The 300th Anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht and the Generosity of Governments

By Gregory Kennedy

I know what you are thinking.  Not another commemoration of some dusty old treaty or some gruesome colonial war!  Still, since both Thomas Mulcair and Thomas Peace called our attention to the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 , it seems only fair that the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 should get its due. 

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) was primarily fought in Europe over who would take over Spain and its extensive imperial possessions after the death (without direct heirs) of its mad and sickly king, Charles II.  To make a long story short, the two contenders were Philip, the grandson of Louis XIV of France and Charles, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.  The idea of either the French or the Austrians gaining all of Spain’s power and riches was not very palatable for the other states of Europe.  Ultimately, Philip became Philip V of Spain and retained the Spanish colonies in the New World, while the Austrians received the rich Spanish possessions in the Netherlands and Italy.   The British won Gibraltar and Minorca.  This compromise, negotiated over a series of treaties in March and April, 1713, set the conditions for an extended peace, which lasted (for the most part) until the 1740s.

In North America, this conflict was often referred to as Queen Anne’s War, after the British monarch of the time.  Although the British failed to capture Québec, they did conquer Annapolis Royal in 1710.  By the terms of the treaty, the French conceded sovereignty of Newfoundland, Acadia (once again re-named Nova Scotia) and the Hudson Bay region to Great Britain.  The French retained sovereignty over Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) as well as the right for fishermen to dry their catch on Newfoundland’s north shore.  While it is tempting to see the Treaty of Utrecht as a major step towards the conquest of all of New France in 1760, France had only been forced to give up some peripheral territory.  As this map shows, the exact frontiers of many of the colonies remained disputed, and European control over many areas was still very much up for grabs.

In many ways, the Treaty of Utrecht did not diverge very much from other European treaties.  Article XII, for example, which concerns the concession of Acadia/Nova Scotia, provides a rather typical explanation of the sovereignty to be enjoyed by the British.  The “islands, lands, and places, and the inhabitants of the same, are yielded and made over to the Queen of Great Britain, and to her crown, for ever.”  Just like the inhabitants of the formerly Spanish, now Austrian Netherlands, the territory and the inhabitants of Acadia/Nova Scotia were described as dynastic possessions, to be disposed of at the monarch’s will.  However, unlike the European territories concerned in the treaty, the inhabitants of the former French colonies were expressly given the “liberty to remove themselves, within a year, to any other place, as they shall think fit, together with all their moveable effects” (Article XIV).  The same article went on to confirm the right of those “willing” to remain and be subject to Great Britain, to “enjoy the free exercise of their religion, according to the usage of the church of Rome, as far as the law of Great Britain do allow the same.”

These were important concessions.  Louis XIV and Anne affirmed the individual rights of the Acadian colonists to choose where they would live and how they would worship.[1]  Elsewhere in the Americas, not to mention Asia and Africa, the conquest of small colonies was usually quickly followed by the seizure of anything valuable and the deportation of the enemy colonists.  This was also the case in the later British conquests of Île Royale (in 1745 and 1758).  Previous European treaties during the 16th and 17th centuries had also tended to emphasize the right of the prince to impose his religion on his people.[2]  Indeed, Louis XIV had declared Protestantism illegal in France in 1685 and used intimidation and violence against those of his subjects who refused to convert to Catholicism.  Similarly, England had instituted a variety of laws to repress its minority of Catholics.  This had culminated in the overthrow of the Catholic monarch, James II, in 1688.  While the “free exercise” of religion in the newly acquired colonies was technically subject to the same repressive British laws, the granting of even limited religious rights to a minority was nonetheless extraordinary for the time.

Most of the 100 or so French colonists in Newfoundland moved to Île Royale.  There were even fewer colonists in the Hudson’s Bay region.  However, the Acadians, who may have numbered as many as 3000 in 1713, found themselves with a difficult choice.[3]  They were pressured to move by the French and they were also encouraged to stay by the British, who feared they would add to the new strength of the French on Île Royale.  Queen Anne herself wrote a letter confirming Acadian rights and directing her officials to treat them well.[4]  Since most of the Acadians stayed, the British Council at Annapolis Royal had to work with these French Catholics.  There was an extended period of peace characterized by considerable compromise and tolerance from both sides.  Unfortunately, this story did not end well, as the Acadians were ultimately deported by their new British masters, due both to the renewal of imperial war and persisting issues of distrust and hostility.

With regards to First Nations, it must first be emphasized that they were not consulted during the treaty negotiations and that their rights of sovereignty were effectively ignored.  However,  Article XV provides that the “natives of America”, who are “subjects or friends” of France or Great Britain will be treated peaceably by both sides.  They will further “enjoy full liberty of going and coming on account of trade.”  The right of Aboriginal peoples to conduct trade and to cross imperial boundaries was significant.  For example, Article X indicates that British and French subjects would be forbidden to cross into each other’s territory “by sea or by land”.  Thus, Aboriginal peoples were given rights that European colonists were not.  Further, this is one of the only mentions that I have found in which the crowned heads of Europe acknowledged that First Nations were not necessarily subject to them.  It is, frankly, startling that Louis XIV and Queen Anne, in a treaty not directly involving Aboriginal peoples, would refer to them as friends.

This treatment of Aboriginals and Acadians reflects a fundamental theme of governance.  It is easy to be magnanimous when you lack the force to compel.  For example, the British could not really stop the Acadians from practicing their faith, so instead they “granted” this privilege to them.  Neither could they prevent Aboriginal peoples from going where they wished, so this liberty was “awarded” to them.  Both Nova Scotia and the Hudson’s Bay region were borderlands that had not yet been brought under effective imperial rule and would again be contested in future imperial wars.  Both the British and the French were counting on the resources and potential military strength of the inhabitants to help them.  So, the Treaty of Utrecht was generous in its terms.  Negotiation and compromise became an essential part of the relationship between governors and governed.  Of course, the inhabitants’ rights were eliminated or reinterpreted once their help was no longer deemed necessary.  I am tempted to make comparisons between contemporary minority and majority governments, but I will refrain.

It should be no surprise that history shows that government concessions are usually motivated by state interests.  The Treaty of Utrecht should remind us how our current society has been shaped by important government concessions.  At the same time, the ensuing events, like the Acadian deportation and the confinement of Aboriginal peoples to reserves, should warn us that rights and privileges that are granted can also be taken away.  Thus, the greater question on the 300th Anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht is how the “subjects and friends” (or citizens, to use the modern illusion, I mean term) can make it necessary for their governments to be generous and respectful towards them all of the time.

Gregory Kennedy is an assistant professor at the Universite de Moncton.  Click here to read a full text of the treaty.


[1] As early as 1654, an English military commander had offered similar terms to the Acadians.  Capitulation de Port-Royal, 16 août 1654, Mémoires des commissaires du roi et de ceux de Sa Majesté Britannique, sur les possessions & les droits respectifs des deux Couronnes en Amérique, Tome II (Paris : L’Imprimerie royale, 1755) 507-511.

[2] The 1555 Peace of Augsburg set out the principle cuius region, eius religio or “whose realm, his religion” meaning that the religion of the ruler dictated the religion of the ruled.  The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, largely upheld this principle.

[3] Muriel K. Roy, « Peuplement et croissance démographique en Acadie,» dans Jean Daigle, directeur, Les Acadiens des Maritimes : études thématiques (Moncton : Chaire d’études acadiennes, 1980) 144.

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