European Colonization of North America

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What were three goals of French colonization in the Americas?

French colonization in the Americas was backed by three main goals, namely shifting the excess population of France to the colonies and giving settlers greater opportunities for success, making money, especially through the fur trade, and spreading the Catholic faith through missionary activities among the Native Americans.

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The French colonization of America (“New France,” today Canada) began in the 1540s with a failed attempt at settlement by explorer Jacques Cartier. Another explorer, Samuel de Champlain, contributed to the settlement at Port-Royal in 1604 (the first French colony) and to the founding of Québec in 1608. French colonization, however, failed to thrive until Cardinal Richelieu founded his company of One Hundred Associates to populate New France in 1627.

So why did the French colonize America? First, France was getting crowded, and officials wanted to shift some of that excess population to its colonies. French settlers were often members of the lower classes who faced poverty, joblessness, landlessness, and overcrowding in their native country. They longed for greater opportunities to farm their own land, practice their professions, and earn money. To many, New France seemed like the perfect option.

Second, there was indeed money to be made, especially in the fur trade, and the French government was ready and willing to take full advantage of their colonies to reap the riches of nature. French settlers hunted fur animals and also traded with Native Americans for furs, and France made money. Even as late as 1720 to 1740, French Canada was exporting between 200,000 and 400,000 pelts per year.

Third, French Catholics sought to spread their Catholic faith through missionary activities among the Native Americans. As early as 1615, three priests of the Recollect order arrived in the colonies and set out to preach the Gospel. They suffered greatly and met with little success, so they called in the Jesuits to help in 1625. While the missionaries did make many converts among the Native Americans, they also met with much resistance, and many were martyred.

The British conquered New France in 1763 and while France owned land on the American continent until 1803, French colonization was essentially finished.

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New France (1534–1763) evolved slowly and its goals changed somewhat over time. The three primary goals were exploration, the fur trade, and proselytization.

The French, like the Spanish before them, sought to reach Asia for trading purposes. In 1524, explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sought a westward route to Asia. His quest, though unsuccessful, enabled France to claim areas in modern-day North America.

In 1534, explorer Jacques Cartier formalized the French claim. He was also seeking spices and—above all—gold. Because gold was not found, France lost interest in the colonies for many years.

As the founder of Quebec in 1608, Samuel de Champlain is known as the "Father of New France." The main French economic activity in the colony at the time was the fur trade. But this activity was not profitable at first, and agriculture did not develop either. The fur trade continued, but relatively few French settled in North America.

Religion played an important part in New France, too. New France was Catholic. Non-Catholics were not permitted to settle there. Jesuit missionaries traveled throughout the vast regions of New France to convert the Indians.

Around 1670, Jean-Baptiste Talon tried to strengthen New France by diversifying its economy in the late 1660s and early 1670s. But his efforts were not successful. His failure ultimately led to the colony's demise in the next century.

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Another key goal of French colonization was to take advantage of the lucrative agricultural trade in the Caribbean, particularly the cultivation of sugarcane. Like the British crown, the French government, both before and after the revolution, sought to exploit the colonies as sources of goods and tax revenue.

According to the historian C.L.R. James (The Black Jacobins), any manufactured goods that the colonists needed had to be purchased from France. They could also only sell their produce to France and could only transport their goods in French ships. Sugar produced in the Antilles was only allowed to be refined in France, and "the French imposed heavy duties on refined sugar of colonial origin."

A second goal of French colonialism was to profit from the very lucrative slave trade. France did not keep slaves on its own soil, but Africans were traded by France at slave markets. Nantes, for example, was a center of the slave trade. As early as 1666, 108 ships went to the coast of Guinea and seized 37,430 slaves. Those kidnapped people cost more than 37 million pounds in 1666, which would be hundreds of millions of British pounds today. James writes that by 1700 Nantes was sending out fifty ships a year to the Antilles with goods produced in and traded within Europe, such as Irish salt beef, linens for the household, clothing for slaves, and machinery for sugar mills. Furthermore, he confirms the following: "Nearly all the industries which developed in France during the eighteenth century had their origin in goods or commodities destined either for the coast of Guinea or for America." Capital gained from the slave trade facilitated France's ability to trade in other goods and provided the financial grist that the bourgeoisie would need to overthrow the aristocracy in 1789.

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One crucial goal of French colonization was to tap into the rich fur trade that was available in modern-day Canada and the Northeast. To this end, French companies chartered by the Crown sent traders to trade with Natives, particularly Algonquian peoples around the Great Lakes. Another motive was to spread Catholicism. Many French Jesuit priests ministered to Indian peoples throughout New France and Louisiana, the massive tract of land to the west of the Mississippi River. Unlike Spanish priests, who had frequently provoked resentment and even rebellions by their insistence that Indian peoples adhere to a dogmatic form of Christianity, French Jesuits converted them on their own terms, but still with limited success. Finally, a third motive for French settlement was to check English expansion in North America. This was especially true in the Ohio Valley, which became a scene of conflict that would lead to the Seven Years' War, a massive global conflict involving France and Great Britain. Indeed, it was the culmination of years of frontier conflict between France (and its Indian allies) and Britain and its colonies.

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