William Bennett Munro.

The Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism online

. (page 1 of 8)
Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 1 of 8)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Edited by George M. Wrong and H. H. Langton
In thirty-two volumes

Volume 5

A Chronicle of New-World Feudalism




What would history be without the picturesque annals of
the Gallic race? This is a question which the serious
student may well ask himself as he works his way through
the chronicles of a dozen centuries. From the age of
Charlemagne to the last of the Bonapartes is a long stride
down the ages; but there was never a time in all these
years when men might make reckonings in the arithmetic
of European politics without taking into account the
prestige, the power, and even the primacy of France.
There were times without number when France among her
neighbours made herself hated with an undying hate; there
were times, again, when she rallied them to her side in
friendship and admiration. There were epochs in which
her hegemony passed unquestioned among men of other lands,
and there were times when a sudden shift in fortune seemed
to lay the nation prostrate, with none so poor to do her

It was France that first brought an orderly nationalism
out of feudal chaos; it was her royal house of Capet that
rallied Europe to the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre and
led the greatest of the crusades to Palestine. Yet the
France of the last crusades was within a century the
France of Crecy, just as the France of Austerlitz was
more speedily the France of Waterloo; and men who followed
the tricolour at Solferino lived to see it furled in
humiliation at Sedan. No other country has had a history
as prolific in triumph and reverse, in epochs of peaceful
progress and periods of civil commotion, in pageant and
tragedy, in all that gives fascination to historical
narrative. Happy the land whose annals are tiresome! Not
such has been the fortune of poor old France.

The sage Tocqueville has somewhere remarked that whether
France was loved or hated by the outside world she could
not be ignored. That is very true. The Gaul has at all
stages of his national history defied an attitude of
indifference in others. His country has been at many
times the head and at all times the heart of Europe. His
hysteria has made Europe hysterical, while his sober
national sense at critical moments has held the whole
continent to good behaviour. For a half-dozen centuries
there was never a squabble at any remote part of Europe
in which France did not stand ready and willing to take
a hand on the slightest opportunity. That policy, as
pursued particularly by Louis XIV and the Bonapartes,
made a heavy drain in brawn and brain on the vitality of
the race; but despite it all, the peaceful achievements
of France within her own borders continued to astonish
mankind. It is this astounding vigour, this inexhaustible
stamina, this unexampled recuperative power that has at
all times made France a nation which, whether men admire
or condemn her policy, can never be treated with
indifference. It was these qualities which enabled her,
throughout exhausting foreign troubles, to retain her
leadership in European scholarship, in philosophy, art,
and architecture; this is what has enabled France to be
the grim warrior of Europe without ceasing ever to be
the idealist of the nations.

It was during one of her proud and prosperous eras that
France began her task of creating an empire beyond the
Atlantic. At no time, indeed, was she better equipped
for the work. No power of Western Europe since the days
of Roman glory had possessed such facilities for conquering
and governing new lands. If ever there was a land able
and ready to take up the white man's burden it was the
France of the seventeenth century. The nation had become
the first military power of Europe. Spain and Italy had
ceased to be serious rivals. Even England, under the
Stuart dynasty, tacitly admitted the military primacy of
France. Nor was this superiority of the French confined
to the science of war. It passed unquestioned in the arts
of peace. Even Rome at the height of her power could not
dominate every field of human activity. She could rule
the people with authority and overcome the proud; but
even her own poets rendered homage to Greece in the realms
of art, sculpture, and eloquence. But France was the
aesthetic as well as the military dictator of seventeenth-
century Europe. Her authority was supreme, as Macaulay
says, on all matters from orthodoxy in architecture to
the proper cut of a courtier's clothes. Her monarchs
were the first gentlemen of Europe. Her nobility set the
social standards of the day. The rank and file of her
people - and there were at least twenty million of them
in the days of Louis Quatorze - were making a fertile land
yield its full increase. The country was powerful, rich,
prosperous, and, for the time being, outwardly contented.

So far as her form and spirit of government went, France
by the middle of the seventeenth century was a despotism
both in theory and in fact. Men were still living who
could recall the day when France had a real parliament,
the Estates-General as it was called. This body had at
one time all the essentials of a representative assembly.
It might have become, as the English House of Commons
became, the grand inquest of the nation. But it did not
do so. The waxing personal strength of the monarchy curbed
its influence, its authority weakened, and throughout
the great century of French colonial expansion from 1650
to 1750 the Estates-General was never convoked. The
centralization of political power was complete. 'The
State! I am the State.' These famous words imputed to
Louis XIV expressed no vain boast of royal power. Speaking
politically, France was a pyramid. At the apex was the
Bourbon sovereign. In him all lines of authority converged.
Subordinate to him in authority, and dominated by him
when he willed it, were various appointive councils,
among them the Council of State and the so-called Parliament
of Paris, which was not a parliament at all, but a semi-
judicial body entrusted with the function of registering
the royal decrees. Below these in the hierarchy of
officialdom came the intendants of the various provinces
- forty or more of them. Loyal agents of the crown were
these intendants. They saw to it that no royal mandate
ever went unheeded in any part of the king's domain.
These forty intendants were the men who really bridged
the great administrative gulf which lay between the royal
court and the people. They were the most conspicuous,
the most important, and the most characteristic officials
of the old regime. Without them the royal authority would
have tumbled over by its own sheer top-heaviness. They
were the eyes and ears of the monarchy; they provided
the monarch with fourscore eager hands to work his
sovereign will. The intendants, in turn, had their
underlings, known as the sub-delegates, who held the
peasantry in leash. Thus it was that the administration,
like a pyramid, broadened towards its base, and the whole
structure rested upon the third estate, or rank and file
of the people. Such was the position, the power, and
administrative framework of France when her kings and
people turned their eyes westward across the seas. From
the rugged old Norman and Breton seaports courageous
mariners had been for a long time lengthening their
voyages to new coasts. As early as 1534 Jacques Cartier
of St Malo had made the first of his pilgrimages to the
St Lawrence, and in 1542 his associate Roberval had
attempted to plant a colony there. They had found the
shores of the great river to be inhospitable; the winters
were rigorous; no stores of mineral wealth had appeared;
nor did the land seem to possess great agricultural
possibilities. From Mexico the Spanish galleons were
bearing home their rich cargoes of silver bullion. In
Virginia the English navigators had found a land of fair
skies and fertile soil. But the hills and valleys of the
northland had shouted no such greeting to the voyageurs
of Brittany. Cartier had failed to make his landfall at
Utopia, and the balance-sheet of his achievements, when
cast up in 1544, had offered a princely dividend of

For a half-century following the abortive efforts of
Cartier and Roberval, the French authorities had made no
serious or successful attempt to plant a colony in the
New World. That is not surprising, for there were troubles
in plenty at home. Huguenots and Catholics were at each
other's throats; the wars of the Fronde convulsed the
land; and it was not till the very end of the sixteenth
century that the country settled down to peace within
its own borders. Some facetious chronicler has remarked
that the three chief causes of early warfare were
Christianity, herrings, and cloves. There is much golden
truth in that nugget. For if one could take from human
history all the strife that has been due either to bigotry
or to commercial avarice, a fair portion of the bloodstreaks
would be washed from its pages. For the time being, at
any rate, France had so much fighting at home that she
was unable, like her Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and
English neighbours, to gain strategic points for future
fighting abroad. Those were days when, if a people would
possess the gates of their enemies, it behoved them to
begin early. France made a late start, and she was forced
to take, in consequence, what other nations had shown no
eagerness to seize.

It was Samuel Champlain, a seaman of Brouage, who first
secured for France and for Frenchmen a sure foothold in
North America, and thus became the herald of Bourbon
imperialism. After a youth spent at sea, Champlain engaged
for some years in the armed conflicts with the Huguenots;
then he returned to his old marine life once more. He
sailed to the Spanish main and elsewhere, thereby gaining
skill as a navigator and ambition to be an explorer of
new coasts. In 1603 came an opportunity to join an
expedition to the St Lawrence, and from this time to the
end of his days the Brouage mariner gave his whole interest
and energies to the work of planting an outpost of empire
in the New World. Champlain was scarcely thirty-six when
he made his first voyage to Canada; he died at Quebec on
Christmas Day, 1635. His service to the king and nation
extended over three decades.

With the crew of his little vessel, the Don de Dieu,
Champlain cast anchor on July 9, 1608, beneath the frowning
natural ramparts of Cape Diamond, and became the founder
of a city built upon a rock. The felling of trees and
the hewing of wood began. Within a few weeks Champlain
raised his rude fort, brought his provisions ashore,
established relations with the Indians, and made ready
with his twenty-eight followers to spend the winter in
the new settlement. It was a painful experience. The
winter was long and bitter; scurvy raided the Frenchmen's
cramped quarters, and in the spring only eight followers
were alive to greet the ship which came with new colonists
and supplies. It took a soul of iron to continue the
project of nation-planting after such a tragic beginning;
but Champlain was not the man to recoil from the task.
More settlers were landed; women and children were brought
along; land was broken for cultivation; and in due course
a little village grew up about the fort. This was Quebec,
the centre and soul of French hopes beyond the Atlantic.

For the first twenty years of its existence the little
colony had a stormy time. Some of the settlers were
unruly, and gave Champlain, who was both maker and enforcer
of the laws, a hard task to hold them in control. During
these years the king took little interest in his new
domains; settlers came slowly, and those who came seemed
to be far more interested in trading with the Indians
than in carving out permanent homes for themselves. Few
there were among them who thought of anything but a quick
competence from the profits of the fur trade, and a return
to France at the earliest opportunity thereafter.

Now it was the royal idea, in so far as the busy monarch
of France had any fixed purpose in the matter, that the
colony should be placed upon a feudal basis - that lands
should be granted and sub-granted on feudal terms. In
other words, the king or his representative stood ready
to give large tracts or fiefs in New France to all
immigrants whose station in life warranted the belief
that they would maintain the dignity of seigneurs. These,
in turn, were to sub-grant the land to ordinary settlers,
who came without financial resources, sent across usually
at the expense of His Majesty. In this way the French
authorities hoped to create a powerful military colony
with a feudal hierarchy as its outstanding feature.

Feudalism is a much-abused term. To the minds of most
laymen it has a rather hazy association with things
despotic, oppressive, and mediaeval. The mere mention of
the term conjures up those days of the Dark Ages when
armour-clad knights found their chief recreation in
running lances through one another; when the overworked,
underfed labourers of the field cringed and cowered before
every lordly whim. Most readers seem to get their notions
of chivalry from Scott's Talisman, and their ideas on
feudalism from the same author's immortal Ivanhoe. While
scholars keep up a merry disputation as to the historical
origin of the feudal system, the public imagination goes
steadily on with its own curious picture of how that
system lived and moved and had its being. A prolix tale
of origins would be out of place in this chronicle; but
even the mind of the man in the street ought to be set
right as regards what feudalism was designed to do, and
what in fact it did, for mankind, while civilization
battled its way down the ages.

Feudalism was a system of social relations based upon
land. It grew out of the chaos which came upon Europe in
the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The fall of Roman power flattened the whole political
structure of Western Europe, and nothing arose to take
its place. Every lord or princeling was left to depend
for defence upon the strength of his own arm; so he
gathered around him as many vassals as he could. He gave
them land; they gave him what he most wanted, - a promise
to serve and aid in time of war. The lord gave and promised
to guard; the vassal took and promised to serve. Thus
there was created a personal relation, a bond of mutual
loyalty, wardship, and service, which bound liegeman to
lord with hoops of steel. No one can read Carlyle's
trenchant Past and Present without bearing away some
vivid and altogether wholesome impressions concerning
the essential humanity of this great mediaeval institution.
It shares with the Christian Church the honour of having
made life worth living in days when all else combined to
make it intolerable. It brought at least a semblance of
social, economic, and political order out of helpless
and hopeless disorganization. It helped Europe slowly to
recover from the greatest catastrophe in all her history.

But our little systems have their day, as the poet assures
us. They have their day and cease to be. Feudalism had
its day, from dawn to twilight a day of picturesque
memory. But it did not cease to exist when its day of
service was done. Long after the necessity for mutual
service and protection had passed away; long after the
growth of firm monarchies with powerful standing armies
had established the reign of law, the feudal system kept
its hold upon the social order in France and elsewhere.
The obligation of military service, when no longer needed,
was replaced by dues and payments. The modern cash nexus
replaced the old personal bond between vassal and lord.
The feudal system became the seigneurial system. The lord
became the seigneur; the vassal became the censitaire or
peasant cultivator whose chief function was to yield
revenue for his seigneur's purse. These were great changes
which sapped the spirit of the ancient institution. No
longer bound to their dependants by any personal tie,
the seigneurs usually turned affairs over to their
bailiffs, men with hearts of adamant, who squeezed from
the seigneuries every sou the hapless peasantry could
yield. These publicans of the old regime have much to
answer for. They and their work were not least among the
causes which brought upon the crown and upon the privileged
orders that terrible retribution of the Red Terror. Not
with the mediaeval institution of feudalism, but with
its emaciated descendant, the seigneurial system of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ought men to
associate, if they must, their notions of grinding
oppression and class hatred.

Out to his new colony on the St Lawrence the king sent
this seigneurial system. A gross and gratuitous outrage,
a characteristic manifestation of Bourbon stupidity - that
is a common verdict upon the royal action. But it may
well be asked: What else was there to do? The seigneurial
system was still the basis of land tenure in France. The
nobility and even the throne rested upon it. The Church
sanctioned and supported it. The people in general,
whatever their attitude towards seigneurialism, were
familiar with no other system of landholding. It was not,
like the encomienda system which Spain planted in Mexico,
an arrangement cut out of new cloth for the more ruthless
exploitation of a fruitful domain. The Puritan who went
to Massachusetts Bay took his system of socage tenure
along with him. The common law went with the flag of
England. It was quite as natural that the Custom of Paris
should follow the fleurs-de-lis.

There was every reason to expect, moreover, that in the
New World the seigneurial system would soon free itself
from those barnacles of privilege and oppression which
were encrusted on its sides at home. Here was a small
settlement of pioneers surrounded by hostile aborigines.
The royal arm, strong as it was at home, could not well
afford protection a thousand leagues away. The colony
must organize and learn to protect itself. In other words,
the colonial environment was very much like that in which
the yeomen of the Dark Ages had found themselves. And
might not its dangers be faced in the old feudal way?
They were faced in this way. In the history of French
Canada we find the seigneurial system forced back towards
its old feudal plane. We see it gain in vitality; we see
the old personal bond between lord and vassal restored
to some of its pristine strength; we see the military
aspects of the system revived, and its more sordid phases
thrust aside. It turned New France into a huge armed
camp; it gave the colony a closely knit military
organization; and, in a day when Canada needed every
ounce of her strength to ward off encircling enemies both
white and red, it did for her what no other system could
be expected to do.

But to return to the little cradle of empire at the foot
of Cape Diamond. Champlain for a score of years worked
himself to premature old age in overcoming those many
obstacles which always meet the pioneer. More settlers
were brought; a few seigneuries were granted; priests
were summoned from France; a new fort was built; and by
sheer perseverance a settlement of about three hundred
souls had been established by 1627. But no single
individual, however untiring in his efforts, could do
all that needed to be done. It was consequently arranged,
with the entire approval of Champlain, that the task of
building up the colony should be entrusted to a great
colonizing company formed for the purpose under royal
auspices. In this project the moving spirit was no less
a personage than Cardinal Richelieu, the great minister
of Louis XIII. Official France was now really interested.
Hitherto its interest, while profusely enough expressed,
had been little more than perfunctory. With Richelieu as
its sponsor a company was easily organized. Though by
royal decree it was chartered as the Company of New
France, it became more commonly known as the Company of
One Hundred Associates; for it was a co-operative
organization with one hundred members, some of them
traders and merchants, but more of them courtiers.
Colonizing companies were the fashion of Richelieu's day.
Holland and England were exploiting new lands by the use
of companies; there was no good reason why France should
not do likewise.

This system of company exploitation was particularly
popular with the monarchs of all these European countries.
It made no demands on the royal purse. If failure attended
the company's ventures the king bore no financial loss.
But if the company succeeded, if its profits were large
and its achievements great, the king might easily step
in and claim his share of it all as the price of royal
protection and patronage. In both England and Holland
the scheme worked out in that way. An English stock
company began and developed the work which finally placed
India in the possession of the British crown; a similar
Dutch organization in due course handed over Java as a
rich patrimony to the king of the Netherlands. France,
however, was not so fortunate. True enough, the Company
of One Hundred Associates made a brave start; its charter
gave great privileges, and placed on the company large
obligations; it seemed as though a new era in French
colonization had begun. 'Having in view the establishment
of a powerful military colony,' as this charter recites,
the king gave to the associates the entire territory
claimed by France in the western hemisphere, with power
to govern, create trade, grant lands, and bestow titles
of nobility. For its part the company was to send out
settlers, at least two hundred of them a year; it was to
provide them with free transportation, give them free
lands and initial subsistence; it was to support priests
and teachers - in fact, to do all things necessary for
the creation of that 'powerful military colony' which
His Majesty had in expectation.

It happened, however, that the first fleet the company
dispatched in 1628 did not reach Canada. The ships were
attacked and captured, and in the following year Quebec
itself fell into English hands. After its restoration in
1632 the company, greatly crippled, resumed operations,
but did very little for the upbuilding of the colony.
Few settlers were sent out at all, and of these still
fewer went at the company's expense. In only two ways
did the company, after the first few years of its
existence, show any interest in its new territories. In
the first place, its officers readily grasped the
opportunity to make some profits out of the fur trade.
Each year ships were sent to Quebec; merchandise was
there landed, and a cargo of furs taken in exchange. If
the vessel ever reached home, despite the risks of wreck
and capture, a handsome dividend for those interested
was the outcome. But the risks were great, and, after
a time, when the profits declined, the company showed
scant interest in even the trading part of its business.
The other matter in which the directors of the company
showed some interest was in the giving of seigneuries
- chiefly to themselves. About sixty of these seigneuries
were granted, large tracts all of them. One director of
the company secured the whole island of Orleans as his
seigneurial estate; others took generous slices on both
shores of the St Lawrence. But not one of these men lifted
a finger in the way of redeeming his huge fief from the
wilderness. Every one seems to have had great zeal in
getting hold of these vast tracts with the hope that they
would some day rise in value. As for the development of
the lands, however, neither the company nor its officers
showed any such fervour in serving the royal cause. Thirty
years after the company had taken its charter there were
only about two thousand inhabitants in the colony; not
more than four thousand arpents of land were under
cultivation; trade had failed to increase; and the
colonists were openly demanding a change of policy.

When Louis XIV came to the throne and chose Colbert as
his chief minister it was deemed wise to look into the
colonial situation. [Footnote: See in this Series 'The
Great Intendant', chap. I.] Both were surprised and
angered by the showing. It appeared that not only had
the company neglected its obligations, but that its
officers had shrewdly concealed their shortcomings from
the royal notice. The great Bourbon therefore acted
promptly and with firmness. In a couple of notable royal
decrees he read the directors a severe lecture upon their

1 3 4 5 6 7 8

Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 1 of 8)