Soldiers of the Sixteenth Century

The European Failure

France undertook a final attempt at colonization just before the end of the century, this time on Sable Island off Nova Scotia, in 1598. Named viceroy of New France, the Marquis de la Roche-Mesgouez did not venture to land in person on this windswept sandbank barely rising above the tides. Instead he sent 40 colonists recruited from prisons, escorted by about ten soldiers, to establish the settlement. By 1603, only 11 survivors remained to be rescued, the rest having perished in a mutiny. Elsewhere, after a disastrous winter, the Habitation erected at Tadoussac in 1600 by Pierre Chauvin de Tonnetuit was also abandoned.

In Mexico and Peru, where the conquistadors confronted Amerindian civilizations much more advanced than those to the north, the white soldiers nevertheless carried the day because battles were waged on open ground. In Canada, however, the Amerindians' tactic was to be elusive and take advantage of the cover, insurmountable for the time being, provided by the nature of the land and rigours of the climate. Successive waves of European invaders found themselves reduced one after the other to a defensive struggle. How could a military assault be launched on the interior of an unknown country, when the newcomers already feared for their lives inside coastal forts or on ships which they dared not leave? This chronic insecurity accounts for much of the failure to establish European settlements in Canada in the sixteenth century. Even the semi-permanent activities of the Spanish Basques were drawing to a close. Since the age of the Vikings, Europeans and natives had often met and clashed, but despite their great technological superiority, the white men had failed to put down any lasting roots in the New World. When Cartier abandoned Charlesbourg-Royal in 1542, he commented that he could not resist "with his little band the Savages who prowled around daily and greatly disturbed him." 25 This was a clear admission of the effectiveness of the Amerindians' guerilla tactics. In the Arctic, the Inuit also held the white men in check. The English chroniclers never ceased complaining about the valour the "savages" displayed in combat and their skill in handling their arms.

Finally, a new phenomenon that had begun to emerge in the first half of the century established itself more firmly in the second half, as the various European nations, without abandoning their traditional battlefields, carried their enmities abroad to the four corners of the world.

A century had passed since John Cabot took possession of Newfoundland, but nothing remained of the French, British or Spanish Basque presence in North America. A page had turned.