I don’t think that I knew what or where Gaspe was before reading about it in a Cook Biography. The Gaspe Peninsula is in extreme eastern Quebec, the port of Gaspe is the predominate city in the area. The Mi'kmaq Indians called it "Gespeg" meaning "the place where the land ends". This is the case, from the North American perspective, for beyond Gaspe to the east lies only Newfoundland Island, then the Atlantic.
Cook went to Gaspe in August 1758, on the HMS Pembroke. This was during the Seven Year’s War, or as we say in the United States, the "French and Indian War"; a year before General Wolfe’s victory at Quebec City. Cook, under Surveyor Samuel Holland’s direction, compiled charts and sailing instructions for the Gaspe Bay. This was his first engraved and printed chart, an early milestone in Cook’s career and proved to foreshadow Cook’s aptitude in Cartography.
For years I had contemplated visiting the area. It is a beautiful area that is prepared to welcome tourists. The people here are gracious and friendly though the tourist industry caters to French Canadians. As English speaking Americans, my wife Jane and I were somewhat novelties. We spent five nights in various parts of the peninsula and were charmed by the people and the sites.
We only spent an afternoon in the city of Gaspe. Without much guidance, I set out to find evidence of Cook in the city. The first thing you find in Gaspe is that Cook is not the first prominent explorer to visit the area. In 1534, Jacques Cartier landed in what is now Gaspe, planting a thirty-foot cross and claimed the territory for France. He was one of the first Europeans to explore mainland Canada. The major museum of Gaspe is dedicated to Cartier.
I thought that this museum would be the best place to start to learn about the area, and to find out more about Cook’s work here. Our timing was not so good though. We visited on a Monday in late June, which is early in the tourist season. Although there was some activity there, the Museum was not open. We attempted to converse with one of the employees but he apparently knew less English than I knew French. Our conversation was brief and the only thing I could gather for sure was that the Museum was not open.
The Museum grounds were open and lovely. There was a wonderful stone relief monument to Cartier and a reproduction of the cross he implanted on arrival. A little further down were several placards describing the history of the area. Here I did find a very nice piece on Cook. It said:
A great explorer in Gaspe
James Cook would later become famous for his explorations in the Pacific Ocean, but at the time he was but a midshipman on board the Pembroke, one of the ships engaged in the siege at Louisbourg.
here under surveyor Samuel Holland's guidance, Cook endeavored to master the arts of marine charting and mapmaking. Shortly, the apprentice reached the Gaspe coast, where he tried his hand on his own mapping Gaspe bay and part of the bay des Chaleurs. The results were so striking that the map was immediately dispatched to London for publication. Copies of this map were to be handed out to navel officers on their way to Quebec city. Drawn in 1758, portions of Cook's map were probably used also as groundwork to later maps in the eighteenth century.
James Cook thereafter drew several other maps along the Saint Lawrence river. By the end of the conflict, Cook's work being recognized among the best cartographic achievements ever, the Admiralty would commission him to draw up a complete coastal survey of Newfoundland. The data rendered on these maps proved so accurate that their use was maintained well into the twentieth century.
This spot overlooked a lovely view of the bay; I could almost imagine the young Cook completing one of his first important assignments. I wondered if his ambition and imagination allowed him a vision of the world he would encounter in the future or how this experience would prepare him for the challenges ahead.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 22, volume 29, number 4 (2006).
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