The transformation of territory into property for European colonists lies at the heart of the colonization process.
As Abbé Raynal put it: “How, without property, can we fix in these distant, unpopulated regions men who, for the most part, only left their homeland because of their lack of property?” And this constitution of new property could only come about, of course, by despoiling Indigenous peoples and their lands.
Although subject to the same legal regime of the Custom of Paris, the French colonies contained a great diversity of land tenures. In the Saint Lawrence Valley (modern Quebec), seigneuries were granted, mainly to religious communities and noblemen. In turn, the seigneurs conceded land to colonists as “censitaires," charged with feudal-like duties: dues and rents, mutation fines, banalités and corvée labour. Indigenous peoples were affected by the establishment of fiefs, but differently and on the whole less severely than the French settler population.
Since the 16th century, the strong French presence in "Terre-Neuve" or “Newfoundland” (i.e. the entire Atlantic coast) had taken the form of seasonal fishing. To clean, salt and dry the cod, there was a need for establishments on the seaboard and, given the lack of any state governance, the fisherman organised themselves so as to distribute each year stretches of the beaches according to when each boat arrived. This was a form of communal property, redistributed every season. As of 1662, the setting-up of fishing colonies on the islands of Newfoundland and Cape Breton lead to the permanent acquisition of certain beaches by these fisher-colonists, thus complicating the old communal system, but without destroying it. From that time on, imperial authorities were torn between favouring the stability of the coastal installations requested by the fishing colonies, and a free access to the seaboard as required by the fishing industry coming from the metropolis’s ports.
The Antilles contrasted with Canada. The preponderance of planters, who had become rich thanks to their control of the land and of slave labour, frustrated all attempts at introducing seigneurial dues. Initially, the colonists claimed plots of land by marking trees according to the “law of the axe,” but before long, the colonial state had acquired a monopoly over land concessions. Allodial tenure – a comparatively simple, individualised form of property – dominated the Islands. Aspects of the Custom of Paris, such as the retrait lignager and the saisie réelle, were suppressed, creating an exceptionally fluid property market, well suited to the demands of a capitalist economy based on slavery. Moreover, colonial courts of justice defied the rules of the Code Noir and classified slaves as real property (immeubles) rather than chattels (meubles) so as to protect the integrity of plantation land and labour, notwithstanding inheritances and law suits. Thus, an exceptionally modern form of property emerged in the 18th -century French Antilles, with strong ownership rights and few obstacles to buying and selling.
As of 1699, Louisiana took form as a French colony in southern North America. There were attempts here to set up seigneuries as in Canada, but the colonists, with the support of the government in France, did not accept them. The triumph here of allodial tenure reflected Louisiana’s growing connection with the Caribbean world.
Surveying practices and land measurement in the French Americas varied as greatly as the diversity tenure forms prevailing in the different colonies. As can clearly be seen on maps, the seigneuries and censives of New France took the form of long, narrow parallelograms. Canadian surveyors placed stakes along the river and traced out dividing lines more or less perpendicular to the banks. As in several French provinces, the arpent served as both a linear and a surface measurement. In fishing zones, properties were laid out along the coast using a marine unit of measurement, the fathom. In the Antilles, properties were square or irregularly shaped, their surfaces measured in carrés (the Windward Islands) or carreaux (Saint Domingue).
Published in may 2021
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