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France and Globalization in the Late 18th Century: The Kourou Disaster

France and Globalization in the Late 18th Century: The Kourou Disaster

Noted British historian Emma Rothschild recalls a terrible turning point in French efforts to expand into the New World.

Emma Rothschild is director of the Centre for History and Economics at King's College, Cambridge. She is noted for her many works on the economic history of France in the time of the Enlightenment. Currently a visiting scholar at Harvard, Professor Rothschild graced the UCLA International Institute March 9 with a talk on France's efforts to regain a foothold in the Americas after their loss of Canada to the British in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years' War. Her visit to UCLA was sponsored by the Institute's Global Fellows program.

She began by disclaiming a common image of prerevolutionary France as inward looking, internally divided between the bustle of seaside towns and bucolic rural villages, or the glittering surface life of cities and court versus monumental inertias and rigidities of the interior. "I am unhappy with all these dichotomies," Emma Rothschild said. "Even people in the interior had glittering imaginations."

Rothschild took as her window into the past the 35 days in 1774 when France's leading economic reformer, Jacques Turgot (Baron de l'Aulne, 1727-81), served as minister of the navy, immediately after the coronation of Louis XVI. Turgot had been the chief administrator for Limoges from 1761 to 1774 where he had fixed roads and drainage systems and improved relief for the poor, transforming one of the poorest areas of France into a model of modernity.

Jacques Turgot was an advocate of an early form of globalization, Rothschild said. He called for French participation in a general market with Muscovy, the English colonies, Egypt, Sicily, and other countries. He was also interested in French colonial expansion in the continental Americas.

It was true the navy was not held in high regard by the court, Rothschild conceded. Much of its archives were requisitioned to use the parchment to make cartridges. But "France in this epochal moment was very globally minded." She then turned cryptically to Turgot's papers from his brief naval administration. She cited numerous requests to perform small personal tasks: send a package to this person, pay the debt of that person, inquiries about lost people in the colonies, and requests for death certificates. Odd business for the national head of the navy of a major power. These appeals were the detritus of a major failed experiment in French expansion in South America a decade earlier, which became the main subject of Rothschild's talk.

Grand Promises and the Doomed Kourou Expedition of 1763-65

Immediately after the loss of Canada, the government of Louis XV "wanted to make much of their last major American colony, in Guyane" (later French Guiana). Alarmed by rebellions of slaves and native Americans in the nearby Dutch colony of Suriname, the French decided on a New England model, an all-European settler colony. The authors of the plan were also imbued with concepts of global, "oceanic commerce," and theories of an Enlightenment utopia. They promised freedom of religion, declared that Jews were welcome, and forbade introduction of new slaves. The French minister of colonies, the duc de Choiseul, in 1763 personally headed organizing a massive colonizing expedition. He appointed Turgot's brother, Etienne-Francois Turgot, as governor of Guyane.

The project aimed at establishing a large town on the Kourou river, north of the Guyanese capital of Cayenne on the South American coast.  Pamphlets and books were circulated portraying the equatorial swamps of Guyane as equivalent to the French Riviera. The king promised each colonist three years of food and free land. Colonists were actively recruited throughout France, particularly in Alsace-Lorraine and even in Germany. French citizenship was not required to sign on.

This too-good-to-be-true advertising drew an overwhelming response. "They were appalled by how many wanted to go. There was an extraordinary flow of people who walked to the French Atlantic ports," Rothschild said. Tens of thousands came on foot from the French interior, from Germany, Hungary, and as far away as Malta. "About 14,000 walked across France in a few months." In the same period that the Kourou expedition to Guyane was carried out, total emigration to British America, including Canada, amounted to only 8-9,000.

Some 13,000 boarded ships for Kourou. They arrived in the rainy season when nothing could be built. "9,000 died in a few months; 2,000 returned to France, where many died of diseases." Emma Rothschild said that the diseases were probably of European origin and brought by the colonists themselves: typhoid, dysentery. "It is difficult to discover the causes. The doctors and nurses died."

There were lawsuits that dragged on for years. Jacques Turgot's brother, the head of the colony, was banished (1765-66). Many famous people were involved in the disaster. Voltaire sent colonists on the Kourou expedition. "Diderot's nephew was a survivor of the colony." The Kourou colony in Guyane was down to about 1,000 people by 1765.

Almost a decade later Turgot, during the brief period in which he was in charge of the French navy, was still dealing with the aftermath. "Many of the requests he received for death certificates arose from the deaths in the Guyane colony and at Cayenne. Many were not French."

The Guyane disaster helped to turn French eyes toward expansion on the continent of Europe. "The global ideas of 18th century France have become unfamiliar because of the later stance of the French Republic," Rothschild said. "Napoleon disliked the navy and reconceptualized the nation as land-territorial."

After the Enlightenment colonization of Guyane failed, Emma Rothschild concluded, "French colonial interest turned to buying slaves to fill the colony." And while France retained control of  Guyane and of some islands off the coast (it would lose St. Domingue in Toussaint L'Ouverture's rebellion of 1791-1803), the Kourou collapse essentially ended France's ambitions as a continental power in the Americas.