Pierre Du Gua de Monts was a French merchant, explorer and colonizer. A Protestant, he was born in c. 1558 in Saintonge, (or more precisely Le Gua) France and played a major role as colonizer in the early decades of the 17th century. He is, with Champlain‘s assistance, the father of Acadie. He died in France in the Ardennes in 1627.
Pierre Du Gua de Monts (1558 – 1627)
Du Gua had sailed to New France on numerous occasions in the 16th century. In fact, Du Gua de Monts, or Mons, was a member of Chauvin de Tonnetuit‘s and François Gravé Du Pont‘s expedition to Tadoussac in 1600, a settlement located on the north shore of the St Lawrence River, at the mouth of the Saguenay River.
Du Gua was not mentioned in the history of Canada courses I took as a child. However, I realized he had played a significant role in the history of Canada when I was assigned a course on French-Canadian literature and read the Relations des Jésuites.
Pierre du Gua de Monts in Acadie
We are not dealing with an adventurer but with a man of vision who could tell that the land he had visited before the seventeenth century held promise. It could be settled and it could be exploited. The word “exploited” is unsavoury to me, but facts are facts.
During his reign (1589-1610), Henri IV of France could not afford to colonize France’s North-American lands.
Because of the depleted state of the country’s treasury, this work was being left to individual under an arrangement whereby they would establish settlement in New France in exchange for the exclusive right to trade with the Indians [Amerindians].[i]
However, he could grant monopolies, but merchants had to sponsor the expeditions. Such merchants were found in Rouen, Saint-Malo, La Rochelle and Saint-Jean de Luz. At the time, La Rochelle, was an officially “safe town” or lieu de sûreté for Huguenots.[ii]
In 1603, Henri IV of France, granted an unusually broad monopoly to Pierre du Gua de Mons, a friend of Champlain. In 1604, Du Gua and Champlain travelled to what would become the eastern half of the Colony of New France: Acadie. Members of the expedition were:
“74 settlers including Royal cartographer Samuel de Champlain, the Baron de Poutrincourt, a priest Nicolas Aubry, Louis Hébert, Mathieu de Costa: a legendary multilingualist and the first registered black man to set foot in North America, and a Protestant member of the clergy.”[iii]
The expedition was also composed of “men of varying skills such as artisans, architects, and carpenters, masons and stone cutters, soldiers and vagabonds, several noblemen…”
Greed, Disease & Piracy
Investors were found. The principal investor was Dutchman Cornelis de Bellois, a merchant in Rouen. The Company had a capital of 90,000 livres to go into operation and the goals of the expedition, or the Company, were twofold: colonization and exploitation.
As is usually the case, greed was greater than creed. Members of the expedition had barely set foot on North-American soil than Du Gua caught at least one man, Rossignol, engaged in illegal trading. But the men of Rouen, Rossignol, had a licence to fish off the coast of Florida. So Du Gua was sued and lost. In 1608 he had to compensate Rossignol. Moreover, in 1606, Hendrick Lonck, the Dutch West India Company sea captain, boarded two of Du Gua’s boats, and pillaged them for furs and munitions.
But let’s return to the summer of 1604. Du Gua and Champlain nevertheless continued to search for an appropriate place to settle. Île Sainte-Croix (Dochet) Island was chosen. However, the expedition had arrived too late for wheat to be grown. Also, winter came prematurely and proved long and harsh. It snowed on October 6, 1604.
Scurvy developed and it killed half the men. Only Amerindians could have saved the life of the men who, unfortunately, were on Île Saint-Croix. Amerindians had saved the life of many of Cartier’s men in 1735, by giving them annedda: an infusion of white cedar or thuja occidentalis. But, as I wrote above, Du Gua’s men were on an island and Amerindians were to be feared.
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When spring came, the colonists moved to Port-Royal, the warmest area of the current Nova Scotia, where it was possible to grow wheat, but, during that same summer, the summer of 1605, a few men travelled to France where Du Gua learned that fur-trading merchants (in Rouen first and then Saint-Malo), merchants not associated with the Company, were attempting to have Du Gua’s monopoly revoked.[iv]
As for the men who had remained in Acadie, during the summer of 1605, reinforcements had arrived and later, in 1606, funds were raised so another expedition could be sent across the Atlantic. It left from La Rochelle, under the command of Jean de Poutrincourt. Winter came and twelve men died of scurvy. This time, a surgeon, Guillaume des Champs, was part of the expedition to North America. After performing autopsies he failed to find the cause of scurvy, a lack of vitamin C.
In 1807, Du Gua lost his monopoly but ended up being given a one-year reprieve (1607-1608) during which he explored the St Lawrence and determined, with Champlain, that both colonization and exploitation could be successful in Canada.
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In 1612, after Henri IV’s death, Champlain and de Monts organized an expedition to New France but Du Gua sent Champlain in his place. Fortunately, before his untimely death, Henry IV had appointed Du Gua, who had served him well, Governor of the Protestant city of Pons, Charente-Maritime. He was in Pons from 1610 to 1617 and then he retired. Du Gua died in 1628, in his castle in Fleac-Sur-Seugne, in the Ardennes.
Du Gua continued to be a shareholder in future companies as late as 1622, when he and above-named Dutchman Cornellis de Bellois became members of that [the company] of Montmorency. He and Champlain never ceased to see a future for France on the North-American continent.
As for Du Gua’s monopoly on the fur trade, it was given to the Marquise de Guercheville (text is in French), a close friend of the Jesuits (see Pierre Biard [1576-1622]). Henri IV of France had been a Huguenot and was assassinated by François Ravaillac in 1610.
Du Gua’s Monopoly
Yes, Du Gua was given extraordinary privileges by the King of France, Henri IV, but he did perform the duties he was assigned in exchange for these privileges. He honoured what could be called a contract. Coureurs des bois did not have duties.[v] The money they obtained for their pelts was clear profit. In modern terms, it would be as though they received an income on which no taxes were levied. There came a time when their furs were confiscated, but in Du Gua’s days, the earliest days of New France, there was no law inforcement agency. In fact, there were no laws. We know that Du Gua was the victim of greedy merchants, but also the victim of pirates. Moreover, the privileges he had received generated jealousy. Why him and not others?
Colonization and Exploitation
Colonization might have been a more successful endeavour had there been better stewardship of the colony, which at the time Du Gua was active was not possible. France could not afford to govern its North-American colonies. It therefore granted monopolies in exchange for a form of government. In Du Gua, Henri IV, King of France, had found a person he could trust with a monopoly. But King Henri IV could not enforce Du Gua’s monopoly. Henri IV was a good king, so I believe he would have protected Du Gua. But Du Gua was a Huguenot, so was Champlain, there was a Huguenot « temple » in Port-Royal, the main town in Acadie, and Henri IV had been aHuguenot. In the Relations des Jésuites, Pierre Biard, S. J. wrote that, between a Huguenot and an Amerindian, the Huguenot was the greater devil.