France and the New World
France and the New World
Imperial Rivalries. The enormous wealth that the Spanish had extracted from their Central and South American colonies impressed the French and stirred them to action. After capturing several treasure-laden Spanish galleons during a war with Spain, the French king Francis I, with the support of silk merchants and other businessmen who were anxious to find the “Passage to the Orient,” commissioned the Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 to explore the New World. Starting roughly at present-day Florida, Verrazzano sailed north and believed he saw the Pacific Ocean just behind the outer banks of what is today North Carolina. The find proved illusory, but the charts and maps he made of the east coast of North America provided a useful store of information for later French explorers.
St. Lawrence River. Subsequent voyages to North America overturned Verrazzano’s proposed route to Asia. French navigators, however, reasoned that if the passage did not lie in the Southeast it must lie to the north. Jacques Cartier undertook two voyages to search the waters of Canada for the passage. On his first voyage in 1534 he sailed up the St. Lawrence River, which seemed to him a likely choice for a route to Asia. In the process he made contact with Iroquoian Indians who lived at Stadacona, near present-day Québec City. Cartier kidnapped two young boys from the town to take back to France, where they could learn French and act as interpreters on the next voyage. When he returned in 1535, he proceeded farther up the St. Lawrence River to the Iroquoian town Hochelaga, present-day Montreal, but Lachine (The China) Falls blocked any further exploration by water. He and his crewmen returned to Stadacona, where they barely survived the frigid winter temperatures and scurvy. Cartier returned a third time in 1541 to set up a base camp at Cap Rouge, west of Stadacona, in preparation for Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval’s plans to build a permanent colony. Cartier and his men survived the bitter winter but decided to abandon the site. On their way back to France, they met with Roberval’s small fleet, which was carrying two hundred men, women, and children and livestock to Cap Rouge. Despite the hardships Cartier’s men had suffered, Roberval refused to turn back, and he continued on to Cap Rouge, where he founded the colony Charlesbourg Royal. One-fourth of the settlers died during the first winter, and the survivors packed up their belongings and set sail for France in 1543. Caught in a war with the Italian city-states, King Francis I had no interest in continuing the fruitless efforts to settle the cold climes of what was called New France on maps. Occasional fur-trading expeditions visited the region over the years, but no further attempt to colonize the St. Lawrence River valley was made prior to 1600.
Religious Strife. In 1547 King Henry II succeeded his father, Francis I, and during his twelve-year reign he dedicated himself to driving Protestantism out of France. The Huguenots, followers of John Calvin, had gained a substantial following among the artisanal and professional classes of the cities, and in spite of the repression, they managed to wield considerable economic and political clout. In 1559, when the Huguenots held their first national meeting, Henry II died and was succeeded by his mentally handicapped son, Francis II. The day-to-day government of the kingdom fell to Francis II’s advisors, and they continued the persecution of the Protestants. Upon Francis II’s death his mother and Henry’s widow Catherine de Medici acted as regent to the ten-year-old King Charles IX, and she sought to reconcile Catholics and Protestants and to extend religious toleration to the Huguenots. The end of official persecution, however, hardly put an end to the violence and bloodshed. The Crown saw in the Americas an opportunity both to defuse sectarian tension and challenge Spanish power overseas. The first attempt to plant the Huguenots
in the New World was made in Brazil in 1555, but difficulties there forced the Crown to train its eyes on Florida.
Paul E. Hoffman, A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990);