The French Colonial Empire, 1500-1800

Blake Smith

Why did France’s empire expand to so many parts of the world in the early modern period? How did its expansion shape the history of the United States, Canada, Haiti, and other modern-day countries?

Introduction

At its height in the middle of the eighteenth century, the French empire stretched from Illinois to the coast of Africa. Iconic American cities such as New Orleans, Saint Louis, and Chicago grew out of its networks of trade and communication, along with Montreal, Quebec, and Port-of-Prince. Its missionaries, colonists, merchants, and soldiers explored the Mississippi, traded across the Atlantic, and made alliances with American Indian and African powers. They also wiped out entire communities, and kept millions of people in slavery. The following collection of documents survey the many parts of the world swept up in French imperialism during the early modern period (1500–1800), and the many ways the French empire influenced their histories.

Essential Questions

  • What were the motivations behind France’s presence in different parts of the world? How did French motives change from place to place, and over time?

  • How did French colonists see native peoples in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa? How did these peoples interact with the French?

  • How did the pieces of France’s empire fit together? Were they a single, coherent system?

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Furs and a Fortress in New France

In 1534, following the lead of Christopher Columbus and other explorers, the French voyager Jacques Cartier landed on what is now the eastern coast of Canada and claimed it as French territory, calling it “New France.” Over the next 230 years, New France would expand westward from the coast, through the modern Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as southward into what are now the states of the American Midwest. After the port of New Orleans was founded in 1718, French colonists also travelled northward, up the Mississippi, planting settlements in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri. The Chicago River, which connected the Great Lakes region to the Mississippi River, was at the center of the enormous crescent of French territory stretching from the eastern shore of Canada to the Louisiana Delta.

The city of Chicago was not directly founded by the French government, but it could never have existed without the trade connections that French settlers developed in the region. In 1779 Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the son of a French father and an enslaved African woman, arrived in what is now Chicago after travelling north from New Orleans along the Mississippi and then overland through the town of Peoria, Illinois (founded by French explorers in 1680). Moving northeast from there, Du Sable built a house and trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River. For over 100 years, French traders had come to this place from Montreal and Quebec in Canada. They would meet there with fur trappers who hunted all over the Great Lakes region. Even before Du Sable built his full-time trading post, these meetings were big operations.

A contract from 1692 gives a sense of their scale. In Montreal, the business center of French Canada, Magdeleine Saint Jean (on behalf of her husband François Francoeur) made a deal with Simon Guillory and Jean-Baptiste Taury, who agreed to travel to the mouth of the Chicago River. Magdeleine loaned them the money and goods that they would need to purchase furs there. In return, she expected a hefty 500 pounds of beaver fur when they returned.

Unlike the British colonies that eventually became the United States, New France never received many settlers from Europe. Its borders did not expand so quickly because of a rising number of colonists, but because of a declining number of fur-bearing animals. Trappers started hunting along the coast of Canada in the early sixteenth century, but soon had killed too many of the large animals in that area. They had to travel further and further away from the eastern seaboard, founding new settlements along the way. By the late seventeenth century, 150 years after Cartier’s arrival, they already needed to go as far as Illinois.

French officials wondered if the fur trade was sustainable in the long term. What would happen to the economy of New France if trappers could no longer find beaver and other fur-bearing animals? Officials also worried that the settlements founded to support the fur trade were too far apart and had too few people to defend themselves from an attack by Great Britain. France and Britain went to war almost every decade from 1660 to 1815, and Britain tended to have the upper hand in these conflicts. France’s colonies in North America were especially vulnerable to British attack. In 1710 Britain conquered some of France’s territory on the Canadian coast (what is now the province of Nova Scotia), and it seemed like the rest of New France might be next.

Thinking that he could kill two birds with one stone, colonial officer Antoine-Denis Raudot proposed several times throughout the 1700s and 1710s that the French government build an enormous fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton island. He claimed that an island fortress would protect Canada from another British invasion, and also promote the fishing industry, which would make the economy of New France less dependent on the fur trade. In 1716, hoping to make his case more convincing, he commissioned the following map of what the fortress might look like. The French government accepted Raudot’s proposal, and spent 20 years (1720–1740) building a huge, expensive base at Louisbourg. The investment did not pay off. Louisbourg was captured in 1745, returned in 1748, and then captured again (this time for good) in 1758, during the Seven Year’s War (1756–1763). By the end of the war, the British had conquered all of New France, from Canada to New Orleans, leaving the French in control of only a few small islands in the Caribbean. But those colonies, one hundredth the size of New France, were the most valuable parts of France’s transatlantic empire, far more profitable than the vast North American territories.

Questions to Consider

  1. What was the role of the fur trade in the history of New France? Of Chicago?

  2. What were the weaknesses of the French model of colonization?

  3. What does this contract tell us about the role of women in New France’s economy and society?

  4. What information does this map convey? How does it make building a fortress at Louisbourg seem like a good idea?

[Key to Louisbourg Map: A-D Gun batteries; E Magazines; F Place to disembark on the island; G Bridge; H-I Rocks and pieces of land that appear at low tide]

Fur Trade Contract Between François Francoeur and Four Voyageurs for Transport of Goods and Purchase of Beaver Pelts in Michilimackinac and Chicago : Ville-Marie, Before the Clerk Claude Maugue, 1692 Sept. 15.

September 15, 1692.

Image of Fur Trade Contract Between François Francoeur and Four Voyageurs for Transport of Goods and Purchase of Beaver Pelts in Michilimackinac and Chicago : Ville-Marie, Before the Clerk Claude Maugue, 1692 Sept. 15.

This contract shows the importance of the Chicago area to the fur trade.

Pardevant Claude Maugue, notaire royal et de l’isle de Montreal y residant et tesmoins soubsignés, furent presens en leurs personnes Magdelaine St. Jean, femme de François Francour dit Lavallée, de present aux | Ilinois, de luy authorizee pour gerer les affaires de leur communauté d’une part, et les sieurs Simon Guillory, et Jean Baptiste Jarry, Louis |Roy, faisant tant pour eux que pour François |Roy, tous demeurans en ceste isle, d’autre part […] [I]ls promettent et s’obligent de mener et conduire au lieu dit Chicagou, […] faire conduire lesdites marchandises […] sur deux canoz à Chicagou […] Ce present engagement fait pour et moyennant la somme de cinq cens livres en castor, chascun […].

[In the presence of Laurent Maugrec, royal notary of the island of Montreal, and the officers and undersigned witnesses, were present in person Madeleine St Jean, wife of François Francoeur, known as Lavallée and currently in the Illinois country, authorized by him to manage his business… and Simon Guillory and Jean-Baptiste Taury… they promise and oblige themselves to transport and to move… to the place of Chicago and to move the goods in their canoes to Chicago… These promises are made for the sum of an average of five hundred pounds of beaver each]

Metadata Details
Item Type Manuscript
Title Fur Trade Contract Between François Francoeur and Four Voyageurs for Transport of Goods and Purchase of Beaver Pelts in Michilimackinac and Chicago : Ville-Marie, Before the Clerk Claude Maugue, 1692 Sept. 15.
Short Title Fur Trade Contract, 1692
Place of Publication Quebec
Publication Date September 15, 1692
Language French
Call Number VAULT Ruggles 419
Location Special Collections 4th Floor

Mémoire pour jetter les premiers fondements de l'établissement proposé dans l'isle de Cap Breton [Memorandum for Setting the First Foundations of the Proposed Establishment on the Island of Cape Breton]

Antoine-Denis Raudot. From Memoranda on French colonies in America, including Canada, Louisiana, and the Carribean [1702-1750], 1716.

Image of Mémoire pour jetter les premiers fondements de l'établissement proposé dans l'isle de Cap Breton [Memorandum for Setting the First Foundations of the Proposed Establishment on the Island of Cape Breton]

Raudot’s map and memoranda convinced the French government to build a fortress at Louisbourg.

Metadata Details
Item Type Manuscript
Title Mémoire pour jetter les premiers fondements de l'établissement proposé dans l'isle de Cap Breton [Memorandum for Setting the First Foundations of the Proposed Establishment on the Island of Cape Breton]
Publication Title Memoranda on French colonies in America, including Canada, Louisiana, and the Carribean [1702-1750]
Short Title Map of Louisbourg, 1716
Place of Publication Quebec
Creator Antoine-Denis Raudot
Publication Date 1716
Number of Pages pp. 75-78 of pt. 2
Language French
Call Number VAULT Ayer MS 293
Library Catalog VAULT Ayer MS 293
Archive Location Special Collections 4th floor
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Soldiers and Priests in North America

Britain was not the only country the French needed to worry about. During its 250 years of history, the French empire in North America had complicated relationships with a number of American Indian communities. Sometimes these were allies of the French, like the Huron Confederacy in present-day Quebec, which signed an official treaty with the French government in 1614. But others, such as the Iroquois of what is now upstate New York, and the Natchez of what is now Mississippi, could be bitter enemies. Lieutenant Dumont de Montigny recorded France’s many battles with the Natchez in a manuscript he wrote after his retirement in 1747. In the introduction to this manuscript, de Montigny says that he had originally written his story in an epic poem, full of battles and adventures. After thinking it over, however, he decided that it would be better just to tell what happened in a straightforward way. His revised manuscript in prose was translated into English in 2007 as A French Soldier in Louisiana: The Memoir of Dumont de Montigny.

One of the most important features of French relations with American Indians was the influence of Catholic missionaries, who left France to convert different groups in Canada and elsewhere. The most famous of these missionaries is Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest who travelled down the Mississippi with fur-trader Louis Jolliet in 1673. Jean-Claude Mathevet is less well known today, but he was also a kind of pioneer. He lived for many years among the Nipissing, a small community living around Lake Nipissing in present-day Ontario, hundreds of miles from the main French settlements of Montreal and Quebec. Mathevet tried to learn their language so that he and other priests would be able to preach to them in the future. But the notes he took suggest that he was having a good deal of trouble. He wrote down phrases he would need to remember, including “I’m tired of talking” (je suis las de parler) and “let’s speak French” (parlons français)! Nevertheless, his persistence eventually paid off, and Mathevet was able to write the Gospels, the lives of saints, and the Catholic liturgy in Nipissing. Today his writings provide valuable data for historians and linguists, and can offer hope to anyone who has ever struggled with a foreign language.

The middle column of the top of the first page of Mathevet’s notes reveals some of the words he felt he would need most often: passion, resurrection, divers moyens pour se bien comporter, regrets d’un incroyant à la veille de son départ, enfer, patience [passion, resurrection, various ways of behaving well, the regrets of an unbeliever on the verge of his departure, Hell, patience].

Questions to Consider

  1. What expressions did Mathevet think were most important? What does this tell us about him and his mission?

  2. Identify the elements that are included in the coat of arms De Montigny drew. Why do you think he chose these elements?

Sentences in French and Nipissing

Jean-Claude Mathevet. 1750.

Image of Sentences in French and Nipissing

Judging by his notes, Mathevet’s study of the Nipissing language seems to have been hard work!

passion, résurrection, divers moyens pour se bien comporter, regrets d’un incroyant à la veille de son départ, enfer, patience

[passion, resurrection, various ways of behaving well, the regrets of an unbeliever on the verge of his departure, Hell, patience]

Metadata Details
Item Type Manuscript
Title Sentences in French and Nipissing
Short Title Sentences in French, 1750
Creator Jean-Claude Mathevet
Publication Date 1750
Language French, Nipissing
Call Number VAULT box Ayer MS 1639
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Mémoire de Lxx Dxx officier ingénieur, contenant les événements qui se sont passés à la Louisiane depuis 1715 jusqu’à présent [Memoir of Lxx Dxx, engineering officer, containing the events that have happened in Louisiana from 1715 to the present]

Dumont de Montigny. 1747.

Image of Mémoire de Lxx Dxx officier ingénieur, contenant les événements qui se sont passés à la Louisiane depuis 1715 jusqu’à présent  [Memoir of Lxx Dxx, engineering officer, containing the events that have happened in Louisiana from 1715 to the present]

De Montigny could not decide whether to write the story of his service in Louisiana as a memoir or a poem.

Monseigneur. Quoique le poême que j’ay pris la liberté de vous envoyer remferme dans quelques endroits des particularités de plusieures années d’observations que j’ay faites de la Loüisianne, cependant, comme les sortes d’ouvrages rimés ne sont propres qu’à donner simplement une idée simple et embarrassante à votre grandeur, j’ai cru qu’il etoit de mon devoir et de ma reconnoissance de nous l’envoyer en proze, il est plus estendu et je l’ai rendu plus intelligible […]

[My Lord, although the poem that I took the liberty of sending you contains in some places the details of several years of observations that I [made?] in Louisiana, however, because rhyming literature is fit only to express in simple terms a simple idea, one beneath your grandeur, I thought that it was my incumbent on my duty and my gratitude to send it to you in prose, it is longer and I have made it easier to understand]

Image of Mémoire de Lxx Dxx officier ingénieur, contenant les événements qui se sont passés à la Louisiane depuis 1715 jusqu’à présent  [Memoir of Lxx Dxx, engineering officer, containing the events that have happened in Louisiana from 1715 to the present]

De Montigny included a map of Louisiana and the Caribbean.

Image of Mémoire de Lxx Dxx officier ingénieur, contenant les événements qui se sont passés à la Louisiane depuis 1715 jusqu’à présent  [Memoir of Lxx Dxx, engineering officer, containing the events that have happened in Louisiana from 1715 to the present]

He was also a keen observer of Louisiana’s wildlife, including crocodiles.

Image of Mémoire de Lxx Dxx officier ingénieur, contenant les événements qui se sont passés à la Louisiane depuis 1715 jusqu’à présent  [Memoir of Lxx Dxx, engineering officer, containing the events that have happened in Louisiana from 1715 to the present]

Rattlesnakes also caught de Montigny’s attention.

Metadata Details
Item Type Manuscript
Title Mémoire de Lxx Dxx officier ingénieur, contenant les événements qui se sont passés à la Louisiane depuis 1715 jusqu’à présent [Memoir of Lxx Dxx, engineering officer, containing the events that have happened in Louisiana from 1715 to the present]
Short Title Memoir of Lxx Dxx, 1747
Creator Dumont de Montigny
Publication Date 1747
Language French
Call Number VAULT Ayer MS 257
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Genocide and the “Noble Savage” in the Caribbean

France’s defeat in the Seven Year’s War meant the loss of an enormous territory. But French officials and merchants were much less upset about the loss of New France than they were relieved that France could still keep its Caribbean colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). These sugar-producing islands were much smaller than New France, but had a larger population (well over half a million by the end of the eighteenth century, compared to the 50,000 in New France), and made far more money for the business community back in France. Christopher Columbus had claimed all these places for Spain in 1492, but the Spanish government never colonized the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. It did briefly colonize Saint-Domingue, which lies on the western side of the island of Hispaniola, but Spain soon abandoned that area to concentrate settlement on the eastern side (now the Dominican Republic). Pirates took over the western coast, before being driven out by the French government in the late seventeenth century.

When French settlers came to Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1635, the islands were still inhabited by the Carib people who had lived there for centuries. Some people in France hoped to convert them to Catholicism. But Jacques Bouton, a member of the Jesuit order of missionaries, felt that this would not be possible. In his 1640 Relation of the Establishment of the French since 1635 in the Island of Martinique, Bouton claimed that the Caribs were too wicked and ignorant to ever become Christians. Responding in part to such ideas, French settlers massacred almost all of the Caribs by the end of the seventeenth century. This act of genocide allowed the French to transform their Caribbean colonies into plantation societies, where the heavy work of growing sugar cane and transforming it into refined sugar done by hundreds of thousands of slaves taken from Africa.

By the time that the Marquis de Lambertye wrote a far more positive description of the Caribs in his 1760 travel memoirs, there were only a few surviving members of the original inhabitants of the Martinique and Guadeloupe. Lambertye’s History of the Caribs is a classic example of the idea of the “noble savage” popular in eighteenth-century France. Native peoples under French rule were now presented as innocent, naïve, and good, instead of as evil and ignorant. But this change in French thinking did not make much difference to the Caribs.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why might French relations with the Caribs have differed from France’s treatment of North American peoples? What role could economic factors have played?

  2. On what points do the two descriptions of the Caribs agree? How might this be significant?

Relation de l’establissement des françois depuis l’an 1635, en l’isle de la Martinique [Account of the Establishment of the French in the Island of Martinique, Since the Year 1635]

Jacques Bouton. 1640.

Image of Relation de l’establissement des françois depuis l’an 1635, en l’isle de la Martinique [Account of the Establishment of the French in the Island of Martinique, Since the Year 1635]

Jesuit priest Jacques Bouton claimed the Caribs of Martinique were too wicked to convert to Christianity.

Quand aux naturels du païs, nos sauvages Caraïbes ; on voit par ce qui a esté rapporté aux chapitres precedens de leurs meurs & de leur façons de faire, la difficulté qu’il y aura à les convertir. Ils vivent à leur ayse dans une tres grande oysiveté, dans une entiere liberté de tout dire, & tout faire, dans l’impunité de leurs crimes, mesme les plus horribles, sans honte de leurs debordemens, nudité, polygamie, yvrognerie, & vilenies […]

[Now as for the natives of the country, our savage Caribs; you can see how hard it will be to convert them from what has been written in the preceding chapters about their customs and manners. They live as they like to, in a state of very great laziness, in a total freedom to say and do anything, with no punishment for their crimes, even the most horrible ones, without shame for their misconduct, nudity, polygamy, drunkenness, and villainy.]

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Relation de l’establissement des françois depuis l’an 1635, en l’isle de la Martinique [Account of the Establishment of the French in the Island of Martinique, Since the Year 1635]
Short Title Establishment of Martinique, 1640
Place of Publication Paris
Creator Jacques Bouton
Publication Date 1640
Language French
Call Number Ayer 1000.5 .M23 B78 1640
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Histoire des Caraïbes : nation sauvage qui habite les Isles du Vent en Amérique et partie de la terre ferme ou continent. [History of the Caribs: A Savage Nation Inhabiting the Windward Isles in America, and Part of the Terra Firma or Continent]

Marquis de Lambertye. 1760.

Image of Histoire des Caraïbes : nation sauvage qui habite les Isles du Vent en Amérique et partie de la terre ferme ou continent. [History of the Caribs: A Savage Nation Inhabiting the Windward Isles in America, and Part of the Terra Firma or Continent]

The Marquis de Lambertye, writing in 1760, idealized the Caribs as “noble savages.”

Ces peuples, les plus doux de tout le nouveau Monde, jouïssaient en paix & aise de cet Archipel, qui prend depuis le dixième degré de latitude septentrionale jusqu’au vingt-deuxième inclusivement même latitude. Ils y vivoient dans l’abondance : la frugalité était la source de leur fortune. Contens de peu, l’Ambition, ce tyran des Européens, n’avoit encore aucuns autels aux Antilles. La pêche, la chasse et le repos partageoient également les douceurs de l’état indépendant dans lequel ils vivoient. […]

Riches des présents de la nature, ils se contentaient de la fécondité de leurs terres, & y bornaient leurs désirs.

[These peoples, the gentlest of all the New World, enjoyed in peace this archipelago, which stretches from the second degree of northern latitude until the twenty-second degree of the same latitude, inclusive. They lived in abundance: frugality was the source of their wealth. [They were] Content with little, [so] ambition, that tyrant of Europeans, did not yet have any altars in the Antilles. Fishing, hunting and rest equally divided the comforts of the independent state in which they lived…

Rich with nature’s gifts, they were content with the fertility of their lands, and stopped their desires there.]

Metadata Details
Item Type Manuscript
Title Histoire des Caraïbes : nation sauvage qui habite les Isles du Vent en Amérique et partie de la terre ferme ou continent. [History of the Caribs: A Savage Nation Inhabiting the Windward Isles in America, and Part of the Terra Firma or Continent]
Short Title History of the Caribs, 1760
Place of Publication Paris
Creator Marquis de Lambertye
Publication Date 1760
Language French
Call Number VAULT Ayer MS 1114
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Slave Trade

African slaves were brought to France’s Caribbean colonies (and, in some cases, to Canada and the Midwest), through the routes of what historians today call the Triangular Trade. The three sides of this triangle were ports in Western Europe, trading posts on the coast of West Africa (then known generally as Guinea), and European colonies in the New World. European products like guns and textiles were given to African merchants in exchange for slaves, who were then transported across the Atlantic in crowded ships. Many did not survive the journey. Most of the survivors were sold to sugar-producing plantations in the Caribbean, where working conditions were worse than almost anywhere else in the Americas. Theoretically, the French king Louis XIV gave basic protections for slaves in his 1685 Black Node (Code Noir). This law required masters to provide slaves with enough food, clothing, and shelter. But it was rarely enforced. Slaves on the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) were usually worked to death within five to ten years of their arrival.

The French, by and large, treated African slaves in their Caribbean colonies brutally. Their relationships with the African traders and political leaders who were their partners in the slave trade, however, were very different. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the French government was in no position to force African countries to do what it wanted. Instead, the French set up small coastal forts and trading posts, and then tried to find strong African allies who could supply them with slaves. But first they had to convince African rulers that it was worth siding with them.

During the seventeenth century, the French were especially interested in the West African kingdom of Allada (in what is today the country of Benin). The Chevalier des Guines, whose memoirs were ghost-written by author Jean-Baptiste Labat, went to buy slaves in Allada in 1725, just two years before the kingdom was conquered by an army from the neighboring country of Dahomey. While telling the story of the chevalier’s visit, Labat remarked that Allada had once been much more powerful, so powerful that in 1670, French officials asked the king of Allada for an alliance. The king had answered that before he could make up his mind he would need to send an ambassador to see if France was a strong enough country to be Allada’s ally. So he sent his interpreter, Matteo Lopes, to travel with a French ship (and the six hundred slaves it was carrying) first to the Caribbean, and then back to France to meet Louis XIV, which he did the following year.

Allada’s ambassador had learned fluent Portuguese, studied Christianity, and changed his name to Matteo so that he could deal more easily with Europeans. Labat was clearly fascinated and impressed by him. Neither Matteo nor his French counterparts seem to have been troubled by the fact that Allada’s ambassador to France was traveling on a ship filled with African slaves.

Matteo Lopes may have been treated “respectfully” on board The Concord, but for the twelve million slaves sent from Africa to the New World from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century, the voyage across the Atlantic was agonizing and often fatal. Their journey began in places like the island of Gorée, off the coast of the modern-day country of Senegal. In such fortified outposts, European traders would gather slaves purchased from African kingdoms like Allada. Gorée was first colonized the Portuguese in 1444, before coming under French control in 1677. It was not one of the major centers of the slave trade, sending “only” a few hundred slaves to the Americas each year. But Gorée is an important place in the history of slavery, because it is home to one of the first museums and memorials of the slave trade, founded in 1962. The map below shows a French plan from 1716 (the same year as the map of Louisbourg) for new construction on the island.

[Key to map of Gorée A Fort; B Courtyard; C Governor’ s House; D Guards; E Kitchen; F Magazine; G Officer’ s House; H-I Captives’ Quarters… O-Q Batteries; S-Y Rocks that appear at low tide]

Questions to Consider

  1. How can we make sense of the fact that an African ambassador was apparently treated with dignity while travelling on a slave ship?

  2. Both Gorée and Louisbourg were fortified islands. Do the maps of the two forts show more differences or similarities between them? What do they show about the purpose of the fortifications?

Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais en Guinée, isles voisines, et à Cayenne, fait en 1725, 1726 & 1727. [Voyage of the Chevalier des Marchais to Guinea, the Neighboring Islands and to Cayenne, made in 1725, 1726, and 1727]

Jean-Baptiste Labat. 1731.

Image of Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais en Guinée, isles voisines, et à Cayenne, fait en 1725, 1726 & 1727. [Voyage of the Chevalier des Marchais to Guinea, the Neighboring Islands and to Cayenne, made in 1725, 1726, and 1727]

Matteo Lopes, ambassador of the West African kingdom of Allada, met with Louis XIV in 1670.

Le Vaisseau la Concorde mit à la voile chargé de près de six cent esclaves. On y reçût avec respect l’Ambassadeur, & on l’y traita avec la distinction que demandoit son caractere et son mérite personnel. Il étoit fort âgé & il étoit aisé de s’en convaincre, puisque sa barbe & ses cheveux étoient tous blancs, ce qui n’arrive aux Negres que dans une extrême vieillesse. Il étoit cependant bien droit, vigoureux, ferme, marchoit bien, il avoit les yeux fort vifs, l’air grand, la physionomie agréable & spirituelle, il étoit fort poli, s’expliquoit en bons termes dans la langue Portugaise qu’il parloit en perfection.

[The ship, The Concord, raised sail loaded with almost six hundred slaves. There the ambassador was received respectfully, and treated with the consideration that his position and personal merit demanded. He was very old, and this was very easy to see, because his beard and his hair were totally white, which only happens to Negros in extreme old age. But he stood tall, he was energetic, solid, he walked well, he had very lively eyes, a tall appearance, an agreeable and intelligent face, he was very genteel, he expressed himself in good phrases in Portuguese, which he spoke perfectly.]

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Voyage du chevalier Des Marchais en Guinée, isles voisines, et à Cayenne, fait en 1725, 1726 & 1727. [Voyage of the Chevalier des Marchais to Guinea, the Neighboring Islands and to Cayenne, made in 1725, 1726, and 1727]
Short Title Voyage to Guinea, 1731
Place of Publication Paris
Creator Jean-Baptiste Labat
Publication Date 1731
Volume 2
Number of Volumes 4
Language French
Call Number Ayer 1269 .G7 L11 1731
Library Catalog Ayer 1269 .G7 L11 1731
Location Special Collections 4th Floor

Plan du fort de lisle de Goreé et ses projets [Map and plans for the Fort of the Island of Gorée]

1716.

Image of Plan du fort de lisle de Goreé et ses projets [Map and plans for the Fort of the Island of Gorée]

A minor trading post in the eighteenth century, Gorée is today a symbol of the horrors of the slave trade.

Metadata Details
Item Type Map
Title Plan du fort de lisle de Goreé et ses projets [Map and plans for the Fort of the Island of Gorée]
Short Title Map of Gorée, 1716
Publication Date 1716
Language French
Call Number VAULT drawer Ayer MS map 30 sheet 4
Library Catalog VAULT drawer Ayer MS map 30 sheet 4
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Slavery in Saint-Domingue

The largest of France’s Caribbean colonies, and the main destination for slaves, was Saint-Domingue, today Haiti. By 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, over 500,000 African slaves lived on the island, along with a population of 100,000 whites and free people of color. In 1791, the slaves revolted, taking the opportunity provided by the revolution in France. They won their freedom in 1793, when the French government abolished slavery. But ten years later, it seemed like the French government was about to restore slavery to the island, and revolt broke out again in Saint-Domingue. This second rebellion soon turned into a war of independence, and the colony of Saint-Domingue became the free Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804.

Long before 1791, slaves on the island found ways to resist their masters, either by fleeing into the hills of the island (becoming so-called “maroons”) or by using more subtle methods. The following letter, written by an anonymous plantation-owner, describes an episode that took place in Saint-Domingue in 1758. It shows examples of both open and covert forms of resistance, and also reveals the extreme violence slaveholders used to punish resistance.

Questions to Consider

  1. How did the white community try to use François Macandal’s execution to send a warning to slaves?

  2. How did the slaves interpret what was happening?

Relation d’une conspiration tramée par les negres : dans l’Isle de S. Domingue [Account of a Conspiracy Organized by the Negroes: In the Island of St Domingue]

1759.

Image of Relation d’une conspiration tramée par les negres : dans l’Isle de S. Domingue [Account of a Conspiracy Organized by the Negroes: In the Island of St Domingue]

François Macandal, implicated in a conspiracy to kill white slaveholders, was burned at the stake.

Relation d'une conspiration tramée par les Nègres, dans l'Isle de S. Domingue; défense que fait le Jésuite confesseur aux Nègres qu'on supplicie, de révéler leurs fauteurs et complices.

Avis de l'éditeur.

On nous a remis deux Lettres. L’une vient du Cap françois, Isle S. Domingue, & l’autre de la personne à qui cette Lettre étoit adressée. Comme cette personne connoît parfaitement bien par elle-même l’état actuel de cette isle, nous donnerons sa Lettre la première, pour servir d’introduction à la suivante. Ce que contiennent ces Lettres est trop important, dans les circonstances présentes, pour ne les pas donner au public. On y verra que les Negres cherchent à se rendre maître du pays, en faisant périr ceux qui le sont ; que les Jésuites seuls sont épargnés, & qu’ils protegent ouvertement ces Negres, en défendant à ceux qu’on fait mourir de révéler leurs fauteurs & complices. N’est-ce pas se déclarer soi-même complice, que d’ôter le seul moyen d’extirper cette détestable conspiration ?

[Account of the Conspiracy Organized by the Negroes in the Island of St Domingue; the prohibition that the Jesuit confessor made to the Negroes who were being tortured, to reveal their partners in crime and their accomplices.

Notice from the Editor.

We have been sent two letters. One comes from Cap François, on the Island of St Domingue, and the other from the person to whom this letter was addressed. As this person herself knows perfectly well the present condition of the island, we have given her letter first, to serve as an introduction to the second. What these letters contain is too important, in present circumstances, not to give them to the public. It will be revealed how the Negroes seek to make themselves masters of the country, by killing those who are the masters now; how only the Jesuits are spared, and how they openly protect these Negroes, by prohibiting the ones who are about to be killed from revealing their partners and accomplices. Isn’t taking away the only means of uprooting this wicked conspiracy an admission of their own guilt?]

Image of Relation d’une conspiration tramée par les negres : dans l’Isle de S. Domingue [Account of a Conspiracy Organized by the Negroes: In the Island of St Domingue]

Nous sommes ici, Monsieur, dans une consternation générale, perpetuellement entre la vie et la mort. Le récit de notre situation vous fera horreur. Au moins de janvier dernier on a arrété au quartier de Limbé… François Macandal, Nègre, habitant de cette colonie, qui était marron (fugitif) depuis dix-sept ans. Le jour il se rétirait dans les montagnes, & la nuit il venait dans les habitations voisins, où il avait correspondance avec les Nègres. Ils composaient ensemble différents poisons, que ceux-ci vendaient à leurs camarades. On lui [3] a fait son procès. Il à été condamné… à être brûlé vif…

Aussitôt qu’ il a senti le feu, il a fait des hurlements effroyables; mais il a fait des efforts si prodigieux & si supérieurs aux forces de l’ homme, que le collier et la chaîne se sont détachés du poteau; en sorte qu’ il s’ est sauvé du feu le corps en partie brûlé. La maréchaussée et les habitants ont eu la prudence de faire aussitôt retirer les Nègres qui environnaient la place. Tous ces malheureux, en se retirant, criaient à haute voix que François Macandal étoit sorcier & incombustible…

[Here, Monsieur, we are in a general uncertainty, always between life and death. The story of our situation will horrify you. Last January François Macandal, a Negro inhabitant of this colony, who had been a maroon (fugitive) for seventeen years, was arrested in the district of Limbé. During the day he hid in the mountains, and at night he came to the plantations nearby, where he had relationships with the Negros. Together they made various poisons, which they sold to their comrades. We brought him to trial. He was sentenced… to be burned alive…

As soon as he felt the flames, he began to scream horribly; but he made such an incredible effort, one so far beyond human power, that the collar and chain became detached from the post; in such a way that he escaped from the fire partly burnt. The guards and [white] inhabitants had the foresight to immediately send away the Negros who were around the public square. All of these unhappy people, as they went away, called out at the top of their lungs that François Macandal was a sorcerer and could not be burned…

Image of Relation d’une conspiration tramée par les negres : dans l’Isle de S. Domingue [Account of a Conspiracy Organized by the Negroes: In the Island of St Domingue]

[4]… on lui lia les pieds et les mains et on le rejetta dans le brasier. Tous les habitans firent revenir leurs Nègres, qui en le voyant brûler, sentirent le faux de ce qu’ il leur avait fait croire

[5] Nous sommes effrayés de voir que presque tous les coupables, sont ceux qui travaillent à la grande caze, & en qui l’ on a le plus de confiance, le cocher, le cuisinier, & les autres domestiques dont nous nous servons… nous ne savons à quoi nous fier, étant impossible de passer du service des ces misérables.

His hands and feet were tied, and he was thrown again into the blaze. The [white] inhabitants made their Negros come back, and the latter, when they saw him burn, discovered that what he had made them believe was false…

We are frightened to realize that almost all the guilty parties were those [slaves] who lived in the big house [the master’s house], and those in whom we had the most confidence, the coachman, the cook, and the other house servants we use… We don’ t know who to trust, since it’ s impossible for us to do without the service of these wretches.]

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Relation d’une conspiration tramée par les negres : dans l’Isle de S. Domingue [Account of a Conspiracy Organized by the Negroes: In the Island of St Domingue]
Short Title Account of a Conspiracy, 1759
Publication Date 1759
Language French
Call Number Greenlee 4504 .P855
Location Box 1759, N-ZSpecial Collections 4th floor

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Selected Sources

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804. Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, 2004.

Dumont de Montigny. The Memoir of Lieutenant Dumont, 1715-1747, ed. and trans. Gordon M Sayre and Carla Zecher. Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, 2012.

Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670–1730. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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