CHAPTER IX. THE COUREURS-DE-BOIS
For ten days or a fortnight the great fair at Montreal continued. A picturesque bazaar it must have been, this meeting of the two ends of civilization, for trade has been, in all ages, a mighty magnet to draw the ends of the earth together. When all the furs had been sold, the coureurs-de-bois took some goods along with them to be used partly in trade on their own account at the western posts and partly as presents from the King to the western chieftains. There is reason to suspect, however, that much of what the royal bounty provided for this latter purpose was diverted to private use. There were annual fairs at Three Rivers for the Indians of the St. Maurice region; at Sorel, for those of the Richelieu; and at Quebec and at Tadoussac, for the redskins of the Lower St. Lawrence. But Montreal, owing to its situation at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa trade routes, was by far the greatest fur mart of all.
It has been mentioned that the colonial authorities tried to discourage trading at the western posts. Their aim was to bring the Indian with his furs to the colonial settlement. But this policy could not be fully carried out. Despite the most rigid prohibitions and the severest penalties, some of the coureurs-de-bois would take goods and brandy to sell in the wilderness. Finding that this practice could not be exterminated, the authorities decided to permit a limited amount of forest trading under strict regulation, and to this end the King authorized the granting of twenty-five licenses each year. These licenses permitted a trader to take three canoes with as much merchandise as they would hold. As a rule the licenses were not issued directly to the traders themselves, but were given to the religious institutions or to dependent widows of former royal officers. These in turn sold them to the traders, sometimes for a thousand livres or more. The system of granting twenty-five annual licenses did not of itself throw the door wide open for trade at the western establishments. But as time went on the plan was much abused by the granting of private licenses to the friends of the officials at Quebec, and "God knows how many of these were issued," as one writer of the time puts it. Traders often went, moreover, without any license at all, and especially in the matter of carrying brandy into the forest they frequently set the official orders at defiance.
This brandy question was, in fact, the great troubler in Israel. It bulks large in every chronicle, every memoir, every Relation, and in almost every official dispatch during a period of more than fifty years. It worried the King himself; it set the officers of the Church and State against each other; and it provoked more friction throughout the western dominions of France than all other issues put together.
As to the ethics of the liquor traffic in New France, there was never any serious disagreement. Even the secular authorities readily admitted that brandy did the Indians no good, and that it would be better to sell them blankets and kettles. But that was not the point. The traders believed that, if the western Indians could not secure brandy from the French, they would get rum from the English. The Indian would be no better off in that case, and the French would lose their hold on him into the bargain. Time and again they reiterated the argument that the prohibition of the brandy trade would make an end to trade, to French influence, and even to the missionary's own labors. For if the Indian went to the English for rum, he would get into touch with heresy as well; he would have Protestant missionaries come to his village, and the day of Jesuit propaganda would be at an end.
This, throughout the whole trading period, was the stock argument of publicans and sinners. The Jesuit missionaries combated it with all their power; yet they never fully convinced either the colonial or the home authorities. Louis XIV, urged by his confessor to take one stand and by his ministers to take the other, was sorely puzzled. He wanted to do his duty as a Most Christian King, yet he did not want to have on his hands a bankrupt colony. Bishop Laval pleaded with Colbert that brandy would spell the ruin of all religion in the new world, but the subtle minister calmly retorted that the eau-de-vie had not yet overcome the ancient church in older lands. To set his conscience right, the King referred the whole question to the savants of the Sorbonne, and they, like good churchmen, promptly gave their opinion that to sell intoxicants to the heathen was a heinous sin. But that counsel afforded the Grand Monarch scant guidance, for it was not the relative sinfulness of the brandy trade that perplexed him. The practical expediency of issuing a decree of prohibition was what lay upon his mind. On that point Colbert gave him sensible advice, namely, that a question of practical policy could be better settled by the colonists themselves than by cloistered scholars. Guided by this suggestion, the King asked for a limited plebiscite; the governor of New France was requested to call together "the leading inhabitants of the colony" and to obtain from each one his opinion in writing. Here was an inkling of colonial self-government, and it is unfortunate that the King did not resort more often to the same method of solving the colony's problems.