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France in the Age of Discovery

France grew jealous of the success of Spain, and soon sent her navigators and explorers to spy out and claim portions of the land on the other side of the Atlantic. The first French expedition was undertaken in the reign of Francis I. by John Verrazzano, a native of Italy, which country, it will have been seen, furnished the chief navigators and explorers connected with the New World. Verrazzano sailed from the Madeiras in January, 1524, in command of three ships; but two were disabled by a severe storm, and he continued his voyage with only one. Two months later, he reached the American coast along which he cruised for several months. Verrazzano seems to have pushed his voyage northward as far as the coast of Maine, touching at various points, such as New York and Narragansett Bay, and assiduously seeking for the shorter passage to India, which had been sought by Columbus and the Cabots. He named the country New France, and returning home, vanishes from the pages of history.

France waited ten years before showing any further interest in the New World. On April 20, 1534, Jacques Cartier a skillful navigator, sailed from St. Malo, in command of two ships, of sixty tons each, with a crew of one hundred and twenty men. Some weeks later he reached the coast of Newfoundland, and sailed through the straits of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cartier spent several weeks in further explorations, but soon returned to France, where his report so pleased the King that he sent him on a second expedition in the following spring. On this voyage, Cartier had three ships, the largest of which was of one hundred and twenty tons. These entered the Straits of Belle Isle, July 26, 1535. His hope of finding the shorter route to India was overthrown by observing, as he ascended the St. Lawrence, that its width narrowed and its waters became fresh.

France was prevented from making an early entry into the commercial and colonial scramble through the religious divisions that led to the civil wars of the latter part of the 16th century. Even when she did make some systematic attempt to contend as a first-class commercial and colonizing power, her strength was sapped by the suicidal policy of Louis XIV, who at the critical moment wasted the national energy of France in a futile attempt to extend the eastern boundary of that country.

The strife between the Protestants and Roman Catholics had become bitter and prolonged. The Reformation, as it was called, made slight progress in France. The French Protestants were called Huguenots, and among the principal leaders was Lord Admiral Coligny. He was a brave and honorable man, respected by all parties, and he persuaded the Queen to try to reconcile the opposing factions. The effort was a failure, and the persecutions which followed became so fierce that Coligny determined to find a refuge for the Huguenots in America. While doing this, the brave admiral was anxious to add to the glory of his beloved France. In the month of February, 1562, Coligny sent out two ships from Havre, in charge of Captain John Ribault. The Huguenots sailed, inspecting the numerous islands and inlets which they saw, until the latter part of the month they dropped anchor in the fine harbor of Port Royal. After examining the surrounding country, Ribault was convinced that no more favorable spot could be found for a settlement.

The late date at which France entered into competition for the Indian trade placed it at some disadvantage. The French East India Company endeavored to acquire a footing in India when Cafon founded a factory at Surat (1668). The French seized St. Thome' in 1672, but they were attacked and driven out by the Dutch in 1674. Francois Martin founded Pondicherry, the future capital of French India, in 1674. He warded off an attack by Sivaji. Pondicherry was taken by the Dutch in 1693, but restored to France in 1698.

France was immensely more rich and powerful than England in the 17th and 18th centuries, but lost out in the final conflict because of a corrupt administration, the failure to devote her resources to the strengthening of her colonies, and the adoption of a fatally weak colonial policy that of scattered military occupation. Aside from the fact that England took her colonial enterprise seriously and France looked upon it as a "side issue" as compared with the dynastic struggle on the continent of Europe, the chief significance of this centurylong contest was that it represented a struggle between two different colonial systems the intensive occupation and exploitation of a limited area versus the extremely meagre occupation of a vast territory by a few soldiers and traders. In 1688 there were about 300,000 English colonists in the narrow Piedmont region of the Atlantic Coast, while there were scarcely 20,000 Frenchmen in the vast regions of Canada and the Mississippi Valley. With the French handicapped by futile dissipation of energy elsewhere and infinitely weaker in colonial policy, there could be only one issue to the conflict, and by the Treaty of Paris of 1763 Great Britain took over the possession of the great majority of the French colonies in America.

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Page last modified: 26-08-2012 19:02:27 ZULU