Between the 16th and the 19th centuries, the French brought ways of being and doing to the territories of the New World which they were colonising, inhabiting or exploring. These migrants thus became agents of vital cultural transfers.
To various degrees, the practices and representations of French migrants became modified by their arrival in new environments and through their encounters with Indigenous peoples, Africans, Europeans, and, later, people born in the colonies, former colonies, the USA, Brazil or Spanish-speaking America. Regardless of the era, every aspect of the lives of French migrants was modified through such exchanges in multiracial societies. In the long term, new identities emerged.
Most of the French tried to recreate “their France” in the New World, whether this was in terms of their material conditions, power relationships, ideologies or mentalities. For example, in the places where they established themselves provisionally or permanently, aristocrats built or acquired large dwellings and imported fine foods, good wines and luxury articles. They wore elegant outfits, travelled in coaches and organized horse races. They and other members of the elite wanted to transplant a hierarchical society which they would run. During the century that followed the French Revolution, even those migrants who wanted to break away from French society (socialists, for example) imported alternative models from the very homeland they had rejected. Furthermore, they tried as far as possible to give their American communities a French look. Many of the debates that animated the French political world in the Americas also replicated the debates (for instance, between conservatives and republicans) in France. Should they celebrate parish fêtes or the national festival of 14 July? Should they send their children to a state or Catholic school?
Whether in the 18th-century Antilles, Latin America, the USA or Montreal during the Belle Époque, it was in the cities that constituted the centers of power and knowledge that French culture was most visible. For example, New York and San Francisco had French neighborhoods in the early 20th century. They contained many designers, florists, perfumers, hairdressers, restaurateurs and bookshops. There, it was possible to procure French luxury objects and products. It was also there that it was easiest to maintain ties to France, thanks to the ease of communication and the presence of a lively social network.
In some places, French regionalisms remained strong. The larger, more rural immigration at the end of the 19th century encouraged regional pluralism, with some immigrants speaking in patois. Meanwhile, because of the centralization of royal power, followed by the French Revolution, national identity in France gelled more quickly than it did elsewhere in Europe. Thus, in the lands of colonization and emigration, regional identities cohabited with a sense of belonging to the French nation.
The French language was France’s most important legacy in the Saint Lawrence Valley, Acadia, Louisiana and the Pays d’en Haut, as well as in British colonies and in various parts of the Antilles. French was spoken in Louisburg, Quebec, Montreal, Detroit, New Orleans, Port-au-Prince, and Fort-de-France, and French texts were read in New York, Baltimore and Jamaica. The capital of French publications in North America in the 18th century was neither Quebec nor Montreal, but rather Boston – on one hand, because of a royal ban that prohibited printing books in New France, and, on the other hand, due to the presence of a literate Huguenot community in New England.
Furthermore, in the Antilles, the extensive African slave trade fashioned a totally different form of social organization, which gave rise to forms of different languages being spoken in different settings: enslaved people generally spoke African and Creole languages, while the dwindling White population limited use of the French language to increasingly circumscribed social spaces.
The French may have tried to transplant France to the Americas, but this did not stop them from adapting to their new habitats, more or less quickly depending on the families and individuals. So it was that hierarchies remained linked to the society of the ancien régime, through architecture, toolmaking and farming techniques, food, clothes, language, the conduct of war, religious practices and, more generally, cultural practices and mentalities. This adaptation was called variously Canadianization, Creolization, Americanization, or cultural blending. It gave rise to new cultural identities and, with time, to new national and ethnocultural identities.
Published in may 2021