France Antarctique

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This article is part of
the Brazilian History
Indigenous peoples
Colonial Brazil
Empire of Brazil

France Antarctique was the name of the failed French colony south of the Equator, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which existed between 1555 and 1567.

Brazil had been discovered in April 1500 by a fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral on behalf of the Portuguese crown, which arrived in present-day Porto Seguro, Bahia, but except for Salvador (first Brazilian capital city) the rest of the new territory still remained largely unexplored half a century later.

On 1 November 1555, a Huguenot French vice-admiral named Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon (1510-1575), commanding a small fleet of two ships and 600 soldiers and Huguenot colonists, took possession of the small island of Serigipe in the Guanabara Bay, in front of present-day Rio de Janeiro, where they built a fort named Fort Coligny (in honor of Gaspard de Coligny, a Huguenot admiral who supported the expedition in order to protect his co-religionists). To the still largely undeveloped mainland village, Villegaignon gave the name of Henryville, in honour of Henry II, the King of France, who also knew of and approved the expedition, and had provided the fleet for the trip. However, the French crown failed to make good use of Villegaignon's exploits to expand the reach of the French kingdom into the New World, as it was being done at the time with the conquests of Jacques Cartier in the present-day province of Québec, Canada. All of these settlements were in violation of the papal bull of 1493, which divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, who later defined the borders more exactly by the Treaty of Tordesillas.

First mass celebrated at Fort Coligny. Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon is shown at right
First mass celebrated at Fort Coligny. Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon is shown at right

Unchallenged by the Portuguese, who initially took little notice of his invasion, Villegaignon expanded the little colony by bringing more colonists in 1556, this time largely made of Swiss Calvinists from Geneva, in three ships under the command of his nephew, Bois le Comte. Villegaignon secured his position by making an alliance with the Tamoio and Tupynambá Indians of the region, who were fighting the Portuguese.

The Island of Villegaignon under Portuguese attack (1560)
The Island of Villegaignon under Portuguese attack (1560)

Finally, in 1560, Mem de Sá, the new Governor-General of Brazil, received from the Portuguese government the command to expel the French. With a fleet of 26 warships and 2,000 soldiers, he attacked and destroyed Fort Coligny within three days, but was unable to drive off their inhabitants and defenders, because they escaped to the mainland with the help of the Indians, where they continued to live and to work. Admiral Villegaignon had already reverted to the Catholic faith and returned to France in 1558, in disgust with the continuing religious hate between French Protestants and Catholics, who had come also with the second group (see French Wars of Religion).

Urged by two influential Jesuit priests who had come to Brazil with Mem de Sá, named José de Anchieta and Manoel da Nóbrega, and who had played a big role in pacifying the Tamoyos, Mem de Sá ordered his nephew, Estácio de Sá to assemble a new attack force. Estácio de Sá founded the city of Rio de Janeiro on March 1, 1565 and fought the Frenchmen for two more years. Helped by a military reinforcement sent by his uncle, in 20 January 1567, he imposed final defeat on the French forces and definitely expelled them from Brazil, but unfortunately died a month later from wounds inflicted in the battle. Coligny's and Villegaignon's dream had lasted a mere 12 years.

Largely in response to the two attempts of France to conquer territory in Brazil (the other one was named France Équinoxiale and took place in present-day São Luís, state of Maranhão), between 1612 and 1615, the Portuguese crown decided to step up the colonization of Brazil and upgrade its status.

See more


Pioneers of France in the New World. By Francis Parkman; University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

External links

edit Former French colonies, protectorate and possessions
Alaouites | Alexandretta | Algeria | Anjouan | Djibouti | France Antarctique | French Equatorial Africa (Chad, Gabon, Middle Congo, Oubangui-Chari) | French India (Chandernagore, Coromandel Coast, Malabar, Mahe, Pondichery, Karikal, Yanaon) | French Indochina (Annam, Cochinchina, Kampuchea, Laos, Tonkin) | French Togoland | French West Africa (Côte d'Ivoire, Dahomey, French Sudan, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Upper Volta) | Inini | Kwang-Chou-Wan | Madagascar | New France (Acadia, Louisiana, Québec, Terre Neuve) | Saint-Domingue | Tunisia | Vanuatu
French colonisation of the Americas

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