Review of Parsons, A Not-So-New World

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Christopher M. Parsons, A Not-so-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2018. 264 pgs, ISBN 9780812250589.

Reviewed by Thomas Peace.

A good work of history can take a historiographic field and demonstrate where it has not been sufficiently tilled. In A Not-So-New World, Christopher Parsons harvests from the archives a body of common knowledge uncommonly addressed by historians. The famous drawing of Champlain’s habitation at Quebec, included in his 1613 Voyages, provides a useful specimen for framing the book. Though the viewer’s eyes too often focus on the buildings – landmarks of France’s early presence in North America – Parsons trains the reader’s attention to the gardens in the foreground. Gardens, Parsons argues, were a core tool for sowing French settler colonialism on the continent.

The garden might sound like a simple subject. Under Parsons’s careful tending, however, the book reveals that these landscapes fed not only colonists, but also French systems of knowledge. Cultivation was the first tool in normalizing a settler colonial presence in the Saint Lawrence Valley. Through botanical knowledge and its associated rhetoric, missionaries and imperial officials restructured regional relationships, ascribing to themselves sovereign authority. With time, however, these systems of cultural knowledge were eclipsed, favouring France’s nascent scientific interests in Europe over those of both Indigenous and colonial experts in North America. French botanical knowledge shifted by the mid-eighteenth century from being about nature in New France to being about the nature of New France (183).

The book is squarely framed within environmental history and the history of science. It is the history of settler colonialism with which it aligns most tightly, though. It complements Karen Kupperman’s, Nancy Shoemaker’s and Robert Morrisey’s arguments that, over time, European relationships with First Peoples and the land upon which they lived shifted from a sense of familiarity to difference. From a colonial perspective that situated French agents of empire acting initially to cultivate a somewhat familiar – but sauvage world – into a new France, Parsons shows how, through developing metropolitan science, this world was re-sown as novel and foreign by the mid-eighteenth century.

Through the study of plants, Europeans consistently maintained a self-perceived position of superiority relative to the North American peoples whose homelands they claimed. This assessment was variable. At first it was paternalistic, focusing on improvement, learning from First Peoples, and then using that interaction to “improve” and transform their society and land. Over the course of a century, however, attention to cultivation and North American flora shifted, silencing these North American perspectives, as scientific authority increasingly became consolidated in Paris. Direct experience of plants in situ decreased as institutions such as the Académie Royale des Sciences claimed an exclusive right to know the colony’s flora.

This transition is best illustrated in chapter six, where Parsons explores the differences, and resulting tensions, between the Académie’s and Joseph-François Lafitau’s understandings of North American ginseng. Contrasting Lafitau’s Jesuit-influenced assumption that “the Americas and Europe were fundamentally similar,” Parsons demonstrates the emerging “science of difference” and authority of non-local expertise developing through institutions like the Académie in Europe (181). Though Lafitau drew on extensive local relationships, specifically with the Haudenosaunee at Kahnawake, once his work arrived in France, the Jesuit’s writings were routinely subsumed by the Académie. The scholars in the Académie did not deny Lafitau’s work, but situated his studies as mere supporting evidence for their own.

“L’aureliana de Canada, en chinois gin-seng, en iroquois garent-oguen,” from Mémoire…concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng (1718).

There are several silences in the book. Parsons is clear, for example, that the knowledge gathered from Indigenous peoples was highly gendered. With a handful of exceptions, such as Lafitau and Royal Physician Michel Sarrazin, most agents of empire knew only what was available from Indigenous men. Furthermore, knowledge in many Indigenous societies was, and is, network specific and lineage dependent. This isolation from Indigenous knowledge became more prevalent over time and was part of the broader transition away from the more hybridized systems of expertise that existed during the seventeenth century. Parsons concludes that by the mid-eighteenth century, “cultivation as conversion had transitioned to cultivation as replacement” (186). To reveal the “violent impulses” of this transition, Parsons brings together the histories of science and settler colonialism, and critical theoretical and political understandings developed within the field of Indigenous studies.

That noted, in structuring the book around the published accounts of relatively elite individuals, one hopes that Parsons might follow this project up with a similarly focused study on the North American networks that enabled the collecting of French botanical knowledge about North America. As the Académie became more dominant, its agents in the colony, such as Sarrazin, cultivated sub-networks of their own. These sub-networks were mostly comprised of military and religious men, with others occasionally involved. Parsons suggests that it is too difficult to trace these people and he is likely right (143). Some of his examples, however, suggest that there is perhaps more to be learned about how these networks and knowledge circulated within the colony. The discussion of the Desaunier sisters, who lived at Kahnawake and traded ginseng (among other goods) at both Albany and Montreal, for example, reminded me of Catherine Jérémie dit Lamontagne. Jérémie was a prominent midwife and botanist in the colony, recognized for her botanical efforts by the colony’s intendant (Hocquart) in 1740. Her brother, Nicolas, is also well known for his early recordings of flora and fauna in the Hudson’s Bay watershed. Taken together, these examples demonstrate local training and understanding that could be better developed in the book. Though drawing on the colonial archival record, Parsons is interested primarily in men whose work was eventually published and its trans-Atlantic nature. Attention specifically to the North American workings of the fur trade, and its cultivation of botanical and zoological knowledge, would make a useful extension to this excellent book.

A Not-So-New World is masterfully crafted. It develops and convincingly demonstrates a focused argument that teaches the reader much about French imperialism, settler colonialism, and intellectual exchange in the French Atlantic World. This book will be of particular interest to historians of science and settler colonialism, in addition to scholars generally interested in France’s first empire. That Parsons has been able to package these complex ideas concisely into less than 200 pages is a testament to his skill as a writer and makes this book a useful tool for the university classroom.

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