A History of Canadian Wealth/Chapter I

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Chapter I. The Quest of Trade and New Sources of Wealth

Preface | Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII | Chapter VIII | Chapter IX | Chapter X | Chapter XI | Chapter XII | Chapter XIII | Chapter XIV | Chapter XV | Chapter XVI | Chapter XVII

When the Spanish explorers first saw the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, “ lined with high mountains and covered with snow,” they spontaneously named the unappealing country “ Acanada,” signifying, “Here is nothing.”1

The first sources of wealth were the waters of the ocean yielding their primitive supplies of cod, walrus and whale. Thither came vessels from Spain, England, France and Holland to load themselves with this abundant spoil from the Newfoundland Banks. The great demand in Roman Catholic countries for fish assured certain and large profits, and the prolific supplies of oil from the whale presented tempting opportunities to the roving mariners; from a single whale as many as four hundred barrels of oil were frequently taken. There was the vast wealth of the sea, but the annoying problem to these fishing traders and colonizers was how to get the necessary contingent of maritime laborers.

Convicts Impressed as Colonists

A distant, supposedly barren land to which it required a hundred days or more of tedious sailing to get, did not allure European workers. Cartier showed, in 1541, how it was possible to make up the deficiency in manning his armed expedition when he impressed the convicts from the jails for maritime service.2 These unfortunates were not convicts in the modern sense ; at a time when the slightest theft was punishable by hanging, and begging was a crime, the term convict covered conviction for even the pettiest and most inconsequential offenses. When, in 1598, La Roche was planning an expedition to Newfoundland he secured official permission to take “ criminals ” from the jails of Brittany and Normandy ; he picked out “two hundred sturdy beggars, male and female,” but took only sixty of them along, and of these forty-eight died during the rigors of the winter on Sable Island, and one was hanged for theft.3

In 1578 there were thirty to fifty English fishing sail on the Newfoundland Banks, and perhaps two hundred vessels from Spain. Twenty vessels from Biscay were engaged in whale hunting. Seven years later the fishing fleet numbered three hundred Spanish, French, English and Dutch vessels, the crews of which were armed for possible fighting service. A quarter of a century later the French fishing fleet alone comprised six hundred vessels, or nearly that number.

From these fishing expeditions developed an auxiliary traffic which subsequently became the principal trade, producing colossal profits, engendering conflicts and wars, and directly and indirectly causing a great and continuous sacrifice of human life. This was the fur trade, the main and long-continued source of primitive accumulation of wealth in Canada, of which wealth the great bulk went, during centuries, to European capitalists to be invested successively in land, trade, factories, banks, transportation systems and other channels both in Europe and in Canada and in other countries.

The Fur Trade and the Trading Companies

Fictional portrait of Samuel de Champlain, by Théophile Hamel (1870). No authentic portrait was ever found.
Going ashore to dry fish, fishing merchants soon learned from the Indians of the prevalence of fur-bearing animals. In the hunting of these the Indians were adepts. Innocent of the mercantile value of either their furs or fabricated commodities, the aborigines were easily persuaded into exchanging furs for trivial trinkets. In those days, a beaver skin could be bought with a needle, a harness bell or a tin mirror.4 The arts of persuasion were assisted by gratuities of liquor. When the fishing fleets, loaded with furs, returned to Europe, the news excited the cupidity of some of the more enterprising of the sea-port town merchants who began to estimate rightly the great wealth-producing possibilities of the fur trade.

The first fur-trading company organized was the Company of Canada, promoted by David Kirke and Associates. Chartered by King Charles I, it was vested with the right to exploit the fur trade of the St. Lawrence, but its operations came to a sudden end when, in 1632, England restored Canada to France.

In the interval, Champlain's Company, that of Rouen and St. Malo, had been established in 1614 ; its shares were apportioned among the merchants of those two towns. The charter of this Company was given upon the express condition of certain colonizing performances, but the obligation was not taken seriously by the company, which confined itself to sending to Canada one solitary family. Its monopoly was abolished in 1620. The next year a charter was granted, on the customary terms and requirements of introducing settlers and missionaries, to the Company of de Caen, organized by William de Caen and his nephew, merchants of Rouen. This Company absorbed Champlain's, and the united corporations carried on their trade until 1633, although not in its later years without competition from a rival trading company.

Enormous Powers of Monopolies

Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, Cardinal of France, minister under Louis XIII
This competitor was the Company of New France, established in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu.

Unlike the previous companies, the Company of New France was not owned by merchants of the smaller towns ; its principal stockholders were Parisians, who, seeing the richness and extent of the fur trade, aimed at concentrating the monopoly in themselves. They received a full monopoly for 15 years with full ownership of the entire valley of the St. Lawrence. For these exclusive grants they were required to introduce three hundred colonists every year up to 1643 — an obligation which was only nominally carried out, yet the Company continued to hold its monopoly until 1663.

Following the cancellation of the charter of the Company of New France, came the Company of the West Indies, chartered by Louis XIV in 1664. Its alleged object was the conversion to Christianity of the Indian tribes, but its privileges were enormous, covering trade in the West Coast of Africa, the East Coast of South America, Canada, Acadia and Newfoundland. The stock of this Company seems to have been used largely for stock-jobbing purposes ; in spite of its vast powers and privileges, the Company did not flourish, and its charter was revoked in 1675. Various other companies came into existence, the most important of which was the French East India Company. This corporation had the sole privilege of exporting beaver from Canada.

Necessarily all of these companies had to depend to a considerable extent for their supplies of furs upon individual or itinerant traders who roamed afar among the Indian tribes, and brought back their bales of furs. But as no one could trade with the Indians without an annual license, and these licenses were annulled at will by the French officials or distributed among favorites, the state of the fur trade was one of uncertainty. Having only a transient permission, the French traders followed no system and made no permanent establishments of any importance, but went whither they could easily and most quickly enrich themselves. This was even more so with respect to the illicit traders who, denied licenses, carried on the trade clandestinely.

Debauching the Indians with Brandy

The principal means used in trading with the Indians was in debauching them with brandy, and then swindling them of their furs. This abuse became so notorious that on April 17, 1664, the Sovereign Council issued a decree prohibiting bartering or giving intoxicating drinks to the Indians.5 This decree was called forth by the consequences of debauching an innocent race, hitherto immune from the knowledge of liquor, and the demoralization, atrocities and conflicts following in its wake. The traders ranging the woods, however, were far away from the reach of enforcing officials, and continued their debauching process.

On November 10, 1668, pleading as an excuse that the freedom of sale of strong drink would cause less demoralization than a restraint impossible to enforce, although admitting the pernicious influence of drink upon the Indians, the Sovereign Council gave permission to all Frenchmen inhabiting Canada to sell and deliver strong drinks to the Indians.6 A proclamation the next year forbade the lying in wait for the Indians in the woods or going to meet them, and prohibited drunkenness among the Indians.7

Immorality, Theft and Murder

“ What does the most harm here,” wrote Mother Mary of the Incarnation, Quebec, in 1669, “ is the traffic in wine and brandy. We preach against those who give these liquors to the savages ; and yet many reconcile their consciences to the permission of this thing. They go into the woods and carry drinks to the savages in order to get their furs for nothing when they are drunk. Immorality, theft, and murder ensue. . . . We had not yet seen the French commit such crimes, and we can only attribute the cause of them to the pernicious traffic in brandy.”8

Writing on November 2, 1672, to Colbert, Minister of Finance under Louis XIV, Governor Frontenac outlined the measures he had taken to keep in check the “ ever-active ambition of the Jesuits ” and he continued, “ But whatever pretense they manifest, they will not extend that language [French], and to speak frankly to you, they think as much about the conversion of Beaver as of souls ; for the majority of their missions are pure mockeries . . .”9 In another letter to Colbert, in 1674, Frontenac told of his difficulties with the Jesuits whom he had spoken to in vain regarding the state of the missions, “ they having declared to me that they were here only to endeavor to instruct the Indians, or rather to get Beavers, and not to be parish priests to the French.”10 But the Governor was himself accused by Duchesenau, — appointed on May 30, 1675, Intendant of Police, Justice and Finance in Canada, — of being interested in the Indian trade illicitly ; that he had intermediaries to extort and receive presents and bribes of packages of beaver of large value which his henchmen disposed of for him.11

Trading Interests Supreme

We are told that in 1677 when Bishop Laval complained to King Louis XIV of the widespread debauchery, Colbert ordered an inquiry to be made by twenty competent persons in the colony. “ Unfortunately,” says de Brumath, “ the persons chosen for this enquiry were engaged in trade with the savages ; their conclusions must necessarily be prejudiced.” Describing how their report minimized the extent of the traffic in strong drink, De Brumath goes on : “ We cannot help being surprised at such a judgment when we read over the memoirs of the time, which all agree in deploring the sad results of this traffic. The most crying injustice, the most revolting immorality, settlements devastated by drunkenness, agriculture abandoned, the robust portion of the population ruining its health in profitless expeditions ; such were some of the most horrible fruits of alcohol. And what do we find as a compensation for so many evils ? A few dozen rascals enriched, returning to squander in France a fortune shamefully acquired. . . .”12

Laval's emissary to Colbert was Dudouyt, a priest, who has transmitted to us a long account of the interview, “. . . On this point,” he wrote to Laval, “ I told him that the inclination of the Indians for becoming intoxicated is much stronger than that of the people of Europe ; that they have much greater weakness in resisting it ; that it is universal, and that the disorders committed by the Indians are more aggravated, and this I proved to him, my Lord, in this way : If, in a bourgade, there be liquor freely accessible to the Indians they usually all become intoxicated, old, young, great, small, women and children, so that there is hardly one left unintoxicated ; that if there be liquor for two days, drunkenness will continue for two days ; if there is enough for a week, it will last a week ; if for a month, it will last a month ; that we do not see in Europe. . . . It means, my Lord, persons who wish to have beavers from the Indians by means of liquor without respect to the risk of disorders they cause by that means, and without regard to their own salvation or that of the Indians.” Dudouyt told Colbert that Intendant Talon had caused the removal of all of the penalties and ordinances against the excessive use of liquors, and that moderation was necessary.13

Commenting upon this protest, Charlevoix later wrote that the secret had been discovered by the fur traders of how to persuade the King's Council that the trade was absolutely necessary to attach the natives to the French interests, and of how to represent successfully that the abuses were greatly exaggerated.14

Official Participation in the Fur Frauds

Duchesenau wrote from Quebec, November 1o, 1679, that he had done his best to prevent the interdicted Indian trade from being carried on by illicit traders, but, “All that has been in vain, inasmuch as several of the most considerable families in this country are interested therein, so that the Governor lets them go on, and even shares in their profits.”15

In the next year Duchesenau informed the French Government that there were great complaints against Governor Perrot of Montreal, who had occupied that post since 1670.

The complaints against Perrot were “ as well on account of his violent conduct as for his open trading. He is accused of having excited a sedition at Montreal with a view to obtain the repeal of the King's Ordinance forbidding subordinate Governors imprisoning people. This sedition I allayed.” Duchesenau went on to remark that Monsieur Dollier, Superior of the Montreal Seminary, “ while an honest man,” was not altogether a stranger to illicit enterprises in fur trading.16 Perrot was accused of pocketing 40,000 livres in a single year for his fur-trading operations, but denied that the amount was that large.17

Between Frontenac, Governor and Lieutenant-General of Canada, and Intendant Duchesenau an embroilment existed as to the respective rights and priority of each. It was in the course of this dispute that Duchesenau reported the prevailing abuses. He described the traffic of carrying brandy to the Indians, and intoxicating them.

“ The Missions,” he drily wrote on November 13, 1680, “ cannot be too much encouraged and too much countenance be given to the gentlemen of St. Sulpice and the Jesuit Fathers among the Indians, inasmuch as they not only place the country in security and bring peltries hither, but greatly glorify God, and the King, as eldest son of the Church, by reason of the large number of good Christians formed there.”18 He added that “ the desire of making money everywhere has led the Governor, Sieurs Perrot, Boisseau, and De Lut, and Patron, his uncle, to send canoes, loaded with peltries, to the English.” The report, he said, was notorious that 6o,ooo livres worth of peltries had been sent thither ; that the officials violated their own edicts by selling beaver to the English who paid them double what they received from the French in Quebec.19

Violence Supports Fraud

“ Violence, upheld by authority, decides everything,” reported Duchesenau in his Memoir. The Governor did as he pleased, and knew how to take measures to prevent complaints from reaching the Government. “ The authority with which the Governor is invested is an easy means of success herein, because, in the administration of justice and in what regards trade, he does only what he pleases, and in one or the other favors only those whose business has relation to his speculations, or who are interested with him. The force he has at hand sustains his interests, and he employs it only to intimidate the people, so as to prevent them from complaining, or to glaze over his violences by exacting from individuals false statements, [by] which he can weaken what may be said against him, and to turn whatever he does to his own advantage.”20

Dealing with the quarrels of the head officials, Edouard Richard says that these and many other disputes “ often originated in commercial rivalry. The profits to be derived by the privileged ones from the beaver trade were apparently the most seductive, for notwithstanding the reiterated prohibitions and threats of the minister, we find governors and intendants mutually accusing one another of participating in the trade in an underhand manner.”21 Precisely what measure of weight can be put to all of these charges and countercharges it is now impossible to say, but so far as Perrot was concerned he carried on the trade with flagrant openness.

So great was the general scramble on the part of all classes to participate in the profits of the fur trade that farmers abandoned their farms to go long distances hunting or trading, against which practice the King ordered Frontenac, in 1672, to issue the most stringent injunctions.22 Agriculture and manufacturing were considered far subordinate by the settlers in their avidity to have a hand in the fur spoils, although the King of France sought repeatedly to encourage the establishment of both.

The Fur Traders Dominate

Thus, the dominating trading class was the fur traders ; of this class the merchants were a substantial part, pursuing their search for wealth with the most unscrupulous eagerness.

The King had put in practice the endowing with commodities of soldiers and young women who married, and the granting of certain articles to new immigrant families. Talon wrote from Quebec to Colbert in November, 1670, that this practice “ is not agreeable to the merchants, who would like everything to be got from themselves, good or bad, at so high a rate that it would require double the expense were people reduced to what they would wish.”23

Constantly committing frauds in their fur dealings with the fur companies,24 the merchants, at the same time, demanded and received the greatest consideration, and filled high official posts. Whatever abuses they committed, whatever their frauds, the King's Cabinet usually sustained them ; the expansion of trade was not to be interfered with.

A Royal letter informed Governor Frontenac in 1674 that “ He must treat Sieur de Villeray with great consideration, for . . . he is the man who has devoted himself most thoroughly to trade, having vessels in trade with the Western Islands.” Frontenac was ordered to restore him to the office of first councilor.25 Bitterly complaining, as the merchants did, when any measure or law threatened to obstruct or lessen their profits, there was no barrier to their greed and avarice, and no effective restraint upon the facility with which they profited from the debauching and swindling of the Indian tribes. “ It will be well,” read a communication from the King's Minister to de Costebelle, in 1699, “ for the people to do something in the way of cultivating the soil, so as not to be at the mercy of the merchants.”26

Effects of Debauching the Indians

While the fur traders and merchants were reaping their profits, and the King's Government in France was finding ready justifications for the indiscriminate use of brandy among the Indians,27 Marquis de Demonville was writing, in January, 1690, to the Marquis de Seignelay, King's Minister at Versailles : “. . . I have witnessed the evils caused by that liquor [brandy] among the Indians. It is the horror of horrors. There is no crime that they do not perpetrate in their excesses. A mother throws her child in the fire ; noses are bitten off ; this is a frequent occurrence. It is another Hell among them during these orgies, which must be seen to be credited. . . . Remedies are impossible so long as everyone is permitted to sell and traffic in ardent spirits. However little each at a time may give, the Indians will always get drunk. There is no artifice that they will not have recourse to, to obtain the means of intoxication. Besides, every house is a groggery.

“ Those who allege that the Indians will remove to the English, if Brandy be not furnished them, do not state the truth ; for it is a fact that they do not care about drinking as long as they do not see Brandy ; and the most reasonable would wish there never had been any such thing, for they set their entrails on fire and beggar themselves by giving their peltries and clothes for drink. . . .”28

Beaver “A Mine of Gold”

Beaver was the accepted medium of exchange of the country ; there was very little actual money in circulation, and generally such coin as was current was avariciously hoarded by the officials and merchants. The deficiency of currency was at times made up by a fiat issue called “card money.” “ Beaver,” wrote Randot in his Memorial to Versailles, July 16, 17o8, “have always been looked upon here as a mine of gold of which everyone wanted to take his share. The settlers spent their time hunting in the woods, preferring a life of adventure in the woods, which brought them large profits with little toil, to the cultivation of the land, which requires assiduous labor.”29

Such official complaints, though frequent, produced little or no immediate change in conditions.

The vast quantities of beaver gathered — in 1696 there were 4,000,000 livres worth of them — resulted in a considerable lowering of prices of that commodity, which the Government sought to prevent by reducing the number of licenses and by other measures.30 Randot wrote that the trade of the country was carried on with the sum of 650,000 livres, which sum was very small, he said, for a population of from 18,ooo to 20,000 souls. The prices of merchandise were very high, “ and nevertheless the people will work only for high wages, saying that they wear out more clothes when working than they can earn by their labor.” The remedy for this state of things, he concluded, was to induce the people to take to the production of wheat, cattle, timber, fish, oil and ship building, by finding them a market for these products. He further pointed out the great possibilities in developing the fish and oil trade, and the coal, feldspar, gypsum and timber resources of Cape Breton.31

The All-Absorbing Fur Traffic

To a small extent, the utilization of the rich timber resources had already begun in 1686 when the Quebec merchants built a ship to carry boards to La Rochelle, France,32 and cattleraising and wheat cultivation were carried on to some slight degree. But the prime and all-absorbing traffic was the fur trade dominated and dictated by the merchants in collusion with royal officials, who, in order to monopolize it, frequently incited the Indians to war with its inevitable train of scalpings, butcheries and other atrocities.33

Accompanying the sway of the merchant class was that of the seigneurs or feudal lords, vested with the ownership of immense stretches of territory and with the powers, rights and privileges of a transplanted feudalism which, it was sanguinely hoped, could be established artificially, by decree, in the new country.


1. De Meulles to the King of France, 1684, Report on Canadian Archives, 1899 Vol., p. 43. The volumes of these archives are not numbered but bear the date of the year in which they were issued by the Archives Bureau of the Dominion Government.

2. Biggar's Early Trading Companies of New France, p. 15.

3. Ibid., pp. 41-42.

4. So, in his Memoirs concerning Canada, wrote De la Chesnaye, who had come to Canada to represent the interests of the Company of Rouen, Report on Canadian Archives, 1899 Supplement, p. 39.

5. Report on Canadian Archives, 1899 Vol., p. 54.

6. Ibid., p. 55.

7. Ibid., p. 56.

8. De Brumath's Bishop Laval, p. 113.

9. Paris Documents, Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State o f New York, Vol. IX, p. 68.

10. Ibid., p. 120.

11. Duchesenau to De Seignelay, Nov. 10, 1679, Ibid., p. 135.

12. Bishop Laval, p. 173. The “Twenty Principal Inhabitants” reported that the prohibition of the trade in spirits “ would ruin trade, without any equivalent and without remedying the evils ... because the English and Dutch sell it freely to the Indians, and will attract to themselves both the Indians and the trade in furs.”— See Report on Canadian Archives, 1900 Vol., p. 71.

13. Report on Canadian Archives, 1885 Vol., p. ci.

14. Ibid., p. x.

15. Paris Documents, Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Vol. IX, p. 131.

16. Ibid., p. 142.

17. Perrot was later required to face charges. Arrested and convicted, he was imprisoned nearly a year in Quebec, and later sent to the Bastile in Paris. A favorite at court where he had powerful friends, he was soon released, and later appointed to the Governorship of Acadia.

18. Paris Does., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Vol. IX, p. 150. Duchesenau's Memoir. In 1691 the Religieuses Hospitalieres of Montreal applied for and obtained trading licenses on the ground that they needed funds “ to assist them in the re-establishment of their house.”—Report on Canadian Archives, 1899 Vol., p. 292.

19. 1bid., p. 160.

20. 1bid., p. 157.

21. Report on Canadian Archives, 1899 Supplement, p. 12.

22. 1bid., 1899 Vol., p. 58.

23. Paris Docs., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Vol. IX, p. 68. But when it was urged from Canada that a fixed price be placed upon the beaver, royal instructions came from Paris, March 11, 1671, that this would not be permitted :—“ Such a restriction would disgust the merchants.” Report on Canadian Archives, 1900 Vol., p. 252.

24. Report on Can. Archives, 1899 Vol., p. 58.

25. lbid., p. 61.

26. lbid., p. 337.

27. From Versailles came Royal instructions, in 1691, to the Bishop of Quebec in reply to remonstrances from merchants respecting the opposition of the clergy to the trade in spirits. The Bishop was advised that he must keep watch on the clergy, “and prevent them from disturbing consciences”; that the brandy traffic gave France an advantage over Holland and England, and that the “use of brandy is in itself very wholesome.”—Ibid., pp. 290-291.

28. Paris Docs., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Vol. IX, pp. 441-442. In fact, several Indian tribes and a number of chiefs had earnestly and pathetically implored the French officials not to allow liquors among them.

29. Report on Canadian Archives, 1899 Supplement, p. 227. “ Memorial on Affairs in Canada at the Present Time and the Settlement of Cape Breton.”

30. A Royal proclamation of May 21, 1696, to this effect repealed trading licenses and condemned offenders to the galleys.

31. Report on Canadian Archives, 1899 Vol, p. 227.

32. Ibid., p. 278.

33. De Meulles complained to the King in 1684 that Gov. Perrot, in the course of his partnership with De Lut and some Quebec merchants to monopolize all the trade of the West, incited the war with the Iroquois.—Ibid., p. 43. But it appears that De Meulles himself, in 1683, advised war with the Iroquois “ who must be humbled or annihilated in the interests of trade.”—Ibid., p. 42.

Preface | Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII | Chapter VIII | Chapter IX | Chapter X | Chapter XI | Chapter XII | Chapter XIII | Chapter XIV | Chapter XV | Chapter XVI | Chapter XVII

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