Why New France ended up as it did – under populated and swallowed by the English

A. Overview

It seems to me, that a key question in the colonization of the Americas, especially for Canada, can be laid out as follows:

·        Around 1620 five European powers: England (not yet the UK or even Great Britain); France; the Netherlands; Portugal and Spain (really Castile) had unlimited opportunities for colonization in the Americas

o       In order of wealth and population they were probably France, England, Netherlands, Castile, Portugal

o       In order of military power they were probably France, Castile, England, Netherlands, Portugal

o       In order of naval power they were possibly England, Castile, France, Netherlands, Portugal

·        The dynamics of the situation were:

o       England was rapidly spiraling toward civil war

o       The Netherlands was in decline as a great power from the middle of the 17th century. The following is a quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica  “Once the Dutch fleet had declined, Dutch mercantile interests became heavily dependent on English goodwill; yet the rulers of the country were more concerned with reducing the monumental debt that weighed heavily upon the country. During the 18th century Dutch trade and shipping were able to maintain the level of activity reached at the end of the 17th century, but they did not match the dramatic expansion of French and especially English competitors. The Dutch near-monopoly was now only a memory. Holland remained rich in accumulated capital, although much of it could find no outlet for investment in business.”

o       Castile was in steep decline economically, as a military power and possibly demographically.  The following is a quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica  “There can be no doubt about the economic and political decline of Spain in the 17th century and especially in its second half.... the economic decline was mainly a Castilian phenomenon and did not affect Catalonia or Valencia to anything near the same degree. … To this (economic decline) must be added the aggressive militarism that was central to the Castilian aristocratic tradition and that led to the political hubris (overweening pride) of Spanish imperial policy, from Philip II to Philip IV…. It was the wars that devoured Castile, though they were fought beyond its borders.. …The wars of the 17th century, though they had weakened Spain's power in Europe, had left it still the greatest imperial power in the world. Spain's central problem in the 17th century had been to maintain what remained of its European possessions and to retain control of its American empire. In 1700 both tasks appeared to be beyond the military and economic resources of the monarchy. In the 17th century the greatest threat had come from a land power, France, jealous of Habsburg power in Europe; in the 18th it was to come from a sea power, England….”

o       Portugal can be considered to have been insignificant as an economic and military power and was occupied by the Spanish monarchy 1580–1640.

·        By the first third of the 18th century, two earlier players were transformed. Great Britain was created (by the Act of Union 1707) and Spain became an economic unit under the Bourbons (by the Decree of Nueva Planta (1716) the fueros were abolished and Catalonia was integrated into Spain).

·        During the 17th century, The Netherlands after a feeble colonization effort in New York (1621–64), and Brazil (1624–54), were excluded from the American mainland except for Dutch Guiana (now Suriname), Curaçao, and what later became British Guiana (Guyana). 

·        By the mid 18th century, Spain, Portugal and Great Britain controlled huge areas with large populations; while, France nominally controlled a huge area but colonized only the banks of the St Lawrence and Acadia.  Even there the settler population was tiny perhaps 60,000 in 1759 compared to over a million in the British American colonies.  We should recall that the population of France, at the time, was substantially higher than that of Great Britain.

·        By the mid 18th century, British America had a number of cities (e.g. New York, Philadelphia, Boston) with diversified social structures, newspapers, professional middle classes etc. rooted in the economy and society of their hinterlands.  By contrast, Quebec City was mainly an official outpost enabling French Royal control of New France and Montreal was an overgrown trading town.  There was not a single printing press in New France! French printing in Canada commenced under British rule.


B. How do we explain this?

I am not an expert on the period.  However, some explanations that occur to me -

1.      Economic Issues

·        The Impact of Mercantilism - The economic restrictions placed on their colonies by France, Great Britain and Spain may not have been very different in principle but they must have impacted very differently.  Specifically – a couple of patrol boats on the St Lawrence would be sufficient to suppress smuggling by sea and to ensure that forbidden industrial development did not take place in New France.  The very long coast lines and depth of hinterland made such a degree of control in the British, Spanish and Portuguese colonies quite impossible.

·        The French tradition of state control of the economy and political centralization may have sapped local initiative and ensured that only government priorities came to fruition.

·        France’s lack of a modern banking system prevented it from mobilizing its resources for sustained expenditures in war or peace.

·        The colonial dualistic economy – peasant agriculture vs. export of beaver hides.  Compare this to the far more diversified economies in New England.

2.      Political Issues

·        French kings’ priority on controlling Europe;

3.      Political-Economic Issues

·        France’s repeated periods of neglect of the French Navy, no doubt exacerbated by its poor financial system, left command of the seas to Great Britain

4.      Political-Cultural Issues

·        The Catholic Church was given a much higher degree of control over New France than the Anglican Church could have ever aspired to in the English colonies.

·        France’s excluding non-Catholics from New France vs. a number of English colonies being founded as refuges for religious minorities.  This would have at least two consequences:

o       The religious refugees would naturally migrate as families or whole communities vs. New France’s attracting many single men who returned to France to marry and settle down;

o       The religious refugees would likely see America as their promissed land and be less inclined to try to nostalgically recreate their old homeland.

·        A far higher percentage of the inhabitants seem to have been officials whose future prospects were back in France

·        Perhaps, overall, a higher percent of French immigrants were indentured labourers – impact?

·        What was the impact of the seigneurial system?

·        What was the impact of the French system of sale of offices?

·        What was the impact of the French aristocracy wanting to flutter around the king vs. the English maintenance of a very strong rural squirearchy?

5.      Geographic Issues

·        The very weakness of Spain and Portugal made their continuing possession of huge areas and resources more tolerable to the big powers – France and Great Britain – than to have the other big power take over Spanish and Portuguese possessions.  For this reason, France and Great Britain may have left them alone.  This situation, perhaps, was similar to the Great Powers propping up the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century;

·        In North America France and Great Britain were in contact with each other and not with Spanish and/or Portuguese possessions.  The rules of the game were that when the mother countries were at war, as Britain and France were through much of the 18th century, their colonies were expected to fight each other.  By, say 1720, this pattern was suicidal for New France given New France’s tiny population compared with that of New England and Great Britain’s control of the sea. New France simply was not defensible under these circumstances.  The question was not whether it would fall to the British but when and under what circumstances.



David Steinberg

December 8, 2004