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HISTORY OF THE FRENCH EMPIRE
 
 


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Newfoundland and Nova Scotia: 1670-1745

During the 17th and early 18th century the main area of friction between France and Britain is in northern waters, on the approach to the St Lawrence seaway. This region has long been disputed for its valuable cod fisheries. With the growth of imperial and trading interests on the mainland it also becomes of strategic importance.

The Cabot Strait, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is the only practical route to the territory of New France, strung out along the St Lawrence river and seaway. It is also the route to the Hudson Bay, where the British have fur-trading interests after the foundation of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670.
 









The land on the south side of the strait changes hands several times during the 17th century between the French (who call it Acadie, its American Indian name) and the British (who prefer Nova Scotia, 'New Scotland').

Similarly there are regular skirmishes in Newfoundland in the late 17th and early 18th century. The French attack British trading settlements on the coasts of Newfoundland during the European wars of the Grand Alliance and of the Spanish Succession. But the treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, brings considerable advantages to Britain in the region.
 







France accepts British sovereignty in Newfoundland (though retaining fishing rights) and on the shores of Hudson Bay. Moreover Nova Scotia is ceded to Britain, except for the island of Cape Breton at its northern and most strategic point.

On Cape Breton the French build the powerful fortress of Louisbourg, to protect their maritime interests. It proves, however, less impregnable than expected. It is even besieged and captured rather cheekily, in 1745, by a volunteer militia of colonists from New England during the war of the Austrian Succession.
 






French and British empires: 1748-1763

In 1748, at the end of the war of the Austrian Succession, the French and British empires are restored to the status quo. In the New World the fortress of Louisbourg reverts to the French; in India Madras is returned to the British.

Yet it is clear that there is unfinished business needing attention. In America a direct clash is developing between French and British interests in the Ohio valley; it will break out in the French and Indian War of 1754. In India fighting between the rival East India Companies of Britain and France continues spasmodically from the end of the war of the Austrian Succession. Both regions, therefore, are at war before the beginning of a wider European conflict, the Seven Years' War, in 1756.
 








Rivalries in India: 1748-1760

Both the French and the English East India Companies, to advance their commercial interests, offer military support in dynastic struggles within powerful Indian states. Helping a candidate to the throne opens a new region of influence, a new market.

The death in 1748 of the Moghul viceroy in Hyderabad is followed by French and English assistance for rival sons of the dead ruler. Soon the two European nations are also fighting on opposite sides in a war of succession in the Carnatic (the coastal strip north and south of Madras).
 









The French candidate succeeds in Hyderabad, and the English favourite prevails in the Carnatic. But the most striking event in either campaign is a dramatic intervention by Robert Clive in 1751. With 200 British and 300 Indian soldiers he seizes Arcot (the capital of the Carnatic) and holds it through a seven-week siege.

His action, and his subsequent defeat of a French and Indian force in battle, wins the throne for his candidate. It also has the effect of diminishing the prestige in Indian eyes of the French army. Until now the French have had the better of the British in India (most notably in their capture of Madras in 1746).
 






Seven Years' War: 1756-1763

At the start of the Seven Years' War the balance between the empires of France and Britain looks much as it has been since the late 17th century. By the end of it, in 1763, the situation is transformed. The change is less great in India. Even so, British rule in Bengal, established informally from 1757, represents an unprecedented level of European involvement in the subcontinent - and a level unmatched by France.

If the difference in India appears as yet slight, these years change out of all recognition the colonial situation in America. British victory over the French, clinched in the capture of Quebec in 1759, is followed by dramatic French concessions in the Paris peace treaty of 1763.
 









France cedes to Britain all the territory which it has previously claimed between the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, together with the original territories of New France along the St Lawrence. This brings to an end the French empire in continental America (only New Orleans and its district remain in French hands under the treaty). The British become unmistakably the dominant power in the northern half of the continent, in one of the major turning points of history.

The lands more notionally claimed by the French between the Mississippi and the Rockies are ceded to Spain. (They are later acquired by the USA, in 1803, in the Louisiana Purchase.)
 






The war at sea: 1793-1796

The renewal of war between Britain and France in 1793 is a continuation of a century-long conflict between the two most aggressive imperial powers. In recent engagements the results have favoured Britain, particularly in Canada and India during the Seven Years' War.

In the new conflict the first arena of war is another rich colonial region, the West Indies. During 1794 the British seize several of the smaller French islands in the Caribbean, at an extremely heavy cost in terms of troops dying of yellow fever. On 1 June 1794 (the Glorious First of June in British accounts) Richard Howe destroys a French squadron in the Atlantic - but fails in his primary purpose of harming the rich convoy being accompanied on its journey from America to France.
 









The greatest damage to French interests in the West Indies is done not by British fleets but by the ideals of the French Revolution.

By far the most profitable French possession in the region, and indeed the most productive of all the Caribbean sugar-producing colonies, is the western half of Hispaniola, under French control from 1664 and known as Saint Domingue. By the late 18th century 90% of the people in the colony (numbering some 520,000 in all) are slaves from Africa. The liberty proclaimed in the French Revolution seems to them an excellent idea. In 1791 they rise in revolt. By 1794, after considerable chaos, a capable leader has emerged and the colony is under black control.
 






Toussaint L'Ouverture and independent Haiti: 1791-1843

Toussaint L'Ouverture is a slave in Saint-Domingue who has served his master as a coachman and has achieved some degree of literacy. He emerges as one of the leaders of the first independence movement in the West Indies.

The rebellion of the slaves against their French masters in 1791 is not fully successful until Toussaint L'Ouverture and others join an army invading Saint-Domingue in 1793 from the Spanish half of the island (Santo Domingo, forming the eastern end of Hispaniola). Thereafter Toussaint steadily establishes himself as the strongest of the various black leaders. By 1800 he is master of French Saint-Domingue. In 1801 he invades Santo Domingo and achieves control over the entire island.
 









A hero perfectly suited to the Romantic era (a noble savage winning liberty for his people), Toussaint adjusts with skill to his adopted role as ruler of the island. Continuing to profess allegiance to France, he nevertheless declares himself governor general of the island for life. As such he signs trade agreements with powers such as the United States and Britain.

Toussaint is flexible enough to invite several former French colonists to return to their plantations, and yet strict enough to ensure that their ex-slaves get to work in a disciplined fashion as free labourers.
 







Toussaint's good fortune is that the war with Britain makes it impossible for France to send out troops to suppress his insurrection. But his luck runs out in 1801, when the two exhausted European enemies agree to the peace of Amiens.

In December 1801 a French army of 25,000 men arrives in Saint Domingue under the command of Napoleon's brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc. The expedition proves a disaster for the French. Within two years most of the soldiers have died of yellow fever. But meanwhile this is a well-armed force too strong for Toussaint and his followers to resist. Early in 1802 they surrender in return for a generous truce offered by Leclerc. In Toussaint's case this trust is betrayed. He is arrested and sent to France, where he dies in prison in 1803.
 







The renewal of war with Britain in 1803, combined with the ravages of yellow fever, means that France is unable to hold her newly recovered colony. Another black revolution in 1803 proves conclusive. And its leaders are very much more extreme than Toussaint L'Ouverture.

On 1 January 1804 Jean Jacques Dessalines proclaims the independence of Saint Domingue under its old Arawak Indian name of Haiti. He massacres those French who still remain on the island and declares himself emperor, as Jacques I. His brutal rule soon provokes unrest and he dies in 1806 when attempting to put down a revolt. His crown is inherited by one of his generals, Henri Christophe, who more modestly calls himself King Henry I.
 







Haiti achieves some degree of stability under Jean Pierre Boyer, who wins power after the death of Henri Christophe in 1820. Two years later Boyer invades and overwhelms the eastern half of the island, Santo Domingo, where the inhabitants have in 1821 risen in rebellion against Spain.

Boyer rules French-speaking Haiti, and governs Spanish-speaking Santo Domingo as a conquered province, until he is overthrown in a revolution in 1843. The upheaval of that year also gives Santo Domingo the chance to throw off the yoke of Haiti. The eastern half of the island proclaims its independence, as the Dominican Republic, in 1844. Hispaniola, the oldest European colony in the western hemisphere, becomes also the first region to be free.
 






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