Seldom acknowledged is the attention given New France by Henri IV and Richelieu. Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567 – 25 December 1635), a father of Nouvelle-France, was able to obtain, from Henri IV (13 December 1553 – 14 May 1610), the support he required to create a settlement for the French in Port-Royal, Acadie, now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. Acadie was settled in 1604.
But Du Gas de Monts, the largely unrecognized father of Acadie, and an indefatigable explorer, quickly realized that he had to create a French settlement in what is now Quebec City. Sailing up the St Lawrence River to Quebec City was a relativity safe endeavour. Champlain argued that the inhabitants of the new settlement in Quebec City would convert Amerindians and, second, he emphasized the economic benefits of this “établissement.” Once more the king obliged.
Quebec City: l’habitation
There was kinship between Henri IV, a former or less visible Huguenot, and Champlain, still a Huguenot or French Calvinist Protestant. More importantly, however, Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Du Gua de Monts, (Du Gua de Monts; c. 1558 – 1628), were dealing with a king, Henri IV, who had business acumen, as did his chief advisor, Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully (1560–1641).
Pierre Du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain could smell the fur and had caught a glimpse of the natural resources that could be tapped in Nouvelle-France and relayed the message in what must have been an eloquent form of French.
For France’s North-American colonies, the death of Henri IV was tragic and so was the dismissal of Sully, one of Marie de’ Medici’s worst mistakes. But Champlain found advocacy “for the retention of Quebec” under Richelieu who, contrary to Marie, was a man of vision. Richelieu founded the “Compagnie des Cent-Associés and saw the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye return Quebec City to French rule under Champlain, after the settlement had been captured by the Kirkes in 1629. This in part allowed the colony to develop eventually into the heartland of Francophone culture in North America.”[i]
In other words, under the leadership of Henri IV and Richelieu / Louis XIII, Nouvelle-France grew. As for its situation after the death of both Richelieu (1642) and Louis XIII, one could say that Nouvelle-France remained in the field of vision of the motherland. For instance, under Louis XIV, between 1663 and 1673, 500 to 900 Frenchwomen, the King’s daughters (les filles du Roy), were given a dowry by king Louis XIV and sent to Nouvelle-France, if they were deemed sufficiently healthy to survive the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Upon their arrival, the brave women were housed in a convent and taught what they needed to know about their domestic duties and the rigours of Nouvelle-France. It was only then that courting began. They were a precious asset to Nouvelle-France because most could read and write and had also studied arithmetic.
Nouvelle-France and Acadie under Louis XV
However, under Louis XV, France’s North-American colonies were no longer a priority. Absolutism has its drawbacks. Voltaire’s Candide contains the famous “a few acres of snow” (quelques arpents de neige), the words he used to describe Nouvelle-France. But I have often wondered whether or not this comment should be read literally. As a writer, Voltaire had mastered oblique writing, what I call “indirection.” His master had been Pascal whose Provinciales he greatly admired. In some of the Lettres provinciales, a candid character asks questions to a Jesuit who then tells the wonders of casuistry. All sins could be absolved under the art of the rather Machiavellian casuistry.
In short, those few words could have been a “candid” indictment of France’s poor administration of its colonies, so poor that in 1763, when given a choice between keeping Nouvelle-France or a few balmy islands to the south, the French let Nouvelle-France go, keeping however Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, small islands off the coast of Newfoundland as a pied-à-terre for its fishermen.
The impoverishment of French Aristocrats
But allow me to return to our “filles du Roy” turned farmers. In the seventeenth century, French aristocrats were expected to be present at the petit lever and grand lever, as well as the petit coucher and grand coucher of Louis XIV. It therefore became very difficult to find a husband for a daughter. How were they to raise the necessary dowry?
© Micheline Walker
March 1st, 2012
updated: April 8th, 2013
[i] Wikipedia, “Cardinal de Richelieu” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_Richelieu