Soldiers of the Sixteenth Century

Soldiers Of The Canadian Expeditions

Until the mid-seventeenth century, expeditions to Canada were not protected by detachments of royal troops but by men recruited by the trading and exploration companies financing the operation. In order to recruit soldiers, these companies, whether British or French, had to obtain the permission of the sovereign, a condition that also applied to the right to have cannons made to wage war. The companies assumed the full costs of the expeditions, including those for recruiting, equipping and maintaining troops, in exchange for an exclusive monopoly, for example to the fur trade. The leader of an expedition also received a royal commission as a lieutenant-general, or governor, which gave him the authority to act in the name of the king in the affairs of the colony. Expeditionary leaders were often important shareholders in the enterprise.

Who then were the soldiers who protected the expeditions to Canada? Many, if not most, were likely veterans of royal armies who had already taken part in several campaigns. The composition of the first military corps sent to North America was probably similar to that of the corps sent by the Spanish to the south. There were "soldiers among [them] who [had] served in several parts of the world, in Constantinople, throughout Italy, and in Rome. ..," 14 wrote one of them. In times of peace, especially, these demobilized soldiers roamed the various kingdoms of Europe looking for a chance to enlist, and overseas adventure was certainly not to be disdained.

Soldiers were not the only men-at-arms attracted by these expeditions to America. Gentlemen joined in the explorations as well in the hope of finding gold or procuring land. Cartier took some along on his ships in 1535 and in 1541-43. In some cases, there were quite a few of them. For example, on Martin Frobisher's second expedition in 1577, there were "eleven other gentlemen" 15 in addition to the regular officers. They were usually seen as extra hands on the trip, whose swords and knowledge might prove useful.

Sixteenth-century documents are usually rather vague about the presence and number of soldiers on expeditions. In 1504, a French galleon sailed for Brazil. It was one of the first times that France sent men overseas. While documents about this voyage do not mention the occupation of all sixty people on board, they do report that they were well armed, with some 40 "harquebuses and other firearms," without counting pikes, halberds or daggers. One entry, according to which "Jacques l'Homme, called La Fortune, soldier" 16 and a sailor were abducted by the Amerindians, shows that there were men-at-arms on board.