New France (1534 – 1763)



France was England’s principal rival in the race to found colonies in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. French adventurers were at the forefront of exploration of the New World and soon established control over extensive territories. Yet despite having a larger population than England, France was far less successful in encouraging emigration to its colonies.

French exploration of the Americas began in the late 15th century, when Basque Breton fisherman began crossing the Atlantic to take cod from the Grand Banks. In the 16th century, French, English and Dutch pirates plundered Spanish ships and colonies in the Caribbean, and in 1534-6 Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) became the first European to journey down the St Lawrence River. Cartier used two names for the lands he explored: ‘Canada’ (an Indian term) and ‘New France’. His attempts to found colonies in New France failed but a trade in furs was established with the Indians, who were keen to acquire metal tools and other European goods.

Jacques Cartier meets Indians

Jacques Cartier meets Indians

A vital foothold in the Americas

France’s first successful New World colonies were founded in Acadia (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) in 1604 and at Quebec in New France in 1608. Further colonies were founded in the Caribbean at Haiti and Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe, and in South America at Cayenne (French Guiana). In 1682 Sieur de la Salle (1643-87) claimed the Mississippi basin for France, naming it Louisiana, in honour of King Louis XIV (r.1643—1715). Permanent French settlement began in 1714 and was boosted by Acadians (Cajuns) expelled by the British in 1755. France lost its North American colonies to Britain in the French and Indian War (1754-63) — an extension of the Seven Years’ War in Europe — but there remain over eight million French speakers in Canada and, though French is no longer widely there, the Cajuns and Creoles of Louisiana retain many French cultural traits.

Early Acadia by Claude T. Picard

Early Acadia by Claude T. Picard

Like the English, the French saw colonies as a source of tropical products, minerals and other valuable natural commodities, as an outlet for surplus population and as captive markets for home-produced goods. Also in common with the English, chartered companies played a key role in sponsoring colonization. In 1627 the Company of New France was founded by Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) with the intention of recreating a version of French rural society of aristocratic seigneurs and a servile peasantry, who would rent smallholdings from the seigneurs and perform labour duties for them. The French state also hoped to emulate Spain and Portugal by spreading Catholicism to the native peoples. However, the Indians were hostile to the Jesuit missionaries who were sent to preach to them and many were killed.

Total emigration to France’s overseas colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries was probably only around 6 —70,000, out of a home population averaging about 20 million. The most popular destination for French emigrants was the Caribbean and, like the English, once there they perished in considerable numbers from tropical diseases. To solve their labour problems, French plantation owners imported African slaves. Louisiana was also unhealthy and immigration barely maintained the population. French settlers at first struggled to survive the harsh winters in Canada, and relied heavily on bartering with the Indians for their food supplies. But as they learned to adapt to the environment, the settlers began to prosper. The ready availability of land led to a low age of marriage and a high birth rate. In the early 18th century, the average French-Canadian women brought up eight children, compensating to some extent for the shortage of female emigrants. Despite this, by the time of the British conquest New France had a French population of only 55,000, little more than one-fortieth the population of British North America. Louisiana had a French population of 4000, the Caribbean colonies around 25,000 and Cayenne only 1000.

Ribault’s Landing, a 31 by 8 foot mural by Jacksonville artist Lee Adams, on display at Jacksonville’s Main Library

Ribault’s Landing, a 31 by 8 foot mural by Jacksonville artist Lee Adams, on display at Jacksonville’s Main Library

The majority of French emigrants were engagés (indentured servants) who were recruited by seigneurs, companies, merchants and sea captains, who were paid commission by the government for every settler they sent. This encouraged unscrupulous practices.
In theory, at least, only healthy French-born Catholics were allowed to become colonists but to earn extra commission recruiters often sent elderly, infirm or foreign-born people. In the early 18th century the government tried to boost colonization by requiring ships bound for New France and the Caribbean to carry small quotas of emigrants. Because so many engagés returned home as soon as their terms (usually of six years) expired, the authorities began recruiting whole families, a move that encouraged more emigrants to stay in the colonies. Petty criminals were also deported to New France and Louisiana but in such small numbers (only about 2000 in total) that it had little impact.

Marie Anne Vanzègue, 'fille du roi' (1655-1722)

Marie Anne Vanzègue, ‘fille du roi’ (1655-1722)

Most emigrants to the French colonies came from coastal areas of Brittany and Normandy and the hinterlands of the ports of Bordeaux and La Rochelle. Over half of all emigrants came from urban areas, although only 15 percent of the French population lived in towns at that time, and were from poor artisan families. However, the peasant farmers who might have fulfilled the government’s vision of New France could not be persuaded to emigrate in any numbers. Many female emigrants were orphans, sent overseas at state expense as filles du roi (`daughters of the king’) to provide wives for predominantly male settlers. Higher-ranking colonists would not consider marriage to women of such low social status but their demands for more suitable women could not be met. In frontier zones intermarriage between French men and Indian women (mainly from the Cree and Ojibwa nations) was common. These marriages gave rise to the Métis people, from the French word for ‘mixed’, who were marginalized by settler society and migrated west, adopting a nomadic lifestyle as traders, trappers and hunters.

Defeated by demography

France’s lack of success in populating its colonies was a decisive factor in its defeat by Great Britain in their long struggle for supremacy in North America. The result was that North America became a mainly English-speaking continent. Once it had been isolated by British naval dominance, New France lacked the manpower to sustain a long war, while the British could reinforce their regular troops with colonial militias. The relative lack of emigration from France was due in part to its agricultural system. Because of agricultural reforms, 17th-century England had large numbers of landless poor for whom emigration was an attractive option. This was not the case in France. Most French peasant farmers were serfs under the jurisdiction of their seigneur. Unlike England’s free peasantry, however, French peasants had security of tenure and had the absolute right to pass their farms on to their heirs. As a result French peasants had little incentive to emigrate to a wild and dangerous frontier region, where they would still be under the thumb of a seigneur. Recruitment among poor artisans was more successful because they were promised recognition as master craftsmen when they had served their indentures. However, all too often they returned home to practise their trades.

Canadian couple, second half of the eighteenth century

Canadian couple, second half of the eighteenth century

Another obstacle to recruiting settlers was competition from the French army, which needed large numbers of young healthy men for its many continental campaigns. France in the 17th century was at the height of its wealth and power and this made emigration unattractive to aristocrats and other high-ranking people. One group of French people who did have a strong incentive to emigrate were the Huguenots (French Protestants), who faced growing persecution by the Catholic French monarchy. Huguenots had much same virtues as the English Puritans, but Protestants were expressly forbidden to settle in the French colonies. Consequently, the 200,000 and more Huguenots who left France in the 17th century went to Switzerland, the Netherlands and, especially, to England and its American colonies — a huge loss for France and its colonial enterprise.

from ‘The Great Migrations, From the Earliest Humans to the Age of Globalization’ by John Haywood


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