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BELLENGER, ÉTIENNE (Stephen Bellinger in Hakluyt), merchant of Rouen and explorer of what are now the Atlantic Provinces; fl. 1580–84.

Bellenger was probably a general merchant who dealt indifferently in fish and furs. Before 1582 he had been on two voyages to the Maritimes, possibly as cape merchant (purser) on Norman vessels which visited Cape Breton to trade with the Indians, and had penetrated some way along the coast of Nova Scotia. It was probably on his initiative that the aged Cardinal Bourbon, archbishop of Rouen, took up, in association with the Due de Joyeuse, admiral of France, a project for exploring and trading along the coast south and west of Cape Breton and establishing there a small outpost, which it was hoped would later become the nucleus of a colony.

In the summer of 1582 Bellenger was borrowing money in Rouen, perhaps with a view to financing the trading part of the venture although he had recently received payment for his part in financing Strozzi’s ill-fated expedition to the Azores. Later, in November, the bark Chardon of 50 tons, belonging to Jacques de Chardon de Tressonville, gentleman in ordinary to the cardinal, was prepared for Bellenger’s voyage. Michel Costé, an experienced Rouen pilot, was engaged for the voyage, and was permitted to purchase a third share in the ship. Costé was to be captain and pilot and was to supply a crew of 10 men; Bellenger was to have command of 20 men who were to be taken across the Atlantic and left there with provisions. The destination was to be kept secret and revealed by Bellenger only after the ship had left the English Channel. The vessel was to return to France when it had completed its mission.

The Chardon left Havre-de-Grâce (Le Havre) on 19 Jan. 1583 (N.S.), carrying a small pinnace. She must have been favoured with easterly winds as she reached Cape Breton in 20 days, that is about 7 February. How much Bellenger knew of the coast and where he had first intended to settle we do not know. The Chardon, under his direction, proceeded to make a thorough survey of the coast, west-southwestwards from the cape, charting bays and harbours, rocks and islands, and sounding shallows and deeps. Some 50 to 60 leagues down the coast he noted the appearance of a large island, which he identified as the island of St. John (Isle St. Jehan). Whatever it meant to other cartographers, it is clear that to him it was what we know as the westerly part of Nova Scotia, divided from the “mainland” probably at Halifax harbour. He coasted down one side of what he eventually sketched as a triangular island, lying about 50 leagues east and west, that is to Cap de Sable, and then turned to enter “the great bay of that island,” namely the Bay of Fundy (Baie Française). As he noted that “the entrance is so narrow that a culverin shot can reach from one side to the other” it would appear that he passed (if the coast has not changed in the meantime) between Long Island and Digby Neck into the bay. He explored some 30 leagues up the southern shore of the bay, which would bring him almost to the entrance of Minas Basin, which he does not seem to have entered, though he evidently regarded it as the northern part of the channel between the Isle St. Jehan and Cape Breton. He planted marks of possession at the head of the bay by attaching the arms of Cardinal Bourbon to a tall tree (perhaps to be found there by Champlain in 1607 as a very old cross, all covered with moss).

Bellenger described the Bay of Fundy as being 20 leagues wide though it is less than half that except at its mouth. He gave names to many places as he continued to explore the bay and some of those which he gave to the northern shore survived his voyage. We are told that some 20 leagues to the west of the Isle St. Jehan, the outlines of which he had now established, he found a great river, up which he penetrated for seven leagues in his pinnace. He expressed the opinion that it was navigable for 60 or 80 leagues. It would appear that he emerged from the Bay of Fundy between Grand Menane (now Grand Manan) Island and the mainland and that he ran along the Maine coast to the opening of the Penobscot and entered that river. It would seem that he did not proceed westwards beyond the river. The range of his exploration is given as 200 leagues from Cape Breton and in the latitudes of 42º to 44º. Since Cape Breton is in 46º we may probably modify these figures to between approximately 44º and 46º which would include the mouth of the Penobscot. From the drafts he brought home Bellenger soon completed a general map, which he presented to the cardinal.

The Chardon or her pinnace put Bellenger on land frequently, ten to a dozen times. He made a close examination of the resources of the land, its timber, its possibilities for making salt, and its presumed mineral wealth, bringing home an ore believed to contain lead and silver. He also made frequent contacts with the Indians. Those who lived from 60 to 80 leagues westward from Cape Breton he found cunning, cruel, and treacherous; he lost two of his men and his pinnace to them as he made his way back along the Nova Scotia shore. The Indians farther to the west were gentle and tractable. He visited an Indian village of 80 houses on a river 100 leagues from Cape Breton, not far, that is, from Cap de Sable. He had a quantity of small merchandise for trade, and acquired from the Indians in return for it dressed “buff” (probably elk), deer, and seal skins, together with marten, beaver, otter, and lynx pelts, samples of castor, porcupine quills, dyestuffs, and some dried deer-flesh.

Having found so much, Bellenger abandoned his plan to remain in America. He was probably ready to leave early in May and he may have arrived home before the end of the month after an absence of about four months in all. He presented many mementos to the cardinal and sold, at a high profit, the skins bought on his own adventure.

In 1583 Jacques de Vaulx, a celebrated pilot of Le Havre, was working on two copies of a remarkable illustrated work on cosmography, “Les Premiéres uvres de Jacques de Vaulx pillote en la marine.” In his first version (BN, ms Fr. 9175), presented in 1584 to M. de Riberpré, he drew a map of the Americas using a stereotyped coastline from Cape Breton westward to the “R. de Gamas” (ms Fr. 9175, f.25), but in his second (BN, ms Fr. 150) he included evidence from Bellenger’s voyage in the form of a triangular “Isle St. Jehan,” for Nova Scotia, and other changes (f.26). He went on to compile a map of the North Atlantic using similar material (ff.29–30) and then returned to his first version to include a comparable “improved” map (ms Fr. 9175, ff.29–30), with somewhat more Bellenger material than in the others. De Vaulx intended his major version (ms Fr. 150) for the Duc de Joyeuse, who probably commissioned it, and he dedicated it to him before the end of 1583.

The close association of both de Vaulx and Bellenger with Joyeuse demonstrates how Bellenger’s material became available so rapidly to the former. In 1584 de Vaulx compiled a more detailed map of the Americas which survives only in an incomplete form (BN, Cartes, Réserve, Géographie, C.4052). This preserves a much fuller version of the results of Bellenger’s voyage, taken, with little doubt, from his own map. It shows a greatly modified coastline from Cape Breton to the “R. de Gamas,” the western limit of the new information, which is therefore equated with Bellenger’s “great river” (Penobscot). The new nomenclature comprises 15 names, all deriving, almost certainly, from Bellenger. The Bay of Fundy becomes “Pasaige de St. Jehan,” and the coastline westwards from Passamaquoddy Bay, at “C. de Mont,” to the “R. de Gamas” is greatly elongated.

We owe most of our knowledge of this voyage to the Rev. Richard Hakluyt, who had arrived at the English embassy in Paris as chaplain in October 1583, but who mainly concerned himself with collecting information on America. From André Thevet, the royal cosmographer, and Valeron Perosse, a Paris skinner who was already dealing in North American furs, he learned at the end of 1583 that “Duke Joyeuse, Admiral of France, and the Cardinal of Burbon and their frendes, have had a meaning to send out a certayne ships to inhabite some place for [i.e., in] the north part of America, and to carry thither many friers and other religiouse persons” (letter of 7 Jan. 1584).

With our knowledge of Bellenger’s voyage earlier in 1583 we can probably envisage the objectives of the cardinal and the admiral. Bellenger had gone out to lay foundations for a colony by setting up a trading post, which was intended as a prelude to a larger settlement, which, in turn, was thought of as a centre for missionary efforts amongst the Indians. Unlike the projects of Troilus de La Roche de Mesgouez this was directed towards the Maritimes and not the St. Lawrence valley. Bellenger’s return may have underlined the dangers from the Indians such a venture might well experience even though he had had favourable geographic and economic reports to make, since Hakluyt adds (in the letter already cited) that “I thinke they be not in haste to do yt.”

Hakluyt, however, using the English intelligence network, made contact with Bellenger’s relative, André Mayer, a compass-maker in Rouen (and perhaps himself an agent) and through him with Bellenger. Hakluyt hurried to Rouen in late January or February and saw Bellenger in his house in the rue des Augustines, next to the sign of the Golden Tile (Huille deor, i.e., Tude d’Or). Bellenger proved very forthcoming, giving a detailed account of his expedition, showing Hakluyt various skins and other goods brought back, and giving him specimens of ore and other things, besides letting him see the draft of his map of his discoveries, the fair copy of which he had already presented to the cardinal. Moreover, he proved willing to repeat some of his information to various members of the English community in Rouen (who were at once enlisted by Hakluyt to support English projects for American voyages which were then in preparation). Hakluyt reported that Bellenger was preparing another bark and pinnace at Honfleur to set out on a further voyage – solely a trading one it would appear – by 1 March 1584. We learn nothing further of Bellenger, who may not have returned from this voyage. He had made a valuable contribution to the knowledge of the coastline between Cape Breton and Maine even though it was not fully assimilated by his contemporaries. Cardinal Bourbon’s and the admiral’s plans for the Maritimes were soon subordinated to a more ambitious expedition which was in preparation during 1584, sponsored by the Duc de Joyeuse, and which was to be under the command of Guillaume Le Héricy, with Jacques de Vaulx as chief pilot, ostensibly to coast the whole of eastern America from Brazil to Labrador. It left in 1585 and eventually returned in 1587 but its North American relevance, if any, is not known.

Richard Hakluyt referred to Bellenger’s voyage in his “Discourse of western planting” which he wrote in England during the summer and early autumn of 1584, but his fuller account of the voyage, “The relation of master Stephen Bellanger dwelling in Roan . . . of his late voiadge of discoverie of two hundreth leagues of coast from Cape Brittone . . . west-south-west at the charges of the Cardinall of Borbon this last yere 1583” (BM, Add. MS 14027, ff. 289–90v), which he wrote for Dr Julius Caesar, judge of the Admiralty, has remained unknown. Studies by La Roncière, Anthiaume, and Ganong brought the de Vaulx materials to light and it is now possible to combine them with the Bellenger documents into a coherent story.

David B. Quinn

BM, Add. MS 14027, ff. 289–90v. BN, MS Fr. 150 et 9175; Cartes, Réserve, gèographie, c. 4052 (maps, etc., by Jacques de Vaulx). Hakluyt, Original writings (Taylor), I, 205–7; II. 211–326 (“Discourse of western planting.”). Anthiaume, Cartes marines. Philippe Barrey, “Le Havre transatlantique de 1571 à 1610, “Mémoires et documents pour servir a 1’histoire du commerce et de l’industrie en France, éd. Julien Hayem (12 parties, Paris, 1911–29), 5e partie (1917), 45–210. Bréard, Documents relatifs á la marine normande, 267. W. F. Ganong, “A monograph of the cartography of the Province of New Brunswick,” RSCT, 2d ser., III (1897), sect. ii, 313–427; “Crucial maps, IX.” La Roncière, Histoire de la marine française, IV (1923); “Une carte française encore inconnue du Nouveau Monde (1584),” Bibliothèque de l’école des Chartes, LXXI (1910), 588–601. T. N. Marsh, “An unpublished Hakluyt manuscript?” New Eng. Q., XXXV (1962), 247–52. D. B. Quinn, “The voyage of Étienne Bellenger to the Maritimes in 1583: a new document,” CHR, XLIII (1962), 328–43.

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Cite This Article

David B. Quinn, “BELLENGER, ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 24, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bellenger_etienne_1E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bellenger_etienne_1E.html
Author of Article: David B. Quinn
Title of Article: BELLENGER, ÉTIENNE
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1966
Year of revision: 1979
Access Date: March 24, 2017