FONTENEAU, JEAN, better known by the name of Jean Alfonse, French navigator; b. 1484 in a village in Saintonge; d. 1544 at La Rochelle.
At the age of 12 he joined the merchant service at La Rochelle, which was to become his home port and his place of residence. He sailed on coastal vessels to ports in Spain and Portugal. While still young he married a Portuguese girl, Valentine Alfonse. Following the custom of nicknames, he was given his wife’s name, which finally replaced his own. It is this surname, together with his knowledge of Portuguese, which has given rise to the belief that he was a native of Portugal. The voyages which he undertook for commercial reasons seem to have taken him to the Baltic in the north and to the Mediterranean in the south; in the east, he sailed the coasts of Africa, visited the Red Sea, and even got as far as Japan. In addition he familiarized himself with the coasts of America, from Nova Scotia to the Antilles.
We almost certainly owe to him the invention of the “jeannette,” a small sail placed at the top of the main mast to facilitate the manoeuvring of ships. He was a sailor, and an outfitter of ships when the opportunity occurred; he quickly acquired the title of master navigator with the reputation of never having lost a vessel. It was because of this reputation that he was chosen as “captain and pilot of King François I,” to lead to Canada La Rocque de Roberval’s expedition, which left La Rochelle 16 April 1542. It was probably on the return trip, at the end of the summer, that he ventured on a cruise in search of the northwest passage to China. He passed through the Strait of Belle-Isle, and seems to have got as far as Davis Strait, being the first Frenchman to reach what was later to be called Baffin Bay. He was back in La Rochelle in May 1543. War having broken out with Spain, he armed as a raider and captured some enemy ships. The following year, not knowing that peace had been signed in September, he took a few more prizes; but he was attacked off Cape Saint-Vincent in Portugal by Menendez and his squadron, who chased him as far as La Rochelle; there, in the ensuing battle, he fell mortally wounded.
Jean Fonteneau (Jean Alfonse) has left the following writings: La cosmographie avec l’espère et régime du soleil du nord par Jean Fonteneau dit Alfonse de Saintonge, capitaine-pilote de François 1er . . . , 2e èd., P. L. G. Musset (Recueil de voyages, XX, Paris, 1904). “Routier de Jean Alphonse,” in Hakluyt, Principal navigations (1903–5), VIII, 275–83. Les voyages avantureux du Capitaine Ian Alfonce (Poitiers, 1559),
Champlain, Œuvres (Laverdière). Anthiaume, Cartes marines, I, passim (see Alfonse). Biggar, Early trading companies. Harrisse, Jean et Sébastien Cabot. Hoffman, Cabot to Cartier. La Roncière, Histoire de la marine française, III (1908). Sixteenth-century maps relating to Canada: a check-list and bibliography, ed. T. E. Layng (PAC pub., 1956). Voyages of Cartier (Biggar), which reproduces Jean Alfonse’s description of his voyage to Canada.