The French Empire
From its beginnings in the early 1600s the French overseas empire was
formed more by the agencies and stimulation of the state, church, and
armed forces than by the initiation of the business community.
Merchants, financiers, and manufacturers did engage in and profit from
French imperial ventures, but generally they had to be prodded into
participation by monarchical officials. In this the French colonial
empire differed from its chief rival, the British Empire.
The Kings Henry IV, Louis XIV, and the latter's minister Jean Baptiste
Colbert, who founded the French East India Company, and many
missionaries, explorers, and merchants helped acquire Canada,
Louisiana, several West Indian islands, and parts of India for France.
Political motives for this overseas penetration varied from the search
for markets, raw materials, investments, and cheap labor to the drive
for glory, prestige, strategic advantage, and manpower. Prominent, too,
was the mission civilisatrice, the urge to implant Roman Catholicism
and French culture.
The early voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano and Jacques Cartier in the
early 16th century, as well as the frequent voyages of French fishermen
to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland throughout that century, were the
precursors to the story of France's colonial expansion. But Spain's
jealous protection of its American monopoly, and the disruptions caused
in France itself by the Wars of Religion in the later 16th century,
prevented any consistent efforts by France to establish colonies. Early
French attempts to found colonies in Brazil, in 1555 at Rio de Janeiro
("France Antarctique") and in 1612 at São Luís ("France Équinoxiale"),
and in Florida (including Fort Caroline in 1562) were not successful,
due to Portuguese and Spanish vigilance.
France's colonial empire began on July 27, 1605, with the foundation of
Port Royal in the colony of Acadia in North America, in what is now
Nova Scotia, Canada. A few years later, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain
founded Quebec, which was to become the capital of the enormous, but
sparsely settled, fur-trading colony of New France (also called Canada).
(Acadia itself was lost to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in
As the French empire in North America expanded, they also began
to build a smaller, but more profitable empire in the West Indies.
Settlement along the South American coast in what is today French
Guiana began in 1624, and a colony was founded on Saint Kitts in 1625
(the island was shared with the English until the Treaty of Utrecht in
1713, when it was ceded outright). The Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique
founded colonies in Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1635, and a colony was
later founded on Saint Lucia by (1650).
The food-producing plantations of these colonies are built and
sustained through slavery, with the supply of slaves dependent on the
African slave trade. Local resistance by the indigenous peoples
resulted in the Carib Expulsion of 1660.
The most important Caribbean colonial possession did not come until
1664, when the colony of Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti) was founded on
the western half of the Spanish island of Hispaniola.
French colonial expansion is not limited to the New World, however. In
Senegal in West Africa, the French began to establish trading posts
along the coast in 1624. In 1664, the French East India Company was
established to compete for trade in the east. Colonies were established
in India in Chandernagore in Bengal (1673) and Pondicherry in the
Southeast (1674.) Colonies were also founded in the Indian Ocean,
on the Île de Bourbon (Réunion, 1664.)
Hispaniola eastern half
Saint Kitts, Nevis,