Earlier this week, I took a journey to the erstwhile capital of Nouvelle France, the splendid city of Quebec (symbolised by the Chateau Frontenac–one of the most famous hotels in the world–in the photograph above which I snapped on Monday). It is sometimes described as the birthplace of Canada, or at least French Canada. Of course, the region was settled by indigenous peoples for some tens of thousands of years beforehand, a fact which would play a key role in the life of the French settlement. Like Michael J. Fox’s character in the classic 80s movie Back to the Future, let us journey back in time to early-modern Quebec City, the heart of New France until the British conquest in 1759.
In 1534, the French navigator Jacques Cartier was commissioned by King Francis I to find gold in North America as well as the famed Northwest Passage to Asia. He landed in Newfoundland on his first expedition; on his second the next year, he came upon a vast waterway which he named the Saint Lawrence. Famously, the local inhabitants pointed to kanata, which translates as ‘village’ or ‘settlement’; Cartier called the entire country Canada. Cartier also thought that he discovered diamonds around the Saint Lawrence, and brought a bag of these shiny rocks back to France. He was mistaken in this, giving rise to the French proverb, faux comme diamants du Canada. Thus, those Europeans seeking to visit a small village replete with diamonds would have instead arrived in a gigantic country full of ‘worthless’ rocks. A tourist warning, to echo Conservative Party ads in the recent federal election, might be: ‘Just in the True North? Not as Canadvertised.’
Following Cartier, there was a noticeable lack of French interest in Canada, perceived as boring and having a harsh landscape (some things haven’t changed), and so it was neglected by the French for over 70 years. But the explorer Samuel de Champlain envisioned greater potential for Canada. He sailed west and in 1608 founded a settlement at what is now Quebec City (the Algonquian word kebec means ‘where the river narrows’). Quebec became a base for Champlain and the French to explore further inland and throughout the central Canadian interior. Like Cartier, Champlain still dreamt of a route to the Pacific and Asia via the Great Lakes–but his ambition exceeded his watery grasp. He had his hands full with governing the colony of New France, given the hard winters (of which I had a taste with a ‘mild’ snowstorm this week), bouts of scurvy, and attacks from local indigenous peoples as well as from the English–who captured Quebec in 1629 and briefly imprisoned Champlain in England. It was only in 1633 that Champlain could return to Quebec, once it was again a French possession. The direction of the colony was clearly not at Champlain’s Quebec-and-call.
French missionaries and colonists settled in Quebec, in what became Montreal, and beyond. The colony expanded and Europeans ventured further inland, in an era of voyageurs and coureurs des bois. The French traded and formed alliances with the Hurons, while their enemies the Iroquois entered into agreements with the English. New France became a royal colony, signified by the bust of Louis XIV erected in Place Royale in Quebec City in 1686. But the colony also threatened to go bust after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession and in which France ceded Acadia, Newfoundland, and the lands around Hudson’s Bay to the British. This was a serious detriment to the economic life of New France, especially the fur trade, and meant that the French colonists were surrounded by a sea of English (once again, some things haven’t changed). The colony was in a deeply vulnerable position, as Quebec was thus beset by Britaintagonists on all sides.
Imperial rivalries came to a head in the Seven Years War of 1756-63, sometimes called the first truly global war, as it was fought in Europe, India, and North America. The turning-point in the conflict between the French and British empires was the Battle on the Plains of Abraham on Sept. 13, 1759 (depicted in an immersive video I watched in the Plains of Abraham Museum). British forces, bolstered by reinforcements who sailed from England in such ships as barques and frigates, had bombarded and laid siege to Quebec. In the wee hours of that fateful day, troops commanded by British General James Wolfe clambered up the cliffs nearby the Lower Town and confronted the surprised army (along with indigenous and Canadien allies to the French) commanded by French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. The French must have reflected that man is indeed a Wolfe to man, and that Wolfe’s bite was even worse than his barques. The British were victorious, but Wolfe was felled by a bullet in the midst of battle. Nor did the French general have a sense of Mont-calm; he died of injuries the following day, and was buried in the Ursuline Chapel–now across from the hotel where I stayed. Quebec City remained in British hands for the rest of the war. Despite the consolidation of British conquest over the continent, many of the traditions of early-modern Quebec are still very much alive and well. In a cultural sense, then, the inhabitants of New France never fully Que-becked down to the British invaders.
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Quebec-and-forth Studies Program