Life as an academic often feels like constant movement between hope and despair. Hope that our research will have an impact, and be accepted our peers … despair at the latest setback with grant applications. Hope that our teaching will inspire young people to think critically and take an active role in their society … despair at the unending obligations with regards to administration as well as the scope of the challenges faced by universities today. Often, how we view these things reflects our level of agency. Agency is “generally understood to mean the capacity of individuals to act independently to make their own free choices.” Are we victims or champions in our daily saga? To what degree are we able to adapt to circumstances to ensure success? I think that most of us would agree that as academics we are fortunate in our capacity to influence our milieu and promote positive change.
Historical actors of all professions similarly alternated between optimism and pessimism, and the early modern period was no exception. The writings of explorers like Samuel de Champlain relate the abundance of natural resources and the great potential for trade and settlement that they saw in what was to them a New World. However, the documents also attest to the forbidding task of colonization and indeed, survival. Champlain described his first desperate winter in 1604 on île Sainte-Croix. Entombed in ice on the island for six months, his men melted snow for water and tried to stretch out meagre firewood supplies. Nearly half of the 80 men eventually succumbed to scurvy, a horrible fate of slow wasting away. Everyone was sick. To add to the morbid scene, Champlain performed impromptu autopsies to try to determine the cause of the illness. Horrified by the putrid flesh and black blood that emanated from the corpses, Champlain admitted that it had been foolish to rely on summer reconnaissance when determining an appropriate winter outpost. The survivors learned from their mistake, moving to the more open harbour of Port Royal where they could also seek assistance from the local Mi’kmaq community led by their sagamo, Membertou.
The first Jesuits travelled to Port Royal in 1611. Their initial dispatches home demonstrate the range of emotions felt by Europeans upon arrival in Acadie. Father Ennemond Massé, for instance, was enthusiastically hopeful. He wrote of his excitement to begin his work as a missionary and that he was confident that they would succeed in bringing salvation to the local inhabitants. Meanwhile, Father Pierre Biard despaired. The voyage had been long and perilous, and life in the colony was hard and physically exhausting. He was not sure that they had any hope to succeed in their mission, working in “great poverty and in tears” in a vast primitive forest.
Unfortunately, the reactions of the other colonists went unrecorded. We can imagine some of their thoughts as they entered a strange land filled with strange creatures and stranger people. The harsh climate, the difficult terrain, and the mysterious tides and currents must have led some to wonder if they had not made a terrible decision. In fact, many of them went home at the first opportunity. Those who stayed demonstrated remarkable resilience and ingenuity, eventually developing marshland drainage techniques that supported a relatively prosperous agricultural society.
We can also imagine some of the thoughts of the Mi’kmaq as they watched these pale, bearded, and unkempt barbarians stumble about with no idea how to travel, hunt, and survive. They possessed impressive technologies, but also seemed lost and weak. Biard commented repeatedly on the Mi’kmaq sense of superiority over the newcomers. Yet, we know that the Mi’kmaq had already suffered greatly themselves. During the previous century, they had been driven east after a series of wars with the Haudenosaunee and then been ravaged by diseases like smallpox brought by Europeans. Biard advised his superiors that the country was sparsely populated; Membertou told him that in his youth there had been many more people, “as thickly planted as the hairs upon his head.” Perhaps compassion led Membertou to accept the small French expedition in his territory, but he also clearly believed that the trade and knowledge brought by what he called “the Normans” would be beneficial for his people. Accepting the French presence was a difficult and possibly controversial decision within his community, but Membertou believed that this could bring about positive change. He went so far as to accept baptism. His exchanges with Biard demonstrate that this choice was an act of hope and intelligence, not a sign of desperation or ignorance. The Mi’kmaq would prove to be a highly resilient people, preserving considerable agency in their homeland for centuries to come.
These early days in Mi’gma’ki/Acadie were profound moments for the future of Atlantic Canada. Although the beginning of the seventeenth century may seem far removed from our present reality, the origins of our achievements and our challenges lie in this time. To provide just one example, George Colpitts reminds us of how John Richards described the emergence of our contemporary capitalist mentality in the early modern period from the desire and opportunity to exploit the seemingly inexhaustible resources of the unending frontier. This was certainly true in Acadie; potential profits from codfish and the fur trade prompted initial investments from French commercial companies, and forestry, mining, and agriculture would become central pursuits. William Wicken has written extensively about how treaties signed with the Mi’kmaq in the early modern period continue to define their rights to use natural resources as well as their relationship with other Atlantic Canadians. Jack Bouchard is correct to warn us against studying the early modern period only as a “tentative start point” for a larger narrative about modern Canada. However, to know where we are going, we do need to know where we began. Contemporary grievances, hopes, and expectations flow in part from our subjective interpretations of our collective pasts. This is not just about origins; the study of agency is essential to our practice. Historical actors made choices that shaped their futures, and we make choices today about how to interpret them. Our changing capacity to choose, and the consequences of those choices on others, is a central feature of the emergence of modern Canada.
The International Union of Geological Sciences recently announced that the last 4,200 years constitute a distinct Meghalayan age started by a widespread mega-drought and defined by global changes brought about in part by human civilizations. There is something compelling about grouping the histories of multiple human civilizations together in a single age, an age of empire. It is as if we can consider the whole puzzle and not just a piece, and thereby avoid the arbitrary definitions like “modern” and “early modern” that Anya Zilbertstein finds so compellingly futile and necessary. Indeed, in a remarkable study of globalization, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri affirm that Empire is alive and well today, spread globally through new mechanisms of control and perennial conflict. We might take a more expansive view of the Anthropocene, rooting human impact not only in the materiality of fossil fuel emissions but also in the political ideologies of empire.
Historians generally avoid so-called “meta-narratives” and continue to limit their scope to particular nations, regions, or time-periods. However, environmental history can free us from some of these boxes. In Canada, historical geographers including Matthew Hatvany and Graeme Wynn have studied early colonization as a key moment in “the deep history of changes in the human perception and utilization” of the environment. Some historians advocate a more Atlantic and/or continental North American approach to the study of Canada. It remains to be seen whether others will follow this departure from the nation-state model of doing history. Our training in defined “fields” of specialization and the course structures of our programs remain powerful influences (constraints?) on our agency!
As we become more comprehensive, inclusive, and ambitious in the temporal and geographic scope of our research, we can also look to multiple theoretical frameworks. Stephen Mosley proposes that integrating social and environmental history could provide important new insights into the evolution of historical structures, modes of production, and changes. For example, colonization, as a “disruptive process of bringing the natural wealth of the earth under corporate and colonial control,” had consequences beyond creating human settlements. This integration is not a completely new idea. The Annalistes of the first part of the twentieth century studied climate and harvests as part of their method of reconstituting life in rural communities. With regards to agency, Linda Nash suggests shifting the definition from the decisions themselves to “the ability of people to act intentionally to shape their worlds.” The study of the early modern period in Acadie offers innumerable examples of people – Aboriginals and Settlers – making difficult decisions. Their prosperity and, in some cases, survival, hinged on effective and ongoing adaptation to changing natural and social conditions. Unquestioningly, conditions, beliefs, expectations, and conflicts limited their choices. To what extent were people in Mi’gma’ki/Acadie able to act independently to make their own free choices? How does this compare with our agency today?
Perhaps the interplay between individual will, state control, and environmental change defines the Meghalayan age of empire. Early Canada – or should we say, the diverse colonies and communities that existed in what would become Canada – was certainly emblematic of this paradigm. Some researchers may despair at the cruelty, avarice, and ignorance of some of our ancestors, while others will draw hope from examples of remarkable innovation, compassion, and justice. Purposeful decision-making links us to the past and to the future as key decisions echo over generations. By welcoming the initial French colonists and choosing to promote peace and trade, the Mi’kmaq lay the foundation for a successful new society in Acadie and, ultimately for their own displacement. By adapting European drainage techniques to the Bay of Fundy, the Acadians created a distinct rural society, but also attracted the attention of English rivals and saw that society destroyed by war and fire. Both groups endure and continue to press for recognition and rights in modern Canada. The importance of these past experiences cannot be ignored, but study of the early modern period may be even more important for another reason. The complexity of that world and its relative distance from our own provide an ideal laboratory for measuring the limits and the potential of human agency. Will we adapt as environmental change intensifies? Will we face these challenges with hope or despair? Will we ultimately find ourselves, like Champlain on île Sainte-Croix, in a prison of our own making?
Katrina Brown and Elizabeth Westaway, “Agency, Capacity, and Resilience to Environmental Change: Lessons from Human Development, Well-Being, and Disasters”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources36 (2011): 322.
Samuel de Champlain, Les Fondations de l’Acadie et de Québec, 1604-1611, texte en français moderne établi, annoté et présenté par Éric Thierry (Québec : Septentrion, 2008).
Lettre du Père Ennemond Massé au R. P. Claude Aquaviva, Général de la Compagnie de Jésus, le 10 juin 1611 et Lettre du Père Pierre Biard à Aquaviva, le 11 juin 1611, dans R. Thwaites, dir., Les relations des Jésuitestome 1, pp 184-190.
For two recent monographs on Acadian colonial society, see N. E. S. Griffiths, From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604-1755(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005); Gregory M. W. Kennedy, Something of a Peasant Paradise? Comparing Rural Societies in Acadie and the Loudunais, 1604-1755 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).
The best treatment of the importance of the Mi’kmaq during the colonial period is still John G. Reid, Acadia, Maine, and New Scotland: Marginal Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981). An important new book on this subject is Jeffers Lennox, Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).
George William Colpitts, “What Peter Fidler Didn’t Report,” 18 June 2018.
William C. Wicken, Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial: History, Land, and Donald Marshall Junior(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).
Jack Bouchard, “Presentism in Environmental History: The View from the Sixteenth Century,” 4 June 2018.
Emily Chung, “You’re living in a new geologic age, the Meghalayan,” CBC News, 20 July 2018.
Anya Zilbertstein, “We Will All Be Early Moderns,” 11 June 2018.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire(New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), xiii.
Thanks to Claire Campbell for this wonderful insight in response to an earlier draft of this blog.
Matthew Hatvany, Marshlands: Four Centuries of Environmental Change on the Shores of the St. Lawrence(Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2003), 4; Graeme Wynn, Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History(California: ABC-CLIO, 2007).
Tom Peace, “From Early Canada to Early North America: Why We Stopped Teaching History before the 1860s from a National Perspective,” Active History, 18 June 2018.
Stephen Mosley, “Common Ground: Integrating Social and Environmental History,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 3 (2006), 927.
Linda Nash, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?”, Environmental History10, 1 (2005): 67.
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