In 1757, in the midst of the Seven Years War, François Damiens was put to death for his attempt to assassinate Louis XV. It was as cruel a death as could be devised—Damiens’s right arm was burnt in sulphur, other portions of his body torn off by red-hot pincers, and so on. In North America, where the king’s regulars were then fighting the English for control of the continent, French officers worried about how their Native allies might react to the event. To these officers it meant that French society had shamefully produced someone so unspeakably loathsome as to strike at the heart of national order and harmony in the person of the king.
But they need not have worried. According to Christian Ayne Crouch, author of Nobility Lost: French and Canadian Martial Cultures, Indians and the End of New France, such ritual torture as was visited on Damiens’s body Native North Americans understood very well and by no means disapproved of. Torture was one way, for example, of giving recompense to the spirit of a slain warrior and assuaging the grief of the community.
The Damiens incident, then, focuses attention on a world of cultures, Native North American and European, which was strikingly alien to our own. It was a world in which the destruction of one’s enemies was secondary to the preservation of honour in victory or defeat—although honour differently defined by various groups.
In keeping with her aim of exploring that world of vanished martial cultures, Crouch’s history of the Seven Years War barely sketches the main events of the conflict. She assumes a reader aware of the early French victories, including the celebrated ambush of General Braddock’s British regulars in the wilderness and the fall of Fort William Henry, vividly portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, Last of the Mohicans. The tide turned in 1758, despite the successful French defence of Fort Carillon on Lake Champlain. That same year Louisbourg in Nova Scotia fell to the English, clearing the way for James Wolfe’s great and fatal conquest of Quebec in 1759.
These are stirring events in the annals of history—so much so that Crouch warns the reader that “narratives about war run the danger of becoming overwhelmed by their subject matter, which suffocates by either macabre fascination and the allure of romantic conflict or by the sheer horror and magnitude of pain and suffering.” Better to cultivate the understanding of what Crouch calls “the cultures of war” than to fall under the spell of the Francis Parkman school of romantic historical epic. Better to explore the aristocratic ethos of the French officers who sought to make their fortune and reputations in the army “as the guardian of France’s honor and chivalry,” in Crouch’s words, than to meditate on the Watteau painting of the glorious death of the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham (a mirror image of Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General Wolfe). Again, Crouch feels no necessity of dwelling on the personalities of these two adversaries—both of them brave, capable professional soldiers bloodied in the wars of Europe before they set foot in America.
More important than these two military leaders, for Crouch’s purposes, is the ever more “rarified and contorted forms of martial honor,” the deve-lopment of a school of elegant behaviour on the battlefield that led to officers feeling a greater affinity with enemy officers than with the soldiers they led. The school, needless to say, found commercial pursuits repugnant. It found the behaviour of Louis XV, bringing his mistress to the battlefield, also unsettling—not that it was not a fine tradition for kings to have mistresses, but bringing them to the battlefield suggested that the king did not take the conduct of war seriously, that he put pleasure before duty.
Montcalm and the officers of his regular troops were imbued with this aristocratic ethos, believing their martial behaviour should showcase devotion to the king. These were the troupes de terre, as opposed to the compagnies franches de la marine, colonial troops under the Ministry of the Marine that oversaw the colonies. The marines, long used to Native American diplomacy, displayed behaviour offensive to the aristocratic ethos, chiefly an engagement in commercial trading that was part of Indian diplomacy. Such commercial diplomacy was not to be brushed aside—French-Native alliances were weakened when cheaper and better quality English trade goods flooded the Ohio Country, traditionally French territory—but there was no denying trade could also be lucrative for the French officers and civil authorities involved.
Crouch suggests that there was already a difference rooted in commercial considerations between the French and their Native American allies over the Ohio Country. The French basically wanted to possess the Ohio Country and to mark that possession with the construction of forts and the bestowing of—to the Natives—curious and disturbing symbols, such as the lead plates inscribed to Louis XV left in river banks and other spots by Céloron de Blainville in 1749. This activity, Crouch writes, “scarred what the Indians regarded as their own spaces.” The Native North Americans allied to the French saw no reason for the French to destroy English trading posts, either. “The Iroquois and the Algonquians possibly reasoned it was best to let the competing Europeans kill each other rather than risk their own lives (and English revenge),” Crouch writes. For these Natives the acquisition of trade goods, along with scalps, captives and so on, was quite honourable in itself.
“This country is dangerous for discipline,” commented Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, whose fellow officers among the regulars noted that marines saved English lives so they could subsequently obtain ransom for them. At the end of the war, writes Crouch, the nobles in the army and at home in France could not help but be aware “that racial intermarriage, cultural flexibility, and financial self-interest in the name of colonial growth had flourished among marine officers of the French empire.” On campaigns the nobles saw their marine comrades flagrantly violating the school of elegant behaviour. “The marines,” Crouch writes, “put unfamiliar practices into play. They bargained for Indian aid with gifts and promises. They seemed resigned to Native peoples wandering in and out of camp, meeting up with relatives (even relatives who were serving the British) and ‘borrowing’ freely from the supply trains.”
Montcalm, in turn, alienated his Indian allies by his generous terms to the garrison of Fort William Henry in 1757. Where were the captives, the commodities, the scalps that constituted honourable trophies for these allies? The French, according to Crouch, were horrified by the Native attack on the English the day after the battle, although it was predictable given the absence of such trophies. The attack reinforced the notion of officers such as Bougainville that the real war was in Europe where combatants still observed battlefield etiquette. These nobles, Crouch writes, “envisioned a quick victory in North America and their return to the main front in Europe.”
The English defeat at Fort Carillon the following year was an occasion of joy to Montcalm for more than one reason. The regulars repelled a straightforward assault in the grand European tradition without the assistance of any Natives, who disliked assaults on fortified positions. (It was a waste of manpower.) This was war the way war should be conducted.
The tenets of the school of elegant behaviour may have helped to nurture resentment against the Natives and their manner of war making, but it did not result in simple contempt. Crouch does not belabour the point, but the French were never in a position to despise their Native allies. French officers were struck by the magnificent rhetoric of Native orators, which they saw and recorded, according to Crouch. They were also impressed by Native hardihood and agility, an athleticism no doubt fostered by their wilderness exercises in hunting and fishing and their brutal games of lacrosse. In the words of one French observer, the Natives were “large and well made,” and “tireless, hardened to pain,” inured to blazing heat and freezing cold.
The problem was not racial conceit but “mistrust on all sides,” according to Crouch—indeed, her book is predicated entirely on the prevalence of mistrust as opposed to simple ill will in Native-French relations. That neither side could take the intentions of the other for granted meant, Crouch writes, that “every planned engagement had to be negotiated anew with Indian allies.” It meant that a relatively simple rite, such as the formal adoption of French officers into Native clans, was liable to be misinterpreted—the French viewed it as recognition of their leadership, the Natives as a polite gesture confirming access to trade and gift networks. Crouch writes of one French officer adopted by the Abenakis—the rite, she observes, combined “inclusion in the community (and the duties that accompanied this) with a generous attempt to remake one of these strange French men into (in Indian terms) a more civilized, rational, polite Abenaki individual.”
These civilized, rational, polite Natives were repelled by the public bickering between Montcalm and his civilian counterpart, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor of New France. “Iroquoian and Algonquian nations prized a lack of public disputes,” Crouch writes. “Harmony within a community was the ideal, and composure was paramount.” No one could have informed these Natives that much of this public quarrelling stemmed from Montcalm’s constant desire for more “Europeanized forms of war,” according to Crouch. Among these forms of war were the aristocratic ethos of the Nobles. “They believed that how war was conducted and how soldiers behaved should carry as much weight as the defense of France’s imperial borders,” she writes. Vaudreuil, on the other hand, placed his faith in his Native allies and Canadian troops to halt the advance of the English. These Native Americans and Canadians were men ignorant of the school of elegant behaviour but they were marvellous bush fighters.
Crouch is lucid in her relation of these cultural twists and turns. The reader may detect a desire to intellectualize the discourse with use of abstract terms such as “space,” and with the occasional lapse into academic speak. A sentence such as “The multiple readings of the victories and losses that involved diverse participants are accessible only if we attend to the conflict context from which the belligerents derived these individuals’ motivations and values” is thankfully rare.
More frequent in her narrative is a hint of that allure of romantic conflict she dismissed at the outset. The last chapter in particular is haunting. It tells the story of an Iroquois delegation that appeared in Boston in 1778, having heard that the French had returned. In fact, the French were now allies of the American rebels—but what the Iroquois wanted to know was if these were real French. Over the years the Iroquois, especially those based near Montreal, had grown closer to the French, forsaking in many cases early bonds with the English. Now these wanted, an officer observed, “to see for themselves whether we were truly French, to ask to see the white banner, whose appearance still makes them dance, to hear the Mass, which they have been deprived of for seventeen years.”
In a way, it was natural that these Native Americans would be anxious to reclaim an alliance that they sorely missed. An Ojibwa chief told an English trader in 1761 that, yes, he knew the French king had fallen asleep. “During his sleep you have taken advantage of him and possessed yourself of Canada,” he stated. “But his nap is almost at an end. I think I hear him already stirring and inquiring for his children, the Indians; and when he does awake, what must become of you? He will destroy you utterly.”
That was, of course, wishful thinking, but who knew—perhaps these Frenchmen under the royal white banner and still attached to the Catholic church had come to resume the intimate engagement with war making and trading that had been interrupted 20 years ago. No other Europeans had appeared to restore that intimate engagement. Crouch rightly draws the conclusion from this that New France was not dead, even after the French surrender to the British in Montreal in 1760. The continued life of New France on the North American continent was attested to, not only by the Iroquois visit to the French navy in Boston harbour, but also by the existence of mixed French and Native Americans who built towns in the wilderness and presided over immense trading networks. Crouch mentions Charles de Langlade, born of a French fur trader and an Ojibwa woman, educated by Jesuits, who was present at Braddock’s defeat and pursued an illustrious career as a warrior on behalf of New France and then later of the British Empire. He settled in what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin, with his family and his employees and his slaves (Native Americans from west of the Mississippi captured in war) and his great fur-trading enterprise.
Crouch mentions another formidable figure in what might be called new New France, a soldier and fur trader said to be the son of Bougainville named Louis Lorimier. He married a woman of mixed Shawnee and French blood, Charlotte Lorimier, and set up, with the help of her access to Shawnee trade networks, a thriving community in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “The reach of formal French power in the interior of North America had been tenuous at best,” Crouch writes. “It had always depended on prestige among Native peoples to sustain itself.” The new New France was more resilient, relying on “well-travelled trading networks between indigenous and French Canadian actors whose reserve cultural currency consisted of their common ties to the old French North American empire.” Even before the fall of New France in 1760 this resilience carried French cultural influences, including religious and commercial influences, far beyond the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, the ostensible boundaries of New France.
In this new world “honour” still mattered, although not exactly the kind cultivated by French nobles. As Crouch indicates in her illuminating book, a man’s reputation counted for everything in the borderlands of North America. Life there did not permit the illusions fostered by Montcalm. But valour and intelligence did receive their reward in flourishing communities of mixed French and Native American communities—until these communities were destroyed by land-hungry American settlers in the 19th century.
Philip Marchand is the author of Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America (McClelland and Stewart, 2009) and books columnist for the National Post.