Claiming Historical Figures for the Nationalist Agenda: the case of Jacques Cartier

It is a typicality of the present day that historical figures are taken as symbols, or representatives, of particular cultures and communities. These “great” individuals supposedly embody all the characteristics that are dear to the people that revere them. Indeed, this phenomenon is not consigned to the contemporary world but has always existed. People naturally look to the past and imbue individuals of great renown, more often than not men, with idealistic attributes. The idolisation of such men is often a part of forging a national or communal identity, and helps give a stable foundation to large groups of people.

Countless examples of these historical representatives could be selected. One need only think of Simon Bolivar, the great nineteenth-century liberator of South America, whose memory is still trumpeted in the guise of Bolivarianism by nationalist groups in Venezuela and Ecuador, looking to stave off American interference in their countries. There is Nelson Mandela, a living historical figure, who is almost universally-worshipped as a unifying force amongst disparate black South Africans; George Washington, the “founder” of a nation, who is widely regarded as a moral standard-bearer for white, protestant Americans; even Mao Tse-Tung, a slaughterer of millions, yet a person whose overpowering legacy of liberation unites a hugely unequal Han Chinese populace. The list could run for pages. Yet, what all these individuals have in common is that they are claimed by distinct groups of people, ranging considerably in size and make-up, to popularise and legitimise their cause.

Is this strange contemporary fascination with “great” individuals a positive influence on the study of history? Is it acceptable for one person’s memory to define a group of people? To examine these questions, this article will take the example of Jacques Cartier, the sixteenth-century French explorer who “discovered” Canada. For centuries, French-Canadian nationalists have invoked Cartier’s name as a symbol of a pride, and used his historical legacy as a counter to English encroachment on their lives. By studying the history of Cartier and Canada, we can see the troubling aspect of using historical figures for nationalist purposes, and the ambiguity it has for the historical profession.

Cartier in Canada

Jacques Cartier sailed from the French port of St. Malo in April 1534, accompanied by 61 men, to explore the lands beyond Newfoundland, where his fellow countrymen had plied their trade as fishermen for the previous two decades. Restricting his first voyage to the navigation and mapping of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cartier had nevertheless staked his claim as the discoverer of Canada.

Returning to this “new” territory in May 1535, this time with a fleet of 110 men, Cartier pressed on beyond the Gulf to the St. Lawrence River itself, a monumental step in the history of exploration. His guides down this majestic waterway were two Iroquoian Indians, who Cartier had seized on his first voyage the year before. Taignoagny and Dom Agaya, so they were named, steered the French to their home settlement of Stadacona by September. This location is better known today as Quebec City. In October, lured on by the mythical Kingdom of Saguenay, Cartier and a group of men traversed further down the St. Lawrence to another native settlement, named Hochelaga. Seeking a way past the rapids that obstruct the river’s natural flow at this point, Cartier climbed a nearby mountain to espy the view; he named it Mount Royal. The settlement standing there today retains the Francophone name of Montreal. Therefore, despite failing to find the riches of Saguenay, Cartier had inadvertently sealed his place as the original French-Canadian pioneer, having been the first man to visit the location of French Canada’s two greatest bastions.

It is consequently ironic that, on his third and final voyage in May 1541, Cartier’s attempt to establish the first permanent French settlement in Canada failed miserably. Under the command of the Sieur de Roberval, who remained in France to finish his preparations, Cartier led the first contingent of colonists to Cap-Rouge, a promontory overlooking the St. Lawrence, just a few miles upstream from Stadacona. Nevertheless, a combination of poor planning, indiscipline and brutally cold winter weather led Cartier to abandon his colony by June 1542, preferring to head back to France. On his return journey he encountered the outward-bound Roberval at Newfoundland, whom Cartier refused to accompany back to Canada. Roberval’s colonial attempt would fair just as badly, with the deteriorating relations with the natives Iroquoians, exacerbated by years of mistreatment by Cartier, not helping his cause.

Although he may have been the first Frenchman to navigate the St. Lawrence and discover the locations of present-day Quebec and Montreal, Jacques Cartier left no material legacy in Canada. Yet, this has not stopped French-Canadian nationalists ever since from invoking his name as the founder of their people, despite the more considerable accomplishments of his successors. Why has Cartier become such a key part of the nationalist agenda in Canada?

French-Canadian Nationalism and Cartier

In the past few decades in particular, English has become the dominant language of Canada, with 60% of the population choosing it as their first language, compared with 23% who nominate French as their mother tongue. The encroachment of English linguistics on Canadian national life, accompanied as it is by a more globalised and cosmopolitan culture, due to English’s status as the world’s preeminent language, has been seen as threat to French-Canadian culture and homogeneity. For people who see their ancestors as the original founders of white Canada, this apparent subordination of their language and lifestyle is understandably tough to take. It is therefore unsurprising that the so-called French “founders” of Canada are revered as symbols of French-Canadian unity, with Jacques Cartier being the oldest amongst them.

The reason that Cartier has seemingly assumed a status greater than the likes of Samuel de Champlain, the Sieur de Mons, Charles de Montmagny and other pioneers of “New France”, who actually helped to install a permanent French presence in Canada during the seventeenth century, has a lot to do with the way history has been used for the nationalist cause.

From the late eighteenth century, French-Canadian historians attempted to undermine the “English” direction of the country that had continued apace since their annexation of much of French Canada during the Seven Years War (1756-63).  These academics invoked the spirit of Jacques Cartier as the original French pioneer, a man who had claimed the territory of Canada for his country long before the English showed any interest in the region. The teaching of his voyaging accomplishments became commonplace in French-speaking schools, and grand re-enactments of Cartier’s first visits to Canada were organised at great cost to the public, inspiring pride amongst French-speakers in the process. One particular historian, Lionel Groulx, was a dogged champion of Cartier’s cause. Despite no supporting evidence, Groulx suggested Cartier was the first to bring Christianity to the country, claiming he was accompanied by Catholic priests on his second voyage.  The fact that no sources even document Cartier attempting to convert the natives to Christianity, let alone mention anything about Catholic priests, undermines such a claim, yet it was used to support a particular strain of French-Canadian nationalism, whose roots were religious as well as cultural. This particular strain of nationalistic thought was closely linked to Ultramontanism.

Subsequent French-language historians continued this distortion of myth and reality, whilst competing with the early Anglophone scholars of the country, such as Francis Parkman, who were quick to emphasise Cartier’s failure to establish a permanent settlement in Canada. The reality seems to suggest that Cartier was an expert explorer who had little desire in becoming a colonial leader, preferring instead to search for legendary lands of riches than preserve a stable settlement. He retreated to France at the first signs of trouble and never endeavoured to return after 1542.

Therefore, to suggest he was the first French-Canadian pioneer would seem foolhardy. Indeed, Cartier appeared to have little attachment to the country and places he gave names to. Yet, it is in these names, and the fact that Cartier visited them first, that he has retained his importance as a cultural bastion. As with any nationalist cause, people are selective about their use of history and invoke it as a means of retaining their cultural integrity and unity in times of change and threat. French-Canadians have used Cartier as a claim to their country, as a means of delineating themselves as the “true” Canadians. Whilst “impartial” historians may see the “mariner of St. Malo” in a more cynical light, the optimism Cartier has inspired amongst generations of French-Canadians is hard to argue with. It subsequently seems that the claiming of historical figures for the nationalist agenda has a more ambiguous role than one might naturally conclude.

Double-Edged Sword

The reverence paid by nationalist groups to historical figures can influence historiography in both a positive and negative fashion. For instance, the mass appeal of an individual amongst a group of people can inspire extensive historical study of the person in question and the period in which they lived. French-language scholarly works on Jacques Cartier are fairly numerous considering little primary evidence exists of his life and voyages. Such works would perhaps not have been commissioned had it not been for Cartier’s status amongst French-Canadian nationalists.

On the other hand, nationalist history always engenders the possibility for bias and false “truths”. Because the historical profession has a generally sound reputation for integrity and accuracy, most historical works are accepted as correct by non-academic readers in particular. This is problematic when one considers the varying motives for writing history. In Cartier’s case, as well as attributing a false religiosity to the navigator’s voyages to Canada, French-language histories have often silenced the voice of the native Iroquoians in the Cartier story. For example, there is no suggestion in these works that Cartier’s men may have caused physical harm to the natives, yet by his colonisation voyage of 1541 the Stadaconans were openly hostile towards the French; something must explain their change from originally pliant hosts. Furthermore, the very use of Cartier by French-Canadian nationalists as the original founder of Canada overlooks the fact that the Iroquoians, and various other indigenous groups were there first. Indeed, Canada is still home to over a million people who classify themselves as having Indian ethnicity. It is unlikely they take too kindly to the Franco-English dominance of their country’s history-writing.

Jacques Cartier offers an example of a significant historical individual who has been used to further the nationalist agenda and to help create a united French-Canadian history. This phenomenon has proved both a boon and a detriment to the historical profession in Canada. Whilst far more severe misuses of history exist – one need only look at the re-writing of history in Nazi Germany or the persisting textbook controversies over war guilt in Japan – Cartier is an example of how cultural rhetoric and doctrine can imbue individuals with mythological qualities, which their lives rarely stand up well to when opened to rigorous historical investigation. It is a warning to take note of who writes history, as much as what is written.

Select Bibliography

Bideaux, M. Jacques Cartier/Relations; édition critique par Michel Bideaux (Montreal, 1986)

Cartier, J., Biggar, H.P. & Cook, R. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier (Toronto; Buffalo; London, 1993)

Gordon, A. The Hero and the Historians: historiography and the uses of Jacques Cartier (Vancouver, 2010)  (A particularly good study of Cartier’s use for the nationalist cause)

Groulx, L. La découverte du Canada: Jacques Cartier (Montreal, 1934)

Parkman, F. Pioneers of France in the New World (Boston, 1865)

Trudel, M. Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (Montreal, 1963)

A New Arms Race in the Pacific? China’s Challenge to US Predominance

Arms races, the competitive build-up of military might by two or more states, have littered history since time immemorial. From the era of the Homeric epics, through the Warring States period in China, and across Medieval Europe, states of comparative stature have frantically raised armies against one another and stockpiled weapons. The results in each case have invariably been war.

Yet it was not until the twentieth century that the true potential of an arms race became realised. As armaments became increasingly sophisticated, the chances of restricting an arms race to a small region were greatly diminished, regardless of what states were involved. One need only look at the two great arms races of the twentieth century. Firstly, the Anglo-German naval race at the beginning of the 1900s, accompanied as it was by large-scale militarisation. This phenomenon is widely regarded as one of the premier causes of the First World War amongst historians, and all are aware of the slaughter that engendered. Secondly, there was the Soviet-US arms race, in which both nations stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, thus threatening a global nuclear holocaust. Fortunately, containment and common sense prevailed to prevent that disastrous eventuality.

There are, of course, contrasting views on the endemic potential encompassed within an arms race. For many Realist scholars, particularly those of the Offensive school, an arms race is tantamount to a declaration of war, in that an increasingly militarised environment within a state will provoke actors into seeking relative gains at the expense of their rivals. Other Realists believe the outcome of an arms race is determined by the balance of power within which the militarising states operate. If that balance is strong, as it was during the Cold War, conflict is likely to be avoided. The alternative prospect is, naturally, far bleaker, as was the case in 1914. Neoliberal academics tend to take a more positive view, suggesting the increased interdependence of global economic markets make conflict an irrational option, and that state enmity is best diluted through international institutions. There are undoubtedly many other theoretical standpoints which could be considered.

Nevertheless, depending on which camp people place themselves in, if any at all, they are likely to have contrasting opinions on the potential of the latest arms race threatening to develop. That is, the Chinese challenge to US military predominance in the Pacific Ocean; more specifically, the South China Sea.


China’s Naval Modernisation

Each day, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the politically-influential Chinese armed forces, strengthen their capabilities. In particular, Chinese naval modernisation has progressed rapidly over the past few years, with most attention being given to the South Sea Fleet, which operates almost exclusively in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea, an enclosed segment of the Pacific Ocean that is surrounded by many of East Asia’s largest states, is a hotly-disputed area of maritime territory. China claims the whole Sea as its own, but counter-claims of varying degrees exist from Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

These smaller states are not willing to forgo their claims easily, and China’s naval expansion can be seen as a deliberate move to strengthen the country’s power-projection capabilities into the disputed area.

So what is the importance of the sea? Besides containing some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with huge volumes of goods transited to and from the world’s workshop in China, experts believe the Sea contains massive unexploited reserves of oil and natural gas. With continued Chinese economic growth increasingly reliant on expensive resource imports, having access to abundant energy reserves close to home would be a significant boost to the country’s development.

Consequently, the replacement of China’s archaic frigates and warships, the adding to the fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and, perhaps most significantly, the purchase and renovation of an old Soviet aircraft carrier, China’s first, have worried the region’s littoral states. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has tried to engage China in multilateral dialogue to resolve the dispute, yet the effectively toothless institution’s cautious approach to dissuade Chinese expansion is deemed insufficient by many. Therefore, in a desperate attempt to preserve their territorial sovereignty, the South China Sea claimants have sought support from the preeminent military power in the world; one that maintains a keen geostrategic interest in the Pacific: the USA.

China's first aircraft carrier - purchased from Ukraine

US Military Dominance in the Pacific

Since the conclusion of the Second World War, in which the US army fought a sustained and bloody battle with the forces of Imperial Japan, American military domination of the Pacific has remained un-toppled. Indeed, the region retains a great strategic importance to the US. Not only is the US bound by a mutual defence treaty to ensure the external security of Japan, which is forbidden a conventional standing army under its constitution, but it also has long-standing ties with South Korea, with whose assistance it seeks to securitise the Korean peninsula from the volatile northern state of Kim Jong-Il. Additionally, the US has a commitment to preserve the status quo in Taiwan, an island China deems as part of its territory, despite the existence of separate governments and bilateral ties. To that end, the US navy maintains a strong presence in the region.

The US Army keeps a commander naval force stationed in both Japan and South Korea, where thousands of American troops regularly take part in military exercises with their hosts, ready for potential action. Japan also gives shelter to the US Seventh Fleet, which counts amongst its inventory the USS George Washington, a nuclear-capable supercarrier able to support a large squadron of fighter jets. If that was not sufficient, the US has also pledged “to increase the maritime capacity of the Philippines” through training and logistical support, and has even conducted naval exercises with Vietnam, the country where the US suffered its greatest humiliation just forty years ago.

This increasing of US security ties in East Asia over the past few years is more than a benevolent effort on the Americans’ part. It is, of course, part of a larger geo-political game, in which the ultimate goal of the US is to stifle the growing influence of China. By concluding friendly defence arrangements with the other claimants in the South China Sea dispute, as well as maintaining traditional ties with South Korea and Japan, the US can restrict China’s expansion by strengthening states that would be powerless to stop the Chinese individually. Does this militarisation of an outwardly-peaceful region threaten to provoke a new arms race in the Pacific?

A new arms race?

At the present time, an arms race does not exist in the Pacific, nor is it likely to in the immediate future. Chinese naval modernisation is progressing at a ferocious pace, yet the PLA is still far weaker, both in terms of military technological expertise and power-projection capabilities, than US forces in the region. For a true arms race to emerge, opposing forces must be fairly matched in terms of their military prowess. In such circumstances rate of production is the key, as each side tries to accumulate more of a particular weapon or weapons than its counterpart. This phenomenon was evident with the Anglo-German race to produce dreadnoughts pre-WWI, and the US-Soviet effort to manufacture more nuclear warheads than each other throughout the Cold War.

Such a situation does not exist between China and the US. However, that is not to say that it is impossible in the future. With great mistrust and competition existing between the two nations, direct opposition in terms of military capacity will always be a potential outcome. When taking into account China’s relentless development and economic expansion, coupled with a United States that will soon be forced to make significant budget cuts to alleviate its painful debt, the balance of power in the Pacific may yet alter. Nobody knows what effect budget reductions, forced or otherwise, will have on the US armed forces. It is probable, however, that the US will have to scale back its global presence. With over 60,000 forces stationed in East Asia, the Pacific region is an obvious target for cutbacks. If an event such as this occurred, and China continues its military advancement, an arms race would become a greater likelihood, particularly in terms of nuclear-capable submarines and aircraft carriers, for instance.

This, of course, remains a big if. For now, the US is showing no signs of diluting its presence in the Pacific, eager as it is to stave off the threat of an increasingly-powerful China. In the last month, President Barack Obama has pledged to send two-thousand marines to be stationed in Darwin, Australia, a state on the periphery of the Pacific hotspot, yet undoubtedly also keen to hedge its bets against Chinese expansion. In what seems a quite unnecessary move, this latest decision to send troops to the region looks to be a repetition of the American tactic to provide military support to as many states surrounding China as possible, thus isolating the Red Dragon in case of a crisis. Obama’s equally brazen claim that the Asia-Pacific region is a “top priority” to the US, despite the ongoing war in Afghanistan and American interest in the Middle East, is further warning that China is seen as a severe threat to the US in the Pacific.

Such rhetoric and actions as Obama’s often lay the groundwork for increased militarisation, particularly when nationalist tensions are running high. The PLA is notoriously hawkish in its foreign policy ideals and such bluster from foreign politicians, who the Chinese generals believe have little stake in “their” region, is unlikely to sooth sentiments. One need only think of Admiral von Tirpitz’s fierce calls for an expanded German navy at the beginning of the twentieth century to see the influence rhetoric can have on military planning. With agitators of a similar vein evident amongst the PLA, a new sphere of accelerated militarisation looks highly probable.

Will an arms race evolve?

An arms race in any region significantly increases the potential for war; that is a given. Before, many International Relations theorists believed such a phenomenon between powerful states made conflict inevitable. The Cold War damaged that idea. Nevertheless, everyone will agree that an arms race, and the increasingly militarised climate it naturally engenders, is highly undesirable.

Fortunately, we are some way off that stage in the Pacific; yet complacency at this point would be folly. The manoeuvring of the US in the region over the past few years, concluding agreements with a number of regional states that neighbour China, both under the Bush and Obama administration, highlights American fears. Politicians and military leaders in the US are concerned about China’s “rise”, and the potential decline in influence of their country on the global stage. Whilst Chinese military expertise remains inferior to that of the US, the trajectory of both countries’ developments threatens to close that gap in the coming decade. In such a situation, with nationalist rhetoric on both sides, and a shared mistrust in bilateral relations, an arms race would become a greater possibility.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the US is embarking on a policy similar to George Kennan’s famous “containment” plan of the Cold War, albeit on a regional rather than global scale. By fostering alliances and shared goals with nervous East Asian states, whose leaders fear being undermined by an expansionist and powerful China, the US can both help alleviate the spread of pro-Chinese sentiment and simultaneously emplace a contingency plan in case of military engagement in the region.

This in itself is a dangerous precedent. If the US continues to increase its presence in the Pacific, despite potential budget cuts, it raises the chances of a trigger event occurring, which could bring conflict with China. As the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand showed in 1914, an isolated event, relatively unconnected with inter-state relations, can set in motion dire consequences within a highly militarised climate. Whilst the Asia-Pacific has not reached that stage, potential trigger-points exist: an act of nationalist aggression against Taiwan; unilateral attacks conducted by US or Chinese patrol boats; harassment of oil companies in the region. Any of these events, which could occur without political authorisation, could precipitate conflict between the world’s two greatest powers. Without open and well-meaning dialogue between China and the US, and the persisting trajectories of regional competition and military expansion, the unthinkable could happen. Just look at history.

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