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New France and the Revitalization of French Maritime Commerce and Navigation in the 17th century

Helen Dewar
Université de Montréal
Watson Hall 517

Workshop participants should read and be prepared to discuss the paper. To obtain a copy, please email by March 31. 

This paper explores New France’s role vis-à-vis France and other French American colonies by revisiting two key dates in the colony’s history: 1627 and 1663. 1627 – the year of the establishment of the Company of New France or One Hundred Associates – and 1663 – the year the colony came under royal authority – have traditionally been seen as turning points, ruptures with the previous period, and moments of “progress” in colonization.  By adopting an Atlantic perspective, this paper demonstrates that these developments took place in the context of broader reflection, reconfiguration, information-gathering, and experimentation around governance, commerce, and navigation in France. Circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic at the opening of the 1660s were remarkably similar to those forty years earlier: France’s European rivals were strengthening their naval forces and maritime commerce; France once again had an adult king on the throne after an unstable regency; and various colonies were facing challenges of governance. In each period, New France played a particular role in the reconfiguration. The first part of the paper explores the foundation of the Company of New France in the context of efforts to revitalize French commerce and navigation as well as experimentations with the company form. The second, more speculative part, examines the tour that Alexandre de Prouville de Tracy, lieutenant-general of the Americas, made of France’s American colonies from 1664 to 1667 and the creation of the Company of the West Indies.  Studying these periods alongside each other and in Atlantic perspective challenges conventional interpretations of these seminal moments.

Helen Dewar is Associate Professor of History at the Université de Montréal. Her research focusses on the connections between state formation in France and empire formation overseas in the seventeenth century, the development of chartered companies, and the legal history of empire. Her book, Disputing New France: Companies, Law, and Sovereignty in the French Atlantic, 1598-1663 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022), uses civil suits between competing French titleholders in New France to highlight the ways in which empire formation in New France and state formation in France were mutually constitutive.

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