Daily Life in New France


Education and Knowledge

An 'aiguillette' cadet receiving instruction from a sergeant of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, 1750-1755

Caption: An 'aiguillette' cadet receiving instruction from a sergeant of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, 1750-1755

By the 1680s, or nearly two centuries before the founding of the "first" Canadian military college in Kingston, Ontario, an educational system for officers had been established in New France. It was thus at the time of Louis XIV that instruction for gentlemen cadets leading to an officer's commission in the regular forces was inaugurated in Canada.

It is difficult to evaluate the quality of the instruction provided to officers in New France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Entering the armed forces as cadets in their adolescence, the young gentilshommes learned Canadian tactics and familiarized themselves with the country by going on expeditions. However, they also spent much of their lives in towns. It was during this time that they were taught reading, writing, mathematics, religion, dancing and a few technical and theoretical aspects of the art of war. At least, this was the basic curriculum of cadets in France. How was this information conveyed? A document lifts at least a corner of the veil covering this mystery. In the mid-eighteenth century in Montreal, there was a "captain of the gentilshommes of [the] colony." 108 It now seems completely logical that there would have been an experienced officer under whose authority the cadets gathered and who was responsible for organizing their education and disciplining them. The rare written records left by Canadian officers clearly show that they received basic instruction in military theory and technique. The non-military part of their education was probably imparted in seminaries.

Books of all kinds were common among officers. Some had personal libraries. In the mid-seventeenth century, the major of Montreal, Lambert Closse, had thirty volumes. In the eighteenth century, a good library usually contained several religious books as well as works of history, literature, travel and the military arts. Among the latter were books of army orders and regulations, and treatises on fortifications, tactics and artillery. Books were very expensive, so the larger libraries belonged to older officers, especially to members of the general staff.

While serving in the military, a few officers engaged in scientific research and experiments. Early in the eighteenth century, Gédéon de Catalogne served in Canada, on Île Royale and Île Saint-Jean and at the same time corresponded with the Academy of Sciences regarding his observations about longitude and the drift of ships. Ensign Jacques-Pierre Daneau de Muy, who in the early 1730s had the command of Fort Saint-Joseph in what is now the state of Michigan, took advantage of his time there to study the local plant life and returned with numerous specimens, of which "many [were] unknown in France." On the basis of his experiments, he wrote an "instructive paper" 109 describing their medicinal effects and presented it in France. In Louisbourg, conditions for observing stars were especially good, and Captain Michel de Gannes devoted himself to this science. Several civilians and officers, including the governor of the fortress and the engineer of the fortifications, owned expensive telescopes. An observatory was built at Louisbourg by the Marquis de Chabert in 1751. Other officers took an interest in geology, the lifestyle of the Amerindians, and the local fauna.