Notes on 22nd Text for Reading Field: Creighton

Canadian History, Week 4

st lawrence map

“Johnson’s Lower Canada and New Brunswick.” Hand-coloured map, showing the extent of the St. Lawrence River, including a “legend showing: railroads, common roads, canals, cities, Counties, towns & villages.” Source: Library and Archives Canada R11981-168-o-E.


Donald Creighton. The Empire of the St. Lawrence: A study in commerce and politics. 1937. Revised, with new introduction by Christopher Moore. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

For Donald Creighton the St. Lawrence functions as both a literary and an explanatory device in this examination of commerce as a developmental force in Canadian history. The history he presents is impressionistic in tone, relative to later styles of historiography. Aside from the river, the actors at the centre of Creighton’s study are merchants – predominantly of British origins and inhabiting an overwhelmingly masculine milieu. In his view, their collective aspiration for economic reach was inspired by the reach of the river; their aspiration for political reach in turn inspired by a desire to protect access to what that river’s reach promised. Their shared dream was one of ‘empire’ in that it was predicated on securing political, economic, and geographical control sufficient to ensure the viability of their particular means of amassing wealth.

The merchants, according to Creighton, were engaged in a competitive, ‘zero-sum game’ reminiscent of Adam Smith’s characterization of mercantilism: what one man accumulated necessarily meant another went without. Long-term cooperation was therefore only possible between the like-mindedly acquisitive, although short-term cooperation might be resorted to as a means to an essentially invariable end — empire. Aboriginal populations appear to have offered such a means, both as suppliers of fur and as allies in attempts to affect territorial supremacy. However, their cooperation appears to arisen less as free choice than as necessity: Creighton asserts, “Indian society was not a separate and self-sufficient organism; it was virtually dependant on the fur-trade.”[1] The French on the other hand appear most often in the role of impediments to merchant aspirations – opportunities for cooperation were necessarily displaced by more numerous opportunities for clashes and conflict borne out of competing ideologies. Creighton finds that John Stuart Mills’ definition of nationality and assessment that differences in collections of the traits “Race, language, literature, religion, laws, customs, ideals, and memories of successes and tribulations endured in common,” invariably lead to conflict, holds true.[2]

Creighton presents geography as a historical determinant to the extent that location mattered. For example he presents the comparative American preeminence in the quest for commercial development as attributable to proximity to external markets and to navigation routes uninterrupted by winter freeze-up. What I find interesting about Creighton’s depiction, what sets it apart from other histories to my mind, is the degree to which money, and more importantly, a shortage of it, appears to have had singularly important ramifications. Following Creighton’s description, the merchant system, and to an extent the colonial system, can be fiscally reduced to series of inter-related, inter-dependant credit relations that appear to differ from ‘truck’ systems really only in terms of scale.[3] Thus Creighton finds the early Canadian economy to be vulnerable at multiple points. Crises were as likely to be due to external market fluctuations as to internal causes.[4] The merchants were committed to protecting free trade in the interior and to protecting mercantilism trans-oceanically. To that end they were intent on drawing close to governing powers and preferred that those powers reflected the principle of political privilege rather than populism – particularly as merchants were vastly outnumbered by agriculturalists whose concerns often appeared to need a different approach (responsible government), than that favoured by merchants.

Creighton presents a sympathetic account of the merchants. Their commitment to a particular approach (commercial imperialism), seems commendable and visionary – for example when he compares the different approaches: “It was, in the main, a division between those who thought commercially in terms of the commercial system of the St. Lawrence and those who thought in terms of rural and parochial interests and who instinctively distrusted centralization and control.”[5] However, in my opinion, it is equally easy to interpret the merchant’s steadfast adherence to a single plan, in the face of opposition that proved insurmountable and in some cases perhaps even predictable — take the repeal of the corn laws for instance — as quixotic and inadaptable (conservative to a fault). Given the time frame (1760s-1840s), relative to the longevity of other North American commercial ventures, and the discontinuities of association throughout that period, the assertion that the Montreal fur trade ever actually comprised a “commercial state” seems somewhat overstated.[6]

 Market Place, Montreal.

Market Place, Montreal.

Attributed to Paul Sandby Jr., watercolour, 1790. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-256 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.


[1] Donald Creighton, The Empire of the St. Lawrence: A study in commerce and politics, 1937. (1937; revised, with introduction, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 94, see also 110.

[2] Ibid., 153. Note, 352: the French population were regarded by English merchant interests as a “Golden Calf.”

[3] See for example Finlay, quoted ibid., 100; also 342, the remedy for turmoil over reform was essentially the “imperial loan.”

[4] See for examples of external economic forces, ibid., 150, 189, 244, 259, 310, Note that Creighton’s analysis suggests that historiographical assertions of an agricultural crisis in French Canada may miss the point that capital was diverted to the timber trade, which, from 1800 to 1812 “whipped up Canadian development” and easily outstripped agricultural production, but could not forestall the onset of cycles of economic depression which began with the end of the Napoleonic conflict and continued to the middle of the century.

[5] Ibid., 217.

[6] Ibid., 382.

Quebec Seen from the St. Lawrence River
Quebec Seen from the St. Lawrence River

Artist unknown, watercolour, c.1830-1840. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-532 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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