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British North America: 1763-1841, Consolidating British Rule

Guy Carleton, seigneurs, Quebec Act, northern colonies, country gentlemen

When Britain conquered New France, it expected to impose British institutions, including a colonial assembly that would be open only to Protestants. Military governors James Murray and Guy Carleton found that policy unworkable. In 1774 by the Quebec Act, Britain agreed to preserve a regime with no elective institutions. The Quebec Act entrenched the old French civil law and the seignorial system of landholding and officially recognized the Roman Catholic Church, including its right to impose tithes. By shoring up the society of French Quebec, the Quebec Act helped reconcile its key leaders—the church and the seigneurs—to British rule. The Quebec Act also restored to Quebec the land between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, which had been included in the lands reserved for the Indians. This helped preserve Montreal’s fur trade and encouraged the indigenous nations to form alliances with the British.

All of the northern colonies were theoretically under the authority of Britain’s governor-general at Quebec City, but in practice there were few links among them. Each colony continued to develop in isolation from the others. In Newfoundland, English and Irish settlements had been growing during the 18th century. By the end of the century, Newfoundlanders, rather than fishing fleets from England, caught most of the cod that was exported to Europe and the Caribbean. Newfoundland was not entirely British after 1763, however; France kept fishing rights on the north and west coasts and acquired the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon as a base for its fishing fleets.

Nova Scotia attracted only a few settlers from New England and Britain, but its capital, Halifax, became important as a military base and seaport. Halifax was the site of the first newspaper in what is now Canada (1752) and of the first elected assembly (1758). After 1770 migration from the highlands of Scotland produced a substantial Gaelic-speaking minority in Nova Scotia. Prince Edward Island (called Saint John’s Island until 1799) became a separate colony in 1769.

In Quebec, the population grew, commerce expanded, rural villages developed, and prosperity increased, but French-speaking society, particularly rural society, continued largely unchanged from the days of French rule. The world of most French colonists continued to center on the farm and the parish. There were few schools, and most of the colonists were unable to read and write. Rural prosperity aided the seigneurs, who for the first time could hope to live as country gentlemen on the dues paid by the habitants. The English-speaking population, most of whom were involved in trade, government, or the garrisons, lived mainly in the towns.

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