French Colonization in Brazil

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French Colonization in Brazil

Brazil was the first region in the Americas frequented by the French, who competed with the Portuguese from 1504 to 1615. Brazil was a port of call en route to the East Indies, and it abounded in profitable resources, including logwood (used to dye Rouen cloth).

French sailors visited the coast, establishing posts where they traded with the indigenous population. The sailors used their compatriots, who had been adopted by the Indians, as guides and interpreters. Normans and Bretons supported the Tupinambá peoples against their enemies and the encroaching colonization by the Portuguese. The Norman Binot Palmier de Gonneville made the first confirmed voyage to Brazil in 1504, reaching the coast at 26 degrees south latitude and proceeding to just north of the equator. On his return voyage, near the island of Jersey, he was attacked by Breton pirates. All his cargo was lost, but Essomericq, a native Brazilian whom Gonneville had brought with him, was baptized and was married to a cousin of the family. The descendants of that union took an interest in Brazil and appealed for missionaries from France. The two resulting French colonization efforts failed: La France Antarctique (1555–1560) founded by Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, and La France Equinoxiale (1612–1615).

In the sixteenth century the French heavily fortified the "island" of Brazil, challenging the growing monopoly of the Portuguese. Francis I supplied the funding for the competition of empires. Between 1526 and 1529 the Verrazano brothers, discoverers of New York Harbor, made three voyages to Brazil. In 1550, Rouen honored Henry II with a Brazilian festival, including dozens of French sailors and Amerindians. Churches near Dieppe and houses in Rouen have stained glass windows and sculptures representing ships, the lumber trade, and the native peoples of America.

Shipwrecked on the Brazilian coast, the German Hans Staden later attested that the natives, who had been rumored to be cannibals, were actually friendly. The native peoples living at Cape Frio were on good terms with the French, those at Pôrto Seguro with the Portuguese. In 1551, Guillaume le Testu of Le Havre explored as far as the Río de la Plata. English and Norman merchants contracted to trade jointly with Brazil. The French, English, and Dutch all opposed the Catholic powers of the South. The French court took an interest in Brazil, as did businessmen, humanists, and Protestants. A manual compiled by Cordier, a Rouen merchant, set forth French and Brazilian words, but made no reference to any hostile terms.

The first French colony, La France Antarctique, has often been portrayed as Huguenot refuge, but other scholars have seen the settlement as a part of France's larger colonial ambitions. Villegaignon's project prospered despite internal problems. But in 1560, the Portuguese began an all-out conquest. The unsubjugated Indians fled to the north, accompanied by the French. Still, commerce between France and Brazil continued. In 1565, maritime insurance in Rouen had an 18 percent premium for Brazil and 17 percent for the Roman port of Civitavecchia. Between 1560 and 1610 an estimated 500 French ships sailed to Brazil.

Vaux de Claye opened the Amazon coast for trade in 1579. In 1612, La Ravardière and Rasilly established "Equinoxial France" at Maranhão with Saint Louis (São Luís) as capital. The French Capuchin friars made known the plight of the indigenous peoples, and when the Portuguese attacked Saint Louis in 1615, the French fled. Later, they would aid the Dutch in their attempts at colonization in Brazil.

Thereafter the French shifted their enterprises to the Guianas. France and Brazil contested the frontier until World War I, and in 1711 René Duguay-Trouin, corsair of Louis XIV, actually attacked Rio de Janeiro. In the nineteenth century, however, French visits to Brazil were strictly scientific and commercial.


Charles André Julien, Les français en Amérique (1946) and Les débuts de l'expansion et de la colonisation françaises (1947).

Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America, vol. 2 (1974).

Brasíl, Serviço De Documentação Gerál Da Marinha, História naval brasileira, vol. 1 (1975).

Michel Mollat and Jacques Habert, Giovanni et Girolamo Verrazano, navigateurs de François ler (1982).

Frank Lestringant, Le Huguenot et le sauvage (1990).

Philippe Bonnichon, Los navegantes franceses y el descubri-miento de América (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Elmalan, Serge. Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon ou l'utopie tropicale. Lausanne: Favre, 2002.

Lopez, Adriana. Franceses e tupinambás na terra do Brasil. São Paulo: Editora SENAC, 2001.

Mariz, Vasco, and Lucien Provençcal. Villegagnon e a França Antártica: Uma reavaliação. Rio de Janeiro: Biblioteca do Exército Editora: Editora Nova Fronteira, 2000.

McGrath, John. "Polemic and History in French Brazil, 1555–1560." Sixteenth Century Journal 27:2 (Summer 1996): 385-397.

                                  Philippe Bonnichon