France and its ream of a "French Antarctic"
Many protestants were involved in the initial discovery of the New World ; during the XVIth century they could be found in Brazil, Florida and South Carolina, although they were never sure of staying there for long and indeed, after a short period of time, the French colonies ceased to exist.
François Ist entrusted a protestant nobleman with a vast project for establishing a colony. He was called Jean-François de la Rocque, lord of Roberval and he went to Canada in 1541. But the expedition failed due to a number of difficulties, the worst being scurvy and the hostility of the native population.
Another expedition to Latin America set off in July 1555. Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, vice-admiral of Brittany, was in charge of two fully armed vessels which were given to him by the king for an expedition to Brazil. There were several hundred men aboard, who later established a new French colony at Fort Coligny in the bay of Rio. In 1557 fourteen Calvinists joined them, including two pastors, Pierre Richer and Guillaume Chartier. Villegagnon had contacted them from Brazil, asking them to come, so they set sail from Honfleur. But due to a theological argument about the significance of the Last Supper, Villegagnon sent the protestants away from Ile Coligny and in 1558 they had to travel back to France. Jean de Lery (1534-1613) was one of the men aboard – later he became a pastor and also wrote an extraordinary account : Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, autrement dite Amérique, published in Geneva in 1578.
From that time onwards no more French colonies were established in South America – in 1560 they all became Portuguese.
Huguenot Florida (1562-1565)
One of the first French protestants to pioneer the settling of colonies in New France was Admiral de Coligny – he wanted to establish a French empire where Huguenots could settle.
In 1555 Charles IX gave him the authorisation to found a colony in Florida.
In January 1562 Jean de Ribault from Dieppe set sail from Le Havre for Florida ; he was in charge of two vessels with 150 huguenots on board. He founded Charlesfort but this colony did not last for long, as the Spanish destroyed it two years later.
In 1564 Rene de Laudonniere, a protestant from Poitou, led another expedition with three vessels from Le Havre to what is now known as South Carolina and founded Fort Caroline. He was later joined by Jean de Ribault with 600 men. However, soon after his arrival, in 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a Spaniard, attacked the Fort. All the French soldiers were killed, including Ribault, Laudonniere was lucky enough to escape and sailed back to France.
One could say that these two expeditions had failed miserably ; nevertheless, trade remained active with the New World, due to the fishermen of La Rochelle.
When Henri IV abjured the protestant faith in 1593 the Huguenots no longer had any hope of establishing a Refuge in the New World.
Pierre Dugua de Mons (about 1560-1628)
The Calvinist nobleman Pierre Dugua de Mons founded Acadia and with the help of Samuel Champlain, created the basic structure of a French colony in Canada.
The first Canadian colony : Acadia
Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572)
Gaspard de Coligny born in the influential Châtillon family, was naturally at the service of the King of France. However, after being made prisoner at the siege of Saint Quentin, he converted to the Reformation, then became one of the military commanders of the Protestant party, and fought against the Crown and the Guise. He was murdered during the Saint Bartholomew massacre in 1572.
The Huguenot Refuges
The exodus of French Huguenots to Protestant countries to escape persecution was a crucial event that spanned a century. The “First Refuge” in the 1560s, peaking after the Saint-Bartholomew’ Day Massacre, is distinguished from the “Great Refuge” after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Over 200,000 Huguenots went into exile. Following the first persecutions many Protestants from Normandy and Poitou took refuge in England and founded numerous French churches in London. The United Provinces welcomed the greatest number, and they took an active part in sparking the «Republic of Letters» that culminated in the 18th century. Calvin’s Switzerland saw the passage of many refugees en route to German speaking countries, especially Brandenburg, which practiced a real policy of hospitality.
But Europe was not the only hospitable area – indeed, many Protestants fleeing France took part in the conquest of the New World, a few went as far as South Africa.
These countries were generally very welcoming, and the economic, cultural and demographic contributions made by the, often highly qualified, refugee population proved invaluable.