- In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670–1730
This highly informative book surveys the French transatlantic colonies during the second stage of development—the era when the English colonies became consolidated by acquisition of New York and gained coherence under the Navigation Acts. The title plants the puzzling question: Who, if anybody besides later historians and imperial enthusiasts, was "in search of empire" in the French case? Jean-Baptiste Colbert may have tried to build an empire but did not know how to go about it or was frustrated by Louis XIV's indifference, and no real effort followed his. The colonists were therefore left largely to their own devices, and James Pritchard enables us to see how this worked out in practice. Focusing on the colonies themselves, he shows why development was so varied and often disappointing, yet also how the disparate territories under French rule managed not only to remain French but in some cases to become exceedingly prosperous.
In the first part of the book (about 60 percent) all fourteen colonies from Cayenne to Canada are covered by chapters dealing with population, settlement patterns, government, production, and trade. The author draws on archival findings as well as scattered existing studies, and the book, with ample footnotes and an excellent bibliography, constitutes an invaluable resource for anyone interested in comparative colonialism. In answer to an important question—why Canadian population and agriculture did not expand as English North America's did, or even French Acadia's—the book offers a number of suggestions, for instance: an immigration policy that brought practically no women after the 1670s and ruled out even Catholic foreigners, a seigneurial system which evidently deprived families of the marketable value of their conversion of raw land to arable, the success of Montreal pelt merchants in blocking settlement upriver, and the hazards of Amerindian raiding. The author's broad conclusion, especially with regard to the Caribbean, that the people themselves rather than metropolitan authorities shaped developments, is generally convincing, but in view of the first two of these factors one hesitates to say that it holds true for Canada.
Part 2, "Colonies Defended," will be of special interest to readers of this journal. Though North America is not forgotten, the Caribbean is rightly accented. The Franco-Dutch War of the 1670s in the Caribbean has not hitherto been adequately studied, and the well wrought, well researched narrative offered here sets the new standard. The war of 1702–13 soon found the French government desperate for money, and the navy allowed private syndicates willing to bear the costs of mobilizing warships to lease them on generous terms. From 1707 onwards the entrepreneurs directed their attention to the Spanish Empire—where the money was. Pritchard shows how hollow were the promises they made to help defend French colonies, reinforcing his conclusion that colonial defense depended essentially on forts and militias. [End Page 495] The navy's meager contribution was confined to convoy and carriage duty. The author's account of the middle war (1688–97) is, alas, hard to follow. His decision to divide the Caribbean story between "The Windward Islands" and "Saint-Domingue" entails two chronologies, so there needed to be a more generous marking of years (and is "1698" on p. 326, note 100, a misprint for "1696"?). The paucity of such markers invites confusion and makes it difficult to observe the pattern of metropolitan France's role in the campaigning.
Nevertheless, Pritchard has convincingly shown that the French monarchy's transatlantic naval neglect began during these wars and that this neglect occurred even though the French navy's combat record in the Caribbean was no worse than the English, and perhaps better. After the era of recurrent warfare ended in 1713 the government let the navy diminish to near nothing and the situation grew worse: British naval cruisers were regularly deployed to the West Indies while French were not...