Conquest of New France (1758-1760)

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The Conquest of New France (French La Conquête) was the British military conquest of New France during the Seven Years' War. The conquest was undertaken by the British as a campaign in 1758, with the acquisition of Canada made official in the Treaty of Paris that concluded the Seven Years' War.

The term is usually used when discussing the impact of the British conquest on the 70,000 French inhabitants, as well as the First Nations. At issue in popular and scholarly debate ever since is the treatment Britain provided the French population, and the long-term historical impact for good or ill.


Although the military of New France saw early success during the Seven Years' War, a series of campaigns between 1758 and 1760 saw the British capture most of the French colony of Canada.

The Conquest represents the final episode of a long series of conflicts between Britain and France over their North American colonies. In the decades preceding the Seven Years' War and the Conquest of New France, both Britain and France's interest toward their North American colonies rapidly grew and the region became an important source of tensions between the two powers. British North America became a very lucrative export market during the first half of the 18th century and gained in importance in the eyes of British policymakers. The growing economic value of the North American colonies convinced many influential members of the British public that those colonies should be expanded and that France's territorial claims on the continent should not be allowed to stand in the way.[1]:2–5 Furthermore, the nature of the British Empire fundamentally changed in the years following the War of the Austrian Succession; moving from a maritime and commercial empire to a more centralized and controlled empire. This change encouraged the British government to increase its commitments toward its North American colonies and their backcountry (ex: the Ohio Valley).[2]:24

In opposition to the British, France did not justify the defence of its colonies through economic interests. On the contrary, many French policymakers believed that the colony was an economic drain for France and argued that its value was mostly strategic. France's leaders felt it would be difficult to compete with Royal Navy and were afraid that Great Britain's maritime superiority could threaten its profitable colonies in the West Indies as well as its standing in Europe.

Opposing forces[edit]

From a numerical point of view, New France had always been at disadvantage when compared to the more populous British colonies. When the hostilities began, New France could only claim a population of approximately 80,000 white inhabitants, 55,000 of whom lived in Canada. In opposition, the British colonies could count on a population of 1,160,000 white inhabitants and 300,000 black slaves.[3] Yet the number of regular troops available at the beginning of the conflict didn't reflect this demographic inequality. In 1755, New France was defended by 3,500 professional soldiers, while the English colonies relied on two Irish regiments — between 1,500 and 2,000 career soldiers — who were supported by two other regiments of New England conscripts. Thus, the balance of power on land was initially more or less equal. On the seas, the situation was much more one-sided in favor of the British Navy. In 1755, Britain had 90 warships against France's 50, a disparity that would only widen with time. This maritime domination gave Britain a clear advantage in term of its ability to send reinforcements and supply to its North American colonies.[4]

The Conquest[edit]

Depiction of the burning of the French ship Prudent, and the capture of Bienfaisant during the Siege of Louisbourg.

What would later be dubbed "The Conquest" began in 1758, when, under the direction of statesman William Pitt, the British made a conscious effort to bolster their military efforts in the North American theatre.[5]:171 That they would actually succeed in conquering the entire French colony of Canada was, at the time, entirely uncertain.

Siege of Louisbourg[edit]

In July, a British expedition led by Major-General James Wolfe successfully captured the Port of Louisbourg in the French colony of Île Royale. The siege of Louisbourg would represent the first major battle (and the first major British victory) of The Conquest. From Louisbourg, Wolfe led his troops up the Saint Lawrence River and headed towards Quebec. Upon arrival, the army set up base five kilometres from Quebec City at the Île d'Orléans (whose French inhabitants had evacuated when the news of Louisbourg surfaced).[6]:65 After the British base was firmly established, Wolfe ordered his artillerymen to begin bombarding Quebec City. Though the constant bombardment took its toll on civilian morale, it did not represent a real military threat for the French.[6]:80

From the beginning, Wolfe understood that British success hinged on being able draw the French army out of their fortifications and into in a decisive battle. The French army's principal commander, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, was, however, always hesitant to commit his troops to a single attack or position. Believing that the British campaign would eventually run out of supplies (or would be crushed by Canada's harsh winter), Montcalm's strategy focused primarily on defence.[7]:167–8 As a result, French retaliations were often sporadic, and were sometimes carried out solely by untrained civilian volunteers.[6]:79 By August 1759, both sides (especially the British) were weakened from a year of intermittent battles, and Wolfe had still not made significant headway. Aware that the British campaign was on its last legs, he mustered his remaining troops and resources for one last campaign.[8]:267 Wolfe would land his troops on the north-shore of Quebec City, and force the French into a fight by marching directly toward the city's core.

Quebec campaign 1759-60[edit]

On 13 September, Wolfe's plan seemed to work: with uncharacteristic haste, Montcalm ordered the bulk of his men to stop the British in their tracks, fearing that, "If we give them the time to dig in, we'll never be able to attack them with the troops we have."[8]:279 The two armies would clash a kilometre away from Quebec City just north of the Plains of Abraham. In the ensuing battle, Major-General Wolfe was fatally wounded. Nonetheless, the British were able to break the French lines relatively quickly and pursue the French fighters as they fled back to Quebec. During the pursuit, General Montcalm was struck and fatally injured – he would die shortly later in his house on rue Saint-Louis.[8]:288

The impact of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, especially the deaths of Montcalm and Wolfe, has sometimes been exaggerated.[6]:8 Though a major victory, the epic battle did not, at the time, guarantee success for the British campaign. Likewise, though Montcalm's death was a huge blow to French morale, it was not the essential element of defeat. The Conquest, simply put, was more than the efforts of two men culminating in one battle. As Matthew Ward argues, the success of the British Conquest in fact hinged more on the safe arrival of the British relief fleet in May 1760.[6]:8 After the Plains of Abraham, the French had regrouped in Montreal under the command of François Gaston de Lévis, leaving the under-supplied British to endure a harsh Canadian winter in a city they had already destroyed. Following the battle, on 18 September 1759, the Articles of Capitulation of Quebec was signed between British and French authorities.

In April 1760, in a final effort to reclaim Quebec City, the French army (now based in Montreal) launched an assault against the British at Sainte-Foy, just outside the walls of Quebec City. The battle, in sheer casualties, represented a French victory. Ultimately, however, the French were unable to retake Quebec City and forced to retreat to Montreal, where they would soon surrender.[9]

Surrender of Montreal – 1760[edit]

The capitulation of Montreal in September 1760 to British forces under Jeffrey Amherst

After the failed siege of Quebec, the British commanders were eager to bring the Conquest to a close. In July British forces numbering around 18,000 men under the overall direction of Jeffery Amherst, advanced on Montreal from three separate directions. One under Amherst from Lake Ontario, the other under James Murray from Québec and the third under William Haviland from Fort Crown Point.

The three 'prongs' which lasted nearly two months completely eliminated all French forts and positions. In addition many Canadians deserted or surrendered their arms to British forces while the native allies of the French sought peace and neutrality. By September 6 all three forces had joined up and surrounded Montreal. Lévis tried to negotiate a surrender with 'Honours of War' but Amherst refused to accept this.[10] Lévis however was overruled by Pierre François de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal the French civilian Governor who persuaded him to surrender to avoid another bloodbath.

On 8 September 1760, Lévis and Vaudreuil surrendered the entire French colony of Canada.[8]:307–8 Thus, with the capitulation of Montreal, the British had effectively won the war. The details of the Conquest, however, still had to be sorted out between England and France. In line with the Old World's "rules of war", Britain assured the 60,000 to 70,000 Francophone inhabitants freedom from deportation and from confiscation of property, freedom of religion, the right to migrate to France, and equal treatment in the fur trade.[11]:491

Treaty of Paris – 1763[edit]

The final details were worked out between British and French diplomats in Europe, an ocean apart from the actual battlefields. In February 1763, the Treaty of Paris made the northern portion of New France (including Canada and some additional lands to the south and west) officially a British colony.[11] Ultimately, Canada would be transferred over to the British without much protest.[8]:310 As I.K. Steele points out, the Conquest of Canada was only one part of the Seven Years' War, and France was willing to surrender Canada peacefully in exchange for their more profitable colonies in the West Indies, particularly Guadeloupe.[12]:130 In addition, the deal struck between France and England allowed France to retain the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, securing their access to the lucrative Atlantic fisheries.[13]:7


Britain's decision to retain Canada was the result of different strategic priorities. On the one hand, there was a need to appease the French, who – defeat in war notwithstanding – continued to present a major threat to British interests given their demographic advantage. This implied giving up either Canada or the French Caribbean islands. Ultimately, the decision was taken to forfeit the French sugar islands even though they were far more economically significant than the North American French colonies. This was in part because annexing the French Antilles would have been a blow to national pride that the French Monarchy would have been unable to accept, thus hampering the prospect of a rapid and mutually beneficial peace settlement. But more importantly, the retention of Canada was motivated by the argument that removing the French presence from North America would reinforce the security of Britain's Empire in the region.

Quebec Act[edit]

Map of British America after 1763. The Quebec Act saw the expansion of the Province of Quebec's borders to include a significant portion of the Indian Reserve.

The Quebec Act was voted in the commons on 15 June 1774. It extended the frontier of the colony, giving control over the region exploited by Montreal fur traders to the Province of Quebec, it endowed Canadiens with freedom of worship and confirmed the continuance of the Coutume de Paris in Civil law and English practice in criminal law. It also abandoned the commitment to calling a legislative assembly, a belated recognition that the Irish model had failed in Quebec.

Mutual adaptations[edit]

The consequences of the change of imperial regime are best described by Donald Fyson's notion of mutual adaptations.[14]:190 His conception of the relationship between the conquered and the conqueror implies that one must to do away with the idea that, as British identity and the English language came to underpin the mode of governance, the legislative, administrative and judicial branches of the old legal and social order collapsed and the Canadiens population was too passive to actively participate in this transformation for better or for worse. Instead, everyday practices and structures highlight the practical and utilitarian nature of the mutual adjustments that occurred between colonial administrators, British civilian population and Canadien inhabitants.[14]:192

Religious adaptation[edit]

A first example of mutual adaptation is the status of Catholics within the legal framework of the colony. Official policy following the incorporation of the first civil government of Quebec in 1763 mandated the imposition of all penal acts that formed the public law of Britain, including the 1558 Act of Supremacy which barred Catholics from holding remunerated government positions. This exclusionary sentiment is echoed in the Quebec grand jury presentment of October 1764, which objected to the presence of Catholic Jurors as an "open Violation of our most sacred Laws and Libertys, and tending to the utter subversion of the protestant Religion and his Majesty's power authority, right, and possession of the province to which we belong."[14]:195 However, beyond this seemingly rigid religious ideology, the judicial framework presented ambiguities that permitted Governor Murray to make exceptions to accommodate practical realities. Nuanced language in the framing of the October 1764 presentment, which only excluded "papist[s] or popish recusant convict[s]"[14]:195 and not papists in general, provided colonial administrators the leeway to account for the administrative necessities of running a country populated in majority by a foreign ethnic group. Indeed, the limited number of Protestant males in the colony (they numbered 200 in 1763 and crept to no more than 700 by 1775) meant that Carleton, and Murray before him, had to look elsewhere to staff the state apparatus, and the only available pool was the Canadien population.[14]:196 The shifting legal definition of Catholicism in the Province of Quebec represents not an instance of British cultural domination and paternal enforcement, but rather a propensity for mutual adaptation in the face of regional circumstances and challenges.

Political adaptation[edit]

The political dimension of the colony under early British rule is also revelatory of a series of intertwined adaptive processes. Indeed, not only did the Canadiens have to adapt to unfamiliar power dynamics, but the British officials and civilian population were also forced to adjust in order to acclimate to new constructs of governance.[14]:199 At the macro level, authoritarian political structures were retained under both the military regime and civil government. Murray presided over a "paternalistic, intrusive and controlling government," which was in many ways reminiscent of the French regime.[14]:199 In this arrangement, it was incumbent upon the British civilian population to adapt to an unusual lack of parliamentary institutions. So, for example, many conflicts erupted between British merchants and colonial administrators, explaining in part why many of the former came to support American revolutionaries in 1775-1776.[14]:200

Colonial space[edit]

Satellite view of the St. Lawrence River and surrounding farmland. Rather than reorganise the properties of New France to a more traditional British set-up, the British adopted the seigneurial system of New France.

The continued use of French structures ran deeper than this flavour of authoritarianism: it also included a spatial and symbolic dimension. Rather than reorganise the division of property into the traditional English township, the British made do with the existing organisation of land.[14]:200 The continued use of the French-Canadian parish as the basis of the administrative spatial conception of the colony's territory illustrates British adaptation to existing modes of land-ownership instead of imposing their own. Spatiality and political symbolism were also integral to the decision to continue using previously French loci of power. So, for example, the Chateau St-Louis, the Jesuit college and the Recollet church preserved their administrative functions under British rule. This was particularly disconcerting for British civilians who found themselves being tried in Catholic buildings.[14]:201

Economic effects[edit]

The economic outcome of the Conquest of New France is best understood within the larger context of the imperial economic structures in which it participated and thus in relation to the events and economic imperatives of the metropoles of France and Great-Britain. At the close of the Seven Years' War, both belligerents faced widely divergent economic outcomes.

Impact on the British economy[edit]

During the war, British territorial expansion and naval hegemony had proven a great boon for maritime commerce as well as for internal production. Military expenditure – and in particular spending on naval construction and armament – fuelled a burgeoning metal-working sector. There was also an expansion of the British textile industry, with the purchase of uniforms serving as catalyst. Overall, during the war, exports went up fourteen per cent and imports, eight per cent.[15]:267 The return to peace brought two decades of quasi-depression. The government had contracted important sums in debt in order to wage war, and annual spending rose from a peacetime low of 6-7 million pounds to a high of 21 million during the conflict.[15]:268 The economic irrelevance of the war was compounded by the fact that the territory won in North America (i.e. Canada) was only valuable in that it provided security for the other British colonies on the continent, its most important trade –the fur-pelt – having crumbled due to the war and to Pontiac's revolts.[15]:274 This fact, combined with the failure of the Irish solution for populating Quebec left the British with few options to alleviate their outstanding war debts except by raising taxes on its other colonies. The series of taxation methods implemented in the wake of the Seven Years' War participated in the mounting frustrations that climaxed in the American Revolution.[15]:275 Furthermore, it can also be concluded that the absorption of Quebec directly contributed to the frustrations that boiled over in the American Revolution because it removed the reason for blocking the westward expansion of the thirteen colonies – i.e. the French threat. Indeed, without a basis for stopping western settlement that was acceptable to the colonies, the British decision to call western territories 'Indian land' frustrated colonial expectations of expansionism and gave legitimacy to complaints of metropolitan despotism.[15]:278 In brief, the war of Conquest and by extension the Seven Years' War proved unprofitable to the British, bringing little economic reward and instead precipitating the dislocation of a profitable portion of the empire.

Impact on the French economy[edit]

The French situation was quite the opposite. During the war, the French Atlantic commerce suffered due to reduced trade with its Caribbean colonies: exports dropped by 75 per cent and imports dropped by 83 per cent.[15]:267 French industry did not profit so radically from wartime expenditure, in part because its members failed to impose themselves as contenders on the high seas, but also because they did not have the same level of economic infrastructure as the British to begin with. The 1763 Traité de Paris confirmed the British possession of the province of Quebec and the French retention of Caribbean colonies and Newfoundland fisheries. This arrangement explains why defeat was of little to no economic consequence to the French state: it had managed to rid itself of territory it had long considered excess weight, while holding on to the parts of the empire that were central to its commercial prosperity. Furthermore, given the lull in French economic activity that took place during the war, the return to peace meant a revival of French trade. The year following the peace agreement saw sugar production from the Caribbean surpass the 1753 high of 46 million livres, to 63 million livres. By 1770, the sugar trade was yielding 89 million livres; by 1777, it accounted for 155 million livres.[15]:279

Impact on the Canadian economy[edit]

As for the local economic consequences, it was established by Fernand Ouellet that once the direct damage of warfare was addressed, economic fallout was minimal. In fact, the outcome of British conquest was manifestly positive on the economic front. For example, the conquest of Canada formed the genesis of a logging trade that was non existent during the French regime. From 6000 barrels of pine per year, the colony under English dominion increased production to 64,000 barrels by 1809.[15]:282 Furthermore, the British encouraged the immigration prerequisite to the economic expansion of Canada during the 19th century. Indeed, in 1769, Canadian exports were valued at 127,000 pounds sterling, and by 1850 they had grown to 2,800,000 pounds sterling.[15]:283

Historiography and memory[edit]

The Conquest is a central and contested theme of Canadian memory. Historical opinion remains divided over the ultimate legacy of the Conquest, particularly in Quebec. Much of the contention is between those that see it as having negative economic and political consequences for Quebec and French Canadians and those that see the Conquest as positive and integral to the survival of Quebec in North America. Much of the historiographical debate surrounding the Conquest is linked to the rise of Quebec nationalism and new schools of thought developed at the time of the Quiet Revolution.

The Quebec school of history, originated from Laval University in Quebec City, posits that the Conquest was ultimately essential to the survival and growth of Quebec. The Laval school includes those Francophone historians such as Fernand Ouellet and Jean Hamelin who see the positive benefit of the Conquest as enabling the preservation of language, and religion and traditional customs under British rule in a hostile North America.[16] They argue that the Conquest exposed the Canadiens to constitutional government and parliamentary democracy and with the Quebec Act, guaranteed the survival of French customs in an otherwise Anglo-Protestant continent. Scholars such as Donald Fyson have pointed to the Quebec legal system as a particular success, with the continuation of French civil law and the introduction of liberal modernity.[17]

The Montreal school, originating at the University of Montreal and including historians such as Michel Brunet, Maurice Séguin, and Guy Frégault, posits that the Conquest is responsible for the economic and political retardation of Quebec. These historians tried to explain the economic inferiority of the French Canadians by arguing that the Conquest "destroyed an integral society and decapitated the commercial class; leadership of the conquered people fell to the Church; and, because commercial activity came to be monopolized by British merchants, national survival concentrated on agriculture."[18]

A major figure of the Montreal school was the nationalist priest and historian Lionel Groulx. Groulx promoted the view that the Conquest began a long legacy of underdevelopment and discrimination. It was only the tenacity of the Canadiens in opposition to the alien rule of the British, Groulx argued, that had helped the French Canadians survive in a hostile North America.[19]

Before the growth of Quebec nationalism, much of elite opinion saw the Conquest as positive, with one provincial politician claiming, "the last shot fired to defend the British Empire in North America would be fired by a French-Canadian."[20] French–Canadian debates have escalated since the 1960s, as the Conquest is seen as a pivotal moment in the history of Québec's nationalism. Even the "pro-Conquest" Laval school is part of the larger trend of renewed Quebec scholarship during the Quiet Revolution. Historian Jocelyn Létourneau suggested in the 21st century, "1759 does not belong primarily to a past that we might wish to study and understand, but, rather, to a present and a future that we might wish to shape and control."[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Baugh, Daniel. The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest. Routledge. ISBN 978-0582092396.
  2. ^ Rapp, Paul (2007), "British Culture and the Changing character of the Mid-Eighteen-Century British Empire", in Warren R. Hofstra (ed.), Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years' War in North America, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 978-0742551305
  3. ^ Borneman, Walter R. (2007), The French and Indian War: deciding the fate of North America, Harper Perennial, p. 94, ISBN 978-0060761851
  4. ^ Guelton, Frederick, "La Guerre de Sept Ans: le context français", La Guerre de Sept Ans en Nouvelle-France (in French), P U DE PARIS-SORBONNE, pp. 67–8, ISBN 978-2840507772
  5. ^ Bird, Harrison (1965), Battle for a Continent (1st ed.), Oxford University Press, ASIN B0007DMVCK
  6. ^ a b c d e Ward, Matthew C. (2009), The Battle for Quebec 1759: Britain's Conquest of Canada, The History Press, ISBN 978-0752452203
  7. ^ Stacey, C.P. (2007), Donald E. Graves (ed.), Quebec, 1759: The Siege and the Battle (1st ed.), Robin Brass Studio, Inc., ISBN 978-1896941509
  8. ^ a b c d e Carrier, Roch (2014), Montcalm & Wolfe: Two Men Who Forever Changed the Course of Canadian History, translated by Donald Winkler, HarperCollins
  9. ^ Manning, Stephen (2009). "Hold at All Costs". Quebec: The Story of Three Sieges. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press. ASIN B01182SL7W.
  10. ^ Parkmen et al 2014, p. 1452
  11. ^ a b Miquelon, Dale (1988). "Conquest". The Canadian Encyclopedia. 1. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers.
  12. ^ Steele, Ian Kenneth (1969). Guerillas and Grenadiers; the Struggle for Canada, 1689-1760. The Frontenac Library. Ryerson Press. ISBN 978-0770002725.
  13. ^ Buckner, Phillip; Reid, John G. (2012). Revisiting 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Perspective. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. ISBN 978-1442644076.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Fyson, Donald (2012). "The Conquered and the Conqueror". In Buckner, Phillip; Reid, John G. (eds.). Revisiting 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Perspective. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. ISBN 978-1442644076.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i Poussou, Jean-Pierre. "Les conséquence économiques de la guerre de Sept Ans". In Fonck, Bertrand; Veyssière, Laurent (eds.). La chute de la Nouvelle-France: De l'affaire Jumonville au traité de Paris (in French). Quebec: Serpentrion. ISBN 978-2894488287.
  16. ^ Jaenen, p.40.
  17. ^ Donald Fyson, "Between the Ancien Régime and Liberal Modernity: Law, Justice and State Formation in colonial Quebec, 1760-1867," History Compass (2014), 1#5 pp 412-432
  18. ^ Carl Berger (1986). The writing of Canadian history: aspects of English-Canadian historical writing since 1900. U of Toronto Press. pp. 185–86.
  19. ^ Trofimenkoff, Susan Mann. "Lionel-Adolphe Groulx". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  20. ^ Massicotte, Louis. "From French to British Regime". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  21. ^ Phillip Buckner and John G. Reid, eds., Remembering 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Memory (U of Toronto Press, 2012), p.279.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brunet, Michel. "The British Conquest: Canadian social scientists and the fate of the Canadiens." Canadian Historical Review 40.2 (1959): 93-107.
  • Buckner, Phillip and John G. Reid, editors. Revisiting 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Perspectiv. (University of Toronto Press, 2012).
  • Cook, Ramsay. "Some French-Canadian Interpretations of the British Conquest: une quatrième dominante de la pensée canadienne-française." Historical Papers/Communications historiques 1.1 (1966): 70-83. online
  • Dewar,Helen. "Canada or Guadeloupe? : French and British Perceptions of Empire, 1760–63." Canadian Historical Review 91 (2010).doi: 10.3138/chr.91.4.637
  • Frégault, Guy. Canada: the War of the Conquest (Oxford University Press, 1969).
  • Fyson, Donald. "Between the Ancien Régime and Liberal Modernity: Law, Justice and State Formation in colonial Quebec, 1760-1867," History Compass (2014), 1#5 pp 412–432
  • Gagnon, Serge. Quebec and its Historians, 1840 to 1920 (Vol. 1. Harvest House Limited Pub, 1982).
  • Gagnon, Serge. Quebec and Its Historians: The Twentieth Century (Vol. 2. U of Ottawa Press, 1985).
  • Miquelon, Dale. "Conquest", in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Volume 1, pp. 491–2. (1988) online.
  • Miquelon, Dale, ed. Society and Conquest: The Debate on the Bourgeoisie and Social Change in French Canada, 1700-1850 (Copp Clark Pub., 1977); Exurbs from primary sources and historians
  • Parkman, Francis (2009). France and England in North America: Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV A half-century of conflict. Montcalm and Wolfe. BiblioLife. ISBN 978-1117791340.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)