Daily Life in New France



Desertion was viewed as a refusal to fight the king's enemies. It was the ultimate dishonour. Worse yet, since there was no place of refuge in deserter's own country, he often was forced to flee to the enemy and provide information in order to gain acceptance. In times of war, deserters often had to join the enemy forces and fight against their former comrades-in-arms. For all these reasons, desertion was viewed as the most heinous crime that soldiers could commit.

Desertion was clearly not a major problem in New France, despite the alarmist statements made by officers and governors from time to time. About one-tenth of French soldiers in Europe are believed to have deserted each year. Desertion in New France was much less frequent. At the same rate, there would have been about 80 deserters a year in Canada during the first half of the eighteenth century; generally, however, there were fewer than six, or only about one percent of the total forces. Île Royale, with an average of four deserters a year between 1721 and 1742, even had a slightly lower rate.

Were French soldiers overseas therefore more patriotic than their counterparts at home? Perhaps, but probably not. A more plausible explanation would be that North American geography discouraged desertion, with its hundreds of kilometres of forests and waterways to cross before refuge could be found. In addition to having the Maréchaussée on their heels with a detachment of soldiers or militiamen, deserters had to cross the territory of Amerindians allied with the French, who often lay in wait. This had a somewhat discouraging effect! If, by chance, a deserter succeeded in reaching New England, he might well receive a rather cool welcome from this puritanical, Protestant society where only English and Dutch were spoken. His future prospects were therefore fairly dim. In fact, quite a few deserters were captured - more than half of those from Île Royale.