Review of Dechêne, Power and Subsistence

Detail from Carte du gouvernement de Québec levée en l'année 1709. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE SH 18 PF 127 DIV 2 P 2.

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Louise Dechêne, Power and Subsistence: The Political Economy of Grain in New France. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018. 258 pgs, ISBN 9780773554917

Reviewed by Colin A.M. Duncan.

The burgeoning and frankly politicizing contemporary literature on the history and sociology of attitudes and identities takes a lot of things for granted about the myriad material underpinnings of all ways of life, past and present. This posthumous translation of a 1994 book makes more widely available a text that exemplifies something like the total opposite approach. Louise Dechêne (1928-2000) asked herself one simple question: how did New France manage to feed itself in the first half of the Eighteenth Century? The answer is far from obvious, as First Nations cultures had much earlier mostly abandoned what we call the St. Lawrence Valley as a site for serious maize production (due to a general cooling trend, we now think), and ice made the colony completely inaccessible to supply ships from elsewhere for never less than half of every year. Moreover, the approximately 6000 farms (1740 data) were expected whenever possible to send grain, not just to Montreal and Québec (together then harbouring a bit under ten thousand souls) but also to Caribbean outposts of the French empire, not just to the fort at relatively nearby Louisbourg.

Dechêne knew about various historical records for the period in Québec and in France concerning the distribution of grain (then as now the essential ‘staff of life’), “le Partage des subsistances” to use the phrase in the original title, and she set out to gather and closely interrogate them all. Her diligence in seeking out extra sources that might yield information matched only her profound doubts about their veracity when reading them. The body of the text is short (150 pages), highly focused, and extremely cautious. I will elaborate later but should say now it would be no bad idea to assign it very widely to undergraduate and postgraduate students in many disciplines as a sharp example of what careful research and reflection can be. The text covers so many facets of its topic that its somewhat rambling structure can be simply blamed on reality.

A View of the Château-Richer, Cape Torment, and Lower End of the Isle of Orleans near Quebec, by Thomas Davies (1787). National Gallery of Canada, 6275.

Thanks to today’s international fossil fuel powered “food system,” what to Samuel de Champlain would have seemed an incredibly, not to say insanely, large number of humans have at the moment absolutely no idea what it might be like to face a shortage of calories for more than about an hour and a half. Whether Champlain was right to conceive and pursue so zealously his “dream” (David Hackett Fischer’s term) of establishing a multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society in what we now call Québec is not the point here, but that Champlain knew about prolonged food shortages at first hand is. Dechêne decided to study the food supplies for New France in an only slightly later period: the several decades just before the French crown finally relinquished the region to British power. What she discovered would certainly have deeply dismayed Champlain, himself a full-bore optimist, but it probably would not have surprised him greatly. It is altogether remarkable that “le Régime française” (another phrase from the original title) persisted for so long in trying to maintain a population “au Canada” in conditions so profoundly hostile to their ways of living. It was only many decades after the (second, and this time real) British conquest that local farming attained sufficient range and density of effort, and consequent reliability, that a food shortage became an imaginary threat. Dechêne shows us in immense detail how the people and the authorities in New France managed to avoid the worst types of winter trials that Champlain personally suffered and oversaw. For many decades in his time every spring many simply died from food shortage. I should say that Sam White’s much acclaimed (2017) book on earlier days in New England makes an interesting complement to this one on New France, as does Sherry Johnson’s (2011) account of the dismally wasteful provisioning of Cuba in the period just after Dechêne’s study. I can report those two are happy to self-identify as environmental historians, whether as pessimists too is harder to say. Should I even mention the similarly nuanced (1997) book by David Tandy on trade and market in Greece as they played out much more than two millennia earlier? I think so, because Dechêne’s book about when ‘the supply-side’ is just teetering on the edge of adequacy fairly invites wide comparison. Parts of her crescendo chapter on wartime inevitably called to my mind the very early stages of Stalin’s collectivization drive.

Quebec, The Capital of New-France, a Bishoprick, and Seat of the Soverain Court, by Thomas Johnston, c.1759. Courtesy of the McCord Museum, M987.57.

This publication is timely, for it seems to me it would be both generally useful and politically expedient to expose contemporary students to such an exemplary treatment of such an acute and yet merely material problem from what now may seem to many like the unimaginably distant past. Who knows? In our nearish future severe food supply problems may well recur for many peoples. In every way the republication of this fine study should be celebrated. For among many other things Dechêne shows in excruciating detail exactly how inequality can increase.

Dechêne explains that for grain in New France there was more than one literal market, as well as a notional overall price-setting market (that is to say, it existed in both the original and extended senses of that pathetically over-used word), but she also explains that since grain was widely used as a means of payment (of loans at that) it would be very misleading simply to say that much grain was produced as a commodity. This subtle point, which may make many contemporary heads spin, and might even give Adam Smith pause (if indeed he can hear us), gets at the very heart of the issue. An accounting document that superficially presents as a record of a transaction may or may not constitute evidence of an actual movement of some actual foodstuff from one place (or person) to another, and that of course is exactly what mattered the most for actual human bodies. Every source must be corroborated by another, preferably of a quite different kind. Otherwise one is just speculating. The point goes further. It might seem unfashionable now but Dechêne was particularly concerned throughout her research to try to see the issue as the authorities at the time saw it, or tried to. They were concerned above all with everybody getting enough to eat, and had no excessively democratic scruples about how to ensure that, but how could they know how to actually achieve their public goal? Dechêne did not labour this point but we can see that their problems with getting good sources of information and with interpreting them mirror quite closely our problems as historians several centuries later. We in our armchairs can just be grateful we need not also craft and enforce policies. Again I would urge that alarmingly few people now have direct experience with these kinds and levels of problem. Obviously global defrosting promises to bring them back, when exactly being unknowable.

If I were to say baldly that this book is a ‘must read’, many people I like and admire would raise their eyebrows in suspicion. But I will say no human being could fail to learn useful things from this fine book, or fail to emerge with a broader outlook. At her funeral I was told by a relative of hers that Dechêne personally took a very dim, even darkening, view of what we call ‘the State’ as it presented itself several centuries ago on the west side of the Atlantic. But that had not stopped her asking how it managed what it did. It was clear that the ways of regulating grain in France simply could not apply in New France. I do not know who concocted the rather menacing although not very environmental English main title for this republication but it is far from inappropriate, albeit a touch vague at first encounter. It needs also to be said that although Dechêne went well out of her way to grasp the mentalité of officials and other well-to-do persons who, if they tended to peculation, could in those days console themselves with such useful things as the formalized distinction between venial and mortal sins, she also expressed considerable disdain for the disdain of the urban authorities towards the rural poor, whom they seemed to think were excessively incompetent and fatalistic as well of course as avaricious on account of their tendency to put their own basic survival above the selling of their produce. It is an old and unfair conflict, going back five millennia or so in many parts of the world, and very far from finished yet. Concerning an early (1714) crisis, Dechêne permitted herself this aside: “And notions of price were even more relative for peasants, who considered wheat to be worth exactly as much as the goods they could receive in return for it.” So, happily, I can turn to making the perhaps unexpected observation that this book contains several other such flashes of humour. Farmers, merchants, bakers, local consumers, priests, agents in the fur trade, as well as those charged with provisioning ships, all had interests somewhat divergent from each other and from the authorities charged with prioritizing military needs. Often enough records show many parties expressed themselves in clear accusatory tones. Whom to believe in the resulting cacophony? Clearly we should only believe Louise Dechêne, not because she was an adept at Foucauldian analysis, which her closing comments on “the enactment of power” indicate, but because her often pitiless skepticism concerning recorded debating points about grain supplies is so deeply grounded in her painstaking gathering of the least tainted but often widely scattered data and careful assembling of same into a coherent, albeit incomplete, picture of the actual situation at the time. Louise Dechêne died knowing vastly more about her topic problem than any of those who actually lived with it. Her example thus shows perfectly clearly why we can learn from history, at least in principle, that is to say, at least when it is done so very well as she did it. She herself in her very short “Conclusion” claims merely to have shown how specifically different the social formation in New France was from that anywhere else, or anywhen else for that matter, but such a bald statement of the book’s achievement is misleadingly modest. Underselling her own wares fooled nobody in her own day. Nor should it now.

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