One-Minute Essays
Feudalism vs. Capitalism in the Colonies Arts & Humanities Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening
A much more detailed study of labor relations and modes of production in two early North American colonies appears in Robert C.H. Sweeny’s recent article, “What Difference Does a Mode Make? A Comparison of Two Seventeenth-Century Colonies: Canada and Newfoundland” in The William & Mary Quarterly (3rd series, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 281-304).
Sweeny takes a look at French Canada (Quebec), founded in 1608 as what he quite rightly notes was “the world’s last feudal society,” and the British colonization of Newfoundland starting in 1610, “the world’s first capitalist society.” In his comparison of the agrarian and fur-trading life established in the French royal colony versus the British mercantile fishing colonies adjacent to the world’s greatest fishing banks, Sweeny looks at how the mode of production (a term derived from Marxist thought) affects how the society ultimately gets ordered. He is looking at how, in his words, “dominant social groups appropriate surpluses created by working peoples in their transformation of nature,” in order to understand the evolution of these colonies into their modern form.
In his detailed analysis of land-ownership, marriage patterns, industrial or agrarian production, he finds the rather ironic conclusion that, even though the French colonies began as feudal dependencies, (That is, where the "dominant social relation of production is the indirect appropriation, through extra-economic means, of household surpluses created by peasant and craft families.") they ended up producing the world's first industrial society following rebellions in the 1830s, whereas the Newfoundland capitalist fishing colonies (where that dominant mode is "the direct appropriation, within the sphere of production itself, of surplus value created by wage labor.") ended up choosing a very different relation to nature. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, what began as a medieval form of a tribute society in Quebec developed into an industrialized, wage-labor society, whereas the fishermen who had begun as extractive capitalists who merely summered on the island of Newfoundland developed into a more socialized, community-decision oriented society (at least until absorbed into the Canadian federal system after WWII).
This brief summary of the article cannot do it justice, so if you have access to the William & Mary Quarterly, it is worth reading.
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