Daily Life in New France


Punishment For Desertion

Between 1635 and 1684, desertion was punished by the death penalty, and thereafter by being sent to the galleys. In the latter case, the guilty party would be chained, his hair shaved off, and theoretically at least (although the punishment was rarely carried out) have his nose and ears slit and his cheeks branded with two fleurs-de-lis. In 1702, the king reinstated capital punishment for soldiers captured trying to reach the English colonies. A few years later, a distinction was introduced between those who were traitors, who would still suffer the ultimate penalty, and those who simply fled "into the depths of the forests, " 93 who would be sent to the galleys. The policy was reversed again in 1717, when the death penalty was restored for all cases of desertion. However, at the same time a system of drawing lots to determine the sentence was introduced. Four pieces of paper were placed in a hat. The unfortunate person who drew the black one was executed, while the others went to the galleys. In actual fact, this draw system was not used much, except to serve as an example now and then.

The soldiers condemned to death were usually shot. Since those who succeeded in finding refuge among the enemy were rarely captured, they were tried in absentia and their sentence was "read out at the head of the troops assembled for this purpose, and posted." 94

In actual practice, a certain amount of clemency was shown, depending on the type of desertion. In 1742, for example, a soldier named Saint-Louis eloped from his garrison in Montreal with a young black woman. Judging that it was dealing with a youthful antic, the Conseil de guerre merely ruled that Saint-Louis continue his service in the colonial forces. There is also mention of soldiers who deserted under the effects of alcohol but, realizing the error of their ways when they sobered up, then returned to their base. Occasionally, the king ordered an amnesty for all deserters, when they could emerge from hiding and rejoin their units with a full pardon. This was meant primarily for deserters who had not left the colony and were hidden by civilians who took pity on them, to the bitter disappointment of the commandant and the Maréchaussée. This was the case of two of the eight soldiers who failed to answer the call in 1738.