The Scientific Revolution in North American ‘New France’ during the 16th and 17th Centuries
A full-blown scientific and technical revolution was taking place in the 16th and 17th centuries.
By Dr. Christopher Parsons
Associate Professor of History
At the time the French were settling in North America, science in the modern sense of the term was in its infancy: people still referred to ‘natural philosophy’ to describe the objective study of nature and the physical universe. Even so, a full-blown scientific and technical revolution was taking place in the 16th and 17th centuries. European scholars were developing methods of investigation that were rigorous, verifiable and reproducible. They published abundantly, consolidated their disciplines and formed institutions: in Paris, they created the Jardin du Roi and the Royal Academy of Sciences.
Naturally, the New World was a popular subject of study for these early scholars who sought to explain and classify the physical universe. Astronomical observations were of paramount importance, since navigators relied on them to try and determine their longitude. To arrive at their destination, they had to observe the stars and invent instruments. To explore and claim a territory, they had to make advances in cartography.
Jesuit missionaries, the first organized group in the colony with an advanced education, also documented their findings, not only in the heavens, but also in the mineral, plant and animal resources they observed. They were followed by the Royal physicians and engineers, who did the same. A few governors had scholarly aspirations as well, keeping up to date on European scientific developments and maintaining an extensive correspondence with their counterparts on the other side of the ocean. The French crown even financed the visit of a Swedish botanist to Canada. Colonization thus contributed to the advancement of knowledge.
Imagine yourself along the shores of the Saint Lawrence Valley, Acadia or Louisiana, some four or even five hundred years ago. Surrounded by new cultures, new plants and animals and standing on an unfamiliar continent, how would you begin to situate yourself? How would you find out where you were, how far you were from familiar landscapes and ocean routes? How would you make sense of new environments, whether they be forests of unfamiliar plants and animals or the manmade landscapes of nearby Aboriginal communities? How, in effect, would you come to terms with a New France dramatically different than the one you had left behind on the other side of the Atlantic, and how would you record and analyze your experiences to share them with audiences in Paris and throughout Europe?
These challenges were best outlined by the Jesuit Louis Nicolas, who wrote several natural histories of the Great Lakes region in the late seventeenth century. In his Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales, he wrote:
Dear Lord, how am I angry to have embarked upon an enterprise as difficult as writing an account of the New World, where there are so many things to say; not knowing where it is best to start, I admit that I am strongly troubled for what chance is there, even after twenty years of assiduous labour and great voyages, that I can say what is necessary of so many beautiful curiosities in a foreign land where everything is different than ours? What means [exist] to reduce so many vast lands, and to speak in few words of so many different objects … from a country of which we have not yet discovered the limits?
This was one of the major problems that faced many of those who travelled to New France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, whether they did so as colonists, missionaries, administrators, merchants or explorers.
Making Sense of the New World
When explorers such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain travelled along the Saint Lawrence River or overland into what is now Québec and Ontario, they used an array of methods to both orient themselves and record their experiences. Both made extensive use of instruments that helped quantify and measure locations and distances, for example. They also looked to other travellers with specific skills. Both Cartier and Champlain also looked to trained apothecaries for insight into, for instance, the possible uses of local plants. The toolkit on which they drew was eclectic, and only partially recognizable as science to the modern eye.
As we explore the history of science in New France, it is important that we relax our own conception of what this word means; New France was not a place for laboratories or expensive instruments. Instead, it was an area where what we often call “the applied sciences” dominated.
Sciences such as botany, zoology or hydrography (the study of bodies of water) indeed prevailed in a colony where the more abstract sciences such as physics or chemistry found little traction. These were practical sciences that addressed the day-to-day concerns of living in a newly founded and slowly expanding colony. While mathematics was put to use throughout the colony, most of it had to do with the concrete tasks of mapping the land and navigating the ships that travelled along its shores and rivers. There was initially far more interest in finding edible or valuable plants than in the precise identification of leaf shape or structure.
So our modern sense of science might be too narrow to be of use in discussing a colony where amateur scientists confidently described sea monsters, non-existent geographical features and supernatural powers that could cause earthquakes or illness. The history of science in New France is, first and foremost, the history of how those who came to the colony tried to understand the New World that they found themselves in, and how they tried to share their experience with readers and supporters in Europe.
Early Colonial “Scientists”
If the word “science” covered a broader range of activities than we might understand today, it is also true that science was practiced by a broader range of the community in New France than is common now. Those whose education made them uniquely capable of describing new-world environments for old-world audiences had often originally acquired their knowledge for other ends.
Louis Hébert, one of the first settlers in Acadia and later an important colonist at Québec, is thought by historians to have been one of the most important providers of North-American plants for French collectors and gardeners. As a trained apothecary, he would have been able to describe and collect plants better than most, and might have been more inclined to begin to catalogue and experiment with his new environment. Almost one hundred years earlier, in 1535, Jacques Cartier similarly included an apothecary—François Guiltault—in his crew.
Before the end of the seventeenth century, there were few individuals who, today, might actually be called scientists. Many of those “colonial scientists” lacked any formal training in the sciences, and instead applied skills that had been gained for other purposes. Champlain, for example, likely learned much of what he knew about surveying and cartography while in military service before coming to the New World. Such men frequently learned as they went. Historians who have analyzed Champlain’s writings and maps suggest that much of what he learned about navigating ships and producing maps was acquired through observation and action rather than formal schooling.
Those historical figures that we might now label as colonial scientists are therefore most often remembered far more commonly as explorers, administrators, colonists or missionaries. In his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, for example, Pierre Boucher is remembered above all as an “interpreter, soldier, governor of Trois-Rivières, royal judge, and seigneur of Boucherville”, even though his Histoire véritable et naturelle is one of the most important early natural histories produced in the colony. This is partly because he, like most other colonial scientists, lacked specific training relevant to his scientific work; Boucher came to the colony as a child and was educated by Jesuits who he assisted in their mission work.
Others, such as the missionary Paul Le Jeune, were well educated even by our own standards, but in fields that might seem to have little connection to scientific study. Indeed, Le Jeune had taught rhetoric, the art of discourse, before leaving for New France in the early seventeenth century. Colonial scientists often fit studies of colonial environments into broader—and frequently eclectic—intellectual endeavours. Louis Nicolas, another Jesuit missionary who lived in New France towards the end of the seventeenth century, studied Aboriginal cultures and linguistics as well as the plants, animals and peoples that he had encountered in the continent’s interior.
The Mundane and the Marvelous
Drawing on medieval and Renaissance natural histories and travel books as models, early colonial scientists in New France described incredible creatures and blurred the line between natural and supernatural features of the New World. André Thevet, a Franciscan priest and royal cosmographer (a field whose object of study included both newly discovered parts of the world and the universe more generally) wrote that the sighting of a fleur-de-lis within a maple tree by Jacques Cartier’s crew was an omen for the success of a French colony in the region. The Jesuit Jérôme Lalemant similarly provided a detailed description of a 1663 earthquake that struck Québec, but also included accounts of “fiery serpents… flying through the air,” meteors and “specters and fiery phantoms bearing torches in their hand” in the sky.
These fantastical descriptions frequently blended close observation of North-American environments with elements that seem out of place to modern readers. The Jesuit Louis Nicolas included lifelike drawings of a “cheval marin,” or sea horse, that Nicolas claimed “was seen in the fields along the shores of the river of Chisedek which flows into the St. Lawrence River.” This creature is described only a few pages before the “Sea monster killed by the French on the Richelieu River in New France.”
While celebrated figures in the history of science such as Francis Bacon placed the study of such wonders at the heart of the modern scientific method, the juxtaposition of the mundane and the marvelous, typical of colonial science, seems jarring to us and has led many historians to discount the rigour with which many early colonists and missionaries conducted their studies.
Even if their written accounts seem unbelievable, the observations and collections assembled by these early colonial scientists were of great value to French audiences. Revolutions in scientific thought in the seventeenth century were putting new emphasis on firsthand observation and experience, opening up new opportunities for people just like this; people who had little or no scientific or medical background, but who nonetheless offered unique perspectives on newly discovered parts of the world because they had actually been there.
The earliest travellers to New France brought back souvenirs from their journeys that included mineral samples and new plants. A manuscript produced for Queen Anne of Brittany in 1508 reveals that American plants such as corn, beans and squash were already growing in French gardens within fifteen years of Christopher Columbus’ discoveries. Jacques Cartier brought back samples of what he suspected (wrongly, as it turns out) were Canadian diamonds, as well as a tree known as Anneda. The Iroquoian peoples he had met along the Saint Lawrence had showed him how to use this tree to treat the scurvy that had ravaged his crew.
By the early seventeenth century, well-known collectors such as Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc were also assembling sizeable collections of objects of aboriginal origins, including canoes and weapons, while major gardens in Paris were rapidly expanding their collections of North-American plants.
A Science of Survival
The Importance of First Peoples
Significantly, the French learned much of what they knew from aboriginal peoples; as guides, cooks, friends and even roommates, they introduced them to the New World. Champlain, for example, followed up his description of the Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrincus) by describing how he had seen two native peoples catch it with a birch-bark torch, a canoe and a harpoon. The Jesuit Le Jeune provided a description of the same fish several decades later, writing that it was “a Native” who had introduced him to it along the Saint Lawrence.
Early colonists and travellers often learned about New World nature alongside native peoples; Champlain joined a Huron hunting party in 1616, and one winter, Le Jeune stayed with an Innu family. They learned which were the proper seasons to catch fish, and about the seasonal cycle of berries and other wild fruit as they hunted and collected with their native hosts.
Native peoples often sought to teach their French guests how to interact with plants and animals. Grounded in their recognition of their own dependence on seasonally available—and sometimes scarce—sources of food and resources, as well as their respect for the spiritual power of the non-human world, they approached plants and animals with caution and reverence. In early seventeenth-century Acadia, the Jesuit Biard learned that he should not throw to the dogs the bones of bears, beavers and other animals that his native hosts had caught for fear of angering their spirit and endangering future hunts. And for those same reasons, the fur trader and explorer Nicolas Perrot learned how to blow tobacco smoke into the nose of the bears he had killed.
Occasionally, these types of rules limited what could be learned from native peoples. Indeed, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, travellers such as the Jesuit Pierre-François Xavier de Charlevoix complained about the secrecy with which native healers kept their remedies. Another Jesuit, Joseph-François Lafitau, was prevented from discovering the secrets of a particularly powerful medicinal plant because he was male; he wrote that a native informant had told him the remedy could only be collected by unmarried women. In many cases, these insights were dismissed as superstition by French observers and participants, but they were an important part of what native peoples tried to teach them about their shared environments.
In 1716, the Jesuit Jean-François Lafitau discovered ginseng near Montréal. He could not have done it without the help of the Mohawk women with whom he lived at Kahnawake. We now know that the plant he discovered was in fact a closely related species of the Asian plant, but that did not stop the emergence of an immensely profitable trade between New France and China in the early to mid-eighteenth century.
As Lafitau recounted in his Mémoire présenté à son altesse royale Monseigneur le Duc d’Orléans, régent du royaume de France, concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng de Tartarie, découverte en Canada, which he wrote following his discovery in 1718, he was inspired after reading about the collection of ginseng in China. An article written by another Jesuit from Manchuria both described the features of the plant and hypothesized that it might also be found in Canada. Interested in botany and convinced that there were cultural and ecological connections between Northeast Asia and Canada, he quickly began his search near his mission. He was helped in his search by local Mohawk women, who remain nameless in his memoir, and he attributed much of what he was able to say about the plant to his talks with these and other nearby aboriginal peoples. His book analyzed the Iroquoian name for the plant, garentoguen, and how local communities used it medicinally. Unbelievably, he claimed to have proof that the plant was in fact ginseng after comparing and finding similarities between Chinese and Iroquoian uses and names for the plant. Ginseng and garentoguen, he explained, both referred to the shape of the roots and translated roughly as “representation of man, resemblance to man.” From this he concluded that “two names so similar in their signification could not be given to the same thing without a communication of ideas, & by consequence of people: from this one could conclude that these oriental Tartares, whose customs resemble those of the Sauvages, are not so distant from Canada as one thinks.”
Lafitau stands out for the public praise he bestowed upon the knowledge possessed by indigenous cultures of local plants and animals, but his reliance on what Native American peoples knew was likely fairly common. Within a few years, his discovery led to a booming ginseng trade between New France and China that continued to rely on First Nations communities. Collecting the root in the fall, entire families and communities travelled throughout the woods of New France where the plant was found. Many colonists joined them; administrative documents even suggest that the plant was pushed towards extinction. The trade collapsed in 1752 because ginseng was being collected out of season and therefore lacked the appearance demanded by Chinese consumers.
The Professionalization of Science
Over the course of the seventeenth century, colonial science became much more recognizably scientific. Specialized training in fields such as mathematics or medicine became increasingly common in the colony. Meanwhile, New France was brought under the control of Parisian scientists and integrated into their global projects of observation and collection.
Increased specialization and training was first noticed in the scientific fields that addressed the needs for safe and reliable navigation in the colony. New discoveries in mathematics, from Blaise Pascal’s study of geometry to Isaac Newton’s contribution to physics and optics, were at the heart of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the mathematical sciences became a central way in which experiences of New France were recorded and preserved.
Teachers and Pupils
The college founded by the Society of Jesus at Québec in 1635 became a central site for the advancement of mathematical education and science in New France. While essentially starting as an elementary school, the college introduced mathematics into the curriculum in 1651 with a focus on the applied mathematics needed for navigation and map making. Jesuits were responsible for introducing new instruments and techniques to the colony, yet in some instances their faith limited what they could teach at the college. Resistance to the astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus, which suggested that the earth revolved around the sun (heliocentric), meant that students were taught the system of Giovanni Battista Riccioli, an Italian Jesuit who integrated advances in physics and astronomy, but nonetheless maintained the image of a geocentric universe, where everything revolved around the earth.
Students were often drawn from the local population of mariners, and learned how to use new navigational instruments and skills such as producing and reading charts and maps. This focus attracted support from local colonial officials such as Jean Talon, who wrote in 1665 that “The young men of Canada devote themselves and throw themselves in schools to learn the sciences, the arts and crafts, and especially that of the mariners’. If this inclination is encouraged even a little, there is cause to hope that this country will become a nursery of navigators, fishermen, sailors, and workmen all being naturally disposed to this employ.”
The Mathematics of Mapping
The Jesuits continued to provide much of the knowledge in hydrography, cartography and mathematics to the colony into the eighteenth century, with increasing support from the French state. The latter also supported hydrographers in the colony in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Arriving in 1685, for example, Jean Deshayes produced the most precise study of the colony’s waterways using skills that he had acquired through formal training and in the service of the French navy off the coasts of Africa and in the Caribbean.
Missionaries and hydrographers were thus recruited by the colonial government for their skills in these sciences to help chart the interior of the continent and produce maps. In 1750 the Jesuit Pierre Jean de Bonnecamps was asked by the governor general Roland-Michel Barin de Galissonnière, a well-respected scientist in his own right, to travel down the Ohio River as part of a military expedition. The journal he wrote shows us how mathematics could be put to use in the description of new territories. When he described Niagara Falls, for example, he wrote: “The famous waterfall of Niagara is very nearly equidistant from the two lakes. It is formed by a rock cleft vertically, and is 133 feet, according to my measurement, which I believe to be exact. Its figure is a half-ellipse, divided near the middle by a little island. The width of the fall is perhaps three-eighths of a league. The water falls in foam over the length of the rock, and is received in a large basin, over which hangs a continual mist.”
Yet even as he provided the colonial government with detailed measurements of latitude and longitude, de Bonnecamps’ journal reveals the limits that conditions at the frontier of the colony placed on the mathematical sciences. He wrote that
“The longitude is everywhere estimated. If I had had a good compass, I would have been able to determine several of its points by observation; but could I or, ought I to rely on a compass of indifferent merit, and of which I have a hundred times proved the irregularity, both before and since my return? Can I dare say that my estimates are correct? In truth, this would be very rash—especially as we were obliged to navigate currents subject to a thousand alternations. In still water, even, what rules of estimation could one have, of which the correctness would not be disturbed by the variation and inequalities of the wind or of the rowers?”
Whether they were used to chart the Saint Lawrence River, the layout of colonial towns or frontier regions where France’s control was contested by aboriginal peoples and rival imperial powers, mathematical sciences were a crucial tool of empire.
Conclusion: The Académie Royale des Sciences
The history of science in New France is the story of how early colonists came to understand the new environment in which they were settling. This is a history that is enriched by the diversity of its cast: men and women, colonists and aboriginal peoples, amateur and professional scientists. Science itself remains a moving target in this story. In the first century of colonization, science could and often did include the seemingly unbelievable alongside accounts of new environments that emphasized their fundamental familiarity and ability to maintain French lifestyles. Over time, however, science in the colony became more recognizably scientific. Beginning with Jesuit mathematics, and increasingly after the arrival of trained hydrographers and naturalists, a new emphasis on specialized training and instruments contributed to a science that emphasized the difference between North America and Europe.
Whether cataloguing new plants and animals or using complex math to chart the Saint Lawrence River, science also became less inclusive, as fewer and fewer were able to call themselves scientists in the colony; even those few who did had to accept the authority of Paris-based researchers unquestioningly. At the same time, however, scientists in New France became part of a global community of researchers who were actively redefining science and imagining new ways of understanding the natural world.
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Originally published by the Virtual Museum of New France, Canadian Museum of History, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.