Company of New France

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Company of New France

Founded in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), the chief minister of France, the Company of New France was designed as a vehicle for advancing French colonial claims in North America. Since the late sixteenth century, the French monarchy had granted monopoly rights over the Canadian fur trade to a succession of consortiums. Each was required to promote settlement, but none found it profitable to comply; consequently, there were only about one hundred colonists on the ground by 1625, some at Quebec and others far away in Acadia on the Atlantic Coast. With the establishment of the new company, the Bourbon state signaled a willingness to involve itself much more directly in colonization than heretofore and to channel considerable resources into New France.

Like the Dutch East India Company and the Virginia Company, the Company of New France was designed to mobilize private fortunes in the service of state projects overseas. However, rather than opening the enterprise to all profit-seeking investors, Richelieu exercised tighter control on behalf of King Louis XIII (1601–1643), appealing to a small circle of one hundred shareholders, mainly courtiers, officials, and ecclesiastics; the enterprise became known as the "Company of the Hundred Associates." Shareholders sought not only monetary return on their investments, but also royal approval and the prospect of receiving titles of nobility.

Its charter awarded the company feudal title to all of North America from Florida to the Arctic Circle, with rights of property, jurisdiction, and government; there was no mention of English claims or of existing indigenous possession of this almost limitless domain. The company later granted large territories along the Saint Lawrence as fiefs to favored individuals and ecclesiastical bodies. These latter, known as seigneurs, could then award farm-size portions of their estates to rent-paying settlers. Thus was seigneurial tenure established in Canada, an arrangement that would survive long after the Company of New France was defunct.

Additionally, the company was to enjoy a fifteen-year monopoly over all import/export trade, with an exemption from commercial duties; after 1643 the monopoly would cover only furs and skins; and colonists could trade freely with the Indians, but they had to sell their furs to the Company of New France at a specified price. In return, the company was required to bring to New France four thousand settlers—every one of them French and Catholic (Louis XIII signed the charter during the siege of Huguenot La Rochelle)—and to bear the expenses of the civil and ecclesiastical administration.

Rather more than the contemporaneous colonial charters granted by the British Crown, that of the Company of New France expressed a religious purpose. Colonization, it stated, was "for the purpose, with divine assistance, of introducing to the people who inhabit [Canada] the knowledge of the Only God, cause them to be civilized and instructed in the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Religion." Protestants were not welcome, it implied.

A second distinctive quality of the charter is the aspiration expressed to encompass native nations within the colonial project. While granting no recognition to Indian sovereignty or property, this document looks forward to a time when natives and settlers would unite under the cross and the crown. Indigenous converts to Christianity would henceforth "be considered and reckoned natural born subjects of France," with full legal rights. Many of the legal provisions of the charter, as well as the ideals of Catholic purity and native-French partnership, would remain powerful forces throughout the history of New France.

The new company's history began on a disastrous note. War broke out with England just as it was getting organized and a company of privateers led by the Kirke brothers rushed to take possession of the post at Quebec and then captured the company's first fleet, together with all the supplies and settlers on board, in 1628. Four years later, New France was restored to France and the company began its work anew under the leadership of the governor of New France, Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570–1635). Settlers did arrive in both Saint Lawrence (Canada) and Acadia, the majority of men enlisted in France as engageés (indentured servants) on three-year contracts, but their numbers fell short of the four thousand required by the company's charter.

The company did take its religious mandate seriously and, to that end, shipped along with the earliest settlers a small contingent of Jesuits charged with evangelizing the indigenous nations and bringing them into the Christian fold. With their base at Quebec and missionaries ministering to the Hurons and other inland tribes, the Jesuits were a dominant presence, not only in the emergent colonial church, but also in the civil politics of Canada under the Company of New France.

A group of idealistic lay Catholics arrived from France in 1641 with the aim of furthering the same cause of converting the "savages." They pushed up the Saint Lawrence to establish what they hoped would be a Christian utopia of Indians and French on the island of Montreal. Though only partially successful in their missionary objectives, the founders of Montreal did succeed in extending the French presence westward. Their frontier settlement controlled a strategic crossroads of waterways linking the Great Lakes, the north, and the Saint Lawrence estuary, and as a result, it quickly emerged as the thriving center of the fur trade.

Meanwhile, the separately administered Acadian colony received an initial injection of supplies and settlers under the leadership of Isaac de Razilly, a leading member of the Company of New France. After Razilly's death in 1635, however, the neglected colony lapsed into a period of chaos and civil strife until it was captured by New England forces in 1654.

In 1663 the crown, in the person of Louis XIV's (1638–1715) minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683), intervened once again in the affairs of New France, proclaiming that the company had neglected its duty to establish the colony on a solid footing. At this point, there were only about 2,500 French settlers on the Saint Lawrence, their livelihood excessively dependent on the fur trade, and they were very much on the defensive in the face of Iroquois attacks. The government blamed the company, which it promptly dissolved, and took charge of New France as a crown colony.

see also Colonization and Companies; Conquests and Colonization; Massachusetts Bay Company; Mercantilism; New France.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Levi, Anthony. Cardinal Richelieu: And the Making of France. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.