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William Bennett Munro.

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avarice and inaction, took away all the company's powers,
confiscated to the crown all the seigneuries which the
directors had granted to themselves, and ordered that
the colony should thenceforth be administered as a royal
province. By his later actions the king showed that he
meant what his edicts implied. The colony passed under
direct royal government in 1663, and virtually remained
there until its surrender into English hands an even
century later.

Louis XIV was greatly interested in Canada. From beginning
to end of his long administration he showed this interest
at every turn. His officials sent from Quebec their long
dispatches; the patient monarch read them all, and sent
by the next ship his budget of orders, advice, reprimand,
and praise. As a royal province, New France had for its
chief official a governor who represented the royal
dignity and power. The governor was the chief military
officer, and it was to him that the king looked for the
proper care of all matters relating to the defence and
peace of New France. Then there was the Sovereign Council,
a body made up of the bishop, the intendant, and certain
prominent citizens of the colony named by the king on
the advice of his colonial representatives. This council
was both a law-making and a judicial body. It registered
and published the royal decrees, made local regulations,
and acted as the supreme court of the colony. But the
official who loomed largest in the purely civil affairs
of New France was the intendant. He was the overseas
apostle of Bourbon paternalism, and as his commission
authorized him to 'order all things as he may think just
and proper,' the intendant never found much opportunity
for idleness.

Tocqueville, shrewdest among historians of pre-revolutionary
France, has somewhere pointed out that under the old
regime the administration took the place of Providence.
It sought to be as omniscient and as omnipotent; its ways
were quite as inscrutable. In this policy the intendant
was the royal man-of-all-work. The king spoke and the
intendant transformed his words into action. As the
sovereign's great interest in the colony moved him to
speak often, the intendant's activity was prodigious.
Ordinances, edicts, judgments and decrees fairly flew
from his pen like sparks from an anvil. Nothing that
needed setting aright was too inconsequential for a
paternal order. An ordinance establishing a system of
weights and measures for the colony rubs shoulders with
another inhibiting the youngsters of Quebec from sleigh-
riding down its hilly thoroughfares in icy weather.
Printed in small type these decrees of the intendant's
make up a bulky volume, the present-day interest of which
is only to show how often the hand of authority thrust
itself into the daily walk and conversation of Old Canada.

From first to last there were a dozen intendants of New
France. Jean Talon, whose prudence and energy did much
to set the colony on its feet, was the first; Fracois
Bigot, the arch-plunderer of public funds, who did so
much to bring the land to disaster, was the last. Between
them came a line of sensible, hard-working, and loyal
men who gave the best that was in them to the uphill task
of making the colony what their royal master wanted it
to be. Unfortunate it is that Bigot's astounding depravity
has led too many readers and writers of Canadian history
to look upon the intendancy of New France as a post held
chiefly by rascals. As a class no men served the French
crown more steadfastly or to better purpose.

Now it was to the intendant, in Talon's time, that the
king committed the duty of granting seigneuries and of
supervising the seigneurial system in operation. But,
later, when Count Frontenac, the iron governor of the
colony, came into conflict with the intendant on various
other matters, he made complaint to the court at Versailles
that the intendant was assuming too much authority. A
royal decree therefore ordered that for the future these
grants should he made by the governor and intendant
jointly. Thenceforth they were usually so made, although
in some cases the intendant disregarded the royal
instructions and signed the title-deeds alone; and it
appears that in all cases he was the main factor in
determining who should get seigneuries and who should
not. The intendant, moreover, made himself the chief
guardian of the relations between the seigneurs and their
seigneurial tenants. When the seigneurs tried to exact
in the way of honours, dues, and services any more than
the laws and customs of the land allowed, the watchful
intendant promptly checkmated them with a restrictive
decree. Or when some seigneurial claim, even though
warranted by law or custom, seemed to be detrimental to
the general wellbeing of the people, he regularly brought
the matter to the attention of the home government and
invoked its intervention. In all such matters he was
praetor and tribune combined. Without the intendancy the
seigneurial system would soon have become an agent of
oppression, for some Canadian seigneurs were quite as
avaricious as their friends at home.

The heyday of Canadian feudalism was the period from 1663
to about 1750. During this interval nearly three hundred
fiefs were granted. Most of them went to officials of
the civil administration, many to retired military
officers, many others to the Church and its affiliated
institutions, and some to merchants and other lay
inhabitants of the colony. Certain seigneurs set to work
with real zeal, bringing out settlers from France and
steadily getting larger portions of their fiefs under
cultivation. Others showed far less enterprise, and some
no enterprise at all. From time to time the king and his
ministers would make inquiry as to the progress being
made. The intendant would reply with a memoire often of
pitiless length, setting forth the facts and figures.
Then His Majesty would respond with an edict ordering
that all seigneurs who did not forthwith help the colony
by putting settlers on their lands should have their
grants revoked. But the seigneurs who were most at fault
in this regard were usually the ones who had most influence
in the little administrative circle at Quebec. Hence the
king's orders were never enforced to the letter, and
sometimes not enforced at all. Unlike the Parliament of
Paris, the Sovereign Council at Quebec never refused to
register a royal edict. What would have happened in the
event of its doing so is a query that legal antiquarians
might find difficult to answer. Even a sovereign decree
bearing the Bourbon sign-manual could not gain the force
of law in Canada except by being spread upon the council's
records. In France the king could come clattering with
his escort to the council hall and there, by his so termed
'bed of justice,' compel the registration of his decrees.
But the Chateau of St Louis at Quebec was too far away
for any such violent procedure.

The colonial council never sought to find out what would
follow an open defiance of the royal wishes. It had a
safer plan. Decrees were always promptly registered; but
when they did not suit the councillors they were just as
promptly pigeon-holed, and the people of the colony were
thus left in complete ignorance of the new regulations.
On one occasion the intendant Raudot, in looking over
the council records for legal light on a case before him,
found a royal decree which had been registered by the
council some twenty years before, but not an inkling of
which had ever reached the people to whom it had conveyed
new rights against their seigneurs. 'It was the interest
of the attorney-general as a seigneur, as it was also
the interest of other councillors who are seigneurs, that
the provisions of this decree should never be made public,'
is the frank way in which the intendant explained the
matter in one of his dispatches to the king. The fact is
that the royal arm, supremely powerful at home, lost a
good deal of its strength when stretched across a thousand
leagues of ocean. If anything happened amiss after the
ships left Quebec in the late summer, there was no regular
means of making report to the king for a full twelvemonth.
The royal reply could not be had at the earliest until
the ensuing spring; if the king's advisers desired to
look into matters fully it sometimes happened that another
year passed before the royal decision reached Quebec. By
that time matters had often righted themselves, or the
issue had been forgotten. At any rate the direct influence
of the crown was much less effective than it would have
been had the colony been within easy reach. The governor
and intendant were accordingly endowed by the force of
circumstances with large discretionary powers. When they
agreed it was possible to order things about as they
chose. When they disagreed on any project the matter went
off to the king for decision, which often meant that it
was shelved indefinitely.

The administration of New France was not efficient. There
were too many officials for the size and needs of the
colony. Their respective spheres of authority were too
loosely defined. Nor did the crown desire to have every
one working in harmony. A moderate amount of friction -
provided it did not wholly clog the wheels of administration
- was not deemed an unmixed evil. It served to make each
official a tale-bearer against his colleague, so that
the home authorities might count on getting all sides to
every story. The financial situation, moreover, was always
precarious. At no time could New France pay its own way;
every second dispatch from the governor and intendant
asked the king for money or for things that cost money.
Louis XIV was astonishingly generous in the face of so
many of these demands upon his exchequer, but the more
he gave the more he was asked to give. When the stress
of European wars curtailed the king's bounty the colonial
authorities began to issue paper money; the issues were
gradually increased; the paper soon depreciated, and in
its closing years the colony fairly wallowed in the slough
of almost worthless fiat currency.

In addition to meeting the annual deficit of the colony
the royal authorities encouraged and assisted emigration
to New France. Whole shiploads of settlers were at times
gathered and sent to Quebec. The seigneurs, by the terms
of their grants, should have been active in this work;
but very few of them took any share in it. Nearly the
entire task of applying a stimulus to emigration was
thrust on the king and his officials at home. Year after
gear the governor and intendant grew increasingly urgent
in repeated requests for more settlers, until a rebuke
arrived in a suggestion that the king was not minded to
depopulate France in order to people his colonies. The
influx of settlers was relatively large during the years
1663-72. Then it dwindled perceptibly, although immigrants
kept coming year by year so long as war did not completely
cut off communication with France. The colony gained
bravely, moreover, through its own natural increase, for
the colonial birth-rate was high, large families being
everywhere the rule. In 1673 the population of New France
was figured at about seven thousand; in 1760 it had
reached nearly fifty thousand.

The development of agriculture on the seigneurial lands
did not, however, keep pace with growth in population.
It was hard to keep settlers to the prosaic task of
tilling the soil. There were too many distractions, chief
among them the lure of the Indian trade. The traffic in
furs offered large profits and equally large risks; but
it always yielded a full dividend of adventure and
hair-raising experience. The fascination of the forest
life gripped the young men of the colony, and they left
for the wilderness by the hundred. There is a roving
strain in Norman blood. It brought the Norseman to France
and Sicily; it took his descendants from the plough and
sent them over the waters of the New World, from the St
Lawrence to the Lakes and from the Lakes to the Gulf of
Mexico. Church and state joined hands in attempt to keep
them at home. Royal decrees of outlawry and ecclesiastical
edicts of excommunication were issued against them.
Seigneurs stipulated that their lands would be forfeited
unless so many arpents were put under crop each year.
But all to little avail. So far as developing the permanent
resources of the colony were concerned these coureurs de
bois might just as well have remained in France. Once in
a while a horde of them descended to Quebec or Montreal,
disposed of their furs to merchants, filled themselves
with brandy and turned bedlam loose in the town. Then
before the authorities could unwind the red tape of legal
procedure they were off again to the wilds.

This Indian trade, despite the large and valuable cargoes
of beaver pelts which it enabled New France to send home,
was a curse to the colony. It drew from husbandry the
best blood of the land, the young men of strength,
initiative, and perseverance. It wrecked the health and
character of thousands. It drew the Church and the civil
government into profitless quarrels. The bishop flayed
the governor for letting this trade go on. The governor
could not, dared not, and sometimes did not want to stop
it. At any rate it was a great obstacle to agricultural
progress. With it and other distractions in existence
the clearing of the seigneuries proceeded very slowly.
At the close of French dominion in 1760 the amount of
cultivated land was only about three hundred thousand
arpents, or about five acres for every head of
population - not a very satisfactory showing for a century
of Bourbon imperialism in the St Lawrence valley.

Yet the colony, when the English conquerors came upon it
in 1759, was far from being on its last legs. It had
overcome the worst of its obstacles and had created a
foundation upon which solid building might be done. Its
people had reached the stage of rude but tolerable comfort.
Its highways of trade and intercourse had been freed from
the danger of Indian raids. It had some small industries
and was able to raise almost the whole of its own
food-supply. The traveller who passed along the great
river from Quebec to Montreal in the early autumn might
see, as Peter Kalm in his Travels tells us he saw, field
upon field of waving grain extending from the shores
inward as far as the eye could reach, broken only here
and there by tracts of meadow and woodland. The outposts
of an empire at least had been established.




CHAPTER II

GENTLEMEN OF THE WILDERNESS

A good many people, as Robert Louis Stevenson once assured
us, have a taste for 'heroic forms of excitement.' And
it is well for the element of interest in history that
this has been so at all ages and among all races of men.
The most picturesque and fascinating figures in the
recorded annals of nations have been the pioneers, - the
men who have not been content to do what other men of
their day were doing. Without them and their achievements
history might still be read for information, but not for
pleasure; it might still instruct, but it would hardly
inspire.

In the narratives of colonization there is ample evidence
that Frenchmen of the seventeenth century were not lacking
in their thirst for excitement, whether heroic or otherwise.
Their race furnished the New World with explorers and
forest merchants by the hundred. The most venturesome
voyageurs, the most intrepid traders, and the most untiring
missionaries were Frenchmen. No European stock showed
such versatility in its relations with the aborigines;
none proved so ready to bear all manner of hardship and
discomfort for the sake of the thrills which came from
setting foot where no white man had ever trod. The
Frenchman of those days was no weakling either in body
or in spirit; he did not shrink from privation or danger;
in tasks requiring courage and fortitude he was ready to
lead the way. When he came to the New World he wanted
the sort of life that would keep him always on his mettle,
and that could not be found within the cultivated borders
of seigneury and parish. Hence it was that Canada in her
earliest years found plenty of pioneers, but not always
of the right type. The colony needed yeomen who would
put their hands to the plough, who would become pioneers
of agriculture. Such, however, were altogether too few,
and the yearly harvest of grain made a poor showing when
compared with the colony's annual crop of beaver skins.
Yet the yeoman did more for the permanent upbuilding of
the land than the trader, and his efforts ought to have
their recognition in any chronicle of colonial achievement.

It was in the mind of the king that 'persons of quality'
as well as peasants should be induced to make their homes
in New France. There were enough landless gentlemen in
France; why should they not be used as the basis of a
seigneurial nobility in the colony? It was with this idea
in view that the Company of One Hundred Associates was
empowered not only to grant large tracts of land in the
wilderness, but to give the rank of gentilhomme to those
who received such fiefs. Frenchmen of good birth, however,
showed no disposition to become resident seigneurs of
New France during the first half-century of its history.
The role of a 'gentleman of the wilderness' did not appeal
very strongly even to those who had no tangible asset
but the family name. Hence it was that not a half-dozen
seigneurs were in actual occupancy of their lands on the
St Lawrence when the king took the colony out of the
company's hands in 1663.

But when Talon came to the colony as intendant in 1665
this situation was quickly changed. Uncleared seigneuries
were declared forfeited. Actual occupancy was made a
condition of all future grants. The colony must be built
up, if at all, by its own people. The king was urged to
send out settlers, and he responded handsomely. They came
by hundreds. The colony's entire population, including
officials, priests, traders, seigneurs, and habitants,
together with women and children, was about three thousand,
according to a census taken a year after Talon arrived.
Two years later, owing largely to the intendant's unceasing
efforts, it had practically doubled. Nothing was left
undone to coax emigrants from France. Money grants and
free transportation were given with unwonted generosity,
although even in the early years of his reign the coffers
of Louis Quatorze were leaking with extravagance at every
point. At least a million livres [Footnote: The livre
was practically the modern franc, about twenty cents.]
in these five years is a sober estimate of what the royal
treasury must have spent in the work of colonizing Canada.

No campaign for immigrants in modern days has been more
assiduously carried on. Officials from Paris searched
the provinces, gathering together all who could be induced
to go. The intendant particularly asked that women be
sent to the colony, strong and vigorous peasant girls
who would make suitable wives for the habitants. The king
gratified him by sending whole shiploads of them in charge
of nuns. As to who they were, and where they came from,
one cannot be altogether sure. The English agent at Paris
wrote that they were 'lewd strumpets gathered up by the
officers of the city,' and even the saintly Mere Marie
de l'Incarnation confessed that there was beaucoup de
canaille among them. La Hontan has left us a racy picture
of their arrival and their distribution among the rustic
swains of the colony, who scrimmaged for points of vantage
when boatloads of women came ashore from the ships.
[Footnote: Another view will be found in The Great
Intendant in this Series, chap. IV.]

The male settlers, on the other hand, came from all
classes and from all parts of France. But Normandy,
Brittany, Picardy, and Perche afforded the best recruiting
grounds; from all of them came artisans and sturdy
peasants. Normandy furnished more than all the others
put together, so much so that Canada in the seventeenth
century was more properly a Norman than a French colony.
The colonial church registers, which have been kept with
scrupulous care, show that more than half the settlers
who came to Canada during the decade after 1664. were of
Norman origin; while in 1680 it was estimated that at
least four-fifths of the entire population of New France
had some Norman blood in their veins. Officials and
merchants came chiefly from Paris, and they coloured the
life of the little settlement at Quebec with a Parisian
gaiety; but the Norman dominated the fields - his race
formed the backbone of the rural population.

Arriving at Quebec the incoming settlers were met by
officials and friends. Proper arrangements for quartering
them until they could get settled were always made
beforehand. If the new-comer were a man of quality, that
is to say, if he had been anything better than a peasant
at home, and especially if he brought any funds with him,
he applied to the intendant for a seigneury. Talon was
liberal in such matters. He stood ready to give a
seigneurial grant to any one who would promise to spend
money in clearing his land. This liberality, however,
was often ill-requited. Immigrants came to him and gave
great assurances, took their title-deeds as seigneurs,
and never upturned a single foot of sod. In other cases
the new seigneurs set zealously to work and soon had good
results to show.

In size these seigneuries varied greatly. The social rank
and the reputed ability of the seigneur were the determining
factors. Men who had been members of the noblesse in
France received tracts as large as a Teutonic principality,
comprising a hundred square miles or more. Those of less
pretentious birth and limited means had to be content
with a few thousand arpents. In general, however, a
seigneury comprised at least a dozen square miles, almost
always with a frontage on the great river and rear limits
extending up into the foothills behind. The metes and
bounds of the granted lands were always set forth in the
letters-patent or title-deeds; but almost invariably with
utter vagueness and ambiguity. The territory was not
surveyed; each applicant, in filing his petition for a
seigneury, was asked to describe the tract he desired.
This description, usually inadequate and inaccurate, was
copied in the deed, and in due course hopeless confusion
resulted. It was well that most seigneurs had more land
than they could use; had it not been for this their
lawsuits over disputed boundaries would have been unending.

Liberal in the area of land granted to the new seigneurs,
the crown was also liberal in the conditions exacted.
The seigneur was asked for no initial money payment and
no annual land dues. When his seigneury changed owners
by sale or by inheritance other than in direct descent,
a mutation fine known as the quint was payable to the
public treasury. This, as its name implies, amounted to
one-fifth of the seigneury's value; but it rarely accrued,
and even when it did the generous monarch usually rebated
a part or all of it. Not a single sou was ever exacted
by the crown from the great majority of the seigneurs.
If agriculture made slow headway in New France it was
not because officialdom exploited the land to its own
profit. Never were the landowners of a new country treated
more generously or given greater incentive to diligence.

But if the king did not ask the seigneurs for money he
asked for other things. He required, in the first place,
that each should render fealty and homage with due feudal
ceremony to his official representative at Quebec.
Accordingly, the first duty of the seigneur, after taking
possession of his new domain, was to repair without sword
or spur to the Chateau of St Louis at Quebec, a gloomy
stone structure that frowned on the settlement from the
heights behind. Here, on bended knee before the governor,
the new liegeman swore fealty to his lord the king and
promised to render due obedience in all lawful matters.
This was one of the things which gave a tinge of chivalry
to Canadian feudalism, and helped to make the social life
of a distant colony echo faintly the pomp and ceremony
of Versailles. The seigneur, whether at home or beyond
the seas, was never allowed to forget the obligation of
personal fidelity imposed upon him by his king.

A more arduous undertaking next confronted the new
seigneur. It was not the royal intention that he should
fold his talent in a napkin. On the contrary, the seigneur
was endowed with his rank and estate to the sole end that
he should become an active agent in making the colony


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Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 2 of 8)