The First French Colonial Empire
The First French Colonial Empire
It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that France’s colonial adventure really took off, driven primarily by commercial and strategic ambitions. Dismissed as secondary territories, France’s colonies never experienced a clear settlement policy. In the Antilles, the commercial heart of the French empire, it was the exploitation of enslaved Africans that drove the colonial system, while in North America, French sovereignty was based on alliances with First Nations. Acculturation with Indigenous peoples, métissage and creolization all developed in colonial societies, leading to the development of distinct identities. Moreover, the rivalry with Great Britain, which arose in the early 18th century, also influenced France’s policies and diplomatic and military decisions until the First Empire.
A Tardy and Indecisive Colonial Policy
The history of the first French colonial empire, which can be said to have begun either in the 16th or early 17th century, should not be seen as the result of any coherent or continuous political ambition in France. At first, it was regional groups, such as the Basques or Normans, who set up small, isolated, ephemeral colonies for the seasonal activities of fishing and hunting. It would not be until 1608, with the foundation of Quebec by Samuel de Champlain, that any lasting attempt at colonization involving the appropriation of territories, the domination of local populations and the exploitation of resources was made. Even then, colonization was initially entrusted to various companies and it was only under the ministry of Cardinal Richelieu that a state policy was conceived. This was motivated by many overlapping factors, including economic and commercial interests which gradually placed colonial trade in a more central role (Colbert would deal with the consequences by structuring a triangular trade), strategic ambitions, especially the context of France’s rising rivalry with Britain and the influence of the evangelistic desires of the Dévots (which took on a universal dimension). It was during this period that historians tend to consider that the French monarchy adopted a more imperial form of colonization.
France’s imperial policy was fundamentally different from that of the British crown; it was not accompanied by a plan for settlement or even any incentives for migration. On the one hand, this resulted in the great fragility of the French colonial project while, on the other, it fostered relationships with Indigenous peoples that differed from those seen elsewhere. This was especially the case due to the immense territories that the French monarchy claimed as their own, especially in North America. By the time the Treaty of Paris was signed (1763), there were 70,000 colonists in New France compared to 1.3 million in the Thirteen Colonies. To establish control over this vast territory, the French monarchy thus had to make agreements with the First Nations. But imperial ambitions presupposed an identical degree of sovereignty all over the world, whether in North America, the Antilles, India or Africa. Any such assumptions, however, were countered by many factors, including the vast distances and communication times involved, the geographical spread of France’s colonies, the absence of boundaries between conquered territories (or those claimed to be conquered), the mutual acculturation of the colonists and the colonized (especially true in New-France) and the emergence of distinct, mixed identities, or the “creolization” of populations.
Anglo-French Rivalry in the Colonies
The rapid conquest of new territories by European powers inevitably led to friction over their ill- or undefined borders. Seas and oceans— the new routes for trade exchanges— became sites for rivalry and conflict. Local ambitions could sometimes be opposed to those of the homeland, especially when the colonists came to the bitter realization that their future was being played out on the battlefields of Europe. Any territorial gains or losses in the colonies mattered little; it was during negotiations that European powers, mainly France and Britain, divided the world between them according to military outcomes, exchanging territories and the people who lived there. This can most clearly be seen in the deep sense of abandonment felt by the Acadians and Canadians after the Treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Paris (1763) respectively, which persists even today in the collective memories in Acadia and Quebec.
While the French empire became increasingly coherent in the mid-18th century as its various components were integrated into a single trading system (a triangular commerce centred on the slave trade), it is striking to note that the Seven Years’ War began in the Ohio Valley two years before the declaration of war between France and Britain. The open hostility between New France and the Thirteen Colonies was of course linked to that between France and Britain, but it had its own dynamics and characteristics that were almost independent of those of their homelands. Over time, these particularities gradually evolved into desires for freedom and military confrontations between colonies and their mother countries, as was the case with Britain and the Thirteen Colonies in the early 1770s. During this conflict, France decided to ally with its former enemy to counter the territorial, political and commercial hegemony of the Britain Empire. Canada, still mainly inhabited by French speakers, made the opposite decision, remaining loyal to London to preserve the advantages it had acquired from its conquerors. It must be said, however, that the French monarchy never considered recovering its lost colony…
This was the key difference between the French and British perceptions of their colonial domains. For France, its colonies were mainly peripheral territories. Faithful to its “Pré carré” policy, its primary concerns were in Europe, in particular the consolidation of the Dunkirk-Strasbourg line, its role as an arbiter on the continent and the balance of power which it intended to extend overseas. France intended North America as a far-off theatre of operations where they could divert British forces and “tie up” as many enemy troops as possible without sending large military contingents of their own. While strategic on the European stage, the colonies were also seen as a “boulevard” (in other words, a defence) for the Antilles. As a result, New France became a military society in which each man was a potential combatant. It was exactly the opposite for Britain, which gave its American colonies a central place in its imperial politics, commerce and strategy. The North Atlantic became Britain’s absolute priority and maritime hegemony was paramount. More generally, France was convinced that British domination of the colonial world (often called the “universal monarchy”) would affect the balance of power on the European continent, while the British accepted European stability as the price for sating its desire for an overseas empire.
Choiseul’s Decisive Choice
During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, France’s colonial and imperial ambitions were not based on a policy of settlement but on a subtle balance between commercial objectives, a thirst for prestige, the claim of being a universal arbiter and religious ambitions. It was not until 1761, with the opening of peace negotiations at the end of the Seven Years’ War, that Choiseul, facing a catastrophic military and economic situation, adopted a strictly economic and commercial perception of the French colonies. He skillfully saved those colonies essential to the kingdom’s economy, prioritizing (in order of importance) the right to fish cod off Newfoundland (the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon), the sugar, coffee, tobacco and indigo of the Antilles (Saint-Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe) and Guyana, the African slave trade (Gorée) and the Indian trading posts (Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahé, Yanam and Chandannagar). Canada—which cost France more than it earned— could be sacrificed.
From this moment onwards, France maintained a strictly mercantilist policy, basing its empire on trade instead of the conquest of new territories (apart from its wily incursion into Senegal, which aimed to stop the British from monopolizing the slave trade, the basis of the lucrative colonial system in the Antilles). The Bourbon Family Pact (signed on August 15, 1761), which led to Spain ceding Louisiana during the preliminary discussions of the Peace of Fontainebleau on November 3, 1762, seemed, in the words of Choiseul, “a thousand times more advantageous for France than the colony of Canada." This pact enshrined a comprehensive strategy to defend the two colonial empires against British hegemony. Moreover, the Spanish Indies seemed to be a far more profitable colonial market. After 1768, the French settlement of Corsica contributed to the geographical reorientation of France’s strategic policy. A few years later, the French participation in the American War of Independence was motivated by a desire to re-balance power in the colonies and reconfigure the world’s trade circuits.
Race and Rivalry in Colonial Policy
The colonial policies of the various political regimes that followed one another in France between the Revolution to the end of the First Empire are more confusing. During this period, the question of slavery and racial segregation acquired hitherto unknown importance. As pro- and anti-slavery parties confronted one another in mainland France, passions likewise flared in the Antilles where brawls broke out between independentists and loyalists in 1790. In August 1791, an insurrection of enslaved people took place in Saint Domingue, supported by certain White slaveholders, Catholic priests and “free people of colour”. It was this simultaneous emergence of revolutionary strategies in the metropole, insurrections in the colonies, internal squabbling of planters (Whites and free people of colour split into two royalist and patriot factions), as well as the start of a worldwide conflict in April 1792 (which was really felt in the Antilles after February 1, 1793 with the entry of Britain in the war), which led to the abolition of slavery on August 29 that same year. Formerly enslaved people joined the Republican army to fight the royalists, the British and then the Spanish. The next few years were marked by debates about the legal status of formerly enslaved people and the desire to conserve French rule over the Antilles, especially the extremely lucrative Saint Domingue, and to protect them against any British invasion.
At the beginning of the Consulate, French policy made an about-face under pressure from the “colonial lobby," who were concerned about the economic transformation of trade circuits resulting from the end of slavery, but also after the peace signed with Britain on March 25, 1802, which meant that the Antilles were no longer under threat. The reintroduction of slavery led to total war between the Republican army commanded by General Leclerc and the insurgents in Saint Domingue. As war had started up again with Britain in March 1803, the British navy established a blockade that prevented the arrival of any French provisions and supplied materials and weapons to their enemies. The French defeat led to the independence of the new state of Haiti on January 1, 1804. A year later, Napoleon sold Louisiana, which had been given back to France by Spain in October 1800, to the United States, who were delighted. At the time, Napoleon was convinced that Saint Domingue had been lost and that Louisiana no longer had any strategic interest. He also believed that an American alliance would be essential during a confrontation with the British and was looking for ways to finance his preparations for an invasion of Britain. As a result, he ceded an immense territory which he judged to be of no interest, only “inhabited by rattlesnakes, coyotes and Sioux”. In just one month, France lost all its commercial and strategic ambitions in the Caribbean. Between 1809 and 1811, Britain conquered Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Senegal, La Réunion and the Seychelles. Several of these territories were returned to France in 1814 because Britain did not want to overstretch itself by maintaining them. But this was the end of the first French colonial empire. A few decades later, the French turned their eyes towards other possibilities for expansion, above all on the other side of the Mediterranean.
Published in may 2021
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