Memoir on the French Colonies in North America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“It cannot be denied that this Colony has been always a burthen to France, and it is probable that such will be the case for a long while; but it constitutes, at the same time, the strongest barrier that can be opposed to the ambition of the English.”

Summary Overview

Memoir on the French Colonies in North America was published anonymously in a French collection of papers on Anglo-French relations in North America, but it has been understood to be the work of Roland-Michel Barrin de la Galissonière. It presents an analysis of the value of French Canada to France’s strategic position in North America and Europe, defining Britain as the primary adversary and describing Canada as a check on the growing British American colonies.

Defining Moment

La Galissonière was writing following the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), a war that began small but grew into a sizeable international conflict between France, Britain, and most of the major European powers. The North American phase of the war, referred to as King George’s War after George II of Great Britain, began in 1744, when French and British declarations of war reached North American colonies. Like the other major eighteenth-century wars, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War, and the French Revolutionary Wars, the War of the Austrian Succession strained French resources by requiring a major naval effort against Britain on the seas, a significant military presence in the colonial world, and protection against France’s foes in Europe. Although mid-eighteenth-century Britain was not yet the naval hegemon it would later become, it dominated the French and Spanish by sea.

The rivalry between Britain and France resulted in global conflicts in which struggles over colonial territory in North America and India had significant military and economic consequences and attracted the involvement of other nations, making these wars arguably the first “world” wars. Although it was not the defeat for France that the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) would be, the outcome of King George’s War was still disappointing for France. It essentially amounted to a draw, with a peace settlement that did not resolve outstanding territorial disputes. This was particularly crushing for France, due to the country’s massive depletion of resources in its military efforts at sea and in Europe, America, and India. Even though the peace settlement restored the major French loss in North America, the fortress of Louisbourg, in exchange for the French return of a British outpost in India, some within France argued that the Canadian colony had cost more than it was worth and should be abandoned.

Author Biography

Born into a French naval family, La Galissonière pursued a career in the French navy, which took him on voyages to Canada. Family connections aided his rise in the fleet. Given the connections between the French Ministry of Marine and French colonial government in North America, La Galissonière was appointed commandant-general of French Canada in 1747. La Galissonière governed the colony until 1749 and led its defense during the final phases of the War of the Austrian Succession. With little financial or military support from France, he was dependent on the colonists and their North American Indian allies. However, France’s financial limitations at the time also weakened French governmental standing in the colonies, and, by requiring the French Canadians to form the bulk of the armed forces, interfered with the colonists’ harvests. As governor, La Galissonière began to establish French power in the Ohio Valley, which he recommended as necessary to retain French North American colonies in the face of British aggression. He also sought to encourage French settlement near what is now the city of Detroit and along the Illinois River. However, a lack of money and settlers made it difficult to establish French power on a more than nominal basis.

On his return to France, La Galissonière was placed in charge of the Department of Charts and Maps in the Ministry of Marine, a significant repository of hydrographical information. La Galissonière was particularly suited to this job due to his connection to scientific circles in France. As head of the department, he commissioned expeditions to accurately chart the coasts of the French holdings in Canada. More importantly for the writing of Memoir on the French Colonies in North America, he was a delegate to Anglo-French talks on the territorial limits between French and British colonies in North America. His Memoir first appeared in a volume of documents from that conference.

Returning to the sea as a naval commander in the Seven Years’ War, La Galissonière won one of the few French naval victories over the English during the eighteenth century at the battle of Minorca on May 20, 1756. La Galissonière died of an illness a few months later.

Document Analysis

La Galissonière’s Memoir on the French Colonies in North America sets forth the role of Canada and the Louisiana territory in France’s overall colonial strategy and recommends a course of action for French interests in Europe and North America. La Galissonière suggested that France build up Canada economically and demographically to take the offensive against the British colonies on the East Coast of North America. In giving his analysis and recommendations, La Galissonière related the French position to those of the other major players in North America: France’s enemy, Britain; France’s ally, Spain; and the North American Indians. He presented moral, religious, economic, strategic arguments for his recommendations, but gave primacy to the role of the North American colonies in the French struggle with Great Britain. He emphasized the importance of Canada and, to a lesser extent, the Louisiana territory, in overall French economic and military strategy, not just in America and the Caribbean, but also in terms of France’s position in Europe.

La Galissonière devoted only a small portion of the document to arguments based on morality, culture, and religion, disposing of them in a single paragraph in the opening of the Memoir. He began by invoking the concepts of honor and glory that were central to the aristocratic culture of the French government at the time. “Honor” in this context refers to the French state’s obligation to its settlers in North America. The government had encouraged French settlement in North America and promised the settlers protection; in return, the settlers and their descendants promised to be loyal to and fight for France. To cut ties and leave the French colonists to the mercy of the English would have been a betrayal of France’s obligations. “Glory” was a concept similar to the modern concept of “reputation.” For the French to surrender Canada into the hands of the British would injure the glory of France and the king of France and add to the glory of the British foe.

La Galissonière also cited religious reasons for France’s obligation to stay in Canada. Abandoning Roman Catholic French Canada would cause it to fall into the grasp of the Protestant British, possibly forcing French Catholic settlers to convert to Protestantism. It would also mean abandoning the work of converting indigenous peoples to Roman Catholicism—a justification for French imperialism. France’s missionary presence in North America was linked to the country’s alliance with Spain, although La Galissonière did not make the connection explicit in Memoir. Furthermore, French missionaries promoted French policy, French trade, and loyalty to the Roman Catholic king of France while strengthening the Roman Catholic presence in Indian communities.

The rest of La Galissonière’s argument focused on pragmatic benefits he believed France would receive from keeping and improving its Canadian colony. Canada was not particularly rich at the time. In terms of revenue, it was overshadowed by many other French colonial ventures. But as La Galissonière claimed in Memoir, Canada had extremely valuable economic resources. His emphasis was not on the modest economic value of Canada to France at the time, but on its potential value in the future. The fur trade, the basis of the French Canadian economy since its foundations, goes unmentioned, possibly because La Galissonière did not see it as a major part of the Canadian economy in the future or because he assumed his readers were already familiar with it. Instead, he pointed out that the French territories in Canada and Louisiana contained fertile lands and potentially valuable mines. La Galissonière also referred to the abundance of mulberry trees not because mulberries were particularly valuable in themselves, but because they were the only trees that could support silkworms. Hopes of establishing a profitable silk industry in the Americas were commonly held by British colonial entrepreneurs as well as French.

Much of Canada’s economic potential for France was unrealized due to a lack of workers and farmers, and purely economic arguments for keeping Canada could have been criticized as being based on optimism rather than an objective analysis of Canada’s potential wealth. Even La Galissonière described French Canada as a “burthen to France” for the foreseeable future and calls its present economic condition “destitute.” Putting economic potential aside, he argued that even if Canada were a “barren frontier,” like the Alps or Luxemburg, European regions bordering France, it would still be too valuable to give up.

Canada was strategically situated to limit British expansion in North America, making it valuable, even essential, to France, despite the fact that it was an economic burden. The best evidence for the potential threat that Canada posed to the British colonies was that the threat was recognized by the British themselves, who had waged war against Canada on many occasions over a long period of time. La Galissonière believed that France had had the advantage in the actual fighting, despite French inferiority in numbers and wealth. This was a notion congenial to La Galissonière’s patriotic French audience, but the English could easily have disputed it, perhaps pointing to the capture of Louisbourg. However, as La Galissonière pointed out, this French superiority might easily change in the future if measures are not taken to strengthen the French position.

La Galissonière viewed Britain as France’s main adversary, not only in the Americas but in Europe as well. The British navy represented the greatest threat among France’s continental European enemies. La Galissonière endorsed the French policy of aiming for hegemony on the European continent, a policy which could be traced back to the days of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII in the early seventeenth century, if not earlier. But for this goal to be achieved, France would have to overcome the British navy as well as continental land forces. For France to build a navy comparable to Britain’s, however, was simply out of the question due to cost: unlike Britain, an island nation, France required a large and expensive army to fight its enemies on the European continent. It could never devote sufficient resources to build a competitive navy.

Although France could not match Great Britain at sea, the British were vulnerable to attacks on their colonial possessions. Great Britain highly prized its colonies and gave them more support, La Galissonière asserted, than France gave its colonies, whose settler population was as little as one-twentieth of the British settler population at the time. According to La Galissonière, a land-based offensive concentrating on the British colonies would be the only way for France to defeat or even limit the expansion of Great Britain in America (British colonies included not only the thirteen colonies that became the United States, but Newfoundland and Nova Scotia as well). This attack could only be carried out by French forces based in North America, where it would draw a significant percentage of the British navy’s forces away from European affairs. A defensive strategy in North America would fail due to the rapid growth rate of the British colonies, so La Galissonière advocated an offensive strategy based on the strength of alliances between French Canadians and North American Indians.

In addition to these alliances, the French alliance with Spain was fundamental to La Galissonière’s strategic thinking. Although France and Spain had been rivals for much of the seventeenth century, the accession of a French aristocrat from the House of Bourbon to the Spanish throne in 1700 had led to the Family Compact. This was a close alliance between the two powers that manifested itself during several periods of European history, including during the War of the Austrian Succession. Given the compact and the strength the British colonies, La Galissonière believed that a French loss of Canada would inevitably result in Spain losing its North American colonies, including Mexico. He also mentioned the Spanish island of Cuba when describing the French possessions in the Caribbean that would be threatened by the expansion of the British colonies, suggesting that Spanish and French interests were intertwined in the Caribbean as well as in continental North America. Spain was weaker than France at that time, so if the British could drive the French from North America, there would be little chance for Spain to hold out. Even if at some point in the future Spain became alienated from France, La Galissonière argued, France should continue to focus its efforts in the East, against Britain.

Although both France and Britain had Indian allies in their wars with each other, better relations with Indian allies had traditionally been considered a French advantage. La Galissonière did not deviate from this approach; indeed, he saw the Indians as a pillar of the French position in North America and one of the two main reasons that the outnumbered French had already overcome English attempts to conquer them. However, he did not sentimentalize this alliance; in many ways he exhibited a rather poor opinion of Indians in general. He thought that France’s Indian allies had little real loyalty or affection for France, and were supporting the French cause out of fear of French power and a desire to maintain a balance between French and English power in North America. For La Galissonière, Indians were of political and military interest only insofar as they were allies of France or Britain—the days when Indians could pursue truly independent policies in North America or have a significant impact on the survival of French or English colonies were gone by the mid-eighteenth century. The best they could hope for was to carve out a space for independent action by ensuring that neither the French nor the British grew overwhelmingly powerful. La Galissonière implied that if France significantly strengthened its Canadian colonies, Indians would begin to tilt toward the British; however, since this was a drawback of his proposed policy he did not point it out explicitly.

La Galissonière also referred to the second reason for French success in a colonial offensive against the British—the French coureurs des bois, or woodsmen. These were French colonists involved in the fur trade. Because the fur trade required trappers and traders to live in the woods, away from the centers of French settlement, for long periods of time, the woodsmen developed close ties to Indian communities. Politically speaking, these woodsmen were of great value to France’s colonial interests because they were equipped both to lead Indians in battle and to wage war effectively against them if the need arose. The British colonies, more interested in seizing land from Indians for colonial agricultural use than trading with them, were not able to create a large class of cultural intermediaries like the French woodsmen. British colonies’ priority of property accumulation also made them a much more direct threat to Indian societies than the French colonies, which contributed to the Indians’ tilt towards the French alliance. Another force making for stronger relations between French and Indians were Roman Catholic missionaries who were more interested in adding Indians to their churches than were the Protestants of the English colonies.

La Galissonière clearly believed that none of these advantages would protect against the expansion of British colonial holdings. Only a substantial financial and settlement commitment coming from France itself can stem the tide of British power, he argued. La Galissonière posited that encouraging the French settlement of Canada would spare France the need to send troops, since French colonists would be able to take the offensive against England. His strategic plan also involved the creation of new fortifications to strengthen French holdings in Canada and the Louisiana territory. Most of Louisiana, except for its far southern area around the port of New Orleans and the surrounding country, was very thinly populated with French settlers in spite of La Galissonière’s encouragement of French settlements when he was governor there.

La Galissonière also related the French position in Canada to that of the Caribbean. This was an issue of major importance, as the French Caribbean colonies, led by Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, were a vital source of revenue to the French monarchy, far more so than Canada or Louisiana. Their economies, based on slave-worked sugar plantations, were extremely profitable. The unfettered growth of the British colonies in North America presented a danger to the French (and Spanish) Caribbean as well as Canada because the British would be able to mount an effective attack on the Caribbean colonies from North America far more easily and cheaply than an attack could be mounted from Britain itself. Holding onto Canada and checking—or even reversing—the growth of the British colonies was therefore an indirect way of protecting the much more immediately valuable French possessions in the Caribbean. Paying to strengthen Canada would likely spare France a much greater expense down the line, when it might have to fight for its Caribbean colonies.

However, Canada’s potential contributions to these colonies were not just military ones. Canada, La Galissonière believed, was ideally positioned to supply those island colonies with grain—always a problem for plantation economies concentrating on profitable crops, such as sugar, rather than goods for subsistence. The Canadian French, he claimed, were also better suited for survival than the European French in the Caribbean, where heat and infectious disease resulted in a high death rate. The French colonies in North America, he insisted, stood or fell together, and Canada was the linchpin.

Essential Themes

Canada and the Louisiana territory were lost to France, as La Galissonière had anticipated, in the French and Indian War that began in 1754 and merged into the global Seven Years’ War. The French military began to follow the offensive approach in the Americas that La Galissonière had supported, and the war began with a confrontation in the Ohio Valley between French forces and Anglo-American settlers. However, the war itself was different from the one La Galissonière seems to have envisioned. For example, French and British nationals played a predominant role, rather than the colonial troops that had been the main players in previous Anglo-French colonial wars. The victory of the British general James Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in September 1759 spelled the end of French Canada, although not of the French Canadian settler population. The French Canadian population was subsumed under British rule but has maintained its distinctive culture, language, and religion into the twenty-first century.

The disastrous effects on France’s global position that La Galissonière had anticipated as a result of the loss of Canada were mitigated by an event he did not foresee, the American Revolution. After the fall of Canada, the British colonies absorbed a great portion of North America, but not, as La Galissonière had feared, as colonies; instead, they formed the new nation of the United States. France would briefly recover the Louisiana territory from Spain, but as La Galissonière had anticipated, it would prove difficult to hold without the added strength of a French Canadian presence. Eventually, France sold the colony to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. French holdings in the Americas dwindled to French Guiana, a few islands in the Caribbean, and a small amount of land off the coast of Canada.

The ultimate impact of the fall of Canada on France’s standing in the world is hard to analyze, partly due to the occurrence of the French Revolution, another event La Galissonière failed to foresee. French armies under the revolutionaries and Napoleon were able to dominate Europe, but they continued to face British supremacy by sea, resulting in military setbacks similar to France’s experiences during the Wars of the Spanish Succession and the Austrian Succession. However, La Galissonière’s fear that loss of Canada would inevitably lead to loss of the French Caribbean colonies proved baseless. The loss of the France’s most important Caribbean colony, Saint-Domingue, was due not to Britain or to the new American nation, but to a slave uprising; Martinique and Guadeloupe, two other French Caribbean colonies, have remained French to the present day.

  • Groulx, Lionel. Roland-Michel Barrin De La Galissonière, 1693–1756. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1971. Print.
  • Taillemite, Etienne. «Barrin de la Galissonière, Roland-Michel, Marquis de La Galissonière.» Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto/Université Laval, n.d. Web. 31 May 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Anderson, M. S. The War of the Austrian Succession, 1740–48. New York: Longman, 1995. Print.
  • Choquette, Leslie P. Frenchmen into Peasants: The Peopling of French Canada. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
  • Mapp, Paul W. The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713–63. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2011. Print.
  • Marrin, Albert. Struggle for a Continent: The French and Indian Wars, 1690–1760. New York: Atheneum, 1987. Print.
  • Moogk, Peter. La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2000. Print.

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