The Huguenots in the Americas

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Que ce soit dans le cadre impérial français ou britannique, les huguenots ont été présents aux Amériques, sur le continent ou aux îles, du milieu du XVIe siècle à la fin du XVIIIe.

Until the death of Henri IV (1610) and the exclusion of Protestants from New France under Richelieu (1627), a decision associated with the royal offensive against La Rochelle, the Huguenots had been highly active in the development and concretisation of French imperial policy in the Americas. In the 1550s, under the influence of Gaspard de Coligny, Protestants were among the first colonists who occupied the Bay of Rio, in Brazil. But, weakened by dissensions, they were chased out by the Portuguese. Ten years later, the first French fort, Charlesfort, was set up in what is now South Carolina, but then abandoned. A second one, Fort La Caroline, was then built in what is now North-East Florida, near Jacksonville. This Florida, called “Huguenote” because the colonists, in majority Protestants, were led by the captains of the reformed religion, Jean Ribault and René de Laudonnière, subsequently vanished under the attacks of the Spanish. From this “French Florida” there still remains some magnificent drawings of Amerindians (and a map) by the Protestant Jacques LeMoyne de Morgues, the narratives of Ribault and Laudonnière, as well as touristic and memorial sites in Florida and South Carolina. In the 16th century, the “course protestante”, from the ports of La Rochelle, Le Havre, Honfleur and Dieppe, crossed the Atlantic ocean and the Caribbean, in company with British and Dutch corsairs.

In the last third of the 17th century, especially during the years around the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), which had granted religious, civil and military rights to Protestants since the end of the Wars of Religion (1598), the Huguenots abandoned the French imperial zone and migrated to the British colonies in North America. In 1678, the Walloons, French-speaking Calvinists from the Dutch Netherlands (Belgium and Northern France), and some Huguenots founded the village of New Paltz, or the Nouveau Palatinat, thus named by some of the refugees who had stayed in the Palatinate before crossing the Atlantic. They set up home in the hinterland of New York, in the Hudson valley, a region which was mostly Dutch-speaking. The 1680s became the flagship decade for Huguenot migrations to the British colonies of North America. Huguenots set up home in Charleston (South Carolina), Boston (Massachusetts) and New York, and founded rural communities in South Carolina (Santee, Le Quartier d’Orange, Goose Creek), Rhode Island (Frenchtown), the colony of New York (Staten Island and New Rochelle) and Virginia (Manakintown).

These refugees came mainly from the provinces of the Atlantic coast, or Aunis, Saintonge, Poitou and Normandy, but also from the Dauphiné and Languedoc. Their home towns and villages were La Rochelle, Dieppe, Le Havre, Marennes, Saint-Jean-d’Angély or Vitré. They were mostly craftspeople and merchants, accompanied by peasants. Others, above all in New York, came from the Antilles, in particular Guadeloupe where they owned nearly a third of the sugar plantations. In the islands, the Protestant community was thus concerned by the Code Noir (1685), whose Article III forbade them to practice their faith while Article VIII made invalid any marriage made in a Protestant church.

As soon as they arrived, the Huguenots founded churches. Charleston, New York and Boston thus had their “French Church”, just like the rural communities. But, as of the 1720s, the great majority of French Protestants, as in Britain, joined the Anglican church. This gave the Huguenots the material and religious comfort of a royal church, after decades during which, in France, they had been torn between their loyalty to their religion and to their king. The Huguenots fitted perfectly into British colonial societies. As Protestants, they shared the anti-Catholicism of the colonists, reflected by the rejection of James II during the “Glorious Revolution”, and, once the 17th century had started, a decisive moment which saw the North American colonies start up a prodigious economic and territorial development, they acquired land and slaves, as foundations for an assured prosperity.

 During the 18th century, a slow migratory flow continuously drew other Huguenots towards the colonies, the most often leading on from an initial migration (Britain, Ireland, the United Provinces, the German States and Swiss Cantons). Individual initiatives led to the foundation of two establishments in South Carolina: Purrysburgh (1732), on the border with Georgia, and New Bordeaux (1763), in the hinterland. But these settlements were ephemeral, with the colonists moving to Savannah or Charleston, or fading into the Appalachian foothills in search of land. When the American Revolution occurred, the memory of these Huguenot migrations was still alive with the presence of primary players originally coming from France.

Whether it be in a French or British imperial context, the Huguenots were present in the Americas, on both the continent and on islands, from the mid-16th to the end of the 18th century.    


Published in may 2021

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