Ministère de la Marine

The Ministère de la Marine is the section of the French government that administered Canada during its last 100 years as a French colony. The Ministère de la Marine — variously described as a ministry, department, or secretariat of state — administered France’s navy, colonies and seaborne trade.

The Ministère de la Marine is the section of the French government that administered Canada during its last 100 years as a French colony. The Ministère de la Marine — variously described as a ministry, department, or secretariat of state — administered France’s navy, colonies and seaborne trade.


Origins

Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII's first minister, created the prototype of the Ministère de la Marine in 1624. In the process, Cardinal Richelieu became "grand master" of navigation and trade in 1626. This gave him authority to administer naval affairs without creating a permanent bureaucracy. It was left to Louis XIV's most trusted servant, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to create a government department in the modern sense. An edict on 7 March 1669 established the Ministère de la Marine. Housed in offices at Versailles, Colbert alongside a permanent staff established the Ministère’s policies and procedures. The department was divided into bureaux headed by premiers commis or "first clerks" —powerful civil service officials.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis de Seignelay, 1787

(courteoisie de bibliothèque et archives Canada/2877177)

The department’s approach was characterized by mercantilist ideas whereby colonies and the trade they produce are fundamental to the wealth and power of the metropole. The latter maintains a navy to protect them and to destroy the wealth and power of rivals.

Ruling New France

It was the Ministère de la Marine’s Bureau du Ponant that administered Canada. After 1710, the task of administering New France became a responsibility of the Bureau des Colonies.

Under Jean-Baptiste Colbert, France had the largest navy in Europe to support its colonial and commercial interests. Colbert also organized the Troupes de la Marine under the department’s authority to help defend France’s colonies, including New France. These soldiers became Canada’s first permanent regular military force.

A soldier from the Compagnies franches de la Marine

(courteoisie de Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/2837934)

However, after 1690, even though the colonies were increasing in importance, France became disenchanted with naval strategy and the fleet was allowed to deteriorate. In the 18th century hard-pressed controllers general kept the Marine chronically short of money. Protection for the colonies declined accordingly. As such, New France became hardly defensible against the British American colonies. (See also: Seven Years’ War; The Conquest of New France).

It was not until the American Revolution that France re-attempted to equal Britain on the seas.

See also Colonial Office.