Canadian History, Week Two
Marcel Trudel. The Beginnings of New France, 1524-1663. Translated by Patricia Claxton. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.
Trudel supplies a history covering general trends of development in New France from 1524 to 1663. The text is useful for its detail – at times nearly encyclopedic in scope if not organization – of points not covered as carefully in general histories of early Canada. His chapters on European mapping, claiming, and naming of the Atlantic seaboard are particularly engaging for what they reveal about the state of European knowledge, aspirations of the time, and customs as well.
Patterns of achievement and disruption are minutely described. Trudel examines those that came about as a consequence of trade; as a consequence of cultural proclivity (particularly as culture was informed by religion); and as a consequence of political maneuvering (at the level of Royals and their attendant bureaucrats, at the level of provinces and towns, and as political maneuvering occurred within the realms of trade and religion).
The theme that infuses all of the descriptions is that of competition. The competition is traced carefully, often at the scale of individuals and their socio-economic circles of acquaintance. Trudel describes their relationships – to one another, to various groups, and to various locations — and supplies many of their names. His text is therefore a rich resource. On the other hand, at times the direction of events is difficult to discern under the welter of places and personalities listed.
Some particularly dense passages are nevertheless relieved by memorable – because not entirely expected — narrative twists. Women figure in a number of these. For example there is the story of Henrietta, Princess of France, Queen of England involved in a delayed dowry dispute that complicated negotiations involving the Treaty of Susa (1629) and the return of Port Royal and Cape Breton to the French; the account of Jeanne Motin, widow Menou d’Aulney and her bid in 1653 to unite of the divided houses of Acadia by marrying her late husband’s nemesis, Charles La Tour; and the fact that, by 1663, just over half of seigneurial land was held by women, with the widow of Jean de Lauson in possession of 45.5 percent. Figuring among other miscellaneous surprises there is the unfortunate inability of anybody to remember a readily-available and lifesaving Iroquois remedy for scurvy revealed to Cartier in 1535, and the pronounced disinterest – which Trudel suggests is indicative of an equally pronounced superiority complex — on the part of Aboriginal peoples in learning to speak French.
Overall, the information on Aboriginal peoples of the region is well organized and supplies a good starting point for more extended investigation. Daniel K. Richter’s Ordeal of the Longhouse: Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (1992), and Roger M. Carpenter’s The Renewed, the Destroyed, and the Remade: The Three Thought Worlds of the Iroquois and the Huron, 1609-1650 (2004), might be read against Trudel’s account, not only to furnish additional possibilities for explanation but to stimulate ideas on possible avenues for research specific to French Canada.
For such a large continent — one that has often been represented as relatively sparsely populated, and one that to this day is still often depicted as such — historical North America as it appears in Trudel’s account was strikingly busy in the few tiny pockets where Europeans made their initial inroads. It is equally striking that, for all of that activity, the North American experience also appears to have been resoundingly unproductive. Or at any rate, what was achieved there fell well short of expectations – those of the historical actors certainly, and, if his conclusion can be taken as an indication, of Trudel as well. In his estimation, by 1663 the foundations laid for New France were in a “formless and stagnant condition to which it appeared doomed forever.”
 Marcel Trudel, The Beginnings of New France, 1524-1663, trans. Patricia Claxton (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973), 280.