European settlement of the French colonies in the Caribbean relied on a flow of migration that was comparatively modest on the global scale. Although the French Antilles were much more attractive than New France, they received only about 200,000 – 300,000 individuals between the 17th and 18th centuries. These numbers offer a general idea of the movement of people towards the French colonies in the Caribbean, but they do not mean that these migrations resulted in definitive settlements. In fact, more than half of the migrants who set out for the French Antilles ended up returning to France as many saw the trip to the islands as a short-term venture. In addition, mortality rates were high for new arrivals due to their vulnerability to tropical diseases. For them the islands seemed like veritable killing fields. European settlement was therefore accomplished by a relatively limited number of individuals.
Profile and origin of European colonists in the French Antilles
Most of the European migrants traveling to the French Antilles were young, unmarried men. Female and family migration was negligible. Most migrants came from urban settings, with overseas migration frequently constituting a continuation of internal movements within the kingdom of France, especially from remote coastal regions. Migrants varied according to their geographic and social roots and by their modes of transportation across the ocean.
The first settlers were recruited primarily among Normans who followed the example of Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, conqueror of Martinique. Others came from provinces in the Northwest of the realm (such as the Parisian region, Brittany, and the Loire Valley). Starting at the end of the 17th century, Normans ceded first place to migrants from the Southwest (Charentais, Aquitaine), who headed primarily to Saint-Domingue. With Marseille increasingly involved in Atlantic commerce, the number of migrants from Provence grew steadily throughout the 18th century.
The 1685 Code Noir
forbade Protestants and Jews from settling in the colonies. Even so, it was not unusual for members of these groups to establish themselves in the French Caribbean and integrate successfully into the incipient colonial societies. Some were non-French citizens, notably the Dutch who were chased out of Brazil
and who, starting in 1654, played a major role in the development of sugarcane cultivation. Irish and Scotch migrants, too, settled in the Antilles.
Elites contributed to overseas mobility: administrators, military officers and missionaries served abroad for more or less lengthy periods. Migrants with enough funds to pay the crossing included noblemen (most often younger sons of petty noble families), merchants, and master artisans, all aspiring to make a fortune dealing in colonial agricultural products or to establish themselves in the trades or in commerce.
In the 1680s, the Antilles and Guyana received prisoners sentenced to deportation, but these forced migrations ended quickly since neither the authorities nor the planters believed that such migrants could contribute to the profitability of the territories. By contrast, indentured servitude became quite significant, serving both as a means of financing one’s transatlantic crossing and of recruiting manual laborers. In French port cities, migrants would sign a contract with a recruiting agent through which they agreed to work for an employer for several years (generally three years in French America, hence the moniker ‘thirty-six months’ given to these employees), in exchange for passage to the colonies. The American employer would purchase the contract from the captain after the ship reached shore. Sometimes employers would recruit from the metropole on their own. At the conclusion of the term of the contract, workers received remuneration (in tobacco or in sugar) and/or working tools or plots of land. The contract could also include a paid return voyage. Employees found themselves in a situation of temporary servitude, further aggravated by a clause that allowed employers to withdraw from the contract without their knowledge. Their living and working conditions were often very difficult. They could be employed on plantations as agricultural workers, craftsmen, or even medical aides. As the colonial system came to depend more and more on slavery
, the duties of indentured workers expanded to supervising the enslaved workforce. This mode of recruitment first appeared at the beginning of the colonization of the French islands, starting in the 1630s, and grew throughout the 17th century only to decline progressively during the 18th century. Employees who survived their ‘thirty-six months’ of labor contract sometimes put down roots in the islands, with some managing to acquire land and join the planter class.
Along with hired hands, soldiers were another important category of migrants under contract. Recruitment of soldiers from naval companies stationed in Atlantic ports could happen on site. Most served for periods lasting from three months to fifteen years. The hardships of military life affected the already high mortality of Europeans in the tropics and made it necessary to replace vacant spots continually. Military migration therefore ensured a continuous flow of immigrants from the metropole which, in the second half of the 18th century, was augmented significantly by imperial and revolutionary wars.
The failure of setting up a colony of European settlers without slavery
At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, the difficult history of European settlement in Guyana was marked by a peculiar episode. This vast territory was definitively conquered by France in 1676, but realizing its value proved much more laborious than with the sugar islands. The plantation economy was slow to take off because of the small number of both European settlers and enslaved workers. The idea, promoted by Physiocrats, of turning Guyana into a European settlement without recourse to the enslavement of people from Africa lead to the Kourou expedition. Initiated by Minister of the Navy Étienne-François de Choiseul in 1762, the endeavor was supposed to recruit 15,000 European colonists – French, Acadians deported from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755, and Germans among them – to be directed to Guyana, between the Kourou and Maroni Rivers. It was intended not only to realize the value of Guyana, but also to constitute a rear-guard capable of assuring the military defense of the sugar islands.
The expedition quickly turned into a humanitarian disaster: more than half of the colonists died shortly after their arrival, victims of epidemics and of an infrastructure that was insufficient to support them. An estimated 8,000 to 9,000 individuals perished and 2,000 to 3,000 returned to France. Combined with the failure to establish an Acadien settlement on Saint-Domingue in 1764, the Guyanese disaster called into question the notion that it would be possible to create a colony in the Americas without slavery. While the European settlement and agricultural exploitation of Guyana ultimately took hold at the end of the 18th century, Guyana long maintained a reputation of being the ‘white man’s grave.’
The creolization and transatlantic mobility of settler families
At the beginning of colonization, with the exception of Indigenous inhabitants, Europeans formed the majority of the population in the colony, with few enslaved people from Africa living in the islands. It was in the last quarter of the 17th century, as the economy turned to cane sugar production, that Europeans became a minority following the near-disappearance of Native populations (except in Dominica and Saint-Vincent) and the massive reliance on enslaved workers deported from Africa. It is estimated that, on the eve of the Revolution, Saint-Domingue counted about 30,000 white settlers, 30,000 free people of color, and 500,000 enslaved individuals. Martinique and Guadeloupe counted about 25,000 white settlers between them.
If a portion of the first settler families underwent a process of creolization – that is, they put down roots in the colonies that would last for generations – other families maintained the properties they had acquired in the Antilles but returned to the metropole, giving rise to a system of absentee landlords. Following the example of the Fleuriau family, which had interests both in La Rochelle and Saint-Domingue, other families continually circulated between the metropole and the Caribbean colonies. After 1763 and the end of the Seven Years’ War, new French migrants arrived, attracted by the extraordinary economic success of the sugar islands, chiefly Saint-Domingue. These newcomers were mostly shop keepers, craftsmen, or tradesmen who formed a population of less affluent White people (‘petits blancs’), essentially urbanites, who were not always landowners. Some of them began to acquire coffee plantations. These petits blancs found themselves in direct competition with free people of color who often practiced the same trades and who were themselves involved in expanding the cultivation of coffee.
At the beginning of colonization, few European women came to the colonies; European settlers formed unions with Native or African women. In time, the number of women categorized as White creoles became sufficiently numerous to allow for endogamous marriages within the group of landowning European settlers. Throughout the 18th century, marriage with white creole women was the principal way for newcomers to acquire agricultural property, a prerequisite for integration into the social networks of creole planters. Yet the many European migrants who remained unable to marry locally continued to enter into relationships with enslaved women or with free women of color of African origin.
Revolution and the 19th century: between dispersal and putting down roots
The revolutionary period
upended the power relationships in the colonial slave holding society and destabilized the European population. In Saint-Domingue, the 1791 insurrection of enslaved people followed by independence in 1804 prompted caused White settlers to leave the colonies for other other territories.
For fifteen years, between 1791 and 1804, thousands of settlers from Saint-Domingue, sometimes accompanied by the people they enslaved, scattered about the Caribbean and North America, joining groups of émigrés who had fled France, such as Médéric Louis Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry who managed a bookstore in Philadelphia from 1794 to 1798.
Within the Caribbean, large numbers of refugees from Saint-Domingue set themselves up in Jamaica and on the Southeastern coast of Cuba, where they breathed new energy into cultivating and processing coffee. Some started to move to New Orleans as early as 1791, but the 1809 expulsion of those who had gone to Cuba led 9,000 of them to the capital city of Louisiana, whose population doubled as a result.
In the Lesser Antilles, too, the vagaries of war prompted the settler population to relocate around the Caribbean and to the United States. Although fewer exiles came from Guadeloupe and Martinique than from Saint-Domingue, White creoles tended to relocate to the same places, especially in the United States.
The first half of the 19th century was a period of return to the slave regime, but also a period of stabilization for the landowning families in Guadeloupe and Martinique. The abolition of slavery in 1848
led to a brief wave of emigration among White families from the two islands, shortly followed by a return to the same colonies. Because the socio-economic structures built on plantation economies had not been overthrown, the While creole population was able to maintain its status.
In a show of support for the transition to a free workforce, some settlers envisioned recruiting immigrant agricultural workers from Europe. This project, however, never took hold. Guyana is distinguished by the progressive departure of its White creole population in the second half of the 19th century, resulting from the post-abolition crisis of the sugar industry and the turn towards gold mining. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, the White creole population declined little by little due to the sugar industry crisis of the 1880s. In addition, the 1902 eruption that destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre, the heart of the Martinique plantocracy, exacted a heavy human toll. Nonetheless, the creole inhabitants of European descent constitute a non-negligible portion of the total population, notably maintaining a dominant position in these two French islands in the Caribbean.