Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The First British Empire: the challenge from France (updated)

In 1700 France had an economy twice the size of Britain’s and a population almost three times as large. Like Britain she was a colonial power. ‘New France’ stretched from Quebec to Louisiana.

In 1534 Jacques Cartier had taken possession of Quebec, which became the capital of ‘New France’. On his second voyage to Canada in 1535 he visited the site of what was to be Montreal, though the settlement was not founded until 1642 by Paul de Chomedy.

In the reign of Louis XIV it was Colbert’s policy to organize New France and subject the colony to close control. In 1679 René-Robert de la Salle (1643-87) received permission from Louis XIV to explore the Mississippi. In 1682 he led twenty Frenchmen and thirty Indians in canoes down the Illinois River to the Mississippi. He started the journey in February and reached the Gulf of Mexico in August, and claimed the whole basin, which he named Louisiana, for Louis XIV. In 1717 the decision was taken to found New Orleans. The fort of Baton Rouge was garrisoned in 1719. But Louisiana was never the economic miracle the French government hoped for and it was peopled mainly be transported criminals rather than voluntary settlers. After the collapse of Law’s Mississippi Company in 1719 it stagnated.

In the north Louisbourg (Louisburg) was founded on Cape Breton Island in 1713 to guard the Atlantic approaches to New France. It was a staggeringly ostentatious stronghold covering a hundred acres and encircled by ten-metre-high stone walls. It took so long to build and was so expensive that Louis XV said he was expecting its towers to rise over the Paris horizon. From its strategic position at the mouth of the St Lawrence, the inhabitants victualled their Newfoundland fishing fleets and potentially threatened Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. (However the fort was wildly ill-conceived: the humid weather stopped the mortar from drying, the fort was overlooked by a score of hillocks, and developments in gunnery had already made high stone walls an ineffective means of defence.)

By the middle of the eighteenth century French Canada had 70,000 inhabitants (far fewer than British North America).

The French sugar islands, Martinique and Guadaloupe, were among the richest in the Caribbean. In 1664 the Compagnie des Indes Orientales was set up with its base at Pondicherry south of Madras.