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The Integration of the Province of Quebec into the British Empire, 1763—91


The choice of this historical period – the first 30 years of the British régime in Quebec – is not arbitrary. It is a period that has its own peculiarities and is in many respects distinct, especially in that the history of Quebec is then identical with that of Canada from all perspectives, whether geographic or demographic, economic or political, social or cultural. It is important to remember at the outset that this former French possession, referred to as Canada and then called the province of Quebec by virtue of the Royal Proclamation of October 1763, was to remain a uniform colonial entity until 1791.

The year 1791 marked in fact both a fracture and an amputation, the territory of Quebec being divided into Upper and Lower Canada and the way left open to two destinies, two orientations, two evolutions, two distinct developments: English Canada and French Canada. That separation assumed even more importance in that the two newly created provincial governments were each at the same time endowed with institutional bases permitting them to exercise authority within a constitutional framework modelled on that of the government in London. And in the historical perspective adopted here this political linking with the British empire must be considered a culmination rather than a turning-point – the final outcome of a solution envisaged 30 years earlier, just after the signing of the treaty of Paris in 1763.

These considerations, which themselves suffice to explain and justify the chronological division chosen for this essay, lead to others bearing on its orientation. As the title indicates, emphasis will be given to the fundamental characteristic of the early years of the British régime: the implementation of various trial solutions to the major problem of incorporating into the British empire the most important colony in New France, first at a time of revolutionary crisis that made any imperial reorganization in North America risky until the end of the American War of Independence, and after 1783 within the framework of a restructuring made necessary by the loss of the Thirteen Colonies.

It seems essential to place this colonial history in its North American context and to examine it in relation to imperial policy in order to grasp fully the significance of the decisions taken in London and to understand their consequences and their effects on the evolution of Quebec. Such an approach necessarily involves a choice in the aspects to be considered in the essay. The reader will not find here a narrative account designed to reconstitute the fabric of the past. Rather the essay seeks to set forth the network of relations between facts that are more or less well known so as to obtain a better understanding of the process of Quebec’s integration into the British empire.

It is important to recall the general capitulation signed at Montreal on 8 Sept. 1760. This document is fundamental because the commitments then consented to on a provisional basis were officially sanctioned by the British parliament in 1774. The decisive importance this capitulation agreement was to acquire after Canada had been finally ceded stemmed from two main factors: on the one hand, the rights the conquered people were acknowledged to have; on the other, the interest in retaining the inhabitants of New France for the good of the British empire and in making of them faithful and loyal subjects of the crown.

Since Canada had been conquered before the Seven Years’ War ended, its surrender implied a more or less prolonged period of military occupation. The fate of the conquered people had therefore to be considered, after that of the troops, the senior officers, and the senior personnel of the French colonial administration had been settled. A willingness was shown to concede to the former subjects of the king of France certain rights that went well beyond the well-known guarantee of the “free exercise of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion,” which was to be officially confirmed by the treaty of Paris in 1763. The secular clergy was maintained both in its organization and in its ecclesiastical functions, and all the religious communities kept “their moveables, the property and revenues of the Seignories” with “their privileges, rights, honours, and exemptions.” The preservation of the quarter of the seigneurial domain that had been granted the religious orders was thereby assured. As for the lands belonging to the non-clerical seigneurs and the fate of their censitaires, article 37 was explicit: “The Lords of Manors, the Military and Civil officers, the Canadians as well in the Towns as in the country, the French settled, or trading, in the whole extent of the colony of Canada, and all other persons whatsoever, shall preserve the entire peaceable property and possession of the goods, noble and ignoble, moveable and immoveable, merchandizes, furs and other effects.” Those who decided to go to France would be free to sell their belongings and take the proceeds with them; those who remained in Canada could enjoy “all the privileges of trade … in the countries above [pays d’en haut] … [and in] the interior of the colony.”

Such, in the main, were the conditions that the last governor of New France, Vaudreuil [Rigaud], considered “very advantageous” from the viewpoint of the “interests of the colony and the settlers.” Among the requests that Amherst refused, two were utterly inadmissible: the continuation of the king of France’s power to name the bishop of Quebec, and the right of the inhabitants to remain strictly neutral in the case of conflict with France. Another request exceeded the authority of the victorious general: he could not permit retention of the laws, usages, and customs established before the conquest.

This last question, however, would soon regain attention after civil government had been set up. Leaving the new subjects “entire peaceable property and possession of the goods, noble and ignoble,” involved not only retaining the seigneurial system but also preserving the social organization that depended upon it. How then was the necessity of recognizing everything in French law pertaining to the ownership, transmission, and sale of landed property to be avoided? This conclusion was precisely that reached early on by the law officers of the crown, Charles Yorke and William de Grey (respectively attorney general and solicitor general), who advised in their noted report of April 1766 that the former property laws be retained. Eight years later the British parliament gave official sanction to this recommendation.

The capitulation of September 1760 would probably not have had the same significance had it not been for the self-interest which worked in favour of the conquered population once Great Britain’s imperial designs in North America had been realized. If the supreme ambition of the conquest’s chief architect, William Pitt, had been to eliminate from the North American continent Britain’s rival, France, his successor as secretary for the Southern Department, Lord Egremont, was particularly anxious to keep the inhabitants of New France for the benefit of the British empire: “Nothing is more essential to His Majesty’s Service,” he declared, “than to retain as many French subjects as possible and to prevent them from leaving their homes to go off to the colonies that may remain in France’s possession.” General Amherst had reason to congratulate himself for having acted appropriately in taking the necessary measures for reconciling conquerors and conquered.

In this spirit and with this concern for reconciliation began the military occupation, which lasted until civil government was set up in August 1764. The directives from Amherst in his famous Placard of 22 Sept. 1760 were the basis for the organization of this temporary régime. Wishing the forces of occupation to “live with the habitants in harmony and good fellowship,” he had provided for arrangements and compromises likely to facilitate governance by the conquerors. As far as possible he endeavoured to respect the administrative structures in existence before the conquest. The previous division of the colony into three governments (Montreal, Quebec, and Trois‑Rivières) remained unchanged, but these jurisdictions were so constituted that they could function separately and independently of one another. Each was entrusted to a military governor directly under the commander-in-chief of the British troops in North America, who had headquarters in New York.

The administration of justice was not changed as drastically as has been claimed by historian François‑Xavier Garneau*, for whom the institution of courts martial symbolized a state of siege. Naturally military courts replaced the various judicial authorities of the French régime that had been abolished. The suppression of these bodies did not, however, signify the rejection of established traditions in the functioning of the judicial system. In keeping with the spirit of Amherst’s directives, governors Ralph Burton*, Thomas Gage, and James Murray concerned themselves in their respective jurisdictions with seeing that justice was dispensed promptly and cheaply by employing the captains and officers of the Canadian militia, who constituted courts of first instance and judged legal disputes according to the customary law of Paris. Cases under appeal were referred to councils of military officers and as a last resort to the governors themselves. Far from appearing oppressive, this judicial organization left such a deep impression that on the eve of the promulgation of the Quebec Act both seigneurial and bourgeois spokesmen for the Canadians evoked memory of it in a petition to the king: “Our gratitude obliges us to acknowledge, that the frightful appearances of conquest … did not long continue to excite our lamentations and tears.… And even in the very moment of the conquest, we were far from feeling the melancholy effects of restraint and captivity. For the wise and virtuous general [Amherst] ... left us in possession of our laws and customs ... and our own former countrymen were appointed judges of our disputes concerning civil matters.” Thus the policy of reconciliation that inspired the conduct of the military authorities had prepared the conquered population to accept the change of imperial authority when Canada was definitively ceded. Fewer than 300 individuals out of a population of 60,000 – only one in 200 – chose to take advantage of article 4 of the treaty of Paris, which allowed them 18 months to emigrate from the colony “with all safety and freedom.”

That every possible means had been used to make the military régime acceptable to them did not, however, prepare the new British subjects for the constraints and vexations imposed by the establishment of civil government. They had to learn the risks of politics that subjected them to the ordeals of a struggle for rights which had seemed to them almost secured. In taking definitive possession of Canada the London authorities had not seriously contemplated the problems that would be created by the integration into the British empire of these former subjects of the king of France, who already formed a separate people with an inclination to remain so. In the period just after the treaty of Paris too many questions simultaneously required the imperial government’s attention for it to be able to give proper consideration to the situation of the Canadians.

In accordance with the treaty of Paris, signed on 10 Feb. 1763, Great Britain assumed control of the former territory of New France, including Canada “with all its dependencies” (the Great Lakes basin or pays d’en haut with Detroit as its main centre and the vast domaine de l’Ouest extending from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains); the eastern portion of Louisiana bounded by the Mississippi River (the western part having been ceded to Spain by a secret pact); and everything on the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of St Lawrence that had been left to France by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 (in particular Île Royale or Cape Breton Island and Île Saint‑Jean or Prince Edward Island). For her part Spain surrendered Florida and all her territory as far as the Mississippi. Thus, with the Thirteen Colonies included, Great Britain found herself in possession of almost half of the North American continent, from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay. Suddenly her American colonial domain had more than doubled by comparison with what it had been before 1760.

The acquisition of such a vast geographical area, diversely peopled by whites and Indians, posed problems of territorial development, colonial administration, and military defence, and with these the British government had to contend in the months following the signing of the peace treaty. Their solution was considered within the framework of a programme of imperial reorganization designed to strengthen the home authority by tightening the lines of central control over commerce, taxation, and politics. Indeed, the Royal Proclamation of October 1763 was the first of a series of executive and legislative measures by George Grenville’s ministry (April 1763–July 1765) for this purpose. It was not long, however, before the implementation of this programme roused the opposition and then the active resistance of the Thirteen Colonies, bringing down the ministry less than three months after parliament had passed the famous Stamp Act.

The Royal Proclamation was to constitute not only the first step in the imperial plan, but also the very foundation, so that the trials and reverses experienced in putting the programme into effect had direct repercussions upon it. Thus, by a series of revisions the proclamation was gradually abandoned, to be replaced finally by the Quebec Act, which marked a reorientation of imperial policy. The experience of this setback helped significantly to increase the importance of Quebec and its inhabitants in the view of the British government, and this change of emphasis took place progressively as the initial programme was abandoned. Just as the attention of the authorities in London was focused on the Indian question in 1763, so it would be absorbed by the case of the Canadians in 1774.

The most striking aspect of the territorial reorganization decreed in the Royal Proclamation was undoubtedly the transformation into Indian reserves of the whole interior of the continent, from the Mississippi River to the watershed of the Appalachian mountains, and from West Florida to the domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company beyond the Great Lakes basin. The area of the three new “royal” colonies was comparatively well defined: south of the 31st parallel, the two Floridas (East and West), and north of the 45th parallel, the province of Quebec, which formed a sort of trapezoid taking in the valley of the St Lawrence and was bounded on the east by the Rivière Saint‑Jean (on the north shore across from the western tip of Anticosti Island) and on the west by Lake Nipissing. On Quebec’s Atlantic side, to the already established province of Nova Scotia were added Cape Breton Island and Saint John’s Island. Finally, Anticosti Island, the Îles de la Madeleine, and the vast territory of Labrador (from the Rivière Saint‑Jean to Hudson Strait) were annexed to Newfoundland in order to take greater advantage of the monopoly to exploit the fisheries in the gulf and along the coasts, recognized as “the most obvious advantage” deriving from the peace treaty.

Although one need only read the Royal Proclamation to discern the pre-eminence of the Indian question in it, the reasons that Quebec was overlooked are not so evident. The uprising of the western Indians early in the summer of 1763 had made it imperative to seek their pacification. For the central role played by the Ottawa war chief Pontiac* the reader should consult the biography in volume III of the DCB. The circumstances and events of this dramatic story are well recounted there, but the author does not emphasize one aspect that is absolutely fundamental to understanding the extent of the uprising, which in less than a month spread from the point of eruption, Detroit, to all the forts and trading posts in the Great Lakes region. Mention is made of the frustrations that had built up as a result of the policy of strict economy ordered by the commander-in-chief, Amherst, who refused to continue the system of exchanging presents as practised under the French régime. Certainly, given the habits formed and the meaning attached to presents, the Indians reacted badly to the privations and restrictions inflicted upon them (especially in rum, powder, and lead). Just as essential, however, was the shock of the British occupation, which made them fear their hunting grounds would be taken from them. In their eyes the Anglo-American conqueror personified the land-grabber. They could hardly have seen him otherwise, in view of their experience of the intrusive and devastating thrust of white settlement in North America spreading rapidly towards the west.

When Pontiac’s uprising broke out, the Southern Department was at the point of formulating the imperial programme that would take shape in the Royal Proclamation. The Board of Trade, then under the presidency of the young Lord Shelburne, had already sketched out the main lines in its report of 8 June 1763. At this stage the particular case of Canada and its conquered people was still attracting attention. Likely having been impressed by the reports from Murray, Burton, and Gage, Shelburne had taken into account their population forecasts, which showed that in all probability Canadians would remain preponderant “for a very long time.” Consequently he hesitated about the form of government to be set up, being unprepared to recommend the creation of a house of assembly, which, however, the royal edict of October 1763 was to proclaim with the aim of encouraging British settlement. Though he did not overlook the fate of future Protestant settlers, Shelburne did not give them preferential attention. Not only did he appear to want to honour the commitments already made to the “new French Subjects,” but he also seemed concerned about the rights that might eventually be granted them. Such noble preoccupations could not, however, withstand the onrush of events, which brought about his resignation as well.

The news of the uprising of the western Indians reached London shortly before the secretary of state for the Southern Department, Lord Egremont, died in August 1763. To succeed him the king called upon Lord Halifax, who as president of the Board of Trade from 1748 to 1761 had acquired extended experience in the affairs of the North American colonies. Halifax hastened to put the final touches to the drafting of the Royal Proclamation. Taking advantage of the deteriorating situation in the American midwest, and with the full support of the new president of the Board of Trade, Lord Hillsborough, he implemented a strategy of imperial control that he had long since entered upon. This was a serious political error, for although the urgency of pacifying the Indians demanded an official declaration from the crown, there was no need to put through on the same occasion an imperial programme for the whole of British North America. To want all at once to create Indian reserves for the interior of the continent, regulate the expansion of white settlement, and set up new provincial governments was too ambitious not to be risky.

Anxious, under the pressure of events, to take quick action, Lord Halifax did not trouble himself with Shelburne’s observations on the Canadian sense of identity, observations that suggested taking into account the problems created by the various socio-ethnic and cultural components in the population of Quebec and East and West Florida. For this minister, who had earlier had to deal with the fate of the Acadians, such considerations did not weigh heavily. He decided quite simply to treat Canada like the two Floridas and to retain from the Board of Trade report of June 1763 only what fitted in with the strategy of imperial control that he had been evolving since the founding in 1749 of Halifax, named in his honour. He did not deviate from the policy of “settlement for Trade and Defence” that he had adopted at that time. Just as he had favoured British colonization of Nova Scotia, so he wanted to encourage the early establishment of Protestant settlers in the St Lawrence valley by means of various enticements, including land grants to the officers and soldiers demobilized after serving in North America, the promise of constitutional rights and privileges, and the protection of British law. In order to direct and channel the wave of settlement that it was hoped would surge into Quebec from the southern colonies, the expansion of their population towards the west had to be checked. The containing line, which was set at the watershed of the Appalachian mountains, was supposed to serve two ends: to retain the white colonists along the Atlantic coast (the better to observe and control their activities) and to maintain peace and security in the interior of the continent.

The means envisaged to attain the second objective stemmed directly from the initiatives taken and the experience acquired during the Seven Years’ War. The conflict of colonization that had set the Anglo-American expansionist forces against the Franco-Canadian military presence had broken out in the heart of the Ohio valley. Faced on one hand with the ascendancy of French influence over the Indian tribes and on the other with the inability of the British colonies to organize their own system of defence, London had had to intervene to assure the imperial defence of this vast region. In 1755 the decision had therefore been taken to put Indian affairs under the control and protection of British government and to this end to create two posts of superintendents answerable to the commander-in-chief, one for the tribes south of the Ohio, the other, entrusted to Sir William Johnson, for the Iroquois nations and their allies in the northern district. Observations and recommendations by the two superintendents were to be of great service in drawing up the programme of 1763.

Despite the conquest of Canada and the military occupation of the western posts, the situation in the west had remained unstable because of the serious deterioration of relations between the Anglo-American settlers and the Indians. Having been launched on the war path by imperial rivalries, the Indians continued to be subjected to increasingly strong pressure from traders eager to deceive them and from speculators greedy for lands, who were acting in collusion with the provincial governments. This invasion and cornering of land prompted the Southern Department, two years before the edict of October 1763, to point out to the various governors of the royal colonies the crown’s desire to prevent land grants and settlement in Indian territories without permission from London. The Royal Proclamation not only prohibited this land-grabbing by formal decree, but set a limit to white settlement by the creation of Indian reserves. Lord Halifax went even further, attempting to subject trading relations with the Indians to strict control by London.

Although the fur trade was declared “free and open” to all British subjects, an official licence had to be obtained from either the commander-in-chief or a colonial governor. The regulations instituted were supposed to limit trade to the garrisoned posts and make traders pass inspections aimed at preventing fraudulent transactions. The management of Indian affairs was to come under the authority of the Indian department, which had undergone an administrative reorganization in the two districts already in existence south and north of the Ohio. But the fine plan for organization put forward by the Board of Trade in July 1764 was destined, after a few years’ trial, to suffer the repercussions of the general failure of Lord Halifax’s ambitious programme of imperial control.

Realizing the programme involved enormous operating expenses, largely for the maintenance and upkeep of a military presence over a vast area. In the period right after the signing of the treaty of Paris the British government had decided to bring the forces necessary for the defence of the new colonial empire in North America up to about 7,500 men (regrouped in some 15 battalions). Close to half of these troops were spread out from Halifax to Detroit; four battalions were kept in the Floridas, and four in the frontier outposts of New York and Pennsylvania, including Fort Niagara (near Youngstown) and Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh). Except for a few hundred soldiers (a good many of whom were in New York where the commander-in-chief had his headquarters), no regiment was stationed in the urban centres on the Atlantic coast. Parliament had voted the sums required – estimated at more than £250,000 annually (but which would amount to much more) – on condition that the Thirteen Colonies be required to pay taxes, as the Grenville ministry was going to try to ensure with the Revenue Act in 1764 (commonly called the Sugar Act) and the Stamp Act in 1765.

The presence of the army, considered essential to establishing the planned system of imperial control, was maintained at the various western posts even after Pontiac’s uprising had been suppressed. To the central government the army appeared to be an indispensable strategic support in the management of political and trade relations with the Indians. Ultimately, the success or failure, the pursuit or abandonment, of this important part of the Royal Proclamation would depend upon the military forces. And its renunciation was in fact largely dictated by the necessity, given the turn of events in the Thirteen Colonies, of withdrawing a large number of the garrisons posted in the interior to bring them closer to the centres of ferment on the Atlantic coast.

The problem created by the dispersal of troops on a continental scale began to be felt acutely during the first serious colonial crisis, precipitated by the Stamp Act. The violent reaction to this fiscal legislation and the resistance movement organized against it prompted certain governors to call upon the services of the commander-in-chief, General Gage, who then drew to the attention of the home authorities his inability to regroup his forces swiftly in an emergency. Obliged to reduce military expenses as a result of the colonies’ refusal to contribute to them, the secretary at war, Lord Barrington, reconsidered the existing system of defence and proposed as an alternative in the new circumstances that some of the western posts be evacuated and the forces concentrated at Quebec and Halifax in the north, and St Augustine in East Florida. Unlike Gage, he preferred to keep the troops off the scene in areas of trouble in order to prevent them from being needlessly provoked. But it took a new colonial crisis resulting from the Townshend acts for Lord Barrington’s plan to materialize.

In January 1768, under the pressure of the incipient revolutionary movement, the British ministry created a third office of secretary of state, exclusively devoted to the affairs of the American colonies. Its first incumbent, Lord Hillsborough, who favoured a policy of firmness and wanted to discipline the rebellious colonies, ordered Gage to keep garrisons only in the main forts – in particular at Detroit, Niagara, and Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City, Mich.) – so as to concentrate the troops at strategic points such as New York and Philadelphia. This decision dealt the final blow to imperial control of trade with the Indians, as the various colonial governors were advised in the spring of 1768. Experience, the minister explained, had shown that “the value of the object” did not justify such great expense and that “for want of a due Authority in the Superintendents” of Indian affairs, the policy was too difficult to apply.

The effect of this first revision of the Royal Proclamation was to leave control of the fur trade entirely to the colonial governments. The provinces most directly concerned were Quebec, New York, and Pennsylvania. The British and Canadian merchants in Quebec were greatly relieved by London’s decision, which lifted the constraints that had been imposed on them. They had unceasingly demanded the freedom of trade that had been practised during the French period, and particularly the possibility of wintering among the Indians. Their confinement to designated posts, they argued, not only hamstrung their individual trading operations but substantially harmed the economic development of the province; indeed, the fact that they were prevented from supplying merchandise to the Indians at their hunting grounds encouraged strong and dangerous competition from the French and Spanish using the Mississippi River as a route. Not only the trade network but the whole system of relations with the Indians risked being irretrievably compromised, to the great detriment of both colony and mother country.

Governor Guy Carleton* himself endorsed and defended this position – and was thus able to establish better relations with the English speaking bourgeoisie in Quebec than his predecessor Murray had had. But in Carleton’s view it was above all important to win the affection of the Indians “by wise regulations, honest dealing, and by kind treatment to attach them to us,” in order to divert them from the enticements of the French and Spanish in New Orleans, “who must always be our Rivals in Trade.” To Sir William Johnson, who continually suspected the Canadians of complicity in this competition, Carleton replied that there was no point in accusing a particular group when, in the face of the common enemy, “all the King’s Subjects should be considered as Brothers, or one Family,” and should not let themselves be dragged into rivalries between provinces.

This reply went to the heart of the problem, which was to recur with renewed force once the programme of imperial control for the west had been abandoned. How indeed could one reconcile the competing interests of colonial bourgeoisies vying to exploit the same resource – furs – in a territory that had been given over to the rapacity of virtually insatiable greed? To centre attention too much on the century-old competition between the Dutch traders in Albany and the Montreal merchants entailed the risk of forgetting the many other rivalries distributed geographically from the Atlantic coast to the frontiers of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, where the drive for land was as unbridled as the race for pelts. The region south of the Ohio especially excited the voracity of speculators, and they succeeded in having the frontier established in 1763 pushed back to the boundaries of the present state of West Virginia. Johnson initiated this scramble for spoils in Indian territory by the treaty he negotiated with the Iroquois in the autumn of 1768 at Fort Stanwix (Rome, N.Y.); the superintendent of southern Indians, John Stuart, followed suit with the Cherokees. A fine free-for-all ensued between Pennsylvanians and Virginians who fought so fiercely over this land taken from the Indian reserves through bribery that Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, created a casus belli in 1773 by taking over Fort Pitt, from which the British garrison had withdrawn the year before. The situation reached such a critical point that early in 1774 the authorities in London decided to save the region north of the Ohio by annexing it to the province of Quebec.

But what were the grounds for this annexation? Although the Indian reserves north of the Ohio had not yet fallen prey to white settlers, they had not escaped the rapacity of the traffickers in furs. Since the greediest of these traders had caused the programme of imperial control to fail, it seemed vain to think that they would quietly submit to any system of regulations coming from the colonial governments interested in exploiting this vast domain. Fully aware of the prospect of anarchy and worried by it, the Montreal fur-traders alerted Governor Carleton’s administration, which entrusted the study of this important question to a committee of council. Its report of April 1769 dealt at length not only with the seriousness of the situation but also with the impossibility of remedying it unless the civil jurisdiction of the government of Quebec were extended to the region, as London five years later agreed to do. This was the only valid solution to the impasse for two reasons. On the one hand, the committee members admitted: “We are at a loss to conceive how any Province can form a system … to give it its binding effect upon persons casually residing for the purpose of trade in a country not liable to receive a Law from them, or enforce obedience to it.” On the other hand, they pointed out: “We do not comprehend how one General solid well formed system for the Regulation of the Trade, which must arise from an union of the different Provinces so at variance with one another, in either manners, constitution, forms and modes of government and so unconnected upon any one general principle, can possibly be established.”

The committee was right in thinking that without the establishment of a general system for the regulation of trade agreed upon by the three provinces concerned (Quebec, New York, and Pennsylvania), the fur trade would fall into “confusion … and Licentiousness and terminate perhaps in consequences fatal to the Dominion of Great Britain over those Countries.” The few initiatives that were taken in 1770 and 1771 brought no positive results. The project for an intercolonial congress advanced by the province of New York failed lamentably for want of response from the colonies to which it was directed, and particularly from Quebec. According to the lieutenant governor, Hector Theophilus Cramahé, who was responsible for administration in Carleton’s absence, “The interests of the two Provinces [New York and Quebec] in regard to the Indian Trade differ too widely to expect they will ever perfectly agree upon general Regulations for carrying it on.” No agreement was in fact possible when the fur trade was the object of so much competition and rivalry. In reality, a great deal more protection for the economic interests of Quebec could be expected from London than from New York, and it was in just that direction that the political efforts of the province’s administrators were focused.

The task of dealing the final blow to the Royal Proclamation fell to Lord Dartmouth, Hillsborough’s successor as secretary of state for the American Colonies. Appointed in August 1772, after he had gained some experience in colonial affairs as president of the Board of Trade, he spent more than a year making inquiries before concluding that nothing further could be hoped for from Lord Halifax’s programme for the west. This he admitted to Cramahé in December 1773, giving him to understand that the ministry was on the verge of a fundamental revision of policy concerning Quebec and that various considerations argued for an extension of the province’s “narrow Limits.” Given that this acknowledgement came only a few months before the drafting of the 1774 legislation, it is easy to suppose that despite his deliberate discretion Dartmouth was contemplating restoring the former boundaries of Canada so as to extend the civil jurisdiction of the government of Quebec to the Ohio, where the situation had become “more critical than ever,” according to Johnson’s latest reports. The state of affairs there was probably what Lord Egremont had feared ten years earlier when he recommended that civil jurisdiction over the whole continental midwest be included in the governor of Quebec’s commission specifically to avoid allowing this vast region to become a refuge for outlaws. Lord Halifax had attached little importance to the danger, which nevertheless was real, worrying instead that the former French colony might acquire too much influence over the Indians and become too dominant in the fur trade, to the detriment of the other colonies. After ten years of uncontrolled and uncontrollable pillage in the Indian reserves, it was time to overcome old fears and face reality.

Cramahé endeavoured to explain this reality to Dartmouth, insisting on Quebec’s unfavourable situation in relation to the Thirteen Colonies, which drew great profit from their trade with the West Indies. The fur trade constituted the only important economic activity of which Quebec could take advantage, since for six months of the year it was cut off from sea communication with the rest of the empire. Leaving it to share the trade in pelts with New York by maintaining the 1763 boundaries meant not only giving too many advantages to “New Yorkers [who] have already obtained a very considerable Share,” but also running the risk that they might take it over completely, thanks to “their Superior Wealth.” The geographical situation of Quebec dictated as a natural solution that it be united with the interior of the continent in order that the various groups of people living there be brought under the same government and be bound by the same laws.

The inquiry Lord Dartmouth conducted with the governors of New York and Pennsylvania revealed to him how little importance they attached to the fur trade in comparison with other economic activities. In contrast to Quebec, where until the end of the 18th century furs remained the principal source of wealth (varying from three-fifths to three-quarters of the total value of the province’s exports), the contribution of pelts to the economy of New York declined steadily in the period 1760–75, from about fifteen per cent to less than three per cent of the total exports to England alone. Among the export commodities of the North American colonies (including Canada) in 1770, furs and deerskins ranked sixth in value; they represented only £150,000 out of a total of £3,500,000, less than five per cent. Clearly, in handing control of the western fur trade over to Quebec London was not running the risk of upsetting the balance of economic forces in North America.

Reconstituting New France’s former trading empire naturally met the wishes of all those, both British and Canadian, who were linked with the commerce in pelts. In the autumn of 1773 François Baby*, a Quebec merchant, even went to London to plead this cause with Dartmouth on behalf of his compatriots, the leading bourgeois and seigneurs of Montreal, who had prepared an address and a memoir for the king. “We desire,” they said, “that as under the French government our colony was permitted to extend over all the upper countries known under the names of Michilimackinac, Detroit, and other adjacent places, as far as the river Mississippi, so it may now be enlarged to the same extent.” Such a request meant, geographically, the integration into Quebec not only of the Great Lakes basin but also of the Illinois country, which extended southwest to the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi and under the French régime had been part of Upper Louisiana. The main settlements in it were Vincennes (Ind.) on the Wabash River, and Kaskaskia (Ill.) and Cahokia (Ill.) on the east bank of the Mississippi; these French outposts had been the last to come under British control with the military occupation of Fort de Chartres (near Prairie du Rocher, Ill.) in October 1765, five years after the capitulation of Montreal.

The Illinois country caused the secretary of state much concern. It proved virtually uncontrollable from the point of view of trade because of its proximity to Western Louisiana (formed after 1763), where French and Spanish took maximum advantage of their favourable situation to draw furs off to New Orleans. Competition was impossible to sustain because of the difficulties and cost of supplying trade goods from the main distribution centre, Fort Pitt, which was situated more than 600 miles from Fort de Chartres. Maintaining these two posts entailed such expense (consuming more than half the budget of the department of northern Indians), that the commander-in-chief, Gage, to his great relief, finally received permission to evacuate them. In September 1772 Fort de Chartres was razed and Fort Pitt abandoned. But the minister’s decision did not settle the fate of the hundreds of Canadian settlers already ensconced on the rich agricultural lands of the upper Mississippi. General Gage had threatened to oblige the inhabitants of Vincennes, isolated in the midst of the Indian reserves, to move, and the Canadians took advantage of this threat to demand a civil government, founded on British principles, for the Illinois country. Lord Dartmouth gave so much attention to this problem that London finally decided to put the whole region under Quebec’s jurisdiction through the 1774 legislation.

Although the various considerations outlined above strongly suggested restoring Canada’s former boundaries in order to solve the numerous problems created by the acquisition of the vast domain that had belonged to France, it appears equally indisputable that the British ministry took advantage of the critical state of relations between the mother country and her Thirteen Colonies (more obvious than ever since the Boston Tea Party) to make a final decision on the subject in the spring of 1774. The old historiographical debate about the influence of the American revolution on that decision will not be resumed here, but it is impossible to disregard the moment chosen to submit the Quebec Bill to the imperial parliament. It was certainly not a matter of coincidence. Between two extreme interpretations, one identifying the Quebec Act with the series of so-called coercive acts which the British government successively passed in less than three months for the specific purpose of subduing the rebellious province of Massachusetts, and the other entirely separating the Quebec Act from the others, there is room for a more discriminating assessment.



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