The Forts of New France

ICAME TO THE OLD CITY of Quebec for the first time on a bitter December day, and I am glad that I did; for who can understand Canada who has not flinched from the searing cold of its winter? No one from temperate Europe experiences at home the ache of that frigidity, the pain that penetrates the inner ear, the burden of fatigue that loss of heat lays so quickly on the body, the longing for shelter that comes after only a few minutes in the open. I had felt winter extremes before—in northern Norway, on the Great Plains—but never had I known a cold which the flesh tells the mind will kill if it gets the chance, a message the mind believes with total conviction, for it can think of nothing else.

This was not the Canada I had known on earlier journeys, to the Great Lakes and the Pacific Coast, in spring or summer or fall. It was other things which had left an impression then—space, first of all. I remember a flight across the whole width of the country, from Vancouver to Calgary and then to the Atlantic Coast in brilliant sunshine on a homeward journey in 1983. Our route took us across the Rockies, but it is not the peaks but the plains beyond that stay in the memory: the geometric division of the prairies, the isolation of the scattered settlements, the Calgary skyscrapers rising from the infinity like seastacks in an ocean of grass, the relentless, undifferentiated, eastward progress terminated in the senses only by the fall of night as we flew from the setting sun. Water, too; its scintillation among the pattern of islands in the Strait of Georgia on seaplane flights from Vancouver to Victoria in British Columbia, its leaden heaviness at the shores of the Great Lakes, its mindless spendthrift outpouring over Niagara, its universal permeation of the topsoil as the return of spring brings the snowmelt and the thaw to the inhabited regions. The plenitude of timber also strikes a European traveller. Wood, in Europe, is a scarce commodity and forest zones protected areas; trees in Canada grow like weeds and seem as little cared for, gathered lumber waiting in heaps for disintegration in the pulp mills, while the trunks of forest giants which have escaped from log rafts litter the shorelines of lakes, rivers, and islands.

This is a rich land; it is also an engaging one. The Canadian voice strikes the untuned English ear as so distinctively “American” that the British take little care to distinguish their Commonwealth fellow citizens from those of the Great Republic to the south; the easy consonants and slow cadences incorporate Canadians with Americans through an aural blur. Acquaintance sharpens the difference. The United States is a tough country, where the individual must shift for himself; I have discovered that in a series of painful lessons. Canada—British Canada at least—is gentler altogether, gentler in speech, in manners, in bureaucracy, in personal relationships. It is, underneath the North American accent and stripped of the superficialities of American cars, architecture, and clothes, a very English country, as English as Australia, without Australian irreverence, or sharpness of tongue, or readiness to take offence, a sort of Atlantic New Zealand in its concern for social welfare, legal propriety, electoral equality, and women’s rights; the charm and self-confidence of Canadian women is the best of all advertisements for the decency of their country. With a little exposure, the British can feel quite at home in Canada, and those who make the transition find themselves quick—as I am—to rebut the lazy judgement that it is dull or provincial or imitative or characterless.

There is no lazy judgement to be made about French Canada, that vibrant, prickly, and separatist enclave of French civilisation in an Anglo-Saxon world, any more than there is about Dutch South Africa, a society to which it bears in certain fundamentals a striking resemblance. True, the French Canadians are not a minority isolated among peoples of a different race. They are of the same ethnic origin as the white majority in the rest of the North American continent and of the same European culture. Like the Afrikaners, however, they speak a minority language, brought from Europe but now spoken in a distinctively local form; like them, they are separated politically from the kingdom which planted their ancestors in what is now their homeland three centuries ago; like them, too, they have developed a distinctive way of life which is felt to lie under threat of extinction by pressure of preponderant and surrounding numbers. The most nationalistic Afrikaners currently agitate for their own Volkstaat in the heartland of their zone of historic settlement. French Canada is already such a national state, whose extreme nationalists seek to erect it as a sovereign polity, even at the expense of destroying the federal system which gives the whole of Canada its economic coherence. Whatever may be said—fairly or unfairly—about the rest, French Canada is almost too full of character for comfort.

How full may be grasped in a few minutes’ walking within the walls of the old city of Quebec. There are other nuclear cities in the world into which are packed the whole record and chosen symbolism of their history: Vienna inside the Ring, Istanbul between the Blue Mosque and St. Sophia and the Topkapi. Quebec preserves the legend and the institutions of the settlement, and its development, and its tragic fall, in an almost unique intensity. Cheek by jowl stand the statues of Samuel de Champlain, French Canada’s heroic founder, Montmorency, its dynamic military champion against English America, and Bishop François de Laval, architect of the dominance of the Roman Church over New France; nearly wall-to-wall rise the buildings which defined the mission of France in the New World from the outset, the basilica of Notre-Dame, the Convent of the Ursulines and the Seminary of Quebec. Rebuilt in later or modern form are the hospital of the Hôtel-Dieu and the Citadel, the whole surrounded by the ramparts and bastions of the city walls, much nineteenth-century British work but parts still surviving from the years when the outpost of Quebec challenged the power of Britain with that of France for control of the American heartland. Also within the walls, beside the extraordinary fantasy of the Château Frontenac, rises the monument to Wolfe and Montcalm, while immediately outside the city gates extends the battlefield of the Plains of Abraham, where, on 13 September 1759, each general received his fatal wound, the first to die the victor of the decisive American conflict between the two empires, the second to achieve apotheosis as the martyr of the French defeat.

Defeat did not rob Quebec of its Frenchness; despite the intrusion of some modern buildings and the architectural reminders of the British conquest—extraordinarily akin in style to the monuments of British rule found as far away as Sydney or Calcutta or Corfu—Quebec remains a distinctively French place. Its narrow streets and shuttered, agoraphobic housefronts are those of a provincial town in any of the provinces from which Quebec’s settlers originated—Aunis, Normandy, Perche, Poitou—familiar to me from my boyhood explorations of the country immediately across the English Channel. As a schoolboy I walked streets exactly like these in the Vexin and the Ile-de-France, trod the same uneven cobbles, sniffed the same unfamiliar street smells, paused to decipher the same baffling street signs—rue St.-Angélo, des Grison, Dauphine, Côte de la Citadelle, de la Fabrique, de la Montagne, Avenue Ste.-Geneviève, Avenue St.-Denis—stopped to peer into the same puzzlingly foreign shopfronts or to perceive nothing at all through the same impenetrably curtained parlour windows. There is, to an un-French European, a comforting foreignness about old Quebec, an architecture and atmosphere which bring a sense of being away from home in the Old World, not in the infinitely more alien New World of the English-speaking states and provinces. New France, old France: to an Englishman, but also, I am sure, to a German or a Spaniard or an Italian, the distance which separates the two seems insignificant. Quebec within the walls is a place in which he instantly picks up his European bearings.

It is not only the material surroundings which impart a distinct Frenchness. So, too, do the people and the way they live their city life. The Librairie Garneau is, with its jumble of tawdry paperbacks and obscure scholarly works, exactly the sort of bookshop to be found in the shopping streets of any French provincial centre, while the interior of the Café de Paris, tucked away in a corner off the rue St.-Louis, uncannily resembles that of my favourite Parisian restaurant, Chez Paul, in the Place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité; there is the same grained woodwork under a low ceiling, the same back-to-backness at table, the same choice of dishes—tête de boeuf, rognons à l’estragon—the same cheery ease between regular customers and patron, the same sense of devotion to food, as one of the good things of life, by all parties to its arrival on the plate. I had taken refuge in the Café de Paris from the blizzard threatening outside; in an instant I found myself transported thirty years back in time to the Place Dauphine, where my wife and I had dined at Chez Paul on one of our honeymoon nights.

Most strikingly, the inhabitants of New France look and sound as French as their fellow Francophones of the modern Fifth Republic. The American face is not European; something has happened in the United States to alter its contours and colouring. The French Canadian face, by contrast, is as French as that of the boy in the next desk to me at the Ecole St.-Martin at Pontoise in 1951, of my elder son’s godfather, once a capitaine de chasseurs à pied, now a général de brigade, of our infant children’s jeune fille au pair, of the matriarch in whose house I first underwent the English—and French—summer ritual of the holiday exchange. The voices I recognise instantly also; not the accent, for that is even more reverberating than the regional dialect of the Indre, where I strained as hard to understand as to be understood throughout a long summer in 1952; it is the rhythm and turn of phrase to which I reflexively respond. “C’est terminé?” asks the waitress at the end of breakfast; “Monsieur désire quelque chose d’autre?” enquires the motherly proprietress of the café-bar in the shadow of the Château Frontenac; this is the patois of the eating place from Calais to Cannes. In the United States I comprehend automatically what is said to me by waiters, taxi-drivers, sales ladies, airline agents, but there is a momentary desynchronisation as I translate the form of words into its British equivalent. In French Canada, once I have reaccustomed myself to speak its language, reception and transmission fall into well-travelled grooves. My over-grammatical diction may disconcert the listener, but in return is a reassuring reminder of dozens of visits to the France of my youth.

Of course, it is a help that the France I remember is not the new—the France of advanced industry or international business or European Community politics—but the old, the France of the remote countryside, the Church, and the army. It was at a Catholic boarding school, on manorial estates, and at the Ecole Spéciale Militaire de St.-Cyr that my early acquaintance with France was made. Such an acquaintance is the best of all introductions to French Canada, a land settled from exactly those rural areas I know well—Normandy in particular, but also Aunis at the mouth of the Charente—and dominated, for as long as it was a French possession, by priests and soldiers. The romance of the French penetration of the American continent may belong with the coureurs de bois and voyageurs, the gatherers of furs whose canoes took them as far as the waterways of the Great Plains by the middle of the seventeenth century, but the structure rested on the missionary labours of the men in black robes—Jesuits and Récollets—and the services of the military officers, particularly those of the Régiment de la Marine, specifically raised for duty in France beyond the seas. My first months in France were spent in the care of men in black robes, priests of the Oratory, while I continue to know officers of the Troupes de Marine to this day. The anchor badge of the marsouins and bigors, as the French army’s slang denotes its amphibious infantrymen and cannoneers, recalls a succession of great conquests and tiny wars fought the length of the coasts of Africa, Asia, and America from the seventeenth century up to the present.

So I feel, if not exactly at home in French Canada, then at least that I know where I am; and it brings back memories, most of them warm and all compelling, since France was the first foreign country I came to know and any first experience of otherness—the otherness of people who are not the family, surroundings which are not home, speech which is not the mother tongue, habits which are not native—leaves an indelible impression. Indelible to me are the memories of my first venture by packet steamer across the English Channel to join a very un-English steam train that took me to the wholly un-English Gare St.-Lazare, where, amid a throng of fussily homeward-bound commuters, none resembling any social type I could identify from home, I sought out the friend of a friend who was to put me on to the suburban train from Paris to school. He was a nice young man who bought me a glass of beer I suspected he could not afford and then steered me through a platoon of dazed-looking Algerian riflemen with the star and crescent on their collars to find the platform for Conflans St.-Honoré and Pontoise and a seat in a compartment filled with ladies in black, shopgirls in startling make-up, aloof schoolboys in knickerbockers, and a babble of urgent conversation I could not understand at all.

These were the first of many train journeys in France, one most notably—for it was taking me to a region not much changed since the days when the settlement of Canada had begun—that carried me in midsummer of the following year across the enormous wheatfields of the Beauce, the sweep of the Loire, and the lake-studded woodlands of the Sologne to a tiny halt in the very heart of France. I arrived in the warm dusk to be put into a rattletrap car and driven to a decaying little château on the outskirts of something that was not quite a town but rather more than a village and unmistakably akin to the setting of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête, that poignant little comedy of rustic revel which had entranced English foreign cinemagoers the previous season.

Jour de Fête had been made only four years earlier in a village no distance from La Boutinière, but I am glad that I did not know this then, for I might have spoilt my pleasure in it by reproaching Tati with what he had left out. There was even more to the life of a village in the Indre in the early 1950s than he had conjured up, a moreness derived from an antiquity of habit and routine and relationship perhaps taken too much for granted by a Frenchman, as Tati was, to be perceived by him, but perceived by an English schoolboy abroad for the first time—I could not really count a French boarding school run on English public-school lines as abroad—with intense fascination. Tati’s device in the film is to use the depiction of American dynamism in a documentary shown at the fair’s travelling cinema as a counterpoint to the villagers’ grumpy mistrust of anything that threatened the skinflint, wine-bibbing, old-shoe lethargy of their accustomed ways. They accept the documentary as a form of reality, but it is a reality they do not want, and, as the travelling fair packs up to take its sensations to a neighbouring, identical backwater, they relapse untouched into an ancient timetable of activity—and inactivity—fixed by the harvest, the vendange, and the next annual jour de fête.

The routines of La Boutinière and its nearby village were, by chance, interrupted during the summer I spent there by just the sort of American intrusion that Tati had contrived in his film. The château was too big for its occupants—a widow and her spinster daughter—and, moreover, the income of the estate was too small to support its expense, which was why they had taken in an English schoolboy as a paying guest. As I paid little and occupied only a remote attic, the chatelaine had also decided to take in two American officers posted to build a NATO base nearby, their wives, and their impediments, which included two cars bigger than any ever driven in the district, refrigerators—heard of but never seen—and a washing machine, which was a wonder not even imagined. The installation of the Americans entailed upsets unknown in the history of the château: puzzled plumbers and electricians were summoned to run pipes or wires into rooms where nature denied they were needed; offence was taken at the implication that a single bathroom would no longer suffice; the improvisation of a second, but not a third, kitchen provoked an outbreak of domestic warfare between the American ladies. Reluctantly they conceded that servants might be a solution, and a succession of blushing, stumble-tongued, pinafored farmers’ daughters were engaged. Their and their employers’ ideas of how a house should be run proved so wholly at variance that none lasted; one departed the evening she arrived, overcome by a dry martini she had been offered in welcome.

On the other side of the house, life unrolled day by day as unchangingly as it had done since the family had enlarged the château—the cause of all the trouble—in ampler times two centuries before. The property was almost as completely self-sufficient as it had been then, or as a plantation or seigneurie in the New World might have been. The wine we drank at dinner—La Boutinière stood on the ecological boundary between northern grain and southern grape—came from a vineyard a hundred yards from the house and was brought to table in an earthenware pitcher; that it was barely drinkable was disregarded, for one did not buy what one could produce oneself. The sour and crumbly cheese was also made on the property, and so, too, were the pots of rillettes, coarse pork pâté, with which dinner unalterably began; eggs were collected from the chickens which clucked outside the kitchen door, milk drawn from a house cow, and butter churned in an outhouse. Electricity—the château was the only electrified building on the property—came from a petrol generator brought falteringly to life in another outhouse each evening, but bathwater was heated with wood carted from an enormous fagottière in the fields. The same fagottière supplied the logs over which once a month the travelling washerwoman boiled the dry linen; stirring her cauldrons in the courtyard, flushed, soot-flecked, and muttering, she unfailingly brought to mind the witch scene at the opening of Macbeth.

There were other travelling functionaries. A licensed distiller brought his wheeled still to turn the surplus of the vintage into brandy, an operation demanding the attendance of the village gendarme to record the final quantity, while the completion of the harvest was followed by the arrival of the threshing team and their travelling steam traction engine. For the week that threshing lasted, the chatelaine’s gardener, husband of the cook and an ex-spahi who had soldiered in North Africa, stood all day to count the sacks of grain as they were filled. The home farm was let on the ancient métayage system, a form of share-cropping by which the tenant paid his rent through division of the harvest with the landlord. La Boutinière’s was the widowed chatelaine. Grey, distant, and disapproving—was she Anglophobe or did she just dislike me?—she appeared occasionally at the threshing to register her presence. There were respectful murmurs and nods as she advanced across the stubble.

It was all very much as life on a seigneurie, in Old or New France, must have been lived for centuries; La Boutinière, largely untouched by revolution or republic, remained a little lordship. The chatelaine’s word was something like law to her servants and tenants, and even to her children, who, though mostly married, spoke respectfully at table if they came to dine and retired to the nursery wing if they stayed the night. Madame had a single intimate, La Maréchale, a famous French officer’s widow, with whom she exchanged disapproval of the goings-on at neighbouring properties by telephone. During the summer I spent there it was the marital difficulties of a younger chatelaine that engaged them; her husband’s tendency to violence required her to spend the day at La Boutinière, but she departed each evening to sleep at home. Dark, leggy, alluring, she came and went in a pre-war touring car that might have been a prop from Jean Renoir’s château drama La règle du jeu; the lines of the car greatly impressed me, and so did hers. The only half-innocent questions I asked about the reasons for her nightly departure were I suspect exactly those on which the two older ladies brooded telephonically together at such frequent intervals. In the end the violent husband resolved matters by shooting himself. I was surprised by the lack of stir the suicide caused; but guns and even sudden death were familiar ingredients of manorial life thereabouts. La Maréchale’s only son had recently been killed in action in Indo-China, while the heir to La Boutinière had a youthful history of playing Russian roulette. It was his marriage to an unsuitable girl that exercised his mother, not his irresponsibilities; she was quite unconcerned by his wild crashing-about with a shotgun in the surrounding woodland and would not have been much moved, I felt, had he caused an accident, not at all by one which disposed of his socially regrettable bride.

Am I wrong to imagine that my memories of La Boutinière assist an understanding of the life of New France before the British conquest? On the contrary, I am sure that they do, just as I am sure that my schooling by the priests of the Oratory and the time I spent teaching on exchange at St.-Cyr assist also. Church, army, seigneurie—these were the pillars of French Canada, and what I learnt of them even two hundred years later retained its value for a budding historian, all the more so because the conservatism of French institutions—La Maréchale, a citizen of the Fourth Republic, was widowed from a husband whose office originated at the court of the Valois kings—ensures that they change very slowly. French Canada has, indeed, changed very much more since the ancien régime had planted it in the seventeenth century than had the France I knew in the mid-twentieth—hence the disorientation of the Americans who came to lodge at La Boutinière, though they would have been quite at home in contemporary Montreal. Much of the ancien régime still persisted in my France, above all in the social distance which La Maréchale and her associates insisted should separate them from their tenants, work people, suppliers, and servants, from the minor officials of the bureaucracy, from their professional attendants—the local attorney was un jeune homme très bien but not quite to be entertained to dinner—and even from younger blood relations; and as it is ancien régime Canada that concerns me, I am persuaded that my summer in the Indre forty years ago brings me, in images however refracted by time and distance, some true reflection of the land which the settlers from Normandy and Aunis voyaged across the Atlantic to colonise under the lilies of Louis XIV.

That is why, under the steep housefronts and on the cobbles of Old Quebec, I found myself so strongly reminded of the old France I already knew so well. I risk overlabouring the point; it is equally important to emphasise the differences that exposure to Canada brings home, differences of climate, landscape, ecology, physical dimensions, density of population. France is a large country, over twice the size of Britain, though bearing the same population, but it is tiny beside Canada, and overpeopled by comparison. France has its wildernesses and its lakes and its forests, in the Camargue, the Landes, the Vosges, but they are small and tame in the Canadian scale of things. There are physical splendours in France, oceanic estuaries and alpine peaks which make Britain’s little rivers and green hills look almost comically miniature, yet nothing in France approaches in magnitude the St. Lawrence or the Rockies. France is the most productive farming country in Europe, but its output of grain and livestock is a fraction of Canada’s. The French climate shows wide winter and summer variations, particularly in the centre, at the eastern border and as between north and south, but the differences would seem trivial to a dweller on the prairies or the Great Lakes; Provence is never as hot as the southern prairies and Grenoble, on the flank of the Alps, never so cold as Montreal, where the winter temperature may dip to thirty below zero Fahrenheit. Distances, above all, are the great variant. France, from the mouth of the Seine on the English Channel to the delta of the Rhône on the Mediterranean, measures five hundred miles. In Canada, five hundred miles takes a voyager from Anticosti Island, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, only to Montreal, and the next five hundred miles only to Detroit (once French) at the western end of Lake Erie. Those thousand miles were, it is true, the extent of settled French Canada in the eighteenth century; but the tentacles of French penetration had already reached five hundred miles further west to touch the upper Mississippi, while the most adventurous of the French were venturing hundreds of miles beyond that to the edge of the Great Plains.

It was not only the distances which were un-French, un-European; so, too, was the terrain, the endless tracts of forest, so much of it unfamiliarly coniferous, the plenitude of waterways draining the enormous snow-melt into the basins of the heartland, the inordinate extent of that system’s lakes, the shapeless, unquantifiable spread of the continental surface itself, bereft of those intimate reassuring delineations that the small and cultivated slopes and hills and valleys bring to the European landscape. There was, in truth, no landscape in forested North America before settlement began to impose one, only its opposite, the wilderness, which had disappeared from Europe six thousand years earlier, and in the wilderness not only were there no roads, an absence forcing all travellers to become boatmen or trailblazers, but there was a presence, that of warlike, tribal, and preliterate native people, whose like no European voyagers to any part of the world may yet have encountered. Aztec, Inca, or Maya, the victims of the Spanish conquest of the south, were subjects of organised states; the penetration neither of black Africa nor of nomad Central Asia was yet under way; Arabs, Indians, Ottoman Turks, and Chinese belonged to advanced civilisations; it was only in the forests of North America that European seafarers and the settlers, traders, missionaries, soldiers, and officials who followed in their wake were brought face-to-face in their venture to the interior with men—and women—for whom conflict was a condition of existence and war-making a paramount skill.

Who were they, then, these French men and women—nuns, wives, marriageable spinsters, spitfires like La Bombardière, Madame Courserac de Drucourt, heroine of the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, in whom even La Maréchale might have met her match—who carried the lilies up the St. Lawrence? That they were largely people of the Channel or Atlantic coasts we know, as we also know that they were very few in number: in 1645, twenty years after settlement began, there were only 300 French people in Canada, when there were 5,000 English in Virginia, and the discrepancy widened apace thereafter; in 1756, at the outbreak of the war which was to settle the issue of control of North America between Britain and France, the French in all their settlements, from Louisbourg on the Atlantic to New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico, numbered only 55,000, when the British population of the American colonies stood at over a million, or twenty times as many. The French were exclusively Catholic (Huguenots were forbidden to settle) and, apart from some intermixture of Indian blood, wholly French by national origin, while the British colonists already included, besides tens of thousands of enslaved West Africans, sizeable contingents of emigrant Germans, incorporated Dutch, and transplanted Irish and Scots, many of whom had brought with them homegrown varieties of the Protestant religion not favoured by George III’s Church of England.

British America was booming; its inhabitants were already among the richest people in the world, continually opening up new land to cultivation, trading in both the export and import of luxury goods and experimenting with manufacture; their seaboard cities—Charleston, Savannah, Philadelphia—were models of Georgian elegance while, at Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, and half a dozen other colleges, the colonists had created a network of degree-granting institutions already larger than that existing in the United Kingdom. Representative assemblies existed in each colony, if elected by very limited franchise, as did local militias officered by the native-born, while in the major cities there was a lively cultural and literary life. New France, by contrast, was a pinched and backward society, an overseas administration of the Ministry of Marine dominated by royal officials, bishops, soldiers, the lords of the seigneuries, and the profit-takers of trading companies. There was no elected assembly or university, and local military forces were subordinate to royal officers. The inhabitants generally lived well and their exports of furs and skins made a fine entry in the colonial balance sheet; but there were years when the settlements along the St. Lawrence survived only by the import of grain from France, while the administration was under constant pressures to achieve economies and staunch a net outflow of funds from the royal treasury.

And yet: while the million British were, at the outbreak of the Seven Years War, only just beginning to press their line of settlement to the crests of the Appalachians, and their most intrepid traders and hunters to move downslope into the Ohio country, the French already dominated an axis of communication which ran for 2,000 miles from the Atlantic to the Gulf along the waterways that drain the American heartland, and from that axis had pushed along the tributaries to reach Lake Winnipeg, the Saskatchewan River, and the eastern outcrops of the Rocky Mountains, 2,500 miles from Montreal. They had established a well-used canoe route between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg and built fortified trading posts west of Lake Manitoba and south of Lake of the Woods. The whole of an enormous region beyond the Great Lakes known to them as “the Sea of the West” was visited annually by several hundred voyageurs, who were merely the most venturesome of this hardy and warlike imperial people. Few in numbers the French Canadians may have been; they nevertheless had a good opinion and could give a good account of themselves, and had already weathered the storms of three great colonial wars with the British, to say nothing of much unofficial raiding and skirmishing, and frequent hostilities with the Indians. The outcome of the gathering war of seven years, in the American theatre, was by no means prejudged, as the British would have been the first to concede. How and why had this remarkable outpost of the French nation come to occupy its empire in the West?

French America

Brittany and the Bay of Biscay were the starting places for the French voyagers who began from the sixteenth century to follow the news of a new world to the west. They came from a chain of ports which begins at La Rochelle on the Charente and ends at Dieppe in Normandy. I know their home coastline well from the land—this is the tamed French seaside of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and of several of my own holidays at Trouville, Deauville, and La Baule and on the Ile de Ré—but also from the sea. There is nothing tamed about western French waters. I remember struggling with them from a forty-foot cruising yacht in the Alderney Race—the fierce current west of Cherbourg, not a competition—with every stitch set in a fine breeze on a sunny day and having to start the motor to make the harbour of St. Anne in Alderney island. Due south, beyond the notorious shores of the Minkies, lies St.-Malo, a place of forty-foot tides, and home port of Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of the St. Lawrence River; it was home also to “las Malvinas,” the buccaneering men of St.-Malo, who were the first to stake a claim to the Falkland Islands. Round the corner of the great Breton peninsula stretches the long southward sweep of the Biscay coast, indented by the harbours and estuaries from which French sea power was exercised in the Atlantic during the centuries of naval conflict with Britain. La Rochelle, Les Sables d’Olonne, St.-Nazaire, Lorient, Brest: these are names that reverberate in French maritime history with the same resonance as Devonport, Portsmouth, and Bristol do in Britain’s.

In a memorable yachting summer I sailed a traverse of this coast, from La Rochelle to Lorient, beating out from the south of the Charente past the fortifications of the Ile de Ré to tie up for the night in Les Sables d’Olonne, from which in the sixteenth century fishermen sailed each year to bring salt cod back from the Grand Banks on the other side of the Atlantic. On another night we anchored on the seaward side of the tiny Ile d’Yeu, another place of grim fortification which housed Marshal Pétain in solitary confinement after the Second World War. We fell asleep to the rocking of the Atlantic swells and rose by moonlight to catch a breeze on a rising sea that led towards Quiberon Bay and Belle Isle. In November 1759, the year of the fall of Quebec and the death of French Canada, a British fleet caught the French Brest squadron between the ocean and the land in a howling gale in Quiberon Bay and brought it to action; some French ships which kept their gunports open were sailed under in the storm, others dashed on to the rocks, in what still stands as the rashest of all the Royal Navy’s victories, a defiance of nature as much as of the enemy.

The bay looked unthreatening enough on the bright morning we left it to starboard. Not so the fortifications of Belle Isle; every military and naval historian should see just once the seaward aspect of a great system of fortification, preferably from the deck of a sailing vessel, for only thus can he grasp the logic of its geometry, angle covering angle, rampart dominating rampart with a mathematical ingenuity that leaves no patch of beach or tidewater uncovered to the menace of artillery. We had the luck to pass Belle Isle on an afternoon of brilliant sunshine that threw into sharp shadow each deadly corner of its fortress’s construction, our slow progression unfolding its secrets at no better pace than the captain of a man o’ war could have managed on an offensive sally inside the range of its guns, waiting to watch for the splash of solid shot skipping towards him across the wavelets and knowing that he could count only on a fickle wind to carry him to safety if the enemy’s fire told. The sight of Belle Isle’s gleaming walls brought home to me the force of those eighteenth-century descriptions, “a strong place,” “a very strong place”; they spoke not just of military difficulty but of danger and of power. No wonder that an agreement to destroy fortifications was one of the weightiest concessions an eighteenth-century state could make in a treaty to end a war. It literally altered geography to its disadvantage. Belle Isle, though captured by Admiral Keppel in 1761, was left intact by the treaty that ended the Seven Years War and stands today much as he must have seen it in that year. Our peaceful promenade under its sparkling walls left me filled with astonishment that it could ever have fallen to an amphibious assault, and all the more intrigued to know how its counterparts at Louisbourg and Quebec on the other side of the Atlantic were overcome in 1758 and 1759.

Louisbourg had not been planned, Quebec was not yet even a name known to Europeans when Cartier set off from St.-Malo, leaving Brest and Belle Isle on his left hand, to sail for America in 1534. He made an amazingly fast passage, of twenty days, arriving off eastern Newfoundland in late May. It was a good landfall but not a chance one; Portuguese fishermen had been working the chilly fogs of the Grand Banks, the richest grounds in the world, since the end of the fifteenth century and Bretons since 1504. John Cabot, a Genoan sponsored by the merchant-venturers of Bristol, had reached southern Newfoundland in 1497, making a landfall near L’Anse Aux Meadows, where, if one is prepared to take sides in the famous dispute over whether or not the Vikings discovered America, Leif Ericson is believed to have established base in the eleventh century. Cabot, unlike Leif, was not in search of room for settlement, but, like every other transatlantic voyager of those early days, seeking a short route to the riches of Asia, its teeming cities, jewelled palaces, and spice ports. He found nothing of value on Newfoundland’s rock-bound coast, returned home, and was lost on a second voyage. This disappearance did not deter Cartier.

The French court had already had confirmation that a long barrier lay between Europe and Asia from the voyage made by Verrazano along North America’s eastern seaboard in 1523, which had taken him into the mouth of what today is the port of New York. The Breton fishermen’s reports on the lie of the land south of Newfoundland implied that it connected with the coastline he had surveyed, an implication that dashed hopes of guiding a passage to the Indies anywhere south of the Grand Banks, but they had also given a name, the Bay of Castles, to a long inlet that separated Labrador from Newfoundland—called today the Strait of Belle Isle (no connection with the island in the Bay of Biscay)—and that seemed to offer the prospect of a northwest passage to Asia. Cartier, as bold a mariner as ever sailed out of St.-Malo, was commissioned by King Francis I to penetrate the Bay of Castles and to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said he should find great quantities of gold and other such things.”

He found the Bay of Castles soon after his landfall in Newfoundland, spent the summer exploring its coastline, made contact with the local Indians, two of whom he kidnapped, and determined that out of it a broad waterway led westward. He did not have time to enter it that year but in 1535, bringing back his two kidnaps, who by then spoke French, he returned to continue his exploration. Encouraged by his Indians—as so often elsewhere, the European discovery of Canada was in large measure a guided tour, courtesy of the locals—he pressed into the channel he had identified in 1534 and sailed up it, naming places and charting islands as he went, until he cast anchor under a high place where the shorelines drew together. The Indians called it Stadcuna. They were Iroquois, the powerful people of the region, which they told Cartier was called Canada. Stadcuna would later be known as Quebec—an Indian word for “narrowing”—and the waterway he had navigated to reach it was the St. Lawrence River.

That was not the end of Cartier’s adventure. Still eager for gold and other rich things, in compensation for the northwest passage which the St. Lawrence clearly was not, he pushed on upriver to a large Indian town called Hochelaga. He called it Mount Royal, the first form given to the place that would become Montreal, but did not try to go further, for he saw from the top of Mount Royal that the upper reaches were impeded by cataracts, the Lachine Rapids, while the Indians told him that there were three more sets of rapids before the river became navigable again. He therefore turned back, reached Quebec three weeks later, found that his main party had built a fort at St. Croix on the northern shore, near the mouth of what is now called the St. Charles River, and settled down to winter there. He was to have a bad time. The Iroquois, with whom he had fallen out, warned that their god had predicted a winter of such ice and snow that all would perish. Cartier was contemptuous, strengthened his fort—the first military structure to be erected in Canada, protected by a ditch and armed by artillery—and waited them out. Almost everything the Iroquois threatened proved true: his three ships were frozen in from November to April, snow four feet deep stood round his palisades all winter, and scurvy so severe attacked the garrison that twenty-five of his sixty men died. The rest were saved only when an Indian intermediary unwittingly revealed the secret of boiling cedar bark to retrieve a concentration of vitamin C.

Cartier showed little gratitude for the transmission of this lifesaving secret when spring came. As he prepared to sail for home, he tricked the Indian chief from whom it came into boarding his ship, made him prisoner, and then kidnapped nine of his Iroquois followers to take back to France also. They were told that the French King would send support to aid the tribe in its quarrel with other Iroquois; but the truth was that Cartier wanted them as proof of what he had achieved. None would ever see Canada again.

Cartier would; he was back again in 1541 at the head of a sizeable party despatched to found a colony. International law, by strict interpretation and papal decree, reserved settlement in the Americas to Spain and Portugal; but a Spanish-Portuguese agreement of 1494 divided their sphere of interest at the longitude touching the mouth of the Amazon and so had given Newfoundland and its hinterland, east of the same longitude, to Portugal. Because Portugal was a power in decline, France could ignore its rights—as the English, Dutch, and Swedes were later to ignore Spain’s—and make claims of its own. That was the purpose of Cartier’s voyage, strongly reinforced by the proclamation that France was taking the Christian religion to the Indians.

Both colony and mission failed, as did a succession of subsequent attempts to settle Newfoundland and Acadia, the region known today as Nova Scotia. When Cartier died—in a plague epidemic at home in St.-Malo in 1557—the French impulse to colonise North America seemed to have died with him. He was buried, nevertheless, with great honour, and he deserved every shred of it, for not only was he as bold a venturer as ever followed in Columbus’s wake but he had made the most important discovery in America after that establishing its existence: he had found the St. Lawrence, “a great highway into the continent,” explored its length for a thousand miles, established that it extended far deeper, identified the key nodal points, Quebec and Montreal, along its course, and opened relations—however ambiguous—with the indigenous peoples who populated its shores.

The man who was to capitalise on Cartier’s endeavours, Samuel de Champlain, was of the same bold breed. As a voyager he exceeded Cartier in fortitude, since he made the Atlantic crossing no fewer than twenty-one times between 1603 and 1633—has any modern yachtsman risked those stormy waters as often?—while as an explorer he nearly equalled Cartier’s achievements. He made the first ascent by a European of the water route between the St. Lawrence and the Hudson—via the Richelieu River and the lake that bears his name—and the first traverse of the Ottawa River to the head of Lake Huron and thence, roughly along the line of the modern Trans-Canada Highway, to Lake Ontario. In 1615 he got close to the future site of Fort Oswego, at the Canadian end of what would be the Anglo-French axis of campaign between the Great Lakes and Virginia, via the Forks of the Ohio River. As, in 1609, he had actually fought a little battle with the Iroquois in the St. Lawrence–Hudson corridor, he may well be regarded as the originator of military operations on those two bloodstained warpaths connecting the French and English Americas. He was also, in anticipation of Montcalm, to defend Quebec against an English fleet in 1629, and to lose it.

Champlain was not, however, a loser; he got Quebec, of which he was the founder, back again and survived to be buried within its walls at the Church of Notre-Dame de la Recouvrance. No wonder that he remains the chief hero of French Canada and no wonder either that they have erected a heroically defiant statue of him in the Old City. There he stands, sword in hand, chin cocked, moustaches abristle, and an Anglo-Saxon visitor can scarce forbear to cheer. Of all conquistadores he is the most attractive figure. He believed in Canadian America as a place worthy of settlement in its own right, not as a stepping stone along a route which might or might not lead to Asia, nor as a mere source of exportable wealth. He sought, despite his battles with the Iroquois, to establish harmonious and profitable relations with the Indians; deeply religious, he hoped to bring them the consolations of the Christian religion; industrious also, he sought to found a colony of farmers and craftsmen who would be a credit in New France to their homeland. To the world he bequeathed a wealth of topographical and cartographic information about the land he had explored, for he was a prolific author and skilled mapmaker who recorded meticulously every step of his journeys by canoe and on foot within the uncharted interior. His was an extraordinary life. A native of La Rochelle, a place as close to perfection of climate and surroundings as Europe offers, he devoted his amazing energies not to winning position or riches at home, for which he might realistically have hoped in the troubled times of the Wars of Religion, but to translating French civilisation to one of the harshest and most unwelcoming sectors of the American wilderness. I share the French Canadians’ admiration for their Founding Father; beating out of La Rochelle a year or two ago in a sailing boat not much smaller than that in which he so often made the Atlantic crossing, I was brought to reflect on his courage and on how lucky I was to be setting course for Les Sables d’Olonne, a day’s sailing up the coast, and not for the mouth of the St. Lawrence, three thousand storm-tossed miles away.

Cartier and Champlain between them gave France her start in North America; without their gifts of navigational divination and their breathtaking courage to press on down the openings into the continent their guesswork disclosed to them, the French might have been no more successful than the Dutch or the Swedes, in their Hudson and Delaware dead ends, in founding a transatlantic empire. Neither, however, possessed the organisational skills or acquired the political patronage necessary to translate the discoveries they made into a colonial enterprise. Champlain fared better than Cartier. By the time of his death in 1635 the French foothold had the makings of a settlement. What it lacked was government, finance, production, economy, and people.

Government was slow to arrive. The kingdom of France, like that of England, first chose to administer its overseas enclaves by devolving royal authority on to a monopoly trading company. Champlain had such a monopoly, attached to the fur trade. It was transferred in 1627 by the reformist Cardinal Richelieu to a company of New France, the Hundred Associates, mostly Norman and Breton traders and voyagers. The Associates, however, failed to sustain a necessary flow of capital into Canada and in turn they devolved their rights in 1646 into a local enterprise, the Compagnie des Habitants. Though under the authority of a royal governor and, from 1647, of a council also comprising the lieutenant governor of Montreal and the Jesuit Superior, its traders and land-holders were the effective administrators of business and agriculture. Yet in their turn they too were overcome by difficulty, though of a strategic rather than financial sort. Indian wars between the Iroquois and Hurons for control of the supply of furs to the exporters inflicted such severe collateral damage on the French—particularly the heroic Jesuits who had opted to take their chance in the villages of the interior for the sake of winning converts—that the habitants were driven to seek military help from home. It was eventually forthcoming, in the shape of the Régiment de Carignan, but the price was the supersession of local by royal authority. In 1663 Louis XIV dissolved the monopoly companies and established government in Canada on the lines of a French domestic pays d’élection, with an intendant as executive officer under the governor; with him the Bishop of Quebec was associated as head of society. The Council was retained, but progressively only as a superior court of law, while the local militia, originating as a home guard, was put under central control. From 1683 it was supplemented by detachments of the Troupes de la Marine, regular soldiers recruited by the French admiralty for colonial service. At a local level, along the banks of the St. Lawrence, the seigneuriestended to become feudal, as they were at home in France; the magistrates, officers, churchmen, and merchants who held them grew more authoritarian in holding their habitants to the duty of cultivating the land.

Under royal government there was a marked increase in the number of habitants, some discharged soldiers of the Carignan Regiment who were induced to remain in Canada by the offer of several years’ half-pay, some indentured labourers, some “filles du roi,” poor girls shipped out to furnish wives in a womanless land, some convicts, but many willing emigrants who had learnt of the chance to lead a freer and more prosperous life in Canada than was open to them in France. Numbers grew accordingly; during the mid-seventeenth century, the Crown sent some 6,000 men and women; thereafter natural increase raised the numbers to 16,000 in 1706 and 25,000 by 1719; Canadians, both boys and girls, married young and families were large. In the first half of the eighteenth century the population almost doubled; there were 42,000 in 1739. Moreover the habitants had by then acquired a distinct personality; as described by W. L. Morton, the French Canadian had “a sense of freedom, a quickness to resist authority, a blithe and cocky headstrongness. Frank, and quick to give his trust, the Canadian could be persuaded to attempt almost anything by those he loved but could not be compelled to do anything by those he disliked. This independence of spirit was encouraged both by the subsistence economy in which he was cradled—no one need go hungry in the parishes of the St. Lawrence—and by the high wages his labour commanded in industry, trade, or the canoe flotillas. The Canadian was an Americanized Frenchman … a man assertively independent and ‘naturally undocile.’ ”

Of none was that more true than the adventurers of the fur trade, the early coureurs de bois of the northern forests, the later voyageurs of the lakes and southern rivers, who brought back to Montreal the skins from which the wealth of New France derived. They were a headstrong band in more senses than one: headstrong in taking physical risks, headstrong in defiance of the government when it sought to limit or curtail their voyaging. The court in France and the government at Quebec constantly sought to control the trade by lease or later by licences, granted to a fixed number for a specified period. The intention was to prevent private trading, ensure the return of all furs to the emporium at Montreal, and preclude the growth of a frontier population unfettered by colonial authority. Leasing failed in the seventeenth century because no royal officer could stop individuals from slipping away into the vastness of the interior to trade on their own account; licensing failed in 1696 because so few licences had been granted. The court wanted settlers of New France to devote themselves to husbandry and to building an economy which would rival that of the English on the Atlantic coast, trusting to Indian middlemen to bring down the fur wealth to controlled markets on the St. Lawrence. The bolder habitants, who had not emigrated in order to labour as they had done at home, continued to disobey the licensing system as they had that of leasing. In 1680 the royal intendant reported that “I have been unable to ascertain the exact number [of coureurs de bois] because everyone associated with them covers up for them” but thought that there were about eight hundred. By 1704, when the court was obliged for a second time to issue an amnesty to independent traders, the numbers may have been even larger. Many free fur traders had given up returning to civilisation altogether. Not only were they often in debt to merchants at Montreal, who had staked them their expenses against the promise of furs they had subsequently sold for better prices to English or Dutch factors; many of them had also set up with Indian women, bred families, and adapted to the life of the woods. A growing number, indeed, were Métis, French-speaking half-breeds who felt more at home on the fur frontier than they did on the St. Lawrence.

Whether half-breed or not, the fur traders were in any case too tough a lot to suffer recall to the farms of Quebec once they had learnt the life of the canoe and the forest trail. It was not one for “weaklings or the fainthearted,” as W. J. Eccles describes. “Squatting on a narrow thwart, legs cramped by bales of goods or furs, [the coureurs] paddled hour after hour from dawn to dusk, pausing occasionally for a pipe while the professional raconteur spun a tale from his inexhaustible supply, singing folk songs to the dip of a paddle, forty-five to forty-eight strokes to the minute. For over a thousand miles the paddles thrust the canoes through the water. At rapids they were either roped upstream, the men wading up to the waist in the swift icy river, or the canoes and their cargoes were carried on a tump-line, sometimes for miles around the turbulent waters. Going downstream the temptation was strong to run the rapids, and at every portage crosses marked where men had paid with their lives. Time could not be spared to hunt, the only food was two meals a day of corn meal mush flavoured with salt pork, dried fish or jerked venison, washed down with water and a nip of brandy to aid the digestion. The casualty rate was high, and rheumatism too frequently made men old before their time, but the Canadians gloried in this life. Wherever a canoe could go, these men went, seeking Indians with furs, bringing them within the orbit and control of this trading empire. A few hundred such men held the west in fee for France.”

The value of this empire to France was to be reckoned in the price of beaver skin, which yielded fibres pre-eminently suitable to felting fur hats. The European beaver had been almost exterminated by overtrapping at the beginning of the seventeenth century. On the rivers and lakes of Canada—and there are more lakes in Canada than in the rest of the world put together—the beaver remained abundant. In France a beaver hat, the mark of a gentleman, sold for thirty livres (about one pound sterling, an artisan’s weekly wage); in Canada an Indian would sell a robe of beaver skins for one livre’s worth of beads or brandy. Robes, known as “greasy beaver,” fetched more than “dry” skins because the fibres were more easily felted; in either case the eventual profit approached 20,000 per cent. Inevitably there were fluctuations caused by glut, changes in fashion, competition, or withholding of exchange (the French administration attempted to outlaw the supply of brandy until defeated by free traders), but the lure of big returns never waned. They were the basis of wealth in New France, from which exports regularly amounted to several hundred thousand livres a year during the seventeenth century; in 1687 the French Crown sold the fur lease for half a million livres and still left the buyers with a handsome margin.

Yet Crown policy inconsistently remained that of creating in Canada an economy to rival England’s in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. There the settlers hacked fields from the forest, planted, harvested, grew export crops, and lived in well-ordered communities which replicated those of the Old World; that they were generally on worse terms than the French with the Indians was discounted. France, the most centralised state in Europe, was supported by labourage et paturage, les deux mamelles, and it wished the overseas empire also to live by ploughing and grazing. Along the banks of the St. Lawrence there was such an economy, based on the narrow-fronted strip holdings of the seigneuries, whose habitants did dutifully plant and till, to such effect that in the first decade of the eighteenth century they were able in some years to export grain and flour to the fisheries of the coast and even to the sugar islands of the West Indies. Their churches and many of their neat, single-storey houses survive to this day, as distinctively Breton in appearance as those of similar date in New England, with their steep roofs and massive chimney stacks, are distinctively East Anglian. The Ile d’Orléans, under the heights of Quebec, remains, like Durham, Connecticut, a place into which the early settlers might step back today with little sense of displacement in time.

Yet Versailles’ desire for neatness, order, domesticity, Frenchness in the regulation and economy of New France in fact misserved the homeland’s real transatlantic interests. Failing the desire of native French people to emigrate, and the readiness of the government to permit settlement by non-French, non-Catholic immigrants—to say nothing of its disinclination to transport its dissidents and criminals with the will shown by the British—the basis for any growth of population equivalent to that achieved in the English colonies was altogether lacking. Like it though old France did not, the real energy of New France was expended at its frontier with the wilderness, in the relations established by its most adventurous traders, missionaries, and soldiers with the Indians and through the enterprise they showed in exploration. France enjoyed enormous advantages in North America over the British, confined as they were by the Appalachian chain to the narrow littoral along the Atlantic. By their possession of the St. Lawrence, the French did indeed hold the key to the continent; from it ran, by way of lake, river, or natural portage, a continental network of communication northward to Hudson Bay, westward to the Rockies, and southward to the Gulf of Mexico. There is a strategic logic to the geography of North America on which Cartier had stumbled the moment he found the opening of the St. Lawrence estuary; it forms a unity that Champlain, a geographer of genius, perceived by his divination of the existence of the continent’s inland seas and the water system of which they are the heart. Champlain almost ensured that France would dominate the system unchallengeably, for as early as 1607 “he sensed the relation of the Hudson River, seen by Verrazano, but yet unexplored, to the St. Lawrence.” It was only, as Morton explains, “short supplies and Indian skirmishers [which] drove him back from Long Island Sound,” so denying to France the chance to make the site of New York “a new Rouen or a new La Rochelle.” That was a mischance soon to be regretted by the champions of French imperialism, the loss of a link in their chain of ports, posts, and portages that would concede a crucial advantage to their English competitors. Yet the loss was not decisive. The great game of American empire had still a century and a half to run at the moment Champlain turned back from the endeavour of making the Hudson French. For most of these 150 years it was the French, not the English, who took and held the lead to penetrate the interior, comprehend its geography, and stake the claims to keep it as sovereign territory. The story of the French exploration of the American continent is the beginning of its strategic history.

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