In search of "France in the Americas"
What is “France in the Americas?” Having lived in Quebec for more than ten years, I would be forgiven, I think, for associating France in the Americas (or, as is often said today, l’Amérique française) with the borders of modern-day Quebec. Looking to the south, one would surely add the well-known case of Louisiana. Perhaps — if we’re looking more demographically — one might expand the concept to a broader community of Canadiens français across Canada and in New England, where generations of Francophone families migrated to work in the mills and industries, and where some French-speaking communities still endure.
But when I think of France in America in the Early Modern period, I think of something much broader — and quite distinct from both “New France” and from the French Empire in the Americas. I see it less in terms of demographic or political boundaries, and more in terms of zones of influence. Geographically, one can identify it as a vast crescent running from the fisheries off the Newfoundland Coast, to the settlements along the St. Lawrence Valley, to military forts along the Great Lakes, to villages in the Illinois Valley, up the fur trading outposts along the Missouri River, down the Mississippi Valley through the frail slave societies in the Lower Mississippi, and from there across the Gulf of Mexico to the terrifyingly lucrative sugar islands in the Caribbean — the last of which served as the economic and geopolitical heart of France in the Americas.
Of course, if one defines France in the Americas this way, it means that most of its population was not French but rather Indigenous and African. I wonder what you think about this conceptualization?
I find the notion of “zones of influence” to be a productive one; it is similarly productive to avoid limiting “France in the Americas” to precise political and demographic boundaries. Obviously, examples of ambiguity abound. Did a village like Kahnawake, situated a few kilometers beyond Montreal, on the south shore of what its Kanien’kehá:ka inhabitants named in their language Kahrhionhwa’kó:wa, or Great River (St. Lawrence River for the French), fall within the colony of Canada or within New France? French property documents certainly record the presence of a seigneury there; for the Jesuits, the same spot was home to their Sault-Saint-Louis mission. The people of Kahnawake and their kin saw things quite differently. Even in areas of intense French colonization, like the St. Lawrence Valley, we must contemplate matters through multiple lenses. Moving deeper into the continent, what should one make of the so-called Illinois Country, or pays des Illinois: did it “belong” to the French or to the Illinois? The answer is no simpler in this case. As for the Atlantic coast, European authorities never agreed on the boundaries of French Acadia, relinquished to the British following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Did the Acadians, descendants of French migrants, dwell from then on in a sort of “France in the Americas?” Mi’kmaq people within the region, for their part, believed that they lived in their Mi’kma’ki, regardless of what British or French maps, or diplomatic negotiators, had to say.
On the other hand, even as it recognizes the presence of non-French actors (Indigenous, British, Spanish, etc), the expression “zones of influence” seems to me to downplay politics, and more precisely the violence accompanying Early Modern French empire formation. Indeed, to my mind, the notion of empire easily accommodates the demographic and geographic ambiguities evoked by FF, and further captures ambiguities that he doesn’t mention, such as those relating to law and jurisdiction. Where and to what degree was French law enforced, we might ask? In colonial and imperial situations, these are matters of power, not technical legal questions. As for those who found themselves enslaved, whether they were Indigenous, or of African origin, forced continually to reckon with institutionalized dehumanization, they were subject to something much more severe than an “influence.” Indigenous oral traditions, meanwhile, do not always evoke quaint or nostalgic memories of mutually beneficial alliances. In the recorded words of some Innu from the North Shore of the St. Lawrence river, the French appear as eaters of land.
If I limit my analysis to North America, “France in America” would mean tens of thousands of individuals of French descent who settled in territories populated by tens, even hundreds, of culturally sophisticated Indigenous ethnic communities, speaking a multitude of languages. To interpret these interactions, one must, I believe, discuss alliance and conquest simultaneously. Throughout the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, the French monarchy worked towards imposing its sovereignty, for which it relied on the ongoing extension of its network of alliances with Indigenous peoples. To assert their power in the eyes of other colonial powers, and in the eyes of local allies as well, the French made ample and creative use of rhetorical resources: “protection” or unequal alliance, suzerainty, the metaphor of the father and children, etc. But in the concrete reality on the ground, they had to adapt, and the encounter engendered numerous tensions as well. As CD explains it, from this encounter came into being ambiguous, multifaceted territorial and geopolitical entities.
In this Franco-Indigenous America, dissimilar spaces laid side by side: zones of actual colonization, zones where the movements of the French depended on the good will of Indigenous inhabitants, zones of shared sovereignty… In the Illinois Country, I believe, two forms of sovereignty piled onto each other, in a context of alliance, even though proximity generated tensions and the balance of power eventually tilted to the colonizers. Every so often, close proximity stirred conflict, as in the case of the Natchez war (1729 – 1731). Still, in comparative perspective, I find it hard to refute the specificity of Franco-Indigenous relations and the prevalence of ties of alliance in the long run. Certain Indigenous oral traditions bear witness to this reality, especially around the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes. Faced with Anglo-American colonization, some First Nations’ communities remembered fondly, to the point of idealizing, the French era.
As a specialist of the French part of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, and resident of Martinique for the last fifteen years, I concur in many ways with your analyses. French America, I believe, can be defined as a complex space containing territories that were not always, but are currently, French (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint-Barthélémy. Guyana and a section of Saint-Martin); others, French for a longtime, but no longer so (Haiti, Saint-Christophe, Sainte-Lucie, Grenada, Tobago, the Grenadines – to consider only Caribbean examples; Louisiana, Québec, Acadia could be listed here too); finally, territories that were never legally French, but where French populations from the Caribbean gradually settled, informally (in Dominica) or not (in Trinidad, French immigration has been officially encouraged since 1783). These latter territories, however, experienced varying degrees of French influence, rather than outright sovereignty, which never existed.
Yet, nowadays as in the past, actual ties express themselves culturally, notably in local creole languages and in toponymy; relevant to this point are also the regular requests to join France, or the choice of military alliances during the great military conflicts of the eighteenth century. I owe much of this vision of French America to my living in the Caribbean, where almost all countries, with the exception of Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad, were French at one time or another. We should however exclude a few territories which were French for short intervals only, such as Sainte-Croix, a segment of Florida, or Rio de Janeiro, where there was no time to foster cultural bonds, unless we consider French America as a territory with variable geometry, crossing different time periods. In any event, for me, France, hence French America too, is not reduced to lands under French sovereignty. France is primarily constituted of men and women, often though not always of French nationality, who joined France partly out of attachment to the country and its values, partly out of a desire to participate in its history.
This formula is doubtless valid for the contemporary period, but how does it pertain to the African, Afro-creole, or First Nations’ populations in early French colonial societies? In the Early Modern era, when European conquest left little choice to Indigenous inhabitants, or to Africans and Afro-creoles, French America was also a place where men and women lived, and all too often barely subsisted, according to structures, laws, and values that they did not choose, but were instead dictated by, at best negotiated with, the French. How are these structures different from those of other colonizers? Francis Parkman stated that: “Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization despised and neglected him; French civilization valued and cherished him.” It is no longer acceptable to take this simplistic vision at face value. The French did enslave the Kalinago people in the Lesser Antilles, as well as the Natchez and the Fox (Mesquakies) in the spaces claimed as New France. American Indigenous identity has not facilitated the assimilation of Indigenous peoples in Guyana. Should we, nonetheless, dismiss the existence of a particular way of handling cultural difference, or at the very least, of a very distinct approach from that of the British? A specificity rooted, possibly, in Catholicism, but also in geo-strategic considerations that are not the same in insular and continental contexts. The treatment of Afro-creoles and Africans in slave-holding societies signals extreme violence and racialized practices that persisted long after abolition; still, there were also built-in possibilities for emancipation – not many, but in sufficient numbers to generate a class of free people of color more numerous than in the British colonies; equally, there was space for accepting, after lengthy debates, the political demands of the Boni, like those of the new citizens of 1794 and 1848, to gain access to French nationality and citizenship. From this angle, the specificity of French America is that one might be French without being European or Euro-creole, nor even Christian or atheist.
These comments highlight how difficult it is to define a historical object called “La France aux Amériques.” They point to the extraordinarily fluid and dynamic nature of the Americas in the Early Modern era. Territories, boundaries, alliances, and sovereignties constantly shifted. Demographics underwent extraordinary transformations, at once lethal and proliferant. Identities were plural and variable and always ambivalent. The vast geographical and temporal scales at play here — centered in the Caribbean and stretching across the waterways of North America, extending from the period of early contact through the present — create an overwhelming diversity of contexts and experiences. And then, perhaps most vexing of all: how do we understand the coercive power and the gross inequalities that emerged in these times and places? On closer inspection, the concept of “zones of influence” emerges as too vague to adequately address such fraught political and moral questions. But what are the alternatives? In addition to the definitional problems, the question of specificity runs throughout our conversation. What, if anything, defines la France aux Amériques?
Let me frame the question through the lens of chronology. Norman, Breton, and Basque fishermen began actively trading with Indigenous peoples in the sixteenth century. Further inland, settlement, trade, and occasional intermarriage among French and Indigenous people began early in the seventeenth century. In large parts of North America, those connections continued in a relatively uninterrupted fashion deep into the nineteenth century. All told, the time span exceeds 250 years. (The country of Canada, by contrast, is scarcely 150 years old.) This “Franco-Indigenous America,” as GH calls it, was extraordinarily durable. Indeed, those polities (Spain, Britain, the United States) that took ostensible control of the geographic spaces once claimed by France tended to replicate and build on preexisting dynamics, at least in the first instance. So I wonder: was there something about the Frenchness (if one can even use such a term) of these settler-Indigenous-Métis cultural, kinship, and diplomatic practices that made them so durable?
In the Caribbean, by contrast, the time frame is more compressed, with active settlement and economic development beginning early in the eighteenth century. Change here appears more dynamic and explosive. But the legacies are perhaps more long-lasting — right into the present, as DR forcefully reminds us. Saint Domingue — in and out of the French sphere of influence – was sui generis. No other colony equaled it in the pace of its economic growth, the scale of its commodity production, or the voracious and murderous appetite for slave labor. And no other colony ended with a revolution that so radically challenged prevailing ideologies of racism and slavery. How do we explain that singularity? Was it a coincidence that Saint Domingue developed under the French rather than British or Spanish Empires? Put as a counterfactual: how would the history of the Atlantic World have been different if Saint Domingue had remained in Spanish hands or been seized by the English instead of French at the end of the seventeenth century?
François, you nicely tease out the complexities of “La France aux Amériques.” Its histories will necessarily be plural, and as this conversation suggests, they will be told from many vantage points. Different audiences will receive them differently as well. “La France aux Amériques” will be no easier to grasp than “La France” itself. But we all seem to agree that some of those histories will be about power: about the deliberate making of an overseas empire, with its laws and slave codes, its courts, armies, forts, and ships of the line; with its carefully conserved archives, and its knowledge construction, that together provide so much of the raw material for this digital library. GH does not use the word “empire” but his opening remarks precisely delineate French imperial practices in North America. The term surely offers a meaningful, though of course not the only, alternative to the notion of “zones of influence.” And though we can point to many “French” specificities (a particularly homogeneous version of the French language, with fewer dialectical variants than in France, the custom of Paris, the criminal ordinance of 1670, the livre as unit of account, oversight by the naval department, a late seventeenth-century baroque, performative style of governance that lent itself well to cross-cultural diplomacy and gift-giving, the important presence of a population of libres de couleur signaled by DR for the Caribbean, and much besides), against the grain of FF’s question, it is surely worth noting the commonalities with other early modern empires. Reliance on Indigenous alliances and cultural brokers, wherever geography and demography favoured them, was not unique to French empire-making, for example. Did those enduring Franco-Indigenous connections evoked by FF not tend to occur typically in places where relatively small numbers of francophone actors came not, first and foremost, as land-hungry settlers? And for the post-1763 period, did they not share a somewhat precarious status as outsiders in the expansive, hegemonically Protestant anglospheres of the United States and British North America?
A final thought about legacies. Are they not, in their varied ways, just as lasting in continental North America as in the Caribbean? They are certainly woven deep into the fabric and fractures of the country where I come from, Canada. Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous and Métis people (many of whose ancestors lived in spaces claimed by France) are ongoing, difficult processes, with real consequences in a mineral-rich land. The Seven Years war, that brought formal French empire building to an end in North America, and that was such a turning point in the story of “La France aux Amériques,” casts its own specific shadows right up to the present. Caribbean and North American legacies, one might even add, are interconnected. Today, Montreal’s population of Haitian origin exceeds its urban Indigenous population. Both are significant. These very different diasporas share a history of dislocation and displacement from their original homelands. Such facts also count among the distant echoes of “la France aux Amériques,” along with happier stories of francophone cultural florescence, legal pluralism or shared commitments to universal human rights.
FF is right to question the continuity between the history of New France and that of French–America, which persisted, even spread out and put down roots afterwards. Indeed, changes in colonial sovereignty led to changes in circumstances, but social and cultural forms carried on. Outside territories still essentially inhabited by Francophones (beginning of course with Quebec), a large part of North America retained what could be called ‘layers of Frenchness:’ toponyms and hydronyms (Gasconade River, Belle Fourche, Portage La Prairie…), patronyms (such as the Deloria/Deslauriers families among the Sioux), even ethnonyms (Cœur d’Alene, Pend’Oreilles…) bear witness to a long history of exchanges and interactions between Francophone populations and First Nations, especially on the West coast of the continent. Cross-cultural families certainly acted as crucial vectors of Frenchness, whether or not the underlying marital and sexual practices evolved into concrete identity markers — as in the well-known case of the Red River Métis, or Bois Brûlés. Significantly, the Sioux-Yankton’s name for persons of mixed descent was wasichu hoksina, that is, ‘children of the French:’ indeed, for the most part, the Sioux’s first encounters with White Europeans were with French-speaking people. From Quebec to Saint-Louis and to New Orleans, and to the West of the Mississippi as well, French remained the shared language of many individuals, and this continued, though steadily waning, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as did certain forms of sociability like the guignolée. This kind of Frenchness even transcended particular identifications — Canadian, Creole — and the term “French” (or Frenchman), understood as ethnolinguistic category, survived for a long time in the everyday language of First Nations, Euro-American migrants, and Francophone residents alike, against the background of a fast-growing Anglophone presence.
Let us return for a moment to François Furstenberg’s bold counter-factual questions. Considering the low numbers of enslaved persons in the Spanish colonies in the eighteenth century in conjunction with the weaker development of Castilian and Aragon economies, it is not too risky to affirm that there would have been no Haitian revolution at the end of the eighteenth century had Western Sain-Domingue remained under Spanish rule. In the British world too, the economic situation would have been noticeably altered; the English planters who in 1763 maneuvered to have the French sugar islands returned to France instead of the province of Quebec were well aware of this. As part of the British world, Western Saint-Domingue would have enjoyed an even more dynamic economy. On the other hand, the region would surely not have witnessed the emergence of a sizable class of free people of color, Black and mixed-race, whose contribution to the revolutionary process, alongside the Congo people — and alongside African and Afro-creole populations in general — must not be understated. Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley, André Rigaud, Julien Raimond, and Vincent Ogé, are well-known representatives of this group.
This being said, Saint-Domingue is only one among many French colonies; its distinctive history may be more closely related to Saint-Domingue’s specificity than to its belonging to the French colonial world. By the end of the eighteenth century, the older colonies in the Lesser Antilles, founded and overexploited since the seventeenth century, and converted to sugar production by the mid-seventeenth century, were neither as socially fluid — despite interesting racial passing processes in Martinique — nor as dynamic economically. In the Amazon, Guyana fell under French sovereignty but struggled to develop its economy too. None came close to the revolutionary destiny of the French part of Saint-Domingue, notwithstanding the temporary experience of general emancipation in Guyana and Guadeloupe. A freedom, it is true, that, while imposed as a result of the enslaved people’s irrepressible revolt in the Northern part of Saint-Domingue, was in various ways granted in the remaining territories; and this, despite the crusade for freedom waged by Victor Hugues’s Black troops across the Caribbean from 1793 to 1798, and despite the tenacious determination of ex-slaves to experience freedom in their own ways, no matter what diktats “White,” Black, or leaders of Color issued. At that time, the mass of plantation laborers took freedom to mean enjoying unrestricted time for oneself, escaping bondage, and working on small family holdings; abolition and full citizenship were not yet, for them, fundamental exigencies, as would be the case for some in 1848 and for others, much later, throughout the twentieth century.
What a wonderful conversation this has been! It has taken us from the Norman fisheries in the Atlantic to the lake cities of northern Idaho to the rainforests of South America and across the Caribbean. The extraordinary range of the conversation highlights the extraordinary range of France in the Americas — as empire, law, culture, and legacy. And yet it seems clear that we’ve only begun to broach the subject in its multiplicity and its complexity. The exciting scholarship by Dominique Rogers, Gilles Havard, and Catherine Desbarats among many others — and the fascinating turns this conversation has taken — highlight the distance the scholarship has traveled since the “France in America” project originally appeared in 2004. Themes of empire, metissage, slavery, and citizenship have become more complex and intriguing. Figures like Toussaint Louverture and André Rigaud along with families like the Sioux Deloria / Deslauriers have taken center stage in a way that was only just becoming apparent.
It will be fun to see where the next twenty years take us.
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