France's Fiasco in Brazil: In the Event Spain and Portugal Divided Almost All of South America between, Them but in the Sixteenth Century the French Also Had Commercial and Colonial Ambitions in Brazil. Robert Knecht Tells the Stories of Two French Expeditions That Ended in Disaster

By Knecht, Robert | History Today, December 2008 | Go to article overview

France's Fiasco in Brazil: In the Event Spain and Portugal Divided Almost All of South America between, Them but in the Sixteenth Century the French Also Had Commercial and Colonial Ambitions in Brazil. Robert Knecht Tells the Stories of Two French Expeditions That Ended in Disaster


Knecht, Robert, History Today


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France is not normally associated with the European discovery and settlement of Latin America. In 1493. the year after Columbus's first voyage to the West Indies. the Spanish Pope Alexander VI promulgated the bull Inter Cuetera that ceded to Ferdinand and Isabella, the 'Catholic Kings' of Aragon and Castile, rights to all lands situated west of a north-south line drawn 100 leagues (or 300 miles) west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. The Portuguese king, Manuel I, objected and, as a result, under the Compromise of Tordesillas the dividing line of longitude was shifted further west to 46[degrees] 37' West, thus giving Brazil (soon to be discovered) to Portugal.

At this stage the French crown seems to have had no interest in the New World, focusing instead its trading ambitions on the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This is surprising as France had an extensive Atlantic coastline and a seagoing tradition. In fact, despite royal indifference, several Frenchmen did reach Brazil around 1500 and began a lively trade with the Indians. They brought back to France quantities of what came to be called brazil wood, from which valuable red and purple dye for cloth was produced, and exotic animals, like monkeys and parrots. Some even settled in Brazil and picked up enough of the native language to be able to act as interpreters for their compatriots. They became known as truchements (people who intervene).

The close French links with Brazil were plainly demonstrated on October 1st, 1550, when King Henry II made his solemn entry into the Atlantic port city of Rouen. It was customary for a king of France at this time to be given an 'entry' whenever he first visited a town in his kingdom. The ceremony usually followed a set pattern. There would be a procession before the king of all the leading citizens, followed by one in the reverse direction through the town in which the king himself would take part. The streets would be decorated for the occasion with temporary monuments, such as triumphal arches, and there would be theatrical displays, usually enacting a biblical or mythological subject, on platforms by the roadside,

Henry's 1550 entry into Rouen also included a Brazilian extravaganza. A field outside the city had been transformed into a jungle with palm trees where parrots and monkeys could he seen and heard. At each end of the field were long huts made out of tree trunks and covered with reeds. Even more extraordinary were the three hundred or so inhabitants' of this artificial jungle. Fifty of them were Brazilian Indians: the rest were Rouennais disguised as Indians. All were stark naked, with their bodies painted and pierced to carry jewellery' in the form or small polished stones. At first the scene appeared peaceful enough; some lay in hammocks, others carried logs to a ship in the Seine. Suddenly, however, the Indians divided into two rival camps and attacked each other with bows and alton, s, maces and staves. The fight ended dramatically with the victors setting fire to their enemy's huts.

Portuguese sources indicate that the French first appeared in Brazil in 1504, hut the first identified Frenchman in Brazil is Paulmier de Gonneville, a sea captain from Honfleur in Normandy. We know about him because in 1505 he gave evidence to the admiralty court of Rouen. He had originally set out for the East Indies. During a stay in Lisbon he had been much impressed by 'the fine riches of spices and other rarities' imported from Calicut, the capital of Northern Kerala in India and decided to go there himself. Employing two Portuguese who came from Calicut, de Gonneville set up a joint-stock company at Honfleur to equip the Espoir, a ship of 120 tons with a crew of sixty. She set sail on June 24th, 1503, but a storm in the south Atlantic drove her north-westward towards 'a great land', which turned out to be Brazil.

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For six months he and his crew explored the country, winning over the natives by giving them trinkets in return for food and 'skins, feathers and roots for dyeing', which would fetch high prices in France. …

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