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Book Review

 

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. 1
     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. 2
      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. 

3
     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, and chance. 4
     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

 
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