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DEVAU, Retor, CLAUDE – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

BÉGON DE LA PICARDIÈRE, MICHEL, commissary of the Marine, councillor in the parlement of Metz, France, inspector general of the Marine, intendant of New France, intendant of Le Havre, of the admiralty of Normandy, and of naval forces; b. 21 March 1667 at Blois, France; d. 18 Jan. 1747 at La Picardière.

The Bégons came from the region of Blois where they owned seigneuries – La Picardière was one of them – and served as fiscal and judicial officers until the mid-17th century. The marriage of Marie Charron, whose mother was a Bégon, to Jean-Baptiste Colbert on 14 Dec. 1648 transformed them into maritime and colonial administrators. Michel Bégon de La Picardière, the father of the intendant of New France and a cousin of Colbert, was intendant of Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola) from 1682 to 1685 (the very years when his brother-in-law Jacques de Meulles* was intendant of New France), intendant of the galleys at Marseilles from 1685 to 1688, and intendant of the port of Rochefort from 1688 until his death in 1710. He was one of the great intendants of the reign of Louis XIV and also one of the noted collectors and naturalists of his day. That decorative plant, the begonia, was named in his honour.

Three sons, Michel, Scipion-Jérôme, and Claude-Michel, and five daughters were born of his marriage with Madeleine Druillon. One of the girls, Catherine, married the rear-admiral Roland Barrin de La Galissonière and their son, Roland-Michel, served as interim governor of New France from 1747 to 1749. Scipion-Jérôme entered the church and was bishop of Toul from 1721 to 1753.

Michel, the first born, remained in France to pursue his studies while his parents were in Saint-Domingue. His grooming in the affairs of the Marine began in 1686, soon after their return, when his father obtained for him a commission as chief writer at Toulon. In January 1690 he became a commissary of the Marine and on 30 June, while serving in that capacity, found himself at the battle of Beachy Head. Between voyages at sea and visits at court he studied law and in 1694 obtained his licentiate from Orléans. In 1697 his father purchased for him a councillor’s commission in the parlement of Metz. In 1704 Michel must again have called upon his father’s finances to purchase the post of inspector general of the Marine for the provinces of Aunis and Saintonge where Rochefort and La Rochelle were located. Thus by degrees he became solidly qualified for a senior administrative position in the department of Marine. He was a trained lawyer, was thoroughly schooled in the affairs of the seaports, and must have been conversant with the situation in the North American colonies since royal supplies for Canada, Acadia, and Louisiana were shipped from Rochefort.

Bégon was appointed to succeed Jacques* and Antoine-Denis* Raudot as intendant of New France on 31 March 1710 but it was not until 1712 that he sailed for the colony. He was accompanied by his wife, Jeanne-Élisabeth de Beauharnois de La Boische, whom he had wed on 9 Jan. 1711. She was related to the Phélypeaux family, which gave France three ministers of Marine, and was the sister of François, formerly intendant of New France and now intendant of Rochefort, and Charles, the future governor. As can be seen the Bégon-Beauharnois family establishment was an important force in the administrative history of New France, providing the colony with no less than three intendants and two governors general.

The War of the Spanish Succession was drawing to a close when Bégon landed at Quebec in the early autumn of 1712 [see Claude de Beauharnois* de Beaumont]. Governor Vaudreuil [Rigaud*], through skill and good fortune, had seen the colony safely through the war years but economically it had not yet found itself. The population of Canada in 1712 was 18,440; 52,965 acres of land were under cultivation. The wheat crop in that year amounted to 292,415 minots: 15.6 minots per capita. This was a better than average crop for it usually hovered just around the subsistence level of 12 minots per capita. The beaver trade had not yet recovered from the heavy overtrading of the late 17th century. The French firm of Aubert, Néret et Gayot, which held the monopoly on the purchase and sale of the pelts, was not accepting greasy beaver because of the backlog still on hand and was paying but 34 sol per livre weight for dry skins. Despite the crisis in the beaver trade, because of factors such as costs, distances, and inadequate shipping facilities, the colony had failed to diversify its economic base. The habitants grew little hemp although this product was in great demand in France. Only a few merchants were involving themselves in lumbering and the fisheries.

These problems paled beside the one of card money. With the War of the Spanish Succession devouring France’s financial resources the sums sent out by the treasurer of the Marine beginning in 1702 repeatedly fell below actual expenditures [see François de Beauharnois]. The governor and intendant coped with this chronic shortage by issues of paper currency, actually money made out on ordinary playing cards. Initially these cards caused no problem, at least not for the public who had confidence in them. Bearers knew that in return for their cards they could obtain on demand bills of exchange from the intendant and that these would be redeemed in specie by the treasurer of Marine in France. But in 1707 the latter failed to honour Canadian bills of exchange and the whole financial structure began to crumble. Confidence in card currency dropped and prices soared by anywhere from 300 to 500 per cent. New France was in the throes of runaway inflation, ruinous for commerce and all those living on a fixed income. “We can no longer live,” moaned Charles de Monseignat*, one of the latter. Clearly little could be undertaken in the economic sphere until the problem caused by the 1,200,000 livres of cards in circulation – Ruette* d’Auteuil’s estimate – had been solved.

Bégon’s stay in Canada began tragically. On 5 Jan. 1713 he and his wife were the dinner guests of Governor Vaudreuil at the Château Saint-Louis. On that day the winds blew fiercely from the north and the cold was intense. Before going to bed that night Bégon instructed a servant to extinguish all the fires. But one of the chimneys was overlooked and in the middle of the night the intendancy burst into flames. Clad only in bathrobe and slippers the Bégons almost miraculously managed to flee [see François de Lajoüe*]. The intendant lost three servants who perished in the blaze, his secretary who found his way outside only to die a few days later of the effects of frostbite, and personal possessions valued at 40,000 livres. To help himself recover from this blow Bégon went into business with Jean Butler, an important La Rochelle merchant. The intendant looked after the sale of merchandise which his partner sent to Quebec and provided him with lumber to build two vessels which traded between New France, La Rochelle, and the West Indies. Bégon professed to see nothing wrong with these activities. On the contrary he claimed that the country could only benefit from them. But he was clearly treading on dangerous ground.

In his official capacity, the intendant first had to deal with the card money. Several proposals for its liquidation were under consideration by 1713. The minister of Marine, Pontchartrain, favoured the conversion of cards into securities bearing a fixed rate of interest but abandoned this plan upon realizing that it would not satisfy the colony’s pressing need for an immediate supply of money. Late in 1713 Bégon proposed the redemption of the cards at half their face value over a five-year period. Each year 320,000 livres of cards would be called in for which 160,000 livres of bills of exchange redeemable in specie would be issued. Reducing the value of the cards by 50 per cent would cause no hardships, he pointed out, since most of the holders had acquired them at a fabulous rate of profit. The court accepted the essence of the proposal. The operation got under way in 1714 and despite many difficulties was completed by 1720. It had been a gigantic undertaking offering many opportunities for illicit gain. There is evidence to suggest that Bégon did not fail to profit from them.

The most important issue after card money in the early years of Bégon’s intendancy was that of the beaver trade which was showing signs of recovery by 1715. Aubert, Néret et Gayot’s 12-year monopoly on the purchase and sale of the pelts would expire in 1718 [see Antoine Pascaud*]. Should the monopoly be continued in either their or other hands after that date or should there be free trade in beaver? This question caused a great debate in the colony with Bégon emerging as the spokesman of those favouring the second alternative. He maintained that Canada was now sufficiently well established to take charge of its own commercial affairs. Furthermore, as a matter of principle, the intendant had little faith in companies. He felt that commerce could be carried out more successfully by individual merchants than by corporations which, more often than not, were neglected by their directors; and also could be carried out with less danger since the failure of an individual affected only a few persons while a whole country could suffer from the failure of a company. The government was initially won to Bégon’s point of view, announcing in June 1716 that the beaver trade would become free as soon as Aubert, Néret et Gayot’s contract expired. But it soon reversed its stand. The monopoly was maintained and in 1717 granted to the newly founded Compagnie d’Occident for 25 years.

Curiously Bégon, whose attitude towards companies makes him appear somewhat reactionary, also believed in laissez-faire, an advanced theory for his day. “Commerce,” he wrote in 1714, “must depend on neither the governor nor the intendant who should enter into it only to prevent disorder.” In keeping with this philosophy he proposed in that year a revolutionary free commercial system for the western hinterland. Anyone wishing to trade there should be allowed to do so. Bégon was confident that this liberty would not result in an excessive growth in the number of traders. Competition would keep it down to what the commerce could bear. Nor would it result in an overproduction of beaver pelts. Merchants, who always regulate their affairs judiciously when given the liberty to do so, would not produce more than they could sell. Even with these assurances the proposal was a little too radical for Pontchartrain, the minister of Marine, who could not yet bring himself to revive the 25 fur-trading licences (congés), and nothing came of it. But it remains interesting as a symptom of middle-class unrest with dirigisme at the end of the reign of Louis XIV.

By 1714 Bégon had arrived at some basic conclusions on the Canadian economy. It was of the low export type. Thus local merchants were obliged to buy in France more than they sold there and were kept perpetually in debt. Bégon therefore recommended the establishment of iron and glassworks in the colony. These industries would help right the commercial balance by reducing the dependency on French manufactures and would stimulate the vital industry of shipbuilding by making iron available at cheap rates. Pontchartrain with his narrow mercantilism – he wrote in 1704 that whatever competed with French products should not be manufactured in the colonies – must again have been startled by the unorthodoxy of his intendant. However, he could only agree with Bégon’s diagnosis of the ultimate cause of Canada’s problems. Indeed, he had independently arrived at much the same conclusion. “This country,” wrote the intendant, “will become more and more miserable unless ways are found of sending people to it.” The small number of workmen doomed to failure almost every economic undertaking. To fill the need for labour Bégon asked for soldiers whom he considered preferable to indentured employees (engagés). The latter often returned to France once they had served their time in the colony whereas soldiers got married and became habitants. But, he must soon have noticed, habitants were usually not available for labour off their farms and did not constitute a work force in the true sense of the word. This observation is probably what led him to ask in 1716 for a massive infusion of Negro slaves. They would, though he did not of course use the expression, constitute a permanent proletariat.

The request was turned down when Vaudreuil, to whom it had been referred for comment, remarked that the climate was too cold for Negroes and that the cost of clothing them during the long winters would be more than the habitants could bear. Still, the request marks out Bégon as a radical intendant. But he was not a very consistent one. The claim he made that Canada was poor by virtue of underpopulation and an unfavourable balance of commerce did not harmonize well with his other one that the country was sufficiently established to manage its own commercial affairs. And even as he was making these conflicting statements he was up to his neck in activities that harmonized still less with his professed belief in laissez-faire. By 1716 these activities had nearly discredited him in the eyes of the home authorities.

On 24 Jan. 1714 Bégon issued an ordinance whose sweeping terms brought the wheat trade to a virtual standstill. It prohibited the shipment of wheat, flour, and biscuits outside the colony and even forbade transactions involving wheat within. Bégon claimed that this action was needed to avert the threat of famine, for the harvest of 1713 had not been good, but this contention was challenged by Claude de Bermen* de La Martinière, first councillor of the Conseil Supérieur. According to him the harvest of 1713 had been adequate and there was even wheat left over from the bumper crop of 1712. Famine, claimed La Martinière, was simply a pretext invented by Bégon to justify the gigantic wheat-grabbing operation upon which he had embarked. The January ordinance had placed the entire wheat supply at his disposal and his agents scoured the countryside buying up all available reserves as well as great quantities of pigs and cattle. Bégon was allegedly paying for his purchases with the cards the government had already redeemed and even churning out new ones! “All they cost him is the price of making them out,” observed La Martinière. Some of this wheat was shipped aboard Butler’s vessels to the West Indies, where it was in great demand because of crop failures in France. The rest was turned into bread at the king’s bakery, bread which Bégon sold to the public at an excessive price.

How much truth there was in these accusations by La Martinière is difficult to say. The threat of famine was not something Bégon was making up. From 292,415 minots in 1712 the wheat crop plummeted to 251,460 minots in 1713 and to 236,049 minots in 1714. In a situation like this the intendant was duty-bound to protect the colony’s food supply from depletion at the hands of hoarders and speculators. But it is also a fact that Bégon was in business with Butler. This was enough to arouse suspicions, perhaps not entirely unfounded, that the intendant was using the great powers of his office to further his own interests and those of his partner.

The complaints against Bégon did not leave Pontchartrain indifferent. “I am told that he is making himself the absolute master of the country’s entire trade and that the people of Canada are lost unless we curb his greed and injustices,” the minister wrote to Scipion-Jérôme upon learning that the latter’s brother seemed well on the way to becoming Canada’s leading baker, butcher, and shipowner. Scipion-Jérôme promptly wrote to Michel who attempted to refute these accusations. He admitted that he had been carrying out a private trade with Butler but attempted to minimize its scope. Naturally he vehemently denied that he had tried to seize control of the colony’s food supply and did manage to offer some plausible explanations for even his most peculiar actions in 1714 and 1715. For instance, La Martinière had charged that individuals had been touring the countryside buying up livestock in the intendant’s name. Bégon admitted that they had done so but rejected the motives imputed to him by the first councillor. He pointed out that a large supply of meat was needed to feed the troops. To obtain this supply he felt that it would be more economical to deal with someone who would buy directly from the habitants than to follow the usual practice of contracting with a butcher. Bégon could still be charged with appallingly bad judgement for not foreseeing how this totally irregular method of obtaining meat would be viewed in the colony; but he did succeed, if not in refuting the far more serious accusation that he was a food profiteer, at least in raising doubts about its veracity.

But he did not wax rich on his additional revenues, licit or illicit. The better part of them were probably used to replace the furniture and provisions lost in the fire of 1713, to entertain the colony’s fashionable society – Monseignat described Bégon as the most lavish of the six intendants of New France he had known – and to help pay off the debts of his uncle François, grand master of waters and forests for the province of Berry. Finally, like Jean Talon* who also engaged in trade when he was intendant of New France, Bégon invested considerable sums in the country. In 1718, for 6,237 livres monnaie de France, he purchased from Françoise Duquet the arrière-fief of Grandpré on the seigneury of Notre-Dame-des-Anges on which he constructed sawmills and a tannery valued at 40,000 livres. Bégon could clearly not accomplish all these things on his official income. Including the annual gratuity of 3,000 livres paid to him in consideration of the losses he had sustained in the fire of 1713, it amounted to 15,000 livres, but its purchasing power must have been vastly inferior to that figure since it was remitted to him in depreciated cards. Even with the revenues from his trading activities he was unable to make ends meet. In 1719 he sold for 8,000 livres the Hôtel d’Alluye which he owned in France. Two years later he was searching for creditors.

Though the colony profited in many ways from Bégon’s investments, the trade he was carrying on with Butler still met with the reprobation of the council of Marine, the committee which assumed the direction of maritime and colonial affairs soon after the death of Louis XIV on 1 Sept. 1715. “You recognize that you have engaged in commerce,” it wrote the intendant. “You acted wrongly for you could not be unaware that this activity was not permitted and was in no way suitable in the position you occupied.” Bégon was warned that any repetition of this offence would result in his immediate recall. But there was a second and still more bitter blow in store for him. During his leave of absence in France from 1714 to 1716, Governor Vaudreuil complained that Bégon had cramped his policy in 1712. He had not only vetoed his project for the reoccupation of Michilimackinac but also insisted on countersigning some orders issued to military personnel. Pontchartrain served Bégon with a sharp admonition; the council of Marine went much further. At Vaudreuil’s request it decreed that his decision should prevail in case of future disagreements between him and the intendant. Bégon was being placed under the tutelage of the powerful governor.

He seems to have collapsed under these two blows, sinking into lethargy. An examination of the Canadian correspondence over the next few years discloses no significant proposals by him, no probing commentaries on social and economic questions. The intendant was confining himself to a purely administrative role, presiding over meetings of the Conseil Supérieur, managing royal supplies, and issuing routine royal ordinances. In 1717, as the result of a prolonged summer drought, the spectre of famine once more loomed over the colony. Bégon issued an ordinance prohibiting the export of flour and biscuits. Vaudreuil in Montreal and Jean Bouillet* de La Chassaigne, his delegate in Quebec, claimed that this move was inadequate but despite their frantic letters the intendant refused to take further action. You are the master, he in effect told the governor. Do whatever you think best. But ruling on this matter would have constituted such a blatant invasion of the intendant’s jurisdiction that Vaudreuil held back.

In 1720 Bégon finally came to life. Since the death of Louis XIV France had been reassessing her attitude towards colonies and a new and more positive policy was gradually taking form. Where Canada was concerned the policy featured a more intensive effort to populate the country with engagés and soldiers and the making of greater sums of money available to help develop new enterprises. Bégon had long felt that the colony could perform a most useful service by acting as a supplier of hemp and he took it upon himself to offer 60 livres per quintal for this plant. This offer was more than three times the cost of the French product but even this incentive, he thought, would be inadequate unless the colony solved its labour problem. With far greater insistence than in 1716 he renewed his request for Negro slaves. For a start the Compagnie des Indes, which had a monopoly on the trade, should send 200 slaves to Canada. Bégon already claimed to have buyers for 100 of both sexes at 500 livres apiece. The council of Marine was favourably impressed but not the Compagnie des Indes, which did not act on the proposal. It was probably just as well for any large scale experimentation with Negro slavery would almost certainly have failed in Canada.

Encouraging the growing of hemp was only one of Bégon’s activities during these years. In 1720 he inaugurated a system of mail delivery and public transportation between Montreal, Trois-Rivières, and Quebec, which followed water routes where the roads left off. The following year he began drawing up the colossal papier terrier (register of landed property) of New France, consisting of an exact description of the state of each seigneury in the colony. The intendant rightly felt that the edicts of Marly, calling for the forfeiture of uncleared seigneuries to the crown and of uncleared rotures to the seigneurial domain, could not be rationally applied until this information was available. Unfortunately, in the midst of these useful activities, Bégon became involved in a fresh cycle of difficulties with the home authorities, this time over finances. These difficulties probably convinced the council of Marine that he had outlived his usefulness as intendant of New France.

By 1720 card money had been totally withdrawn from circulation and Pierre-Nicolas Gaudion, the treasurer of Marine, began his final tabulation. To his astonishment he discovered that the fund set aside for the redemption of cards was overdrawn by 157,251 livres. “It appears that there is something in the case so extraordinary that the Council will not conceal from you that it has viewed it with much pain,” Bégon was told. “It is willing however to suspend judgement until it has received the explanations it desires you to furnish on the point.” The explanations he submitted made it appear that he had been erroneously charging some shipping expenditures to the card money fund. But hardly had this matter been cleared up, in a manner of speaking at least, than another complication arose. Now that card money had been abolished, much of the funds required for government expenditures were sent to Canada in specie. In 1721 this cash remittance amounted to 188,000 livres. But within a month of the arrival of the ships the local treasurer of the Marine, Nicolas Lanoullier de Boisclerc, announced that the funds were exhausted and closed his till. Most of the officers had not yet received their salary and little new specie had appeared in the colony. Vaudreuil sent a strong complaint to the council of Marine which promptly asked Bégon to explain where all the money had gone.

Perhaps the intendant was a victim of that negligence which marked so many of his actions in the 1720s. The state of the accounts of the royal stores in Montreal, Trois-Rivières, and Quebec, which were in arrears and total disarray, provide an example. Or perhaps he was a victim of a system which made him responsible for financial administration but placed the funds themselves under the control of an agent of the treasurers of the Marine. In principle the latter made no payment unless the intendant authorized it. In practice, however, it was difficult to prevent an unscrupulous treasurer from misappropriating funds, and Lanoullier was notorious for keeping loose accounts and indulging in sharp practices. Bégon, however, spoke well of Lanoullier and in 1721 granted him a 20-year exclusive franchise of the post and passenger system between Montreal and Quebec. This behaviour does nothing to dispel the suspicion that there was some collusion between the two men.

In 1723 the council of Marine was dissolved and the bureau of marine and colonies was once more entrusted to a minister. He was 22-year-old Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux de Maurepas, the son of Pontchartrain. One of his first decisions was to appoint Bégon to the intendancy of Le Havre which had just become vacant. Maurepas was thereby disposing of a man who no longer gave satisfaction in the position he occupied and rendering a service to his relative, Jeanne-Élisabeth de Beauharnois, who was unhappy in Canada and yearned to return to France. Bégon was delighted by the news of his transfer. He thanked the minister profusely but claimed to be puzzled by his request to bring with him all the documents necessary to terminate the affair of card money. “The matter involves you too closely for me not to insist on it,” wrote Maurepas. Bégon claimed not to see how it concerned him; it concerned rather the agents of the treasurers of the Marine. He did promise, however, to give an account of his stewardship which he hoped would satisfy his superior. “Saying more at present would serve no purpose,” he concluded enigmatically.

But two more years went by before Bégon left the colony. Edme-Nicolas Robert, who had been appointed to succeed him, died at sea in 1724, and Guillaume Chazel, who was appointed to succeed Robert, perished in the wreck of the Chameau off Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) in 1725. The time Bégon spent in the colony as a lame-duck intendant was costly. In December 1725, for the second time in 13 years, the intendant’s palace was destroyed by fire. But the two years were not unproductive. In consultation with Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix*] and the parish priests he reduced the number of taverns to two per parish; reduction to one, it was felt, might expose consumers to being overcharged and served with spirits of inferior quality. As a means of raising revenue in the colony Bégon recommended that farming out the western posts was preferable to levying taxes on the refractory habitants. This was among the most important suggestions that Bégon ever made for before too long nearly all the western posts had been placed under a system of private leasehold. Finally, he strove mightily to maintain those cordial relations with Vaudreuil which had always prevailed despite many tense moments. They were gravely imperilled in April 1725 when the governor challenged his colleague’s adjudication of the post of Témiscamingue to Joseph de Fleury de La Gorgendière. The award had been made according to rules and on the order of the court. But Vaudreuil, who had a personal interest in the trade of the post, arbitrarily suspended Bégon’s ordinance authorizing La Gorgendière to take possession of it. In the face of this provocation the intendant showed admirable restraint.

At length on 2 Sept. 1726 a new intendant, Claude-Thomas Dupuy*, arrived in the colony. Bégon could now depart. He took leave of Quebec on 18 October aboard the king’s vessel, Éléphant. At 11 o’clock on the morning of 22 November after a rough but swift crossing the Éléphant entered the roadsteads of Rochefort. A few hours later, after an absence of 14 years, Bégon “with great joy” stepped down on the soil of France.

He served as intendant of Le Havre for approximately ten years. Situated at the mouth of the Seine, which led into the heartland of France, it was a busy seaport. A total of 893 vessels sailed from it in 1724. Towards 1736 Bégon was named intendant of the admiralty of Normandy with residence at Rouen. But both before 1736 and after he resided for long periods at La Picardière. According to Canon Pierre Hazeur* de L’Orme he did so to save money for his finances were gravely embarrassed. He owed an unspecified amount to Lanoullier, 30,000 livres to some La Rochelle merchants, and he suffered a severe blow in 1732 when a shipment of wine he was sending to Canada was lost at sea. But he did not meet with much sympathy from Claude-Michel in 1740 when he gave poverty as the reason why he had allowed the pension he was obliged to pay his younger brother by the terms of their father’s will to fall in arrears. “[The pension] is a small sum for a man of your revenues,” bitterly wrote Claude-Michel. But what he thought were revenues may in reality have been loans from Scipion-Jérôme and his two Carmelite sisters, Marie-Rose and Marie-Thérèse, to whom Michel could always turn in time of need. These loans were probably what enabled him to endow his daughters, Jeanne- Élisabeth and Catherine, handsomely at the time of their marriage and to afford himself the luxury of some exotic experiences. In 1743 he accompanied the Turkish ambassador, Sayde Pasha, who was returning to Constantinople. Among Bégon’s activities in the Turkish capital was a visit, by extraordinary permission, to the Sultan’s harem. Upon his return to France he wrote an account of his voyage.

Michel Bégon died at La Picardière on 18 Jan. 1747, only one year after having been named intendant of naval forces. Three of his eight children survived him: Catherine, Marie-Madeleine, an Ursuline nun at Blois, and Michel, who was intendant of Dunkerque from 1756 to 1761.

In the history of New France the period from 1712 to 1726 is one of gradual economic recovery. When Bégon arrived in the colony the economy was at a virtual standstill as a result of the collapse of the beaver trade and the financial system and the situation was further aggravated by bad harvests in 1713 and 1714. When he left the economy was rapidly reviving. The beaver trade had recovered from its prolonged slump and there were unmistakable signs of expansion in lumbering, shipbuilding, the fisheries, and the cultivation of hemp. For example, 47 sawmills were in operation in 1726, a category not even mentioned in the census of 1712. Unquestionably, the most fragile sector of the economy remained agriculture. Population stood at 29,396 in 1726 and the number of acres under cultivation at 96,202. But though land clearance had outstripped population growth 81 to 59 per cent since 1712 the colony was experiencing enormous difficulties in breaking out of the phase of subsistence agriculture. The wheat crop in 1726 amounted only to 14 minots per capita.

In this process of slow economic growth Bégon seems to have played but a marginal role. It is possible to speak of a Talon era and of a Hocquart* era in the history of New France but not of a Bégon era for, unlike the two other intendants, he did not sufficiently mark his period. He deserves credit for the decision to redeem card money at half value, for stimulating the cultivation of hemp, but not for much else. The fire of January 1713, after which he seems to have worked harder at private than at state affairs, and the paralytic effect of the reprimands of 1716 help to account for this unimpressive record but they do not explain it fully. Bégon also seems to have been prone to indolence and endowed with only an average mind. An example is the way he pinned his hopes for New France’s economic recovery on Negro slavery. He had no alternative suggestion to make when the court twice failed to act on this unrealistic proposal.

But Bégon had many redeeming qualities. He was kind and generous. According to Hocquart, the money he spent in Canada on commercial establishments “turned less to his advantage than to that of the great number of unfortunates whom it provided with a living.” In difficult moments, and he had many of them from 1713 to 1726, he never lost his serenity. Qualities like these made him perhaps the best liked intendant in the colony’s history. “We are losing a perfect honnête homme and a worthy intendant in the person of M. Bégon,” wrote Bishop Saint-Vallier, a man chary of compliments, in September 1726. In 1732, after describing Bégon’s financial problems, Hazeur de L’Orme concluded sadly: “He did not deserve such a fate, being a kind and peaceable man who did nothing but good in Canada.”

Yves F. Zoltvany

AN, Col., B, 33–50; C11A, 33–48; Marine, B1, 8; C7, 23 (dossier Bégon); Section Outre-Mer, G1, 461. ANQ, Greffe de Florent de La Cetière, 28 oct. 1718; Greffe de Claude Louet, 12 oct. 1728. Archives du ministère des Affaires étrangères, Mém. et doc., Am., 7. ASQ, Lettres, O, 50, 51, 53; Séminaire, XIV, 4, no.7. BN, mss, Fr., 29624. “Correspondance de Vaudreuil,” APQ Rapport, 1947–48, 137–339. Documents relating to Canadian currency during the French period (Shortt), I, passim. “Lettres de Claude Bermen de La Martinière,” BRH, XXXVIII (1932), 18–39.

[Although Guy Frégault remarked in 1944, in La civilisation de la Nouvelle-France, that “the career of Michel Bégon would deserve to be studied,” little has been written on this intendant. The following works have been found to be the most useful: Yvonne Bezard, Fonctionnaires maritimes et coloniaux sous Louis XIV: les Bégon (Paris, 1932). (This is essentially a biographical study of the father of the intendant of New France, based largely on the family archives located at the Château de Gemeaux in France. There are letters of a personal nature by the Bégon of Canada but it was impossible to consult them in the preparation of this article.) Pierre Dardel, Navires et marchandises dans les ports de Rouen et du Havre au XVIIIe siècle (École pratique des hautes études, Centre de recherches historiques, Ports-routes-trafics, [15], Paris, 1963); Commerce, industrie et navigation à Rouen et au Havre au XVIIIème siècle; rivalité croissante entre ces deux ports; la conjoncture (Rouen, 1966). (These two quantitative studies do not mention Bégon but give a general idea of the situation of Le Havre around the time of his intendancy.).

Dubé, Claude-Thomas Dupuy. J.-N. Fauteux, Essai sur l’industrie. Frégault, La civilisation de la Nouvelle-France; Le XVIIIe siècle canadien, in particular, “Essai sur les finances canadiennes.” Lanctot, Histoire du Canada, III. Trudel, L’esclavage au Canada français. J.F. Bosher, “Government and private interests in New France,” Canadian Public Administration (Toronto), X (1967), 244–57. J.-E. Roy, “Notes sur l’intendant Bégon,” BRH, IV (1898), 265–73. Régis Roy, “Michel Bégon,” BRH, VIII (1902), 161–69. Henri Têtu, “Le chapitre de la cathédrale de Québec et ses délégués en France,” BRH, XVI (1910), 229.  y.f.z.].

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Yves F. Zoltvany, “BÉGON DE LA PICARDIÈRE, MICHEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/begon_de_la_picardiere_michel_3E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/begon_de_la_picardiere_michel_3E.html
Author of Article:   Yves F. Zoltvany
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   1974
Access Date:   April 14, 2024