The Most (In)Famous Phrase in Labrador Literature

In this series, I do my best to keep readers guessing, by selecting books of all different kinds and eras.  The idea is to showcase just how much Labrador material there is to read—but I should also probably make it clear that I’m not curating a “best of” list, by any means!  Hopefully I will touch on many or most of the best books along the way, but I have actually chosen this week’s book because it is NOT one of the best.  In fact it is arguably one of the worst, being very colonial, occasionally racist, and often wildly inaccurate! But it is also very important in a way, as it has inadvertently provided a rallying point for a more recent regional Labrador identity.

The book itself is hardly ever remembered in Labrador today, and even more rarely actually read, partly because it is very old and written in French.  Nonetheless, nearly everyone in Labrador is familiar with its most widely-quoted phrase, whether we know it or not.  In fact, that phrase has arguably become the most influential and most often-repeated single phrase in all of Labrador literature. Here is the title page of the book in question:

The author, Jacques Cartier, lived from 1491 to 1557, and made his name exploring parts of what is now Canada and claiming them for France.  During his first voyage in 1534, he landed in southern Labrador (among other places) and made some perfunctory explorations, which led to a now infamous remark that Labrador must be the land which God gave to Cain.

In the Biblical story and its variously embellished retellings, Cain’s place of exile—the land of Nod, or wandering—was to serve as his punishment for the murder of his brother, Abel.  Although the Bible is short on details about the place itself, and the association with “wandering” might mean that Nod wasn’t actually a specific place at all, one presumes that Cartier imagined it to be desolate, infertile, and without shelter.  Certainly that fits with his own broader description of the coast around the Strait of Belle Isle.

To read Cartier’s words first-hand, or as near as possible, I turned to a 1598 posthumous publication of Cartier’s original narrative, which is now available as an online scan.  Rendered in English in full, the title is something like An Account of the Voyage Made by Captain Jacques Cartier to the New Found Lands of the Canadas, Norumbega, Hochelaga, Labrador, and Adjacent Countries, Known as New France, with Particular Customs, Language, and Ceremonies of their Inhabitants.  That is certainly a mouthful, and the book does not really deliver extensive accounts of all that the title promises.  To be fair, though, its details were remarkable enough to justify an expensive publication in 1598, and they must have been completely novel and extraordinary in 1534, when Cartier actually sailed.

As for the infamous quotation itself (which you can also find on page 27 of the 1865 facsimile edition via Hathitrust), here it is:

With modern orthography, the key bit goes, “Et en somme je pense que cette terre est celle que Dieu donna à Cain.”  My translation: “And in sum, I think this land is that which God gave to Cain.”

This idea has inspired many riffs, ripostes, and reimaginings.  Most directly, in slightly different forms, it provides the titles of J.M. Scott’s 1938 exploration narrative, The Land That God Gave Cain, and Hammond Innes’s 1958 novel, The Land God Gave to Cain—but there are far too many other examples to list.

Within Labrador, the idea that the land was a punishment from God could not be contradicted more directly than it is in Harry Paddon’s Ode to Labrador, which calls the region “God’s noble gift to us below.”  It makes one wonder whether Paddon was specifically thinking of Cartier when he wrote the lyric.

More generally, hardihood and resourcefulness in a difficult landscape have long been a source of pride for those who make their living on the land in Labrador, from Indigenous and settler backgrounds alike, and the notion of Labrador as “Cain’s land” has been reclaimed by many Labrador writers.  Academics have noticed, too.  David Zimmerly, who edited Elizabeth Goudie’s Woman of Labrador in 1973, titled his own dissertation on culture change in central Labrador Cain’s Land Revisited, as a way of showing how perspectives had shifted.  Back in 1998, Ron Rompkey wrote an entire scholarly paper dedicated to the different ways in which the phrase “the land that God gave Cain” to describe Labrador throughout history.  On the other hand, the first Cain’s Quest snowmobile race was not contested until eight years later, in 2006.  Someone might need to write another paper to update things!

Another interesting line actually appears slightly earlier in the same paragraph of Cartier’s account:

A somewhat free translation of the sentence here might be: “If the land were as good as the harbours, it would be a great place, but as it is, it should not even be called land, being rather stones and wild rocks, and places fit for wild beasts.”

So, as negative as he was, Cartier did not actually write off Labrador (or the part of Labrador that he saw) as completely desolate.  Like so many European visitors, he recognized the bounty of the Labrador Sea—and it is true that Labrador’s coastal peoples have always depended largely on the sea for food, transport, and more.  But that doesn’t mean that the land itself was destitute, as generations of hunters and trappers (or anyone who has visited the coast during bakeapple season) can readily attest.

That finding also came through loud and clear in a southern Labrador land use study done by the Labrador Institute of Northern Studies in the 1980s, under the wonderful title, Bounty of a Barren Coast, which just begs for a redefinition of “barren.”  (For the recorded words of the southern Labradorians who actually lived off this bounty, check out our archives.)

However one takes the “Cain’s land” gibe now, whether as an insult, or a reclaimed term that is part of  regional our identity, or even just as a quaint old nothing, there’s no denying how many imaginations it has engaged over the more than four hundred years since it was first written.

Student Cheat Sheet

Discours du voyage fait par le capitaine Jacques Cartier (1598)

Author. French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) was a key figure in the 16th-century European mapping and description of North America, primarily for the purposes of establishing colonies and extracting resources.  Cartier's work contributed substantially to the creation of New France, which ultimately evolved into the Francophone component of Canada's bicultural (French-English) colonial heritage.
Summary. The Discours du voyage is an account of Cartier's first voyage to North America, in 1534.  It includes descriptions of various landing places, from Newfoundland to Labrador to Quebec and New Brunswick, as well as basic, mostly inaccurate descriptions of the Indigenous peoples of those areas.
Origin. The most widely available near-contemporary version of Cartier's account is the posthumous 1598 edition, published "with permission," as the title page declares.  Its goal, according to the preface, was to inform and guide future travellers, and to please other readers inclined to "curious researches and contemplations."
Legacy. In Labrador, the book is remembered entirely for the phrase "la terre que Dieu donna à Cain," which has led to the identification of Labrador with a place of desolate exile, and also, conversely, to affirmations of Labrador's bounty and blessedness.  Ron Rompkey's 1998 paper in Canadian Issues gives a useful summary of the discourse up to that time.  As of 2020, the term "Cain's Land" has been widely adopted in different forms and contexts as a nickname for Labrador, which may be variously pejorative, fond, or proud.

Working on a book report for school?  Here’s how to cite this article:

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: The Most (In)Famous Phrase in Labrador Literature.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 20 June 2020, Accessed [today’s date].

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