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Book Reviews

Port Royal Habitation: The Story Of The French And Mi’kmaq At Port- Royal 1604-1613

by W.P. Kerr

Halifax: Nimbus, 2005
106 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Jim Kenny

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Book Cover In most undergraduate survey courses of Canadian history, the founding of Port-Royal (located on the Bay of Fundy in present-day Nova Scotia) in 1604 receives only the briefest of mentions as the instructor, faced with the daunting task of telling the story of Canada from the pre-contact era to the present, races to the founding of Quebec in 1608. In this short but very readable book, written to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Port Royal’s founding, W.P. Kerr, a Parks Canada interpretation specialist, argues that Pierre Dugas Sieur de Mons’s settlement – which predated the founding of both Quebec and the English settlement at Jamestown (1607) – is deserving of more attention. Kerr contends that de Mons’ expedition, which included navigator/ cartographer Samuel de Champlain, played a crucial role in exciting France’s interest in the New World, and in providing a base of knowledge that would shape France’s social and economic interactions with the New World in the future.

Port-Royal Habitation traces the story of the Port-Royal settlement from its founding in 1604, after a disastrous winter at St. Croix on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy, through to its eventual destruction in 1613. Sieur de Mons, a Protestant noble, established the settlement as part of the terms of a fur trade monopoly (covering the area from present-day Cape Breton south to Philadelphia) granted by King Henri IV. Between 1604 and 1607, the French in Port-Royal (led by de Mons’s lieutenant, Jean de Poutrincourt) set about exploring and mapping the Atlantic coastline, searching for valuable minerals, and prosecuting the fur trade. Perhaps most importantly, they learned to live peacefully with the Mi’kmaq, the Aboriginal population occupying the region.

In 1607, Henri IV, in response to the protests of rival French merchants, revoked de Mons’s fur trade monopoly, prompting Port Royal’s founder and Champlain to set up a new trading operation on the St. Lawrence River in 1608. Port-Royal was evacuated but, in 1610, Poutrincourt, who had been granted the area around the habitation as a seigneury, returned to establish a larger settlement and develop the fur trade.

However, this incarnation of Port-Royal was short-lived. In 1613, while exploring the coast of present-day Maine, Samuel Argall, the English admiral of the newly established Virginia colony, discovered and captured French traders and Jesuit missionaries based out of Port Royal. Argall later raided and razed the habitation, and “proclaimed English sovereignty over the area.” This, Kerr notes, “was the opening salvo of what would become a century-and-a-half-long continental struggle between England and France.” Although a few of Port Royal’s founders remained in Acadie, the habitation was, for all intents and purposes, abandoned until the 1630s when a number of French families migrated to de Mons’s old settlement. They would provide the basis for the region’s Acadian population.

Native/newcomer relations figure prominently in this book. Kerr does a good job of introducing the world of the Mi’kmaq on the eve of the French arrival, and of describing the impact that the two cultures had upon one another. Led by Chief Membertou, the Mi’kmaq acted as both guides and trading partners, and taught the French how to survive in the New World. In return, they got access to European goods and weapons that the Mi’kmaq used to great advantage against other First Nations in the region. Contact also had negative impacts upon the Mi’kmaq, including the intro duction of European diseases and a growing dependence upon European goods that diminished ‘traditional life skills’. Nevertheless, Kerr observes that the close relationship forged between Membertou and the French at Port-Royal at the beginning of the 17th Century would endure for the next 150 years, and would provide the French with a very strategic military ally. Perhaps more importantly, this early alliance provided a model for French/Aboriginal relations in other parts of the New World. Kerr is careful in trying to understand the contact experience through the eyes of both the French and the Mi’kmaq. However, his discussion of interactions between the French and other First Nations peoples, including the Wolastoqiyik and the Passamaquoddy (based in present-day southern New Brunswick and Maine), makes less effort to understand the First Nations perspective.

The book has a number of strengths. In addition to providing of good outline of Mi’kmaq/French relations, it provides a detailed and colourful picture of Port Royal’s early settlers (all of whom were male) and social life. It also shows how early fur trade entrepreneurs, such as de Mons and Poutrincourt, struggled to find investors for their expeditions in France. Finally, the book is richly illustrated with maps and drawings, many of them made by Champlain. Indeed, Kerr notes that Champlain’s detailed mapping of Acadie, done while living in Port Royal, spurred on French interest in the New World.

This is meant to be a popular history and, as such, it is perhaps unfair to judge it against scholarly criteria. Nevertheless, the absence of citations is disappointing. Kerr does include a bibliography of primary documents (including The Jesuit Relations and the writings of Marc Lescarbot, one of Port-Royal’s residents) and secondary sources, but it is not comprehensive. The book’s other weakness is the last chapter – which explains how Port-Royal became a National Historic Site, and provides an overview of what visitors will see when they visit the habitation. This chapter is quite brief and does not address critically the ‘story’ that is being told through the site. One of the strengths of Kerr’s historical narrative is that he details the social conflict (caused by religious differences, corruption, and ineptitude) that existed within the habitation. However, it appears that this conflict is nowhere to be seen at the National Historic Site.

Port-Royal Habitation is recommended as a well-written and concise introduction to an often-overlooked chapter in Canadian history. Kerr provides a convincing argument that the French experiences at this small habitation in the early 17th Century provided an important foundation for the development of New France.

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Doctor Jim Kenny, an Annapolis Valley native, teaches History at the Royal Military College of Canada.