In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Historians and the Debate
  • The Early French Atlantic
  • Key Figures
  • Religion
  • The French Empire in the Americas to 1763 and Beyond
  • Race, Slavery, and Abolition
  • Natives and Empire
  • Science and Empire in the French Atlantic
  • Memory and Culture

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Atlantic History French Atlantic World
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0025


The very notions of Atlantic history and a French Atlantic are heavily debated, especially by French historians. Yet there is no gainsaying that the rise of Atlantic history in the 1990s has corresponded to a renewed interest in the history of the first French colonial empire together with innovative historiographical approaches (greater focus on indigenous peoples, slavery, and ordinary immigrants). However, the French Atlantic covers a set of issues that must not be confused with or limited to French colonial policy or enterprise in North, Central, and South America. This entry will thus emphasize French migration across and around the Atlantic, trade and commerce (including the slave trade), and imperial policies and actions (wars with Britain, relations with indigenous peoples). The French Atlantic covers a period starting in the early 17th century (after a few failed attempts in the 16th century in both North and South America) and going beyond 1763, as the events and repercussions of the American Revolution together with those of the French and Haitian revolutions unfolded. This entry will thus take researchers to the 1830s. Like the British Atlantic, the French Atlantic suggests a space where human, political, and commercial exchanges are connected and coordinated on the ocean but also far inland. Not only did the French American colonies have an impact on the metropolis (economically and in many other ways), but they also constantly traded with or clashed with neighboring empires, Spain, Britain, or Native American nations, in the Americas. Most particularly the vast spread of the French empire in the interior of North America and the low number of French immigrants to the continent made for intense and diverse contacts with indigenous peoples. No two European empires in the Americas were similar. What sets the French Atlantic apart from the rival British Atlantic is probably the role of the state. From the start French imperial expansion was characterized by a considerable involvement of the state, which does not mean that there ever was a unanimous opinion, at court or among French colonial officials in France and America, on how to organize the French empire and on the course it was meant to take. Nor does that mean that French merchants and colonial settlers did not benefit from a measure of autonomy. Another peculiarity of the French empire in the Americas was its fragmentation among colonies of very different kinds. After its defeat on the North American continent in 1763, France chose to retain its sugar colonies in the Caribbean, reinforcing its commitment to African slavery and the slave trade. Even after losing Canada and Louisiana, French authorities maintained an interest in the North American continent (and in South America in Guyana). Their originally reticent support for the American Revolution turned into a wartime alliance that eventually led to profound changes in France. The North American debate on slavery in those years (1776–1787) was also instrumental in focusing French liberal efforts on ending slavery and the slave trade, while many émigrés and refugees chose the United States as a haven during the age of revolution, with mixed results.

General Overviews

Most textbooks or general treatment volumes give a disproportionate emphasis to New France (with a definite emphasis on French Canada). The Caribbean and Louisiana suffer from relative neglect. Boucher 1989 and Pritchard 2004 cover all the different geographical sections, while Eccles 1998 focuses on French Canada. Havard and Vidal 2005 includes renewed historiographical approaches in its synthesis on the French presence in North America. Pluchon 1991 gives more prominence to the first French empire than Meyer, et al. 1990, reflecting Pierre Pluchon’s own interest in the Caribbean but also new historiographical trends. Yet neither distinguishes the French Atlantic from other areas of French imperialism before 1830.

  • Abénon, Lucien-René, and John A. Dickinson. Les français en Amérique: Histoire d’une colonisation. Lyon, France: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1993.

    A compact and useful two-part book for undergraduates focusing first on New France (mainly Canada) and then on the Caribbean. Louisiana is relatively neglected.

  • Boucher, Philip P. Les Nouvelles Frances: France in America, 1500–1815, an Imperial Perspective. Providence, RI: John Carter Brown Library, 1989.

    This 183-page volume is a gem for undergraduates. Boucher covers the whole history of the first French empire in the Americas (North America; the Caribbean; South America; Cayenne, French Guiana) in a synthetic narrative that includes about forty illustrations. Also useful are a bibliography of about two hundred primary sources mainly from the John Carter Brown Library (discussed in the narrative) and fifty secondary sources.

  • Eccles, W. J. The French in North America, 1500–1765. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.

    A history of New France with a focus on French Canada. A thorough and useful synthesis (also based on primary sources) for undergraduates and others. Covers the aftermath of the loss of Canada for France (participation in the War of Independence). Includes illustrations and an updated bibliographical essay.

  • Greene, Jack P., and Philip D. Morgan, eds. Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Chapter 5 offers a general overview of the French Atlantic by the Guadeloupe specialist Laurent Dubois.

  • Havard, Gilles, and Cécile Vidal. Histoire de l’Amérique française. Paris: Flammarion, 2005.

    Already a classic volume on the history of the French Atlantic (French Canada and Louisiana). Does not cover the Caribbean. Thorough, up-to-date, and innovative historiographically with a large focus on native and enslaved populations; contains a useful bibliographical section.

  • Meyer, Jean, Jean Tarrade, Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer, and Jacques Thobie. Histoire de la France coloniale. Vol. 1, Des origines à 1914. Paris: Armand Colin, 1990.

    The first three hundred pages only bear on French colonization to 1830 in this massive history.

  • Pluchon, Pierre. Histoire de la colonisation française. Vol. 1, Le premier empire colonial des origines à la restauration. Paris: Fayard, 1991.

    More than one thousand pages devoted to the first French empire. Includes appendices, a bibliography, and an index of names and places. A useful textbook or reference work for undergraduates and others.

  • Pritchard, James. In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670–1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    This is an attempt at synthesizing research on French overseas possessions and how the state got involved in their development in a sensitive period. Pritchard downplays the role of the state and highlights local contexts and initiatives while dismissing merchant powers. This particular point seems to be controversial in the eyes of French reviewers, who contend that French merchants did take part in the construction of the Spanish empire in the Americas and may have had their own agendas.

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