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Canada in the 16th Century; The race to colonize Canada begins

In the 15th century, the voyages to North America and Canada began. In the previous article, we read about John Cabot, Vikings, and the first people who set their feet there. Here in this chapter, we dive deep into Canada in the 16th century, and we will learn about people who got there.

We will talk about the famous Jacques Cartier, and how the British entered the scene, starting a long-lasting rivalry with the French to seize Canada. Stick around, and soon you will know a lot about Canada in the 16th century.

The first people to reach Canada in the 16th century

Among explorers that sailed to North America and Canada in the 16th Century, two names stand out most, French Jacques Cartier and English Sir Humphrey Gilbert. But Canada’s history shows us more people were reaching Canada even sooner than them, people with different nationalities and purposes:

  • 1501: Gaspar Corte-Real: Portuguese explorer led his party of three ships, possibly arriving at Newfoundland or Labrador. They captured a number of indigenous people, but Corte-Real and his vessel disappeared, never to be heard of again.
  • 1504: Sebastian Cabot, John Cabot’s son, with a party of two ships, sailed from Bristol to North America and returned with fish from that region. He set a new expedition in 1508, but his crew mutinied, leaving his trip unfinished.
  • 1506: Jean Denys visited Newfoundland while making a fishing trip and became the first known French to visit Canada.
  • 1508: Thomas Aubert made a voyage under his country’s flag, France, and returned with seven indigenous people. They were the first ones the French had ever seen. He also named the St. Lawrence river and reported the country was full of fur-bearing animals, both having a massive impact on Canada’s future.
  • 1517: First Basque fishermen make their way into Canada.

France’s first attempts at colonization

If you have read Canada’s history in general, or Canada in the 16th century specifically , you know that the year 1534 is one of the most critical years in Canada’s history. But what happened in 1534? Between 1534 and 1542, Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) made three expeditions to the land, known as Canada today, by order of King Francis I. He discovered Quebec, Montreal, etc. Although harsh winters in Canada foiled his plans of setting settlements, he successfully claimed the land for his king.

During his voyages, he heard the Iroquoian word “Kanata”, meaning “Village”, from native guides, and a few years later, in the 1550s, the new land called Canada showed up on maps. Later fur traders started visiting this new country regularly to trade furs. Seas rich in fish started to make the dream of prosperous new land into reality.

Jacques Cartier on mount royal, a defining point in Canada history in the 16th century

Jacques Cartier on Mount Royal, today Montreal

Jacques Cartier monument, Montreal, Photo by MJafar

On his last voyage (1541), Cartier and Sieur de Roberval brought 500 men and five ships to found a settlement in Charlesbourg-Royal, known as Quebec in the future. But unfriendly and sometimes even hostile Iroquoians, along with cold winters and unknown illnesses taking the life of Cartier’s men, made him abandon his mission and flee back to France.

Roberval tried to revive the colony, but the same problems and his cruel dictatorship made it impossible to stay. He retreated to France too in 1542. The only wealth he found was fool’s gold and false diamonds leading to the expression “as false as Canadian Diamonds” in France. Cartier and Roberval’s failures made France almost lose interest in trying to establish other colonies in Canada in the 16th century.

The British Enter the Scene 

From 1576 to 1578, Martin Frobisher, an English seaman, made three expeditions to North America. At first, his goal was to find a way to the “south sea” (Pacific Ocean) and Asia. He landed on Frobisher bay (Of course it’s named after him!), Baffin Island. He faced difficulties with Inuit natives there; five of his men were kidnapped, never to be seen again. 

Upon his return, he reported about possible gold mines, which convinced his supporters to fund two more expeditions, dated in 1577 and 1578. Since his trips were based on finding gold, there’s not much value in his exploratory work. Both of his latter voyages turned out not to be of much worth, for he returned with tons of worthless ores instead of gold and silver.

On his last expedition, he tried to establish a colony at Frobisher bay (Located in Nunavut), but he failed. This could count as the first interaction of the British with Canada in the 16th century, and not just then, but in history. 

Sir Martin Frobisher 1535-1594

Frobisher bay

In 1583, it was Humphrey Gilbert’s turn to try to find the “Northern Passage”. He was a man of creativity and bright ideas, but his incompetence in leadership and decision-making ruined his plans. After an unsuccessful sail to North America resulting in his immediate return to England, he set sail again in 1583. He arrived at Newfoundland and claimed it in the name of his Queen, Elizabeth I, meaning to attach this new land of Canada to Great Britain in the 16th century. He started a colony at St. John.

He didn’t stay long; after two weeks, he left his colony and sailed again, but his ship was sunk in the Atlantic, resulting in his demise.

The French return to Canada in the 16th century

After Cartier’s failure, the French lost interest in Canada in the 16th century for decades, but in 1583 his nephew, Jacques Noel, returned to the site of his uncle’s abandoned colony. His companions made trades with indigenous people, trying to be on good terms with them this time. Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) made way for British and French fishers to replace Spanish and Portuguese at Canada waters. With this change, the French sped up their return to Canada.

In 1598, Marquis de la Roche de Mesgouez, a French lieutenant general, established a colony of 50 convicted men on Sable Island. Unsurprisingly the settlement didn’t last long; chaos ended it in 1603.

In the very last year of this century, 1599, a significant figure of French colonization, “Samuel de Champlain”, started his first voyage destined for the Caribbean Sea.


And here, our summary of Canada in the 16th century ends. It might not look so here, but Samuel de Champlain’s journeys will leave a mark on North American history, and his name will be in the history books for good.

If you are curious about what he has done to be worthy of this significance, check our 17th century of Canada’s history article. Also, if you are curious about other aspects of Canada, don’t forget to check our other articles regarding Geography, Politics, Socio-cultural, and Economic aspects of Canada if you are interested.

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