Notes on the 10th Text for Reading Field: Dechêne

Canadian History, Week Two

Louise Dechêne. Habitants and Merchants, in Seventeenth-Century Montreal. Translated by Liana Vardi. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.

Through the study of quantitative data interpreted against qualitative sources, Louise Dechêne sets out to illuminate “the nature of immigration and the socioeconomic foundations of the urban and rural settlements, trade and agriculture” of historical Montreal.[1] As a social history concerned with materialist bases, she begins by focusing on the system of production and exchange, then moves to examine their interplay as well as the interplay of such influences as “the environment, the economy, [and] the cultural baggage of the immigrants.” She finds her subject to be a “very complex” example of metropolitan to hinterland linkages.[2]

Her analysis of patterns of immigration suggests that these owed a great deal to a combined vision, of France’s Church and State, for an orderly and ordered occupation of territory. As well, she finds that the poor-but-striving people of France (including sons of merchant families faced with limited opportunities), constituted the predominant pool from which settlers were drawn. Most men who were recruited were obliged to work off the cost of their transport and settlement – and could be traded and sold until they had. In contrast, women were treated as though holding an intrinsic value (supplemented with a state-supplied cash dowry). Women’s value, however, was only really realizable through marriage to male settlers. Thus, rather than being required to work off the cost of their passage, they were expected to work for a husband (acquired relatively rapidly upon landing).

Dechêne’s description suggests that the most efficient unit of settlement was in fact the family (as opposed to maintaining rotations of cadres of indentured servants or military corps), and the most effective approach to survival was establishing a family farm. Male participation in the fur trade served to supplement farm family income. Yet, in Dechêne’s view, despite an accord between historical theory and practice, and despite planning and incentives, settlement during the first half of the seventeenth century lagged — to a degree she describes as “wretched.” In her estimation, the wonder is that colonization proceeded at all. Although population grew at 2.5 per cent per annum over the century, Dechêne posits that urban growth was impeded by a dependence on agricultural subsistence; a dependence attributable to the lack of established industry.

What nascent industry existed was artisanal and only associated with conducting trade – principally the fur trade – insofar as artisans paid for purchases from merchants with their products. These products did not, however, enter the mercantile system. Dechêne in fact notes that “merchants made all their money from the sale of imported products and were therefore, by definition, indifferent if not opposed to the development of local industry.”[3] Montreal was a “strictly commercial enclave” subservient to Quebec.[4] While more than a mere post, but less than a port in its own right, Montreal seems to have functioned as a depot for organizing incoming and outgoing goods. Local markets were less important than external markets, both in terms of merchant interest in long range planning, and in immediate opportunities for profit. Merchants were not particularly wealthy. They tended to begin with little and to keep whatever assets they managed to amass tied up in trade. Thus, whether merchant capital accumulated in the colony or ‘flew’ to France was largely dependent on where the heirs of merchants resided. Even if these did reside in the environs of Montreal, Dechêne explains, “one could hardly expect any spontaneous diversification or important reallocation of capital from the fur trade to agriculture,” because during the period examined, there was no particular value – beyond securing the subsistence of settlers — in landownership.

Dechêne excels at supplying statistics that inform on such items as: the length, width, and area of the island (51.48 kilometers long, 17.7 kilometers at its widest point, for a total of 49,773 hectares); land clearing trends (the arable land was cleared at a rate directly commensurate with that of population increase); population (by 1715, 4,700 people resided on the island); employment (trade accounted for 20 percent of occupations, 85 percent were agriculturalists — ranging from habitants to seigneurs — 15 percent were “a mixed bag of day-labourers.”)[5] Although she supplies interesting and valuable detail (for example on such topics as what effect the shortage of coin had on monetary systems during the card money interlude of 1690-1720), Dechêne’s text indicates that qualitative data presents as many opportunities for authorial assertion and idiosyncratic interpretation as any other. In one instance she notes that parish registers appear to have inexplicable omissions suggestive of laxity on the part of clergy (not all infant deaths were registered). But she does not note (as did Allan Greer), that the fees for procuring church rites may have deterred some parents from seeing them conducted. In another instance, she avers that habitants fed their cattle straw – an odd assertion, given that straw has next to no nutritional value and would likely appeal only to starving animals — without explaining how or why she arrived at such a conclusion.[6]

Ultimately, Dechêne finds that the early Canadian experience was unique: development followed an autonomous route, the society “evolved according to its own rhythms” in a manner that was neither “preordained” nor “dictated by the authorities” nor geography.[7] Habitants — because of their permanence as a group, because of their numbers, and because the land-based aspect of their economy was to a large degree separate from the economy of trade — were as important to the shape of New France and its subsequent history as were merchants.


[1] Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants, in Seventeenth-Century Montreal, trans. Liana Vardi (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992), xvii.

[2] Ibid., xviii.

[3] Ibid., 100.

[4] Ibid., 208.

[5] Ibid., 212.

[6] See ibid., 174, 169, she notes that details about the soil and agricultural methods are virtually absent from the records she examined.

[7] Ibid., 280.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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