site of present day Montreal, but it was Champlain who founded a trading post at Quebec in 1608. As father of the little colony, it was he who saw that the first sharp appetite for furs might be balanced by the continuing advantages of settlement and immigration. But, in sketching the background to the history of a government marine service, it is not till 1665 that we mark the arrival of a man who, unlike the very early explorers, was essentially a settled administrator, the equivalent in contemporary terms of a civil servant, and who was the first government official to commit significant sums to the development of shipping as a matter of policy.
Jean Talon, protégé of one of the great men of his age, the minister Colbert, was despatched to New France to fill the office of intendant of the fledgling colony. At that time the Canadian outpost was governed in much the same way as a department of metropolitan France. Indeed, with its great distance from home, and the methods used by le Roi Soleil to control the aspirations of his powerful ministers and officials, it could hardly be otherwise.
There was a governor responsible for defence and security, and an intendant who had the duty of regulating trade and commerce and economic matters in general. The governor was the nominal representative of Louis XIV, but the intendant also had wide powers and reported directly to Colbert on matters within his purview.
Talon sailed from La Rochelle, the naval base and fishing port which was to become a beach-head for the tenuous sea lane to the western venture, in the ship Saint Sebastien, on May 24, 1665. It was a long voyage, even by contemporary standards and, when the hungry little vessel arrived at Quebec after 117 days at sea, one wonders whether the intendant, trained as he was to the vagaries of men and affairs, was really quite prepared for the hardships of the passage or the actualities of life in that tiny bastion of France.
He must have been convinced, from a hard look at Quebec, then as now with an upper and lower town but comprising only 550 people in some 70 houses, that ships and boats were an essential tool of development and indeed survival for, in the Jesuit Relation of 1665, it is said of Talon that
". . . he has started the manufacture of staves, for export to France and the Antilles, and of masts, samples of which he is sending this year to La Rochelle for use in the Navy; and he is also giving his attention to wood suitable for ship building, trials of which has been made in this country by the building of a bark which is found very serviceable, and of a larger vessel which is all ready to be launched."
Looking back over the passage of three hundred years, one feels a warmth and admiration for a man who would set about the business of shipping with such primitive resources. Even if the ships themselves were simple in those days of handmade artifacts, it can have been no easy matter, with the limitations of a frontier port, to attract the skills of carpenters, caulkers, sail makers, riggers, blacksmiths, coopers and the innumerable trades of a now forgotten world. In the phrase this year to La Rochelle, innocently simple with the urgency of establishing some kind of a trade with home, one can detect the first signs of that exploitation of natural resources which, seemingly limitless in possibility, was yet to worry many a Canadian government administrator of the future.
Jean Talon 1625-1694
Portrait by Frère Luc, from l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec
In an age when nepotism among public men was the rule rather than the exception, and when minds were seldom inclined to the idea of impartial service for the principles of state, Jean Talon laid the first races of marine service in this country. In England a contemporary, Samuel Pepys, was framing a naval administration in the wreckage of the civil war and the advent of the restoration. In France, Colbert was gaining fame as a financial, naval and political reformer, both men playing their parts in the rich trappings of the European scene. In Canada, as yet a remote and lonely place far removed from the source of power, but struggling bravely to gain a toe hold in the new Americas, Talons work should be remembered in comparable terms. He was eager to see shipbuilding develop in Canada and was, on the face of it, far ahead of his times. He endeavoured to specialize in the bulk carrier of the day, the flute
This painting, by Ertvelt about 1610, shows Dutch flutes loading long timber through a port in the transom. Although these ships are of an earlier period than those built in New France, the method of handling cargo is the same.
(National Maritime Museum)
or narrow ship designed to load balks of timber and naval masts through apertures in the stern. It was not his fault that conditions were unfavourable for the success of these embryonic industries; as has happened since in Canadian maritime affairs, the cost was too high. In addition, New France was badly placed for a strategy of the sea and, having to run the gauntlet of enemy shipping at the mouth of the Gulf, and with but limited seasonal access to trade with the Antilles, the political and economic climate was not yet ripe.
He went home in 1668 to consolidate arrangements for the advancement of the colony and, after reporting to the court of Louis XIV, sailed once more from La Rochelle on July 15, 1669. It was a disastrous voyage; the ship put back to Lisbon after three terrible months of fruitless exertion, was wrecked a few miles out on putting forth again, and the intendant was lucky to be saved. Spending the winter at work with Colbert, Talon left La Rochelle for the third time in May 1670 and reached the colony in August after another appalling voyage. His second term was the clincher in affairs of shipping. He arranged for the cutting of ship timber from the forests of the St. Lawrence, established a shipyard on the banks of the St. Charles River, and for a time employed three hundred men in the new industry.
Jean Talon died in France in 1694 at the respectable age, for those days, of sixty-nine, honoured by the king for service to his country. If it was too early for a Canadian pioneer to live and die in the land of his greatest labours and distinction, it was also early to forecast the shape of things to come and, in the light of later development of Canadian shipping, Talons foresight is exemplified by his views on a very topical subject, nautical education. He wrote:
"The Canadian youth are improving their knowledge. They take to schools for sciences, arts, handicrafts and especially navigation and if this movement is sustained there is every reason to hope that the country will produce mariners, fishermen, seamen and skilled workmen."
Meanwhile, men had become aware of the inland seas which were to lend a special significance to our marine development and, still struggling westwards, it was said that the rapids of Lachine were so named in ironic expectation of the route to China. Be that as it may, La Salle had built a little schooner at Cataraqui in 1678, and the famous Griffon, named in honour of the armorial bearings of le Comte de Frontenac, governor of New France, at some point above Niagara Falls in 1679.
The Griffon was lost on the return leg of her maiden voyage from Niagara to Lake Michigan but, in noting very briefly this marker in the early chapters of navigation, it is salutary to reflect on the stoicism and sheer physical courage of the fathers of our shipping.
La Salles lieutenant, Henry de Tonty, himself a man of rocklike courage and devotion to his leader, related the story of the expedition in a book published in London some year later, An Account of Mons. La Salles last Expedition and Discoveries in North America. In it he relates:
"M. La Salle had given orders for building a new ship or bark, and our men worked about it with all the diligence that the season of the year would permit; but the cold was so excessive, that not only rivers, but even those vast lakes were frozen over, insomuch that they looked like a plain paved with fine polished marble."
In this brilliant vignette of the bitter cold and still smoothness of a hard winter in the upper lakes, we glimpse something of the hardships inflicted on the early navigators by a climate which, even today, has been rendered workable largely by advances in engineering.
But, as the seventeenth century wore to a close, and despite the probing of the fur traders and the long involutes of French influence in the interior of North America, shipping on the Lakes was a matter of canoes and bateaux. It would be a hundred years or more, not until the rise and fall of the naval sloops which fought in the French and English wars, and not indeed until after the war with the United States, that the transports and the gun brigs of the intervening strife would give way to any significant volume of commercial shipping.