In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French American Port Cities

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Urban Planning
  • Urban Housing
  • Colonial Capitals
  • Urban Revolts, Riots, and Mutinies
  • Demography and Family
  • Social Geography, Property, and Renting
  • Urban Elites
  • Free People of Color in the Antilles and White Craftspeople in New France
  • Urban Slavery
  • Church, Religion, and Society
  • Urban Culture
  • Urban Economy and Atlantic Trade
  • Cities and Their Hinterlands
  • North American Cities and their Indian Neighbors

Atlantic History French American Port Cities
Cécile Vidal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0109


Most urban settlements founded by the French in the Americas were port cities on the sea or on a river. Because the historiography focuses on the main ports and neglects secondary towns, most of the references in this entry deal with eleven port cities: Quebec City, Montreal, Louisbourg, New Orleans, Cap-Français, Port-au-Prince, Saint-Pierre, Fort Royal, Basse-Terre, Pointe-à-Pitre, and Cayenne. The entry covers the following periods: for Canada, 1608–1763, from the foundation of Quebec to the treaty of Paris; for Louisiana, 1702–1769, from the founding of Mobile to the definitive establishment of the Spaniards in New Orleans (although one can argue that the Louisiana capital remained French until the 1840s owing to the importance of Francophone migrations in the first decades of the 19th century); for Saint-Domingue, 1670–1804, from the foundation of Cap-Français to Haitian Independence; for the Lesser Antilles and French Guiana, 1630s–1848, from the foundation of Saint-Pierre and Cayenne to the second abolition of slavery in 1848. For a very long time, the historiography on French colonies has neglected these port cities and has focused on the countryside, mainly because the rural population and agricultural activities were the most important. In Canada, moreover, a focus on the St. Lawrence Valley’s peasants served the agenda of all Canadian historians, both Francophone and Anglophone, who place emphasis on Canada as a civilization rooted in America (distant from France), while in the Caribbean the slave plantation system attracted all the historical attention. Because the global historiography on the French Empire also remains very much divided according to national fault lines, the specific historiography on French American port cities is not well integrated and does not cover the various colonies equally. In declining order, the cities that have been the most extensively studied are those in Canada, Louisiana, the Antilles, and finally Guyana. Until the late 20th and early 21st centuries the questions addressed for these different cities were not the same, and no common debates animated the various national historiographies. However, the development of Atlantic studies and imperial history in recent years has prompted a growing interest in port cities and has encouraged a degree of unification of the field. Primary concerns are the importance of port cities in the colonial and imperial processes and the specificity of social, interethnic, and interracial relations in an urban setting.

General Overviews

For the reasons stated in the Introduction, there is no work dealing with all the French American port cities on a global scale. However, one can find monographs or syntheses for the majority of the most important ones. Canadian historians have been leaders in the development of the social history of colonial urban settlements. At a time when works on the cities of the Antilles remained very general and factual (Corvington 1970–1972), Dechêne 1992 was a groundbreaking monograph on Montreal. Canadian historians also began to produce syntheses very early on that have been partly replaced by new ones published on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Quebec City (Lachance 2004; Courville and Garon 2001; Vallières, et al. 2008). No comparable work exists for the Antilles: apart from David P. Geggus’s pioneering articles on Saint-Domingue (Geggus 1990 and Geggus 1991), urban studies such as Pérotin-Dumon 2000, a superb monograph on Guadeloupe’s cities, began to develop only in the early 21st century.

  • Corvington, Georges. Port-au-Prince au cours des ans. 2 vols. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 1970–1972.

    Volume 1, La ville coloniale, 1743–1789; Volume 2, Sous les assauts de la revolution, 1789–1804. A general and factual history of Port-au-Prince, very outdated on matters of social history but otherwise still useful.

  • Courville, Serge, and Robert Garon, eds. Atlas historique du Québec: Québec, ville et capitale. Sainte Foy, Canada: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2001.

    A very useful synthesis on the capital of New France.

  • Dechêne, Louise. Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth-Century Montreal. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.

    A masterly and very influential work, initially published in French in 1974, inspired by the Annales school, which prompted the rise of the new social history in Canada. Both an urban and a rural monograph on the city and island of Montreal, the book explores the formation of a new colonial society between European transfers and adaptations to the American environment.

  • Geggus, David P. “Urban Development in Eighteenth Century Saint-Domingue.” Bulletin du Centre d’Histoire des Espaces Atlantiques 5 (1990): 197–228.

    This pioneering article gives a complete overview of various aspects of Saint-Domingue’s thirteen cities: urban functions, demographical growth, urban expansion and forms, social structures, importance of the slave population, degree of urbanization, and urban hierarchy.

  • Geggus, David P. “The Major Port Towns of Saint-Domingue in the Later Eighteenth Century.” In Atlantic Port Cities: Economy, Culture, and Society in the Atlantic World, 1650–1850. Edited by Franklin W. Knight and Peggy K. Liss, 87–116. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

    This article takes a comparative look at the populations and economies of Cap-Français and Port-au-Prince. It demonstrates that despite the fact that well over half of the island’s trade (both in volume and in value) was carried out through them, the populations of these cities were very small in comparison with other Caribbean cities—although they included a greater proportion of slaves and soldiers.

  • Lachance, André. Vivre à la ville en Nouvelle-France. Outremont, Canada: Libre Expression, 2004.

    Despite its descriptive tone, this short book explores all aspects of urban life and is still very useful. First published in 1987.

  • Pérotin-Dumon, Anne. La ville aux îles, la ville dans l’île: Basse-Terre et Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, 1650–1820. Paris: Karthala, 2000.

    This well-researched seminal work launched urban studies for the French Antilles after David P. Geggus’s pioneering articles. A total history of Guadeloupe’s cities, which connects urban setting and society, it explores the formation of new urban societies and the role of cities within the larger colonial and slave society.

  • Vallières, Marc, Yvon Desloges, Fernand Harvey, Andrée Héroux, Réginald Auger, and Sophie-Laurence Lamontagne, with André Charbonneau. Histoire de Québec et de sa region. Vol. 1, Des origines à 1791. Sainte-Foy, Canada: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2008.

    The most complete synthesis published on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of Quebec City. The endnotes with bibliographical references can be found at the end of Volume 3.

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