First French colonial empire
Map of the first (green) and second (blue) French colonial empires
French Northern America was known as 'Nouvelle France' or New France
During the 16th century, the French colonization of the Americas began. Excursions of Giovanni da Verrazzano and Jacques Cartier in the early 16th century, as well as the frequent voyages of French boats and fishermen to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland throughout that century, were the precursors to the story of France's colonial expansion. But Spain's defense of its American monopoly, and the further distractions caused in France itself in the later 16th century by the French Wars of Religion, prevented any constant efforts by France to settle colonies. Early French attempts to found colonies in Brazil, in 1555 at Rio de Janeiro ("France Antarctique") and in Florida (including Fort Caroline in 1562), and in 1612 at São Luís ("France Équinoxiale"), were not successful, due to a lack of official interest and to Portuguese and Spanish vigilance.
The story of France's colonial empire truly began on 27 July 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).
New France had a rather small population, which resulted from more emphasis being placed on the fur trade rather than agricultural settlements. Due to this emphasis, the French relied heavily on creating friendly contacts with the local First Nations community. Without the appetite of New England for land, and by relying solely on Aboriginals to supply them with fur at the trading posts, the French composed a complex series of military, commercial, and diplomatic connections. These became the most enduring alliances between the French and the First Nation community. The French were, however, under pressure from religious orders to convert them to Catholicism.
Through alliances with various Native American tribes, the French were able to exert a loose control over much of the North American continent. Areas of French settlement were generally limited to the St. Lawrence River Valley. Prior to the establishment of the 1663 Sovereign Council, the territories of New France were developed as mercantile colonies. It is only after the arrival of intendant Jean Talon in 1665 that France gave its American colonies the proper means to develop population colonies comparable to that of the British. Acadia itself was lost to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Back in France there was relatively little interest in colonialism, which concentrated rather on dominance within Europe, and for most of its history, New France was far behind the British North American colonies in both population and economic development.
In 1699, French territorial claims in North America expanded still further, with the foundation of Louisiana in the basin of the Mississippi River. The extensive trading network throughout the region connected to Canada through the Great Lakes, was maintained through a vast system of fortifications, many of them centred in the Illinois Country and in present-day Arkansas.
1767 Louis XV Colonies Françoises
(West Indies) 12 Diniers copper Sous (w/1793 "RF" counterstamp)
As the French empire in North America grew, the French 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 had to be 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 were 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. France's most important Caribbean colonial possession was established in 1664, when the colony of Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti) was founded on the western half of the Spanish island of Hispaniola. In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue grew to be the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean. The eastern half of Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic) also came under French rule for a short period, after being given to France by Spain in 1795.
Africa and Asia
Arrival of Marshal Randon
in 1857, by Ernest Francis Vacherot
French colonial expansion was not limited to the New World. 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. With the decay of the Ottoman Empire, in 1830 the French seized Algiers, thus beginning the colonization of French North Africa.
During the First World War, after France had suffered heavy casualties on the Western Front, they began to recruit soldiers from their African empire. By 1917, France had recruited 270,000 African soldiers. Their most decorated regiments came from Morocco, but due to the ongoing Zaian War they were only able to recruit 23,000 Moroccans. African soldiers had success in the Battle of Verdun and failure in the Nivelle Offensive, but in general regardless of their usefulness, French generals did not think highly of their African troops.
After the First World War, France's African war aims were not being decided by her cabinet or the official mind of the colonial ministry, but rather the leaders of the colonial movement in French Africa. The first occasion of this was in 1915–1916, when Francois Georges-Picot (both a diplomat and part of a colonial dynasty) met with the British to discuss the division of Cameroon. Picot proceeded with negotiations with neither the oversight of the French president nor the cabinet. What resulted was Britain giving nine tenths of Cameroon to the French. Picot emphasized the demands of the French colonists over the French cabinet. This policy of French colonial leaders determining France's African war aims can be seen throughout much of France's empire.
Colonies were established in India's Chandernagore (1673) and Pondichéry in the south east (1674), and later at Yanam (1723), Mahe (1725), and Karikal (1739) (see French India). Colonies were also founded in the Indian Ocean, on the Île de Bourbon (Réunion, 1664), Isle de France (Mauritius, 1718), and the Seychelles (1756).
Colonial conflict with Britain
In the middle of the 18th century, a series of colonial conflicts began between France and Britain, which ultimately resulted in the destruction of most of the first French colonial empire and the near-complete expulsion of France from the Americas. These wars were the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–1748), the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the American Revolution (1765–1783), the French Revolutionary Wars (1793–1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). It may even be seen further back in time to the first of the French and Indian Wars. This cyclic conflict is sometimes known as the Second Hundred Years' War.
Although the War of the Austrian Succession was indecisive – despite French successes in India under the French Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix and Europe under Marshal Saxe – the Seven Years' War, after early French successes in Menorca and North America, saw a French defeat, with the numerically superior British (over one million to about 50 thousand French settlers) conquering not only New France (excluding the small islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon), but also most of France's West Indian (Caribbean) colonies, and all of the French Indian outposts.
While the peace treaty saw France's Indian outposts, and the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe restored to France, the competition for influence in India had been won by the British, and North America was entirely lost – most of New France was taken by Britain (also referred to as British North America), except Louisiana, which France ceded to Spain as payment for Spain's late entrance into the war (and as compensation for Britain's annexation of Spanish Florida). Also ceded to the British were Grenada and Saint Lucia in the West Indies. Although the loss of Canada would cause much regret in future generations, it excited little unhappiness at the time; colonialism was widely regarded as both unimportant to France, and immoral.
Some recovery of the French colonial empire was made during the French intervention in the American Revolution, with Saint Lucia being returned to France by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but not nearly as much as had been hoped for at the time of French intervention. True disaster came to what remained of France's colonial empire in 1791 when Saint Domingue (the Western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola), France's richest and most important colony, was riven by a massive slave revolt, caused partly by the divisions among the island's elite, which had resulted from the French Revolution of 1789.
The slaves, led eventually by Toussaint L'Ouverture and then, following his capture by the French in 1801, by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, held their own against French and British opponents, and ultimately achieved independence as Empire of Haiti in 1804 (Haiti became the first black republic in the world, followed by Liberia in 1847). The black and mulatto population of the island (including the Spanish east) had declined from 700,000 in 1789 to 351,819 in 1804. About 80,000 Haitians died in the 1802–03 campaign alone. Of the 55,131 French soldiers dispatched to Haiti in 1802–03, 45,000, including 18 generals, had died, along with 10,000 sailors, the great majority from disease. Captain [first name unknown] Sorrell of the British navy observed, "France lost there one of the finest armies she ever sent forth, composed of picked veterans, the conquerors of Italy and of German legions. She is now entirely deprived of her influence and her power in the West Indies."
In the meanwhile, the newly resumed war with Britain by the French, resulted in the British capture of practically all remaining French colonies. These were restored at the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, but when war resumed in 1803, the British soon recaptured them. France's repurchase of Louisiana in 1800 came to nothing, as the success of the Haitian Revolution convinced Napoleon that holding Louisiana would not be worth the cost, leading to its sale to the United States in 1803. The French attempt to establish a colony in Egypt in 1798–1801 was not successful. Battle casualties for the campaign were at least 15,000 killed or wounded and 8,500 prisoners for France; 50,000 killed or wounded and 15,000 prisoners for Turkey, Egypt, other Ottoman lands, and Britain.