Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: The French in the
Americas, 1670-1730 (University Press,
Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2004). 512 pp, $80.00.
In James Pritchard's Search for Empire,
the author presents the first full account of how French settlers came to
America and how they worked during these most formative years to settle the
French territories of the New World. Dr. Pritchard, a professor Emeritus in
the History Department of Queens University, presents a scholarly approach
to this topic providing evidence of extensive research and a substantial bibliography.
The author seeks to explore the nature of the French colonies
in the Americas and why, despite the vastness of their territory, the French
Empire in the New World remained "elusiv." He concludes that the French government,
both its monarchs as well as its ministers, failed to grasp the significance
of the colonial experience and through their attempts at regulation and control,
essentially failed their colonies. The book lays out an extremely detailed
explanation of this thesis.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first explores
the nature of the French colonies. It describes the population, the settlements
and societies, the various areas of production, the patterns of trade and
exchange and the impact of government and politics, both French and colonial.
The French government was most concerned with territorial
acquisition, but on the matter of settlement it was ambiguous. The crown sought
the increase of prestige, trade, and subsequent contribution to the enrichment
of the nation that colonies brought, but it did little to promote investment
in the necessary infrastructure such as shipping. Nor did it encourage people
to leave France and settle in the Americas. Consequently, French institutions
had little impact on the formation of the emerging colonies. Rather, the character
of these societies was shaped by the interplay of the environment, economics,
| The French colonies discussed varied widely in geography
and economic activity. The French West Indies, for example, depended on sugar
production and the associated slave trade, and had to deal with tropical diseases
and hurricanes. On the other hand, the Canadian colonies of Acadia, Terre-Neuve,
and New France were involved in fur and fishing for their livelihood and had
to endure harsh winters. And far from both of these was the port of Louisiana,
with its own geography and economic activity. The diversity of these lands
and the great distances between them contributed to a lack of unity in the
"French Empire," which the French government did little to rectify. Instead,
they produced strict regulations and legislation that, in fact, hindered production
and economic growth by keeping the diverse colonial industries local rather
than allowing them to expand and become competitive with those of the English
and the Dutch.
| The second part of the book discusses the major wars that
revolved around colonial possessions in the New World, namely the Franco-Dutch
War (1672-1678), the Nine Years' War in America (1688-1697) and the War of
Spanish Succession in America (1702-1713). The author uses these conflicts
to further emphasize his premise that the French government was inept at governing
its overseas lands. The French, concerned with their place on the continent
and with European conflicts such as those with the Hapsburgs, allowed their
colonies to be sacrificed to preserve the unity of the French state. They
insisted that the colonies should defend as well as pay for themselves. This
position was taken to dismiss the embarrassing decline of the French navy
and the deteriorating finances of the mother country. The colonies, sparsely
populated and restricted in their economic activity, fell victim to the other
European powers. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ceded much French territory
to England and required that the French relinquish the "Asiento." The author
sees this as a shedding of liabilities. He concludes that the French Empire
had never been firmly established but remained "elusive."
| While this is not a book that I would assign to the average
AP World history student, it has value to the instructor for a number of reasons.
It is a well written, well researched, and logically presented work that provides
a good model for historical writing. It also presents itself as a valuable
resource for those researching this time period in the New World. It has a
place in the World History of today as it deals with a number of the themes
that we work with such as demography and the movement of peoples, the colonies
of the New World, the impact of actions in Europe that influenced the Americas,
and economic and labor systems. It also provides maps, graphs, tables, and
illustrations that would make for interesting discussion in the classroom.
And finally, from a personal note, teaching within a few hours drive from
the Canadian border, I often get questions from my students such as – When
are we going to learn about Canada? Or – Did anything ever happen in Canada?
Sadly, our texts rarely ever treat this topic with much information. Perhaps
a reading of this interesting book will add a few of those details to our
teaching. It certainly has a place in our libraries.
Mary G. Saracino
Brewster High School