PIONEERS OF FRANCE IN THE NEW WORLD by Francis Parkman

by JF

Written in the 1860s, this is little known history, at least for contemporary Americans. It is also interesting history, and typically tragic, and Americans should know more about it. As the title indicates, it records the efforts of France to settle the North American continent. A lot of Americans today might be aware that France at that time was in a competition with Britain and Spain to colonize and especially profit from the “New World” that had just been “discovered,” but that’s about all the average American would know. This book fills in a lot of the rest.

In it one learns why France mostly lost out to Britain and Spain in the New World: France had a string of unfortunately inept, weak kings, and France had the terrible misfortune of being under the iron hand of the Vatican, and especially the Jesuits. On the one hand, the weak French kings lacked the foresight to see why France should have been emphasizing the colonization of North America, instead of the plundering of it. On the other hand, France was a nation paralyzed by burgeoning religious dissension. Parkman records all this quite well, but he nowhere demonstrates that he knew the real cause of this religious dissension. He assumes the mainstream moronic line that the rise of the Hugeonots caused it. But this wasn’t what caused it, obviously. The Hugeonots were quite willing to allow for religious freedom; the Jesuits were not. Parkman records the historic events, even and perhaps especially the massacres, but again he doesn’t seem to understand the true underlying causes for them.

The most significant thing the average American can learn from this book happens in the first chapter, wherein is recorded the tragic attempt by the Hugeonots to settle in what is now the state of Florida. In a precursor of what would happen to the Hugeonots in France a few years later, and consistent with the guileless behavior the Hugeonots would later show in the days leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, these colonizing Hugeonots were also too trusting of Romanist intentions, and they too were barbarically annihilated. Parkman records that it was the Spanish from the competing outpost at St. Augustine that did it, but again Parkman doesn’t show that he understood who and what was really driving the Spanish; neither did Parkman possess enough depth of understanding in his explanation of why France only ever offered tepid support to the French Hugeonot settement project. However, this is still valuable documentation that Parkman provided, for again, most Americans are completely ignorant of this history of protestant French presence in Florida.

Eradicated in Florida, and denied in the New World by Spain and England from settling anywhere more southerly, the Hugeonots next attempted to settle in Canada, as a lot of people might know. The rest of this book, then, concerns itself with this history. Again we find lukewarm support for the French Hugeonots from their mother country; again we find the leadership of France too obtuse and dissipated to appreciate the pressing longterm need for colonization rather than profiteering; and here we also find the Jesuits playing a more obvious role in undermining and eradicating the Hugeonots in Canada, with even French Jesuits taking part this time. Of course, Parkman didn’t appreciate what he was writing about, tending instead to parrot the party line about the efforts of the Jesuits to convert the Indians. But the events which he documents frankly quite often seem to give the lie to this.

Finally, the life’s effort of Samuel DeChamplain, which mostly came to nought like all the rest of French effort in settlling North America, is what Parkman mostly concerns himself with for the bulk of the last 2/3 of the book.

This is a worthy read all in all, and some little known and quite interesting history here, even if the author was stuck in the “vanilla-mainstream” interpretation of events.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ Δ
2/2012

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