French-British Rivalry in North America

By the early 17th century, France and England had colonies in North America, the West Indies, Africa, and the East Indies. They had some very lucrative monopolies, notably sugar from the West Indies, slaves from Africa, silk and spices from the East Indies, and furs and fish (cod) from North America. Hostilities began in 1628 in the New World (1689 in Europe) and continued unabated until 1761 and 1762 (1815 in Europe). The French-British conflict started in Europe with England seeking to curtail Louis XIV's expansionist ambitions, and ended only when Napoléon was defeated in Waterloo. The conflict evolved into a series of maritime wars between two European powers as they sought to expand their own empires at the expense of the other's. These conflicts came to have a big impact on how English and French spread around the world.

This rivalry extended to North America, where the two nations had neighbouring colonies. From the time Samuel de Champlain founded New France in 1608, the French colony became caught in a colonial tug-of-war between England and France. Fighting was quick to erupt in North America, just like in Europe. But before the decisive battles, lands were constantly changing hands in smaller skirmishes. And as they went back and forth, place names often changed from French to English, and vice versa. During their common history on the continent, the French and English would regularly replace the names their predecessors used, especially in Acadia and the Hudson Bay area, and later in the "upper country," which would become Upper Canada, then Ontario. So these preliminary hostilities affected little other than geographical names, although they did set the stage for the final showdown—the French and Indian War.

The Small Wars (1628–1711)

The part of New France known as Canada came under English occupation from 1629 to 1632. Likewise, Acadia was occupied from 1654 to 1667. The English colonies developing all along the Atlantic coast (New England) felt caged in by New France, first by Acadia, then by Canada and Louisiana as the French expanded into the Mississippi Valley. The French in Canada also felt threatened, trapped between Rupert's Land (the Hudson's Bay Company), which covered most of northern Canada, and the New England colonies to the south. For much of the 17th century, the British and French fought constantly over Canadian land, changing place names as they went.


French Acadia very early aroused the distrust of the British. In 1607, the English landed at the small village of Port Royal and destroyed it. Again in 1613, the Virginia English destroyed the French settlements in the Port Royal area. England laid claim to Acadia in 1621, renaming it Nova Scotia. In 1628, Scotland's William Alexander brought a garrison of 70 men to Port Royal, which he rechristened Fort Charles. Following the Treaty of Suze in 1629 imposed by Cardinal Richelieu, the English were forced to leave Acadia and Port Royal, which were given back their original names. The treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1632) recognized French sovereignty in Acadia.

But in 1654, another English fleet from Boston landed in Port Royal. England declared Acadia "illegitimately occupied by the French" and set out to win it back. Major Segewick attacked Acadia once again. The English threat to Acadia was ever-present, and by the time the 1667 Treaty of Breda ceded the territory back to France (in exchange for islands in the West Indies), Acadia had been under French rule for 32 years and English for 31 years, and settlements had been renamed time and time again.


In 1628, with France and England at war, an English fleet landed at Tadoussac, a major trading post in the St. Lawrence River Valley. The following year, Samuel de Champlain was driven out of Québec by two brothers, Louis and Thomas Kirke, along with most of the French colonists. France would not reestablish its colony until 1632. In 1690, Anglo-American forces made another attempt to seize Québec with a fleet of at least 30 ships, but when Sir William Phipps called on governor Frontenac to surrender, he received the now-famous response "I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouths of my cannons and muskets." Meanwhile, the land forces advancing from Lake Champlain, weakened by sickness and dissension, were forced to withdraw. But the truce was short lived, and France's presence in North America was soon contested once again.

From this point on in Canadian history, the term Canadians referred to the Canada-born descendants of French colonists, as opposed to the French from France. Canadians gradually developed a distaste for their French cousins, whom they called the "damned French." Francophones drew distinctions between Canadians, Acadians, the French, Indians (commonly called Savages), and the English. The English, however, distinguished only between the Indians and the French.


Throughout the 16th and part of the 17th century, the English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese fished the waters of Newfoundland in relative peace, sometimes side by side, like in St John's. In the 17th century, the English capital of St John's was attacked twice by the Dutch and once by the Danes. The colonists also often had to defend themselves against French or Basque pirates who came to pillage the town.

The French founded a permanent settlement in 1662, with Plaisance as its capital, then attempted to conquer the island. In 1696, Canadian Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville burned St. John's to the ground. He and his volunteer army of fewer than 200 Canadians and Abenaki Indians left the 36 English settlements in ashes and took hundreds of prisoners. The French left Newfoundland when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, but did not give up until 1796, when they made their last attempt to conquer the island at Bay Bulls.

Hudson Bay

The Canada of New France fought England for control of Hudson Bay. In 1692, governor Frontenac ordered Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville to patrol the coasts of the English colonies and block communication with England. A few years later, after taking Newfoundland in 1696, d'Iberville set out to conquer Hudson Bay. The following year, the famous French adventurer captured all of the Hudson's Bay Company's forts except one, Fort Albany. The largest fort in the region, Fort York, was renamed Fort Bourbon. It would be another 16 years before the other forts would be back in English hands. Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville became a legendary hero to the French and Canadians, but was feared and despised by the British.

In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick (now Rijswijk, near The Hague in the Netherlands) put an end to the war of the League of Augsburg between Louis XIV and the Grand Alliance. The treaty asserted France's authority in North America. Parts of Newfoundland returned to English rule, while Acadia and Hudson Bay became independent colonies of New France. According to the terms of the treaty, the "head of the bay" remained French, and Fort York was given to the Hudson's Bay Company. But in fact, the English kept Fort Albany and the French, Fort Bourbon (Fort York). The names of the forts, or trading posts, were French (Fort Bourbon, Fort Saint-Louis, Fort Saint-Jacques, Fort Sainte-Anne, Fort Neuve Savane, etc.).

Then in 1706, the French destroyed nearly every English village in Newfoundland, but in 1710 New England retook Acadia. In 1711, Admiral Hovenden Walker advanced on Québec, but his fleet was wrecked on the northern coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These relentless conflicts had little impact on language other than that of place names, except when colonists were driven out, which happened to the French as often as the English.

The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht

The Treaty of Utrecht (Netherlands) put an end to the 1701–1714 War of the Spanish Succession between the Grand Alliance—initially made up of England, the United Provinces, and German-Roman Empire, and later joined by Portugal and Savoy—and a coalition of France, Spain, and a number of Italian and German principalities. To gain peace, Louis XIV had to sacrifice colonies. The agreements were mostly favourable to England, which had officially become Great Britain in 1701. England came away with Newfoundland (including the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon archipelago), Acadia, the Hudson Bay territory, and the Caribbean island of Saint Christopher (today St. Kitts and Nevis). France went so far as to recognize Great Britain's dominion over the land of the Iroquois Confederacy, which offended the Iroquois, who considered that the two powers did not have the right to decide their fate. Even so, the map of North America had been transformed.

Map of Eastern North America after the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht In short, the Treaty of Utrecht struck a hard blow to France in North America, although the country was paid some restitution for its loss. Newfoundland was ceded to the British, but French fishermen retained the right to fish and dry their catch on the north shore of the island, between Cape Bonavista and Pointe Riche (the "Petit Nord"), which became known as the "French Shore" and the "Treaty Coast." Although France was forced to give up continental Acadia (Nova Scotia), it was able to hold on to Cape Breton Island, which it renamed Île Royale, and St. John's Island (Prince Edward Island). France decided to found a new colony on Cape Breton Island and build the mighty Fortress of Louisbourg.

But a portion of continental Acadia—present-day New Brunswick—remained "disputed territory" between the British and French. Great Britain maintained that under article 12 of the Treaty of Utrecht the territory was part of "Acadia according to its ancient boundaries." France dismissed this interpretation of the treaty. Section 12 read as follows: "The most Christian king shall take care to have delivered to the Queen of Great Britain [...] all Nova Scotia or Acadia, comprehended within its ancient boundaries, as also the city of Port Royal, now called Annapolis Royal, and all other things in those parts, which depend on the said lands and islands."

However, section 14 of the Treaty of Utrecht stated that in Acadia, "the subjects of the said king may have liberty to remove themselves within a year to any other place, [...] together with all their movable effects. But those who are willing to remain there, and to be subject to the Kingdom of Great Britain, are to enjoy the free exercise of their religion, according to the usage of the Church of Rome, as far as the laws of Great Britain do allow the same." The British were conciliatory to the local population since they themselves could not populate Acadia with English colonists.

The Fortress of Louisbourg was designated the new capital of French Acadia, while Annapolis Royal (the name "Port Royal" now permanently a part of the past) took over as the capital of Nova Scotia (also called "English Acadia" by the Canadians), until it was replaced by Halifax in 1749. From this time on, French Acadia grew even more independent from Canada. Unlike the St. Lawrence River Valley, which was essentially agricultural, Cape Breton was a place of trade and looked to New England for business, despite the reluctant tolerance of the French authorities. The population of the thriving island soon grew to some 5,000 settlers of French origin.

Under British dominion, the Acadians of Nova Scotia lived in relative peace, with few English colonists to bother them. The island of Newfoundland was repopulated with English colonists, mostly from western England, although Irish Catholics arrived with their Irish traditions. Then the forts the French had captured in the Hudson Bay area were reconquered by the English. Over the course of the various French-British conflicts, a number of forts changed names: Fort Bourbon became Fort Nelson, then York Factory; Fort Saint-Louis became Moose Factory; Fort Saint-Jacques became Fort Charles, then Fort Rupert; Fort Sainte-Anne became Fort Albany; and Fort Neuve Savane became New Severn, then Fort Severn, then Albany. In short, the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht set the stage for the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and diluted the French presence in North America.

A Curious Interlude of Peace

The French and Indian War (1756–1760) coincided with the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) in Europe and heralded the end of French presence in North America. Despite the peace brought about by the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, English-French rivalries were inevitably reawakened. Even in times of peace, the very existence of Louisbourg was enough to irritate English colonists in New England, especially Massachusetts. Merchants in New England wanted to do business with Louisbourg, but could not accept the French presence in a territory they considered their own backyard. Conflicts were rekindled with the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740.

In 1744, New England sent an army of 4,000 men to invade Cape Breton and the Fortress of Louisbourg. In June 1745, Louisbourg capitulated, and its inhabitants were deported forthwith to France, except for about a hundred people who fled to the forests. But the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748 put Cape Breton back in French hands. The French returned and rebuilt their booming trade. The Louisbourg garrison soon included 600 soldiers and 88 officers, making it one of the most secure European strongholds in North America. The French wielded the power, but Swiss and German mercenaries were also part of the ranks. As such, the languages spoken in Louisbourg were French and German.

With Louisbourg reinstated to France, Great Britain sought to restore balance and secure its Nova Scotia colony. In 1749, two regiments and 2,500 colonists founded the city of Halifax, the new capital of Nova Scotia, with Edward Cornwallis as governor. Annapolis Royal was deemed too weak and poorly situated to stand up to Louisbourg and the French. Edward Cornwallis hoped that by bringing more English colonists to the region, the Acadians would be assimilated. However, most of the colonists came from the poorer parts of England's cities and were reluctant to take an active part in assimilation efforts. To boost population in the area, Great Britain brought over 1,500 "foreign Protestants," i.e., Germans and Swiss. But their language and religion (Lutheranism) disturbed the Anglican anglophones. In 1753, Colonel Charles Lawrence packed Halifax's German colony off to Mirliguesch (Milky Bay), which became Lunenburg. The German immigrants did not mix with the Acadians, and preserved their language for many years. Nova Scotia continued to grow as colonists arrived from New England. The languages most commonly used in Nova Scotia were English, Scottish, French, and German. In the meantime, France was strengthening its Louisbourg garrison and fortifying the southern coast of Cape Breton Island.

When Newfoundland was ceded to Great Britain, English fishermen inherited the French settlements, and shiploads of colonists came in from southwest England. In 1720, more immigrants flocked to the area from the southeast coast of Ireland. Newfoundland went from having a French majority to having a strong Anglo-Irish majority, including on the St. Pierre and Miquelon archipelago. But the French-British rivalry was not over in Newfoundland; it carried on in the cod trade with French fishermen. It became clear that only military action in the waters of Newfoundland could put an end to the rivalry in an industry that was more profitable than the fur trade.

As battles loomed, France considerably fortified Canada. It doubled its Compagnies franches de la marine and added to its armies, and the colony's expenditures spiked. Meanwhile, the Ohio Valley had become a bone of contention between Canada and two English colonies, Pennsylvania and Virginia, its neighbours to the east. The French considered Ohio a vital communication link between its colonies in Canada and Louisiana, while the colonists in Pennsylvania and Virginia wanted to advance further west, but were blocked by French land claims in the Ohio Valley. The French built forts and fortified their alliance with the Indians—even the Iroquois. Skirmishes between the French and American militiamen escalated. The fighting between France and New England over the vast lands along the Ohio Valley, from the Appalachians to Mississippi, reached its peak in 1750.

Deportation of the Acadians

In Nova Scotia, Colonel Charles Lawrence, the governor, felt his colony was under threat from French forces in the east (the Fortress of Louisbourg) and the north (Canada), as well as from the Acadians and their Micmac allies at home. In 1755, Lawrence asked the Acadians to swear an unconditional oath of allegiance to the British crown. But when the Acadians chose to remain neutral, he considered deportation a necessary precaution to rid his colony of elements who could one day prove disloyal.

Caught in the middle, the Acadians were considered traitors by both the English and the French. They also occupied the best farmland, and thousands of British colonists were ready and willing to move to Nova Scotia. What's more, colonial authorities had been asking the Acadians to pledge their allegiance or loyalty for forty years, but to no avail, and their patience had run out. Unsurprisingly, a strong sense of bitterness developed throughout Nova Scotia toward the Catholic Acadians and their native allies. All this was thought reason enough to deport the insubordinate Acadians. Governor Lawrence, Colonel Monckton, and Lieutenant-Colonel Winslow prepared the operation in secret without even consulting the British government, for they feared the inhabitants would flee to French Acadia or Canada with their livestock, destroying their harvests or setting fire to their farms behind them.

On September 3, 1755, Lieutenant-Colonel John Winslow summoned the Acadians of Grand-Pré together and made the following proclamation at Saint-Charles-des-Mines church in Grand-Pré:


"I have received from his Excellency, Governor Lawrence, the King's instructions, which I have in my hands. By his orders you are called together to hear His Majesty's final resolution concerning the French inhabitants of this Province of Nova Scotia, who for more than a half century have had more indulgence granted them than any of his subjects in any part of his dominions. What use you have made of it, you yourselves best know.

The duty I am now upon, though necessary, is very disagreeable to my natural make and temper, as I know it must be grievous to you, who are of the same species.

But it is not my business to dwell on the orders I have received, but to obey them and, therefore, without hesitation, I shall deliver to you His Majesty's instructions and commands, which are...

That your lands and tenements and cattle and livestock of all kinds are forfeited to the crown, with all your effects, except money and household goods, and that you yourselves are to be removed form this Province.

The preemptory orders of His Majesty are, that all the French inhabitants of these Districts be removed, and through His Majesty's goodness, I am directed to allow you your money and as many of your household goods as you can take without overloading the vessels you go in. I shall do everything in my power that all these goods are secured to you and that you be not molested in carrying them away, and also that whole families shall go in the same vessel; so that this removal, which I am sensible must give you a great deal of trouble, may be made as easy as His Majesty's service will admit; and I hope that in whatever part of the world your lot may fall, you may be faithful subjects, and a peaceable and happy people.

I must also inform you, that it is his Majesty's pleasure that you remain in the security under inspection and direction of the troops that I have the honor to command."

The deportation, which the Acadians would call the "Great Upheaval," was carried out surprisingly fast. Not only did Charles Lawrence put his entire British army of 315 men on the job, he also obtained the support of Massachusetts governor William Shirley to convince the General Court of the Colony to send 2,000 volunteers to drive the Acadians and French out of Nova Scotia. He then brought in a fleet of 16 trading ships requisitioned from New England and expelled the Acadian population, village by village, out of Grand-Pré, Les Mines, Beaubassin, the French Bay area (Bay of Fundy), and others.

Before the end of 1755, more than 7,000 Acadians had been sent into exile. Thousands of others would follow in the years ahead. Out of a population of some 13,500 Acadians, an estimated 12,600 plus were deported, but over 4,000 of them died from infectious disease. Others reached Canada or what remained of French Acadia (the Gaspé Peninsula, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island). As illustrated in the table below, the majority of deported Acadians went to France (3,500), followed by Canada (2,000), Massachusetts (1,043), and Connecticut (666).




Connecticut 666
New York 249
Maryland 810
Pennsylvania 383
South Carolina 280
Georgia 185
Massachusetts 1,043
Saint John River 86
Prince Edward Island 300
Chaleur Bay 700
Nova Scotia 1,249
St. Lawrence Valley (Canada) 2,000
England 866
France 3,500
Louisiana 300
TOTAL 12,617

Source: R.A. LEBLANC. "Les migrations acadiennes," Cahiers de géographie du Québec, Vol. 23, No. 58, April 1979, p. 99–124.

The banishment took until 1762 to complete. The British believed that once the Acadians were dispersed across the colonies, they would no longer pose a risk and would assimilate into the local population. Today, this type of operation would be considered "ethnic cleansing." It was a radical move from a linguistic standpoint, because once the people were gone, so was their language! The French and British tried the same thing repeatedly in the small archipelago of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Between 1690 and 1814, the archipelago changed hands nine times. Four times in 125 years, the settlements were completely levelled and all the colonists deported, the houses destroyed, and fields burned. The difference with the Acadian deportation was that it was conducted on a much broader scale and without authorization from the British government, which gave its approval after the fact. Earlier, in 1745, the English had deported the entire French colony of Louisbourg (4,000 people) to France after it surrendered, but the French returned in 1748.

After that, the heart of Acadia shifted westward, then toward Louisiana, which had become Spanish territory in 1762. During these years, colonial New England complained to London about the arrival of thousands of poor Acadians—French speakers no less—whom the American colonists had to house and feed with no compensation from the British government. London even launched an inquiry to clarify the circumstances surrounding the deportation, because Charles Lawrence had been accused of taking rations confiscated in the name of the king and selling them to the army, and manipulating the distribution of land to the new colonists in Nova Scotia to his own personal gain. But the accusations did not make it into court before Lawrence died in 1760. Overall, the deportation was a radical measure that changed the balance of power between populations. The void left by the Acadians would be quickly filled by English-speaking colonists.

The Population in 1760

Leading into the French and Indian War, present-day Canada had a population of some 75,000 French colonists and 20,000 British colonists, not counting the much more numerous natives, who numbered 200,000. French colonists were divided between Acadians, 5,000 of whom remained after the deportation, and Canadians, who numbered 70,000 in the St. Lawrence River Valley, including 2,000 in the "upper country." As for the British, there were some 10,000 colonists on the island of Newfoundland and as many in Nova Scotia. In New England, the population stood at 1.6 million. In other words, while New France welcomed an average of 56 immigrants a year between 1608 and 1760, New England had been adding a thousand a year. If France had worked as hard at populating its colonies (Canada, Acadia, and Louisiana) as Great Britain, North America would be a very different place today, with a larger French Canada and a French Louisiana encompassing half of the U.S. All it took to radically change the course of history was for one country to send a thousand colonists a year for a century and a half, while the other sent fewer than sixty. This demographic imbalance was the cause of the French defeat in 1760 and the crushing dominance the English language today!