French colonization of North America and the greater Caribbean led to the creation of new societies, born from the encounters between Europeans, Indigenous Peoples, and Africans.
These new colonial societies shared a multiethnic character, but the demographic weight of the three populations varied from one region to another. Acadia and Canada saw the formation of a Franco-Indigenous world that was also inhabited by enslaved Africans. In contrast, the Indigenous populations of the Antilles all-but disappeared during the course of the 17th century as a result of epidemics and wars, remaining only in two enclaves on Saint Vincent and Saint-Domingue that had, in theory, been reserved for them in 1660. With the rise of the slave trade that began in the final quarter of the 17th century, the islands transformed into a Franco-African world. The creolization of enslaved people occurred more rapidly in the Lesser Antilles than in Saint-Domingue, which still had a large African majority on the eve of the French Revolution. As for Louisiana and Guyana, they had characteristics of both the Canadian and the Antillean models, with a mix of European, Indigenous, and African peoples.
This multiethnic character was not welcomed by French settlers who justified their right to colonize by claiming supposed cultural, religious, and racial superiority. In the 17th century, in the context of the Counter-Reformation, there were high hopes of evangelizing Indigenous peoples. The French did not set out to create new societies by intermingling with First Nations. When Jean-Baptiste Colbert affirmed in the 1660s that Canada must know nothing less than a single Franco-Indigenous people brought about by the education of Indigenous children and by intermarriage, he did not imagine a multicultural nation. He envisioned the assimilation of Indigenous peoples, and this project of Frenchification failed. The term “New France,” used to designate Acadia, Canada and Louisiana, conveyed the Crown’s desire to transplant overseas an improved version of French society.
The new societies formed under French rule in the Americas remained marked by the norms and values that prevailed in France. Requests for letters of nobility sent by French people who had settled or were born in New France and in the Antilles, as well as their false claims to noble status, reveal an attachment to noble titles that was all the stronger for the fact that engaging in commerce and abusive economic exploitation did not constitute a derogation of status as would have been the case in France. Nobility as an institution, however, was less significant than it was in the metropole: it did not carry fiscal privileges in territories where no one was subject to taxation; except in Canada, the number of fiefdoms remained limited and carried few privileges; finally, in societies in which all free men were obliged to serve in the militia, officers benefited from honors comparable to those restricted to nobles in France. On the other hand, there were relatively more nobles per capita in the White, free population of the colonies than in France.
New distinctions emerged that mitigated, but did not erase, the opposition between nobles and commoners. Colonialism and slavery gave birth to new hierarchies. The plantation slave societies of the greater Caribbean diverged the most from the societies of metropolitan France, although the 18th-century evolution of the latter was deeply indebted to the revenues and culture of slavery. While slaveholding became a crucial social distinction among colonists, the condition of enslavement placed enslaved people outside of civil society and marked them, in the eyes of the colonists, with a stain that did not vanish with emancipation and persisted from one generation to the next. The categories of “enslaved people” and “free people of color” thus complicated racial status. Racial slavery was predicated on the idea that Africans and their descendents were destined to be enslaved and to remain confined to the most degraded social conditions due to their supposed “natural inferiority” to people of European descent.
In towns and on plantations, the constant demand for new groups of enslaved people who were subjugated by force meant that slave societies would never be fully stable and the White population always feared revolts. The majority of free people, whether or not they were slaveholders, contributed to the production and reproduction of slavery. At its heart, slavery was not only a relationship of personal domination but also became a regime of collective governance that implicated the entire free population while reflecting the political and social preeminence obtained by the slaveholders. Racial slavery informed all values, instutitions, and social interactions.
In comparison, Acadian and Canadian societies were much more similar to those of metropolitan France thanks to their more prominent and complete ecclesiastical hierarchy, their transplantation of the seigneurial system, and the engagement of most colonists in a European style of agriculture. But Canadian society did not entirely replicate the French model. Not only were social structures among colonists less fully elaborated than in France, but the fur trade gave rise to new social groups, such as the coureurs de bois, who lived at the intersection of colonial and Indigenous societies. As seen in the authorities’ position on intermarriage at the end of the 17th century, relationships between French and Indigenous people living in or near colonial settlements were subject to racial thinking.
While the French did not exert full dominion over the First Nations of North America, colonialism nonetheless transformed Indigenous societies. Indigenous peoples living on the Atlantic Coast and in the Saint Lawrence Valley, and those living around New Orleans, were those most immediately and intensely affected. In the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, African influences contributed more significantly to the shaping of social institutions among enslaved people, including family structures, gender relations, relationships between the living and the dead, and the resolution of conflicts. In the islands and in Guyana, enslaved people who fled for freedom formed maroon communities of varying degrees of size and permanence on the margins of colonial settlements and plantation zones.
Published in may 2021
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