Empire in the Americas, French

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Empire in the Americas, French

France came late to the race for the Americas. In the scramble against Spain, Portugal, and England for land, gold, and the passage to Asia, its imperial efforts were episodic, opportunistic, and not always successful. Binot Paulmier de Gonneville's voyage to the shores of Brazil in 1504 put France in the fight for the New World. Dyewoods and exotic hardwoods had attracted French merchants and, thanks to good relations with the local people, a lucrative trade between the forests of Brazil and the ports of Dieppe, St. Malo, and Le Havre was soon under way. Brazil, however, was only one small part of the New World: King Francis I wanted more. When he looked north he saw other opportunities to enhance his power and prestige, so he sent the Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano to probe the coast of North America. Several encounters with local people, however, yielded neither gold, nor silver, nor even a passage to Asia. A subsequent war with Spain put a stop to Francis's ambitions and left France farther behind its rivals.

Not until 1534 did France return to the New World. Fishermen's tales and the ongoing search for the passage to Asia led Jacques Cartier into the present-day St. Lawrence River. Instead of China he found a bustling trading fair at Tadoussac and an important ally, Donacona, at a town called Stadacona. On a second voyage the following year he pushed further up the river to a series of dangerous rapids just past the town of Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montreal. He and his men wintered at Stadacona before returning to France to raise interest in founding a colony. The settlement Cartier founded near Stadacona in 1541 collapsed, however, because of cold and famine, and it would be a long time before the French returned to the shores of the St. Lawrence.

France's North American colonies
1603Champlain explored the St. Lawrence
1608Champlain founded Quebec
1610Pourtrincourt re-founded Port Royal
1634Nicolet reached Sault Ste. Marie and Green Bay
1642Maisonneuve founded Montreal
1665La Point Mission established on Lake Superior
1673Marquette descended the Mississsippi
1673Frontenac founded Fort Frontenac on Ontario
1979–1683La Salle founded Fort Crevecoeur Near Peoria
1683–1689La Salle expedition to Mouth of the Mississippi
1699Iberville established Louisiana Colony
1701Cadillac founded Detroit
1710Mobile founded
1718New Orleans founded

To the south, efforts to settle the shores of Brazil were only marginally more successful. In 1555, under the sponsorship of Henry IV, Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon founded Fort Coligny on Rio de Janeiro Bay and his alliance with the Tupinamba people made La France Antarctique—as the embryonic French colony was called—a promising venture. Problems developed a few years later, however, when a party of Protestants arrived in flight from the sectarian strife that was tearing France apart. If the Catholic settlers resented the newcomers, the Portuguese resented the French presence altogether, and with the destruction of Fort Coligny they drove the French inland. The small town the French survivors established, Henriville, fell to the Portuguese in 1567, ending, for the moment, the French occupation of Brazil.

The idea of planting Protestants in the New World to defuse sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants in France was not limited to La France Antarctique. In 1562 Jean Ribault led 150 Huguenots to the northern edge of Spain's La Florida, where they founded Charlesfort at Port Royal. Two years of famine and disease were enough, however, and the handful of survivors built boats for their return voyage to France. René de la Laudonnière led another 300 Protestants to Florida, but lack of food and poor relations with the local inhabitants inspired a mutiny. A relief expedition led by Ribault provided some small hope, but in 1565 the Spanish commander Pedro Menéndez de Avilés ordered the massacre of the colonists and the end of this French Protestant threat to Spanish Florida.

Faced with such failures, the French turned again to the St. Lawrence Valley, where a burgeoning fur trade between native people and fishermen had caught the crown's attention. In 1603 various Algonquian-speaking peoples and their Huron trading partners agreed to make a place for Samuel de Champlain and the French. Such connections introduced the French to a vast trade network that reached from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay. In 1608 Champlain founded Québec (Quebec City) where Stadacona had once stood, to give the French a permanent foothold in the trade. While the town succeeded as a trading post, it was less attractive as a destination for settlers. In an effort to share the costs and risks associated with colonization, the Crown tended to rely upon private companies to undertake the difficult work of settling the Americas. In Canada that task fell to the Company of New France, but its promoters failed to attract the numbers of immigrants who were pouring into the British colonies to the south. Between 1670 and 1730 fewer than three thousand people came to settle in New France.

The men who conducted the fur trade on behalf of France, the coureurs de bois, as well as the voyageurs who transported the furs and other goods by canoe, extended the empire's reach up the network of lakes and rivers throughout the mid-continent. The good relations they cultivated with native peoples enabled France to deploy only small garrisons and settlements, such as outposts like Detroit and Michilimackinac on the Great Lakes and Cahokia and Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River, to secure their claims to empire. The men stationed at such outposts left behind the métis children who were important to the society of New France. At the same time, Jesuit and Recollet missionaries followed the traders into the country to convert France's important trading partners to Catholicism. Indeed it was the fur trader Louis Jolliet and the priest Jacques Marquette who opened the Mississippi River to France in 1673. René-Robert, Cavalier de la Salle found the mouth of the Mississippi in 1682, which made the settlement of Louisiana possible in 1699. Towns sprouted at Biloxi, Mobile, and, in 1718, New Orleans. After a little more than a century of colonization, New France stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Lawrence Valley and fulfilled Louis XIV's dream of limiting the British colonies to the Atlantic seaboard.

Meanwhile France had not forgotten Brazil. The French returned to Brazil in 1612 when Henry IV granted Daniel de la Touché, Sieur de la Ravardière, permission to found the colony of Cayenne, later known as French Guiana. Malnutrition and disease thwarted early attempts, but in 1664 the Company of the West Indies put the colony on a permanent footing. Initially the colony made its money through trade with the local inhabitants, but sugar and coffee emerged as Cayenne's most important export commodities. Slaves were the colony's most important source of labor. Owing to dynastic struggles in Europe and their own military weakness, the Portuguese were unable to destroy Cayenne as they had La France Antarctique and, in the end, recognized France's claim to this portion of Guiana.

As it had done in New France and Brazil, the Crown created a company, in this case the Company of Saint Christopher, to undertake its imperial efforts in the Caribbean. In 1627 the French divided St. Christopher with the English, and then moved on to fight either the Caribs or other colonial powers for a number of other islands—including Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint Domingue—where enslaved people cleared the land for indigo, cotton, tobacco, cacao, and sugar plantations. Because of the importance of slavery to the empire's fortunes, in 1685 the Crown promulgated the "Black Code" to govern relations between enslaved people and free people in the colonies. While the code mandated certain requirements for food, clothing, and holidays and outlawed the torture of slaves, in practice plantation owners often departed from it to increase their yields, profits, and control. The sugar boom of the early 1700s exacerbated the situation for enslaved people, for cultivating and harvesting sugarcane was a lethal enterprise. Slave owners, however, enjoyed endless profits, and Saint Domingue emerged as the most important of France's overseas possessions.

By 1730 the French empire in the Americas counted 74,000 inhabitants of French ancestry, while nearly 150,000 enslaved people of African ancestry toiled to produce the empire's wealth. The Seven Year's War, however, ended the sugar boom and opened a long period of war and strife that imperiled the empire. With British success on the battlefield and on the high seas came the losses of Canada and Guadeloupe in 1759 and Martinique in 1762. The 1763 Peace of Paris that ended the war ceded Canada to Great Britain and the vast territory of Louisiana to Spain, while France was allowed to reclaim control of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Only two decades later the French Revolution threw the empire into further turmoil. Royalists and Republicans clashed on the islands of the Caribbean while free people of color and enslaved people sought to use the crisis to their own advantage. In 1791 rebellions broke out in Saint Domingue. Forty thousand colonials faced half a million slaves who wanted the freedom promised by the Revolution. In 1794 the National Assembly responded by abolishing slavery in Cayenne, Saint Domingue, and Guadeloupe, but the abolition only spurred enslaved people on other French islands to press more vigorously for their own freedom.

In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte ended the Revolution and promised to restore the empire. The Caribbean caught fire. The bloodiest fight was in Saint Domingue where a former slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture defeated French forces and proclaimed an end to Saint Domingue's colonial status. In response Napoleon dispatched a force of tough combat veterans to restore imperial control. L'Ouverture's forces eventually capitulated, and L'Ouverture was arrested and sent to France where he died in custody. Just as the French victory looked final, however, a yellow fever epidemic ravaged the French forces. And then an imperial order to reim-pose slavery became public. At that moment the Franco-African commanders and soldiers who had helped defeat L'Ouverture deserted and opened combat against the French. The French forces' defeat was disastrous. In 1803 the rebel leader Jean Jacques Dessaline took the Arawak name Haiti for the republic whose independence he proclaimed. On Martinique and Guadeloupe, however, French forces prevailed, and, with the loss of Cayenne to Britain's ally Portugal, these two islands, as well as a few smaller ones, were all that remained of a once large and far-flung empire.

While war raged in the Caribbean, Napoleon set his sights on reclaiming New France. As a first step France acquired Louisiana from Spain in 1802. Renewed hostilities with England, however, made it impossible to defend the territory, so in 1803 Napoleon sold the territory to the United States and focused his efforts on the war in Europe. As in the Seven Years' War, France's defeat in the Napoleonic Wars cost the country a number of its overseas possessions. Only with the restoration of the Bourbon crown in 1815 was King Louis XVIII able to reclaim Martinique and Guadeloupe, again, from Great Britain and half of Cayenne from Portugal. The empire was on its last legs.

In some respects, the French empire in the Americas came to an end with the Revolution of 1848, which abolished slavery. Former colonies were absorbed into the French nation and granted representation in the National Assembly, while former colonists and slaves received full civic rights. In 1852, however, the president of France's Second Republic, Louis Napoleon—he was Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew—set himself up as Napoleon III, emperor of the Second French Empire. He set his sights on Mexico where squabbles over debt repayments offered an opportunity for imperial adventure. After the French landed at Veracruz at the end of 1861 on the pretext of seizing customs revenues for payment of debts, the troops moved into the interior and took Mexico City in 1863. French hopes for popular Mexican support, however, were sorely disappointed. In spite of his misgivings about the invasion, Napoleon III named the Habsburg prince Ferdinand Maximilian emperor of Mexico in the hopes of salvaging something out of the situation. But when the United States demanded that France vacate Mexico, Napoleon III abandoned Maximilian. Liberal and Conservative rebel groups raised the Mexican countryside in a war of national liberation against the invaders and defeated the French in 1867. With the capture, trial, and execution of Maximilian came the final end of French imperialism in the Americas.

see also Cartier, Jacques; Company of New France; Haitian Revolution.


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