Naval companies

In the early 1660s, the French monarchy attempted to consolidate its scattered American colonies. In 1664, a naval flotilla transported Prouville de Tracy appointed as the King’s Lieutenant-General in America, and several detachments of troops first to Martinique and then to Canada. Facing mounting hostilities with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Iroquois), Prouville de Tracy had requested a full regiment, known as the Carignan-Salières. Once these soldiers arrived in Canada, they began work on a network of forts and waged an aggressive campaign against the Haudenosaunee. After 1672, however, the series of wars launched by Louis XIV created new priorities for the Navy, forcing them to recruit companies that could be permanently detached to garrison the key harbours for the French fleet, such as in Fort-Royal in Martinique. But in canada, it was this model which inspired Governor Lefebvre de La Barre, who was once again embroiled in a conflict for the colony's survival. In 1682, he requested several of these naval companies from Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis de Seignelay. The following year, the companies began to arrive and, by the end of Louis XIV’s reign, approximately sixty companies of 50 men were defending all of French America.

Elsewhere, the colonization of Louisiana required a significant recruitment effort which led not only to the creation of naval companies, but also a Swiss regiment that soon saw deployment across the colonial empire. By 1741, there were 3,543 soldiers in the colonies, divided into 92 naval and 3 Swiss companies. Over time, these troops became a standing colonial army. While the soldiers were recruited directly from France, their officers quickly distinguishing themselves from other naval officers by specializing in colonial careers. In North America, – Canada, Louisburg, Louisiana – officers tended to form a caste, while in the Antilles – Martinique, Guadeloupe, Grenada and above all Saint Domingue – their ranks remained more open, especially since a school for “gentleman-cadets” was established for this purpose in 1730.

But the War of the Austrian Succession was a wake-up call. As France realized it needed more artillery power, new companies of Naval Gunner-Artillerymen, who specialized in the use of cannons, were created from 1743. In 1749, the number of naval companies was also doubled, pushing the theoretical force to 8,600 men. Most importantly, the Secretary of State for War was placed in charge of the entire organization, and the Seven Years’ War provided an opportunity for large expeditions of troops as part of a worldwide conflict. The emerging rivalry between Montcalm and Vaudreuil in Canada would attest to the changes brought by the increasing scale of colonial warfare.

Colonial regiments

The disastrous loss of North America in the Treaty of Paris convinced Choiseul to dissolve all of France's naval troops. From that moment, as per the ordinance of December 21, 1762, Army regiments were placed at the disposal of the Navy and the colonies. Most importantly, once peace was declared, a new deployment strategy was conceived, in which the colonies became a separate theatre of operations. While the Navy gradually took on the responsibility for administering the standing forces of soldiers in the colonies (such as the national troops from Cayenne and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, or the Legion of Saint Domingue) and then  the colonial regiments (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Port-au-Prince, Cap-Français), it was generally accepted that these “sedentary” forces should follow a European model, commanded by officers who often pursued careers that alternated between one side of the ocean, and the other when they were not attending the rigorous training of their cadets.

By the end of the Ancien Régime, the troops in the colonies had begun to form a coherent, efficient corps. They had a single recruiter, Jacques Agobert, a colonial depot, wore uniforms emblazoned with an anchor, received ordinances copied from those issued to the troops in France, and were overseen by colonels, inspectors and general officers. Finally, in October 1784, a Royal Colonial Artillery Corps was established by Lieutenant Général Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval to train the necessary gunners. When needed, Army regiments arrived as reinforcements from France, doubling or even tripling the garrisons, as was the case during the American War of Independence. During this conflict, officials also thought to recruit freemen of colour who formed battalions of volunteer chasseurs during this period.

But this system would not survive the revolutionary period, during which the combination of a revolt among the troops and complete administrative collapse, resulted in the hasty return of the colonial troops to France.


Published in may 2021