- New France Beyond the Atlantic Turn
Despite a reputation for methodological conservatism, historians have experimented with different temporal and spatial scales of analysis, from the textured microhistories that began to appear in the 1970s, to the sweeping studies of "deep time" and "big history" which emerged in the 1990s. The same kind of experimentation is evident in the writing of Canadian history and in the pages of the Canadian Historical Review. As Shirley Tillotson has recently pointed out, the past twenty-five years have seen the emergence of work that has challenged the longstanding national framework that characterizes Canadian history. She notes, further, how effective transnational approaches have been in raising questions on the limits and possibilities of the nation as a framework of study.1
"Atlantic history," which began to appear in the late-1980s, represented one kind of transnational approach. It aimed to understand a particular, albeit extensive, region created by the expansion of European empires in the early modern period.2 Fundamentally, Atlantic histories are histories of mobility and the transformations that attended the movement of everything from ideas, commodities, and peoples to non-human biota. Such histories ask how these flows changed the places and peoples that were caught up in them, and what those changes reveal about the dynamics of empire, state formation, and colonial governance. More broadly, they consider and analyze what power was, how it could be exercised, by whom, and what the consequences were. This is particularly apparent in studies of slavery, the quintessential Atlantic subject.
With its emphasis on movement, the Atlantic turn led historians to make connections and draw comparisons among empires and colonies, and between European metropoles and overseas possessions. Scholarship building on and, [End Page 79] in some cases, pushing back against these Atlantic histories has deepened and furthered these connections and comparisons. In particular, research on North American Indigenous history has profoundly transformed the study of early modern empires and New France.
The impact of that work is apparent in the contributions of the authors to this Historical Perspectives section. From the standpoint of their research interests, each author reflects on the field after the Atlantic turn. Together, they highlight at least three ways the connections and comparisons invited by this conceptual framing have made New France new again.3
First, an Atlantic framework has complicated, if not entirely revised, stereotypes and conventional narratives about New France. So, for instance, Gregory Kennedy highlights work that challenges the belief held by contemporary French observers and subsequent historians that Canadiens were possessed of a martial spirit, which made them formidable backwoods fighters whose tactics flummoxed the European-trained officers who encountered them. Catherine Desbarats' "thick description" of the uses and meanings of monnaie de carte disrupts the simplistic, teleological narrative that presents the playing card currency that circulated in New France as a precursor to modern money. Far from an innocent medium of exchange, these seemingly quaint artifacts made their appearance in 1685 and were used to pay soldiers, many of whom were deployed against the Haudenosaunee, the most powerful Indigenous confederacy in the northeast. Circulated well beyond military men, paper money became an everyday technology of empire, supporting the transactions that composed the colonial economy and anchored the French presence in North America. Helen Dewar calls attention to work that decentres the French crown and Catholic Church as the sole agents and institutions of empire. As she discusses, missionaries, fur traders, and, particularly, chartered companies were crucial to the work of imperial expansion.
The diversity of agents and institutions implicated in the project of empire points to a second way an Atlantic approach has changed our understanding of New France, specifically, by showing how social, economic, and political interests and agendas were intertwined, shaping how power was exercised on the ground. For instance, Dewar argues that the Company of New France (also known as the One Hundred Associates) had economic interests and political ambitions and hence cannot be understood narrowly as a strictly religious enterprise. Similarly, Desbarats shows how monnaie de carte served a political function as well as an economic one. In addition to facilitating imperial expansion, [End Page 80...