Living in Montreal for a short time as I am at the moment, I have spent some time researching the city’s history. While reading a story about the then growing French colony, it struck me how strongly a growing population is linked with holding onto power and values. Louis XIV wished to see “New France” (the Quebec region) grow quickly without depopulating France itself. His solution was to send enough young girls of good French character to marry the male settlers so that New France could provide for its own increase. Hence, between 1665 and 1673 about 1000 prospective wives were sent over from France to marry French colonists.
In New France, an extended state of bachelorhood was seen as shirking one’s duty. In fact the first Intendant of the region, Jean Talon, enforcedd severe penalties for unmarried men. They were forbidden to hunt, fish, or trade with the Indians. Parents in New France were also required by law to see that their sons were married by eighteen or nineteen, and their daughters by fourteen or fifteen.
In addition, King Louis XIV provided strong inducements for large families. Any colonists having ten living children born in lawful wedlock were eligible for a pension of 300 livres a year. If they had twelve children the pension rose to 400 livres. The emphasis on prompt marriage and frequent childbirth was effective and the population of New France more than doubled between 1666 and 1676.
Going forward a couple of hundred years, I reflected on another example of the strong link between demography and power while watching Anna and the King for the first time last night. The story is set in Siam, now Thailand, in the late 19th century. It is about an English woman who becomes the school teacher of King Mongkut's many children and wives. Mongkut's reign was the time when the power of the House of Bunnag reached its zenith and became the most powerful noble family of Siam. As part of assuring this power, Mongkut acquired 32 wives and by the time he died, aged 64, he had 82 children.
While I don’t endorse the government telling people when their children should get married or how many children they should have – or acquiring 32 wives – the historic acknowledgement that fertility and family go hand in hand with maintaining one’s own values and political systems is keenly illustrated in these examples. They stand in stark contrast to the low fertility trends seen by much of the world today, and especially in Europe.
However despite such low fertility, we still see examples of this recognition today. For instance, Marcus wrote about Turkey’s call for more babies a few weeks ago:
Aside from trying to increase the Turkish birthrate in Turkey, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is calling on Turks living in Europe to start having more babies. Each Turkish family living in Europe should have five children each since a growing Turkish population would be the best answer to the EU’s “vulgarism, antagonism and injustice”.
Other countries the world over are waking up to their low birth rates and their complex causes. But will it be too late to protect the values and political systems they wish to live by?