French colonial empires

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Map of the first (light blue) and second (dark blue - plain and hachured) French colonial empires
Map of the first (light blue) and second (dark blue - plain and hachured) French colonial empires

France has had colonial possessions, in various forms, since the beginning of the 17th century, until the 1960's. In the 19th and 20th centuries, its colonial empire was the second largest in the world, behind the British Empire. At its peak, between 1919 and 1939, the second French colonial empire extended over 12,347,000 km² (4,767,000 sq. miles) of land. Including metropolitan France, the total area of land under French sovereignty reached 12,898,000 km² (4,980,000 sq. miles) in the 1920's and 1930s, which is 8.6% of the world's land area.

Currently, the remnants of this large empire are tens of thousands of islands and archipelagos located in the North Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific, the North Pacific, and the Antarctic Ocean, as well one mainland territory in South America, totaling altogether 123,150 km² (47,548 sq. miles), which amounts to only 1% of the pre-1939 French colonial empire's area, with 2,485,000 people living in them in 2005, (see Administrative divisions of France). All of these enjoy full political representation at the national level, as well as varying degrees of legislative autonomy and legitimacy.

Most of the empire was controlled by the French Colonial Forces.


The first French colonial empire

The early voyages of Giovanni da Verrazano 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 (the so-called France Antarctique) and in 1612 at São Luís (the so-called France Équinoxiale), and in Florida were unsuccessful, due to Portuguese and Spanish vigilance and prevention.

The story of France's colonial empire truly 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).

Although, 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 that France gave its American colonies the proper means to develop population colonies comparable to that of the British. But there was relatively little interest in colonialism in France, which concentrated rather on dominance within Europe, and for most of the history of New France, even Canada was far behind the British North American colonies in both population and economic development. Acadia itself was lost to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

In 1699, French territorial claims in North America expanded still further, with the foundation of Louisiana in the basin of Mississippi River. The extensive trading network throughout the region connected to Canada through the Great Lakes, and was maintained through a vast system of fortifications, much of them centered in the Illinois Country and in present-day Arkansas.

As the French empire in North America expanded, 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 1627 (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, by the abduction of slaves from Africa. Local resistance by the indigenous native American "Indian" 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 (now also including the Dominican Republic). In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue grew to be the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean. The eastern half of Hispaniola also came under French rule for a short period, after being given to France by Spain, shortly after the loss of Saint-Domingue to France after(?) the Haitian Revolution.

French colonial expansion was 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), 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), Île de France (Mauritius, 1718), and the Seychelles (1756).

Colonial conflict with Great Britain, 17441815

In the mid-18th century, a series of colonial conflicts began between France and the Kingdom of Great Britain, which would ultimately result in the demise of most of the first French colonial empire. These wars were the War of the Austrian Succession (17441748), the Seven Years War (17561763), the War of the American Revolution (17781783), and the French Revolutionary (17931802) and Napoleonic (1803-1815) Wars.

Although the War of the Austrian Succession was indecisive — despite French successes in India under the French Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix — the Seven Years War, after early French successes in Minorca 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 refer 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 this loss 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 (comprised of 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, Spanish, and British opponents, and ultimately achieved independence as Haiti in 1804 (Haiti became the first black republic in the world, much earlier than any of the future African nations). 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 Peace 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 final success of the Haitian revolt convinced Bonaparte that holding Louisiana would not be worth the cost, leading to its sale to the United States in 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase). Nor was the French attempt to establish a colony in Egypt in 17981801 successful either.

The second French colonial empire

At the close of the Napoleonic Wars, most of France's colonies were restored to it by Britain, notably Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies, French Guiana on the coast of South America, various trading posts in Senegal, the Île de Bourbon (Réunion) in the Indian Ocean, and France's tiny Indian possessions. Britain finally annexed Saint Lucia, Tobago, the Seychelles, and the Île de France (Mauritius), however.

The true beginnings of the second French colonial empire, however, were laid in 1830 with the French invasion of Algeria, which was conquered over the next 17 years (see French rule in Algeria). During the time of Napoleon III, an attempt was made to establish a colonial-type protectorate in Mexico, but this came to little, and the French were forced to abandon the experiment after the end of the American Civil War, when the American president invoked the Monroe Doctrine. Napoleon also established French control over Cochin-China (the southernmost part of modern Vietnam, including Saigon), as well as a protectorate over Cambodia.

It was only after the Franco-Prussian War of 18701871 that most of France's later colonial possessions were acquired. From their base in Cochin-China, the French took over Tonkin and Annam (in modern Vietnam) in 1883. These, together with Cambodia and Cochin-China, formed French Indochina (to which Laos was added in 1893, and Kwang-Chou-Wan in 1900). In 1849, the French "concession" in Shanghai was established, lasting until 1946. The French also expanded their influence in North Africa, establishing a protectorate on Tunisia in 1881. Gradually, French control was established over much of Northern, Western, and Central Africa by the turn of the century (including the modern nations of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo), as well as the east African coastal enclave of Djibouti (French Somaliland). In 1911, Morocco became a French protectorate.

The French made their last major colonial gains after the First World War, when they gained mandates over the former Turkish territories that make up what is now Syria and Lebanon, as well as most of the former German colonies of Togo and Cameroon.

Collapse of the empire

The French colonial empire began to fall apart during the Second World War, when various parts of their empire were occupied by foreign powers (Japan in Indochina, Britain in Syria and Lebanon, the US and Britain in Morocco and Algeria, and Germany in Tunisia). Although France's colonies were restored in 1945, France almost immediately had to engage in suppressing a bitter independence struggle in Indochina. When this ended with French defeat and withdrawal in 1954, the French almost immediately became involved in a new, and even harsher conflict in their oldest major colony, Algeria (see Algerian War of Independence, Nationalism and resistance in Algeria). Algeria was particularly problematic for the French, due to the large number of European settlers (or pied-noir) who had settled there in the century and a quarter of French rule; in addition, a sizeable Jewish community feared that independence would expose them to retribution by the Muslim majority. Charles de Gaulle's accession to power in 1958 ultimately led to independence for Algeria in 1962. Most of the other French African colonies had already been granted independence in 1960, following local referendums. Some colonies chose instead to remain part of France, under the statuses of oversea département or oversea territory.

After independence, some of France's former colonies continued to participate in the French Union, and later in the French Community, nurturing to varying extents political, economic and cultural ties with their former colonial power.

Extent of the French colonial empires

Here is a list of all the countries that were part of the French colonial empires in the last 500 years, either entirely or in part. When only a part of the country was under French sovereignty, that part is listed in parentheses after the country. When there are no parentheses, it means the whole country was formerly part of any one of the French colonial empires. Countries listed here are those where French sovereignty applied effectively. Areas that were only claimed, but not effectively controlled (such as Manhattan or Western Australia) are not listed.

"1st" means the country/territory was part of the first French colonial empire. "2nd" means the country/territory was part of the second French colonial empire. "Now" means this is a territory still part of the French Republic today.

North America


South America

(see France Antarctique and France Équinoxiale)

North Africa

Sub-saharan Africa

Red Sea

Indian Ocean

Middle East

South Asia

East Asia


Antarctic Ocean

Territories where French colonization was checked

These are countries or territories where France had many economic and political interests, but which she was prevented from incorporating into her colonial empire due to active British opposition.

See also

External link

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French Empire | Italian Empire | Portuguese Empire | Spanish Empire | Swedish empire |

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