French Atlantic World

Marie-Jeanne Rossignol

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
French Atlantic World

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History



The very notions of Atlantic history and a French Atlantic are heavily debated, especially by French historians. Yet there is no gainsaying that the rise of Atlantic history in the 1990s has corresponded to a renewed interest in the history of the first French colonial empire together with innovative historiographical approaches (greater focus on indigenous peoples, slavery, and ordinary immigrants). However, the French Atlantic covers a set of issues that must not be confused with or limited to French colonial policy or enterprise in North, Central, and South America. This entry will thus emphasize French migration across and around the Atlantic, trade and commerce (including the slave trade), and imperial policies and actions (wars with Britain, relations with indigenous peoples). The French Atlantic covers a period starting in the early 17th century (after a few failed attempts in the 16th century in both North and South America) and going beyond 1763, as the events and repercussions of the American Revolution together with those of the French and Haitian revolutions unfolded. This entry will thus take researchers to the 1830s. Like the British Atlantic, the French Atlantic suggests a space where human, political, and commercial exchanges are connected and coordinated on the ocean but also far inland. Not only did the French American colonies have an impact on the metropolis (economically and in many other ways), but they also constantly traded with or clashed with neighboring empires, Spain, Britain, or Native American nations, in the Americas. Most particularly the vast spread of the French empire in the interior of North America and the low number of French immigrants to the continent made for intense and diverse contacts with indigenous peoples. No two European empires in the Americas were similar. What sets the French Atlantic apart from the rival British Atlantic is probably the role of the state. From the start French imperial expansion was characterized by a considerable involvement of the state, which does not mean that there ever was a unanimous opinion, at court or among French colonial officials in France and America, on how to organize the French empire and on the course it was meant to take. Nor does that mean that French merchants and colonial settlers did not benefit from a measure of autonomy. Another peculiarity of the French empire in the Americas was its fragmentation among colonies of very different kinds. After its defeat on the North American continent in 1763, France chose to retain its sugar colonies in the Caribbean, reinforcing its commitment to African slavery and the slave trade. Even after losing Canada and Louisiana, French authorities maintained an interest in the North American continent (and in South America in Guyana). Their originally reticent support for the American Revolution turned into a wartime alliance that eventually led to profound changes in France. The North American debate on slavery in those years (1776–1787) was also instrumental in focusing French liberal efforts on ending slavery and the slave trade, while many émigrés and refugees chose the United States as a haven during the age of revolution, with mixed results.

Article.  10785 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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