Bronwen McShea. Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France. France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Illustrations. 376 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0890-3.
Reviewed by William Carroll (University of Oklahoma)
Published on H-Borderlands (June, 2022)
Commissioned by Hayden L. Nelson (University of Kansas)
Shortly before New England militiamen and their Mohawk allies descended on an Abenaki village in what is now Maine, Jesuit missionary Sébastien Râle explained why he chose to remain with his congregation. “It is not enough for me to perform the spiritual duties of my ministry.... I must also enter into their temporal affairs.” Râle’s sentiment echoes throughout Bronwen McShea’s latest work, Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France. It is a long-held supposition that the titular order concerned itself exclusively with the Catholic conversion of the Native peoples of North America. Members of the Society of Jesus fled deep into the wild spaces of the continent to construct missions free of the taint of secularization found among their fellow Frenchmen. It was only in the postrevolutionary period a mission civilisatrice found the Jesuits working alongside imperial interests. However, McShea challenges this narrative. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America, the order labored tirelessly to construct a marriage of ecclesiastical success and a Gallic transatlantic empire. This was not, as Native historians James Axtell and Bruce Trigger have argued, a marriage of convenience. Rather, there was as much a deliberate preoccupation with cultivating an empire for the Bourbon monarchy as there was creating a heavenly kingdom.
The book, comprising eight chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue, is divided into two parts. The first, “Foundations and the Era of the Parisian Relations,” covers the first half-century of Jesuit efforts in North America, which began in the first decade of the seventeenth century. The central characters of this portion are Father Paul Le Jeune and Sébastien Cramoisy. The former was a major contributor to the Relations de Jesuits la Nouvelle France, a five-decade-long annual publication detailing the efforts and needs of the order. The latter was the exclusive publisher of the Relations, who also served on the board of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France, a major source of funding for the Jesuits’ efforts. The partnership of Le Jeune and Cramoisy serves as an iconic representation of the forces needed for not only the Jesuits but also the fledgling colony to become a success. The second part, “A Longue Durée of War and Metropolitan Neglect,” focuses on the world these two left behind as continental conflicts, rising skepticism concerning the colony's potential for success, and a general malaise concerning Christianity threatened to undo their legacy. McShea rescues the declensionist narrative by reminding her readers that “these men, their collaborators, and their missionary Catholicism bequeathed to modern French colonialism some of its structural and ideational furniture” (p. 262).
The first chapter contains a dedication of an early prototype of the Relations to King Louis XIII in which the author envisioned that his young monarch would “one day plant the standard of the Cross with the fleur de lys upon the most distant infidel land.” This dedication represented the essential link the Jesuits made with the French monarchy, particularly with the king’s new prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, to try and make this vision a reality. Richelieu, along with a network of Parisian elites, took a distinct interest in both Jesuit missions and commercial activity in New France via the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France. The annual publication of the Relations, beginning in 1632, not only allowed the Jesuits to tout their ecclesiastical successes but also provided an important mouthpiece concerning recent events and essential needs of the colony. These works provided an essential foundation in linking the Jesuits to the work of empire building.
The Relations are dissected in even greater detail in the next three chapters as McShea further examines the links these publications sought to create. The second chapter observes how descriptions of Native Americans in these annual reports were both a financial and a cultural appeal to the socially elite patrons of the Jesuits. Not only did these missionaries bemoan the poor subsistence of their charges in order to appeal for charitable donations, but they also derided Native habits and organizations in an attempt to promote a national identity after the pattern of the French aristocracy. For example, while many of the foodstuffs and manners of the peoples the Jesuits visited mirrored the lower classes of contemporary French society, there was no attempt to make a familiar comparison. Rather, by criticizing the mores of a foreign people, they could encourage such actions to be looked upon with horror at home. The Relations, therefore, promoted an idealized vision of French civilization that could be built, with upper-class donor support, in North America. The next chapter focuses on Relations reports of a decades-long conflict with the Iroquois known as the Beaver Wars. The Five Nations were more than just a Philistine foil to Jesuit missionary efforts. The Jesuits used the conflict to advance calls for a stronger French military presence in the region to make the continent secure for further expansion. The final chapter discusses how the Jesuits frequently collaborated with laypersons, particularly women, to fund both charitable and medical efforts for the benefit of their Indigenous congregations. In these acts of charity, donors not only participated in the “merits of the apostles” but also helped further French imperial endeavors by creating an indebted network of Native allies (p. 122). McShea is currently writing a biography of one such donor, Marie de Vignerot, la Duchesse d’Aiguillon, which will undoubtedly generate great interest for those who, like the author, find such stories to be underappreciated in modern scholarship.
The second portion of the book begins with a familiar subject: the Beaver Wars. However, the extension of the conflict westward into the pays d’en haut, the cessation of the publication of the Relations in 1673, and the Great Peace of Montreal created new challenges for the order. In responding to each of these challenges, the Jesuits continued to wed their spiritual and imperial goals. Moving westward offered new souls for salvation as well as indispensable allies against the Iroquois. Unable to maintain an extensive donor base without the Relations, the order made requests directly to colonial and royal leadership. This tied their own proselytizing missions closer still to the forces behind the economic and military success of New France. Finally, the Great Peace opened a new avenue for conquering the Iroquois: through the soul. By turning these formerly fierce rivals into converts, they could permanently draw the Five Nations into the sphere of the French Empire. This new wave of Indigenous converts provided an opportunity for the Jesuits to promote a wholly new element upon which the order pinned its hopes for New France’s future: an “Indigenous colonial aristocracy” (p. 159). A far cry from the derisive depictions of Native peoples found in the earlier chapters, by the end of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits lauded the political and social elite of Native societies for their noble qualities. Through “an organic interweaving of indigenous and French forms of civilité and police,” the order hoped to provide a new element of the colony that would allow New France to succeed through intermarriage, long-standing alliances, and Catholic sacraments (p. 162).
Despite the optimistic tone of these chapters, McShea notes that the Jesuits were unable to receive the necessary aid to achieve their ambitious goals. The movement of the court to Versailles and a marked shift among urban elites during the early days of the Enlightenment away from Christianity hindered the order’s ability to procure further funding. The abrupt suppression of the Jesuits by both the French and the Catholic Church in the mid-eighteenth century all but doomed the order’s overseas connections. Across the Atlantic, continually destructive colonial conflict eroded the Jesuits’ effectiveness. By the cessation of the Seven Years' War in 1763, the French colonial empire was all but eliminated in North America. The final chapter, despite McShea’s best efforts to depict the solid stand a handful of Jesuits made against this wave of historical change, is a series of snapshots of the waning days of the order. A true pity, as the characters and the situations portrayed are fascinating enough to merit their own exhaustive study.
If this book is any indication, McShea will be an authoritative figure in colonial French history for many years to come. Her ability to extrapolate a nuanced, multifaceted, and unique interpretation from the multivolume Relations is a Herculean task for any scholar in this field. However, her true skill comes from understanding the context and, even at times, subtext of the primary sources. Nowhere does this skill come across more clearly than in her chapters concerning French conflicts with the Iroquois. Her presentation of the complex narrative of the Beaver Wars as well the various ways the Jesuits were able to frame this violence to express their own imperial aspirations is a section future scholars of this crucial continental clash will religiously revisit. While her discussion of these fascinating Jesuits and their contemporaries tends to come off as a bit formulaic, especially in the last chapter, one can only imagine her upcoming biography on Vignerot will allow her ample opportunity to improve this skill. Also, the work leaves a notable blind spot concerning Jesuit interactions with one of their largest internal foils: the coureur de bois. While McShea briefly mentions Jesuit discouragement of their marriage to Indigenous women due to their belief that they were not the “noble” sort of Frenchmen that an Indigenous colonial aristocracy should bind themselves, this is hardly the only interaction the two groups would have had during this time. However, it speaks to the author's skill of presentation that even after eight chapters I was still hungry for more. In short, McShea’s work will undoubtedly reconfigure how the Jesuit legacy in North America is perceived. As Jay Gitlin argues in The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion (2009), North America’s French connection is stronger than is often given credit. Thanks to Apostles of Empire, the Jesuits are sure to be at the forefront of that reevaluation.
. Father Sébastien Râle, Missionary of the Society of Jesus in New France, to monsieur his brother, October 12, 1723, in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, vol. 67, Lower Canada, Abenakis, Louisiana, 1716-1727 (Cleveland, OH: Burrow Bros. Co., 1896), 181.
. Pierre Biard to the king, 1616, in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, vol. 3, Acadia: 1611-1616 (Cleveland: Burrow Bros. Co., 1896), 29.
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William Carroll. Review of McShea, Bronwen, Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France.
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