edward cavanagh on terra nullius and settler colonialism in corporate new france


Edward Cavanagh, ”Possession and Dispossession in Corporate New France, 1600–1663: Debunking a “Juridical History” and Revisiting Terra Nullius’, Law & History Review 32, 1 (2014).

Following Jacques Cartier’s voyages up and down the St. Lawrence River in 1534, 1535–36 and 1541–42, French interest in the region surged. This interest was confined to the region’s potential deposits of minerals, and then diverted realistically to the trade of furs, before ultimately, during the seventeenth century, it diversified to take into account the prospect of agricultural smallholding. So confined, this interest did not account for customary tenure and systems of property relations among indigenous inhabitants; generally these were matters avoided by merchants, traders, missionaries, and early settlers until the expediencies of settlement on the ground required otherwise. These were matters for which, in New France, the companies in charge devised no coherent policy. These were matters for which, at home, the French Crown was no beacon of advice either, meting out meager and inconsistent policies of empire before 1663, preferring instead to endorse trade monopolies while preparing for disputes with neighboring nations with competing designs to the New World. This article explores how settler colonialism got underway in New France without the recognition of indigenous property rights in land. Land was granted by companies seigneurially, and came to be held and farmed by censitaires. Titles carried no endorsement from resident indigenous communities, and the vague endorsement they carried from the Crown—whose role was less important in the development of New World feudalism than it was in earlier centuries at home—was universally purveyed by outsourced corporate entities, the biggest of which being the Compangie de la Nouvelle-France, chartered in 1627.

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