The Rediscovered Colony: a Section of Our History Revealed!

Tuesday Apr 30 2013

The discovery of a shard of Renaissance Italian porcelain on the Cap Rouge promontory in 2005 created a wave of excitement.

The discovery of a shard of Renaissance Italian porcelain on the Cap Rouge promontory in 2005 created a wave of excitement. Archaeological excavations quickly confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that we had rediscovered the mid-16th century French colony that was the first in the Americas. The Rediscovered Colony, presented at Musée de l'Amérique francophone, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this artifact together with some one hundred of the most important findings from the dig. A Commission de la capitale nationale/Musée de la civilisation coproduction. In partnership with Hôtel Château Laurier, official hotel of Musée de l'Amérique française.

The artifacts come to life in a radical new staging that turns conventional archaeological display on its ear to redraw the boundaries of our shared history. This first European colony north of Mexico was long considered an abject failure, but new research reveals it in a new light—as a first step in the establishment of a permanent French settlement in North America, 60 years before Champlain.

Executive director of Musées de la civilisation Michel Côté noted that "a fundamental aspect of Les Musées de la civilisation's pursuit of its cultural calling for 25 years has been our constant concern with enhancing our understanding and reaching out to as many people as possible. This coproduction fits our focus perfectly because it sheds new light on a critical yet forgotten part of our history, as well as upsetting certain received historical notions. We owe this new perspective," he added, "to the patience and perseverance of archaeologists and researchers supported by experts from Centre de conservation du Québec."

Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec executive director Françoise Mercure pronounced herself thrilled by "this magnificent exhibition, a fitting conclusion to the thousands of hours spent bringing this little-known episode of our history to light, following three seasons of intensive excavations and six years of research by experts from more than 20 different scientific disciplines. For the Commission, it was critical that the huge advances in our understanding of the Cap Rouge archaeological site be shared with the general public."

Tell me a NEW story
Visitors entering the exhibition are confronted with the story that history textbooks and teachers have always told: Jacques Cartier—a national hero! In his two voyages in 1534 and 1535, he claimed this land for the King of France and thus became THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED CANADA!

Historians have however been less forthcoming about the 1541 expedition to build a permanent settlement in Canada. Yet a settlement was duly built on the Cap Rouge promontory—the land shows signs of it, and its existence was confirmed in 2005 with the discovery of a tiny shard of Italian porcelain.

To get into the spirit of it all, we go back to the height of the Renaissance in all its splendor—and its territorial wars. Like Spain and Portugal, France sought to expand and grow wealthy off the "New World" while perhaps, with luck, finding the fabled passage to India. Doing so however would mean securing a permanent foothold in the Americas—a major colonial undertaking. Thus in the fall of 1540 King Francis I officially commissioned Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a military officer of noble birth and fortifications expert, to take charge of the effort. Jacques Cartier too would go along—a skilled navigator would be needed.

As you enter the exhibition, a sound shower plunges you into the tumult of embarkation in Saint Malo. Cartier's ships set sail in the spring of 1541, with Roberval's ships following a year later.

A big surprise awaited Roberval on arriving in Newfoundland in mid-June: Cartier's fleet was heading back to Europe. Cartier hastened to inform him of deteriorating relations with the Stadaconans and showed off his holds packed with precious stones and metals found near the fort. On examining them, Roberval accepted the story but still ordered Cartier to turn round. However, under cover of night, Cartier fled with his five ships back to Brittany.

Undaunted, Roberval pursued his mission with the 200-odd people he had. He set up shop on the Cap Rouge promontory where Cartier had started building. The adventure would last just over a year before war with Spain—now allied with England—was rekindled in 1543 and Francis I called off the colonial experiment in Canada.

Artifacts attesting to life on the Cap Rouge promontory
Men, women, nobles, commoners, soldiers, tradespeople, and prisoners were part of a microcosm of French society with its characteristic social divisions—in the heart of the woods. Artifacts found on the site bear eloquent witness to their lives. There are shards of glass, tool handles, silver-plated buttons, and beadwork on clothing showing the wearer's rank, while the surprising discovery of fragments of a chain-mail coat remind us of the military side of the colony and its soldiers. A playing piece for checkers or tricktrack (an ancestor of backgammon) show that the colonists found time to play games among their many pursuits.

There are signs that the colonists bartered with the locals, relations having improved significantly under Roberval. The French offered small items such as rings and fishhooks, probably in exchange for the Stadaconans' food, as attested by shards of vases with Iroquoian motifs and kernels of corn found in European-built buildings.

Arson or accidental fire?
The thick fire layer found at the archaeological site proves that the colonial buildings were destroyed by fire. The cause of the fire, whether arson or an accident, remains a mystery. Although it destroyed the settlement, the fire also helped preserve—sometimes miraculously—many vestiges of the Cap Rouge colony.

Over 6,000 artifacts
The archaeological work at the Cartier-Roberval site has uncovered over 6,000 artifacts. However, the original purpose of hundreds of them remains unknown—they are so fragmentary that we can't reconstruct their original shape. Also, many objects are conspicuous by their absence, including all the material culture associated with everyday people. All in all, although this research has provided better documentation than ever before of what life in the colony was like, it has also raised questions about objects that are fragmented, unexplained, or, mysteriously, not there at all.

An accompanying book, La Rumeur dorée
La rumeur dorée. Roberval et l'Amérique, by historian Bernard Allaire, paints a detailed portrait of Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval and the background against which this little-known but key figure presided over the fate of the first French colony in the Americas. The book, copublished by Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec and Les Éditions La Presse, is available at the bookshops of Musée de l'Amérique française and Musée de la civilisation for $34.95.

Cartier-Roberval site tours in August
To make your experience of the exhibition complete, guided tours of the Cap Rouge site with an archaeologist are available all through the month of August, which has been officially declared Québec Archaeo Month. To find out what's beneath the archaeological adventure, how artifacts are restored, and the passion that has driven the project for 8 years.

The Rediscovered Colony at Musée de l'Amérique francophone, a fascinating piece of history finally revealed. Don't miss it!

Information: 418-643-2158/1-866-710-8031

Media relations:
National: Agnès Dufour, 418-528-2358,
Montréal: Rosemonde Gingras 514-458-8355;

– Musée de la civilisation –

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– Musée de l'Amérique –

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