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France’s Fiasco in Brazil

In the event Spain and Portugal divided almost all of South America between, them but in the sixteenth century the French also had commercial and colonial ambitions in Brazil. Robert Knecht tells the stories of two French expeditions that ended in disaster.

France is not normally associated with the European discovery and settlement of Latin America. In 1493, the year after Columbus’s first voyage to the West Indies, the Spanish Pope Alexander VI promulgated the bull Inter Caetera that ceded to Ferdinand and Isabella, the ‘Catholic Kings’ of Aragon and Castile, rights to all lands situated west of a north-south line drawn 100 leagues (or 300 miles) west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. The Portuguese king, Manuel I, objected and, as a result, under the Compromise of Tordesillas the dividing line of longitude was shifted further west to 46o 37' West, thus giving Brazil (soon to be discovered) to Portugal. 

At this stage the French crown seems to have had no interest in the New World, focusing instead its trading ambitions on the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This is surprising as France had an extensive Atlantic coastline and a seagoing tradition. In fact, despite royal indifference, several Frenchmen did reach Brazil around 1500 and began a lively trade with the Indians. They brought back to France quantities of what came to be called brazil wood, from which valuable red and purple dye for cloth was produced, and exotic animals, like monkeys and parrots. Some even settled in Brazil and picked up enough of the native language to be able to act as interpreters for their compatriots. They became known as truchements (people who intervene).

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