The story of the northern reaches of America encompasses vast sweeps of time and space. From Tudor days French and British vied for Canada’s fish fur and forests. Then in 1670, the foundation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, made possible an English speaking world spanning all North America. But dividing Hudson’s Bay from the 13 colonies lay a rival empire - New France. For nearly 100 years war flickered across these huge expanses, pale reflections of European conflicts. Then in 1759, Wolfe’s victory in death at Quebec destroyed the French dream and breathed life into British Canada, a lusty infant, but one which faced 100 years of painful growth
The Frenchman lifted a chunk of American soil on his sword, cleared his throat, and began his long, tortuous and sweeping announcement to the little group near him. He claimed for Louis XIV not only the land on which he stood at the juncture of the Great Lakes but ‘all other countries, lakes rivers and tributaries contiguous and adjacent there to, as well discovered, and to be discovered, which are bounded on the one side by the North and west Seas, and on the other by the South Sea, including all its length and breadth’.
The audience of French soldiers, Jesuits and Indians gathered there at Sault-Saint-Marie that day in June 1761, listened respectfully as the Sieur de Lusson repeated the speech three times, it was after all a mouthful to recite it would also be - thanks to the British who already occupied much of the territory he claimed, a mouthful for the French Empire to try and swallow. An English voyager - John Cabot had been the first to reach the ‘New Found Land’ in 1497, but the French were not shy in exploiting what he discovered offshore, one of the world’s most bounteous fisheries. The French were able, using salt to preserve their catches, whilst the English, not so well prepared had to land to dry their catch. This nudged the British into a historically important step however. They established a base - the first of any European nation - on the coast of what is now Canada.
Still it was France which most persistently probed the wonders of the new continent. In 1535 Jaques Cartier drawn by Iroquois tales of gold, jewels and fur sailed up the St. Lawrence River to a place the Indians called Kebec. He stayed only one winter and found neither gold nor jewels.
Demand for furs grew, for Paris fashion as influential then as now, dictated that stylish gentlemen should wear high crowned hats made of beaver skin. In 1608 a Frenchman named Samuel de Champlain led a company of fur traders back to Cartiers Quebec and built a settlement. He brought in missionaries and craftsmen, made alliances with the Indians and through long years of arduous struggle managed to put both his colony and its trade on a permanent basis. However in 1666 there were only 3418 people in all New France, British America had on the other hand passed the 50,000 mark 25 years earlier.
Canada was not primarily a country of settlers but of fur traders and adventurers. In 1668, two disillusioned French fur traders, fined by the French for their activities, travelled to England to interest the British in the fur trade and led a party of Englishmen to the far north shores of Canada where they soon amassed a shipment of furs worth £90,000. Delighted, Charles II granted a Royal Charter to the Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay and almost casually assigned the Company control of the area watered by the rivers entering into the Bay, a domain that turned out to be 1.5 million square miles, 10 times the size of Britain.
The Hudson’s Bay Company had little interest in governing this vast territory but exploited the trading franchise with vigour and speed, qualities necessitated by the short period the bay was navigable each year. Squeezed from both north and south by the British, New France looked westwards. New territories that could be gained and exploited by French explorers, missionaries solders and traders, to the north-west and south-west might enable France to meet the British commercial challenge peacefully. By its acquisitive and exploratory policy New France was totally committing itself to the economically fickle fur trade.
For London politicians and money men the company founded in 1670 was as good as a gold mine. Those who took shares, The Duke of York, Prince Rupert, half the cabinet, were soon receiving a highly satisfactory 50% annual dividend on their investment. But for the companies early traders, life was grim, especially in winter. Rude cabins gave scant protection. It was cold enough, one trader noted, for a two gallon bottle of water to freeze solid - placed by the stove!. In summer the traders were perpetually tormented by swarms of mosquitos and loneliness was a huge problem. Gradually however over two centuries, stone forts replaced wooden stockades and the companies outposts became permanent settlements in this wild but promising young country. One truth was becoming more and more apparent, even so vast a continent as North America, was not going to be big enough for both empires. The British would completely ruin New France, which they had already hemmed in by their establishments in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New England and Hudson's Bay.
The issues would take four wars, all of them on the spot versions of European conflicts - and more than 70 years to settle. The fighting began in 1689 with King William’s War which ended encouragingly for the French. The Treaty of Ryswick gave the Canadians most of the British posts in the Hudson's Bay and the French held Acadia, their province on the Atlantic seaboard later named Nova Scotia. With the next war that of the Spanish Succession, the tide began running the other way. New France only narrowly avoided total defeat in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The Hudson's Bay Company regained its forts and the French were compelled to cede the provinces of Newfoundland and Acadia to Britain. Thereafter North America enjoyed a generation of peace, during which New France readied herself for the inevitable resumption of conflict.
After many small skirmishes over a period of time, Britain finally declared war on France in May 1756, the start in Europe of the Seven Years War, which in America was known as the French and Indian War. The three previous Anglo-French wars had been decided ultimately on the battlefields of Europe. Prime Minister Pitt determined to go directly for the prizes themselves - the French colonies and the sea routes leading to them. The future of New France would be settled in North America and not this time by colonial armies and volunteer militia.
It was because of one man - The Marquis of Montcalm, that French arms continued to prevail in America for a year after Pitt took office. Montcalm’s greatest problem was the British Royal Navy, twice as large as France’s it was rapidly gaining control of the Atlantic. This meant that Montcalm’s command, a few thousand regulars, and about 9,000 Canadian militia, very small in comparison to British manpower in America could not expect a steady flow of reinforcements. There were three invasion routes the British could take to pierce the Canadian heartland, one was the St Lawrence itself, another was up Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, the third from the West, through the Ohio River and the lower lakes.
In the event Montcalm marched his forces out to push his enemies back. He struck first and hard in the west. Finally however, Pitt’s policies took hold and robbed Montcalm of his initiative using some outstanding British officers. Probably the most important of these was James Wolfe, a temperamental and chronically ill bold and devoted soldier. It was Wolfe who directed the attack on Louisburg using artillery until on July 26th 1758, Louisburg fell and the St. Lawrence was unlocked.
“Never was a rout more complete” said a dejected Frenchman after Wolfe’s precisely ordered ranks swept the French from the plain behind the fortress city of Quebec in 1759. But the battle which ended so quickly and decisively came after a summer - long siege, during which victory eluded Britain’s boldest warrior until he his last and most desperate gamble.
Arriving in June 1759, Wolfe vowed “I will have Quebec, if it took till the end of November”. But he knew he had less time than that. The fleet had to leave before the freeze, perhaps October. Yet nothing could lure the French from their formidable defences along the north shore, neither the merciless bombardment of Quebec from Point Levis nor harassment of their flank from Wolfe’s camp. When frontal assault failed at the end of July, the British burned villages but Montcalm would not risk Quebec and Canada by coming out to save them.
Time and topography were on his side. Even when British ships had slipped under French guns to prowl the upper river, Montcalm was sure that the steep cliffs there would prevent the possibility of a successful assault. When Wolfe broke camp in early September and embarked part of his army in the ships above Quebec, the Governor of Quebec crowed jubilantly that it meant “the speedy departure of the fleet”. Montcalm was not convinced and he sent 3000 men under Louis Bougainville to follow the bustling naval probes from the shore. He believed that if the English landed it would be at Cap Rouge nine miles up river west of Quebec. Nearer the city it was believed the heights were inaccessible “We need not suppose” he said “that the enemy have wings”.
On the night of September 12th, when the English ships drifted down river, Bougainville did not pursue. After days of watching his men were exhausted and he was sure the fleet would return as usual on the incoming tide. Meanwhile, below Quebec, Admiral Saunders’ ships stood in close to shore, signalled madly, fired cannon whilst boats were lowered. Montcalm made ready to repel an invasion, it was a feint, the troops were sailors and it had worked. While French troops massed there, Wolfe’s soldiers in other boats moved stealthily down the dark river to the place now called Wolfe’s Cove. Two dozen volunteers clambered up a narrow path and overwhelmed a sleeping French camp. The next morning Montcalm found Wolfe’s 4800 troops on the Plains of Abraham. In an hour it was over, though the fortress city held out for five days. Both opposing generals were mortally wounded. Told he was dying, Montcalm said “I am happy I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec”. As Wolfe lay dying a messenger shouted “see how they run”. Rousing himself Wolfe demanded “Who run?”. “The enemy, Sir” was the answer “They gave way everywhere”. From that moment until he died James Wolfe did not stop smiling.
But furs there were aplenty and that was enough to arouse commercial interest. Although Cartier founded no colony, there was from the time of his expedition some 70 years before Englishmen successfully settled in Virginia - a continuing French presence in Canada.