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).
The close French links with Brazil were plainly demonstrated on October 1st, 1550, when King Henry II made his solemn entry into the Atlantic port city of Rouen. It was customary for a king of France at this time to be given an ‘entry’ whenever he first visited a town in his kingdom. The ceremony usually followed a set pattern. There would be a procession before the king of all the leading citizens, followed by one in the reverse direction through the town in which the king himself would take part. The streets would be decorated for the occasion with temporary monuments, such as triumphal arches, and there would be theatrical displays, usually enacting a biblical or mythological subject, on platforms by the roadside.
Henry’s 1550 entry into Rouen also included a Brazilian extravaganza. A field outside the city had been transformed into a jungle with palm trees where parrots and monkeys could be seen and heard. At each end of the field were long huts made out of tree trunks and covered with reeds. Even more extraordinary were the three hundred or so ‘inhabitants’ of this artificial jungle. Fifty of them were Brazilian Indians; the rest were Rouennais disguised as Indians. All were stark naked, with their bodies painted and pierced to carry ‘jewellery’ in the form of small polished stones. At first the scene appeared peaceful enough; some lay in hammocks, others carried logs to a ship in the Seine. Suddenly, however, the Indians divided into two rival camps and attacked each other with bows and arrows, maces and staves. The fight ended dramatically with the victors setting fire to their enemy’s huts.
Portuguese sources indicate that the French first appeared in Brazil in 1504, but the first identified Frenchman in Brazil is Paulmier de Gonneville, a sea captain from Honfleur in Normandy. We know about him because in 1505 he gave evidence to the admiralty court of Rouen. He had originally set out for the East Indies. During a stay in Lisbon he had been much impressed by ‘the fine riches of spices and other rarities’ imported from Calicut, the capital of Northern Kerala in India and decided to go there himself. Employing two Portuguese who came from Calicut, de Gonneville set up a joint-stock company at Honfleur to equip the Espoir, a ship of 120 tons with a crew of sixty. She set sail on June 24th, 1503, but a storm in the south Atlantic drove her north-westward towards ‘a great land’, which turned out to be Brazil.
For six months he and his crew explored the country, winning over the natives by giving them trinkets in return for food and ‘skins, feathers and roots for dyeing’, which would fetch high prices in France. On Easter Day they erected a twenty-five-foot tall wooden cross inscribed with the names of the pope and the king of France. The Espoir then sailed for home on July 3rd, taking with her Essomeric, the son of the local chieftain called Arosea, and another Indian, who was to act as his servant. Arosea let his son go on condition that he would be returned in twenty months’ time. The Espoir was soon hit by scurvy, which killed the Indian servant and six of the crew. Before leaving Brazil, de Gonneville decided to make another landing further north in an area frequented by cannibals. They killed four of his men and wounded another five. Further north still, perhaps at Bahia, de Gonneville and his men were better received. Before they finally left Brazil, they kidnapped two more Indians, but they escaped and swam ashore. There was worse to come for de Gonneville. He had almost reached Honfleur when his ship was attacked by an English privateer. Twelve of his men were killed and four more died of sickness soon afterwards. The Espoir was so damaged that she had to be beached and all her precious cargo was lost. Essomeric, however, survived, though he never returned to Brazil. After being baptized, he settled in Normandy, married a rich relative of de Gonneville and raised a family. A century and a half later, his descendant, the abbé Paulmier, asked for missionaries to be sent to Brazil so that the Indians from whom he was descended might become Christians.
More Frenchmen went to Brazil in the sixteenth century. There was Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, whose swashbuckling career is the stuff of legend. The son of a petty royal official, he was born in the small town of Provins in 1510. He became a knight of Malta in 1531, of which order his uncle was Grand Master, and served on a number of diplomatic missions. In 1541 he joined the Emperor Charles V’s disastrous military expedition against Algiers. De Villegagnon was then sent on a spying mission to Hungary by his patron, Guillaume du Bellay, seigneur de Langey. In 1548 he helped to transport the young Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, from Dumbarton to France for her marriage to the dauphin François. In 1552 he undertook the fortification of the port of Brest and became Vice-Admiral of Brittany. He was then chosen by King Henry II, on the recommendation of the cardinal of Lorraine and of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, to lead an expedition to Brazil. In addition to a royal subsidy of 10,000 crowns, de Villegagnon obtained enough funds from merchant bankers in Rouen, Dieppe and St. Malo to assemble a force of six hundred men, including sailors, artisans and adventurers. They included both Catholics and Protestants. Among the former was a Franciscan friar, André Thevet, who was to become the cosmographer royal. He remained in Brazil only for a short time and in 1557, following his return to France, published an account of his experiences entitled Singularitez de la France Antarctique, which became quite popular and was translated into English.
After a false start due to contrary winds, the expedition, comprising two ships, finally set sail from Le Havre on August 14th, 1555. It reached the coast of Brazil in October and on November 10th landed at Cape Frio to the east of Rio de Janeiro to a friendly welcome by the natives. A few days later the French ships finally dropped anchor in the bay of Rio de Janeiro, or Guanabara, not far from Sugar Loaf Mountain, which the Normans christened Pot de beurre. Rather than settle on the mainland where he might be more easily attacked by native tribes or by the Portuguese, de Villegagnon preferred to occupy an island, now called Villegagnon, commanding the entrance to the bay, but it lacked fresh water and topsoil. His next step was to build a fort, banked up with earth and surrounded by a wooden palisade, which he called Fort Coligny. But de Villegagnon was blamed by the natives for a fever which broke out amongst them soon after his arrival. He also angered his own men by a regime of iron discipline. They particularly resented the strict moral code that he imposed at a time when they were being continually tempted by beautiful Indian women floating past them in canoes, totally naked. At this juncture some of the truchements, who had ‘gone native’ and were living with Indian women, rose against him with the support of tribes which hitherto had been friendly to the French. Finding himself under siege and deserted by his own followers, de Villegagnon turned for assistance to the Protestant reformer, John Calvin, whom he had met in his student days at Orléans. He wrote to him in January 1556 (the letter has, alas, been lost), asking him to send him a new group of settlers of a higher moral standing than the riff-raff that had accompanied him originally.
We do not know exactly what de Villegagnon’s religious position was at this stage, because by the end of 1557 he was certainly a practising Catholic. In any case, Calvin duly obliged and fourteen Frenchmen from Geneva arrived in Brazil in March 1557. Among them were Jean de Léry, who was to become famous as the author of Histoire d’un Voyage faict en la terre du Brésil, and two pastors, Guillaume Chartier and Pierre Richer. They were greeted on the beach by de Villegagnon wearing his finest clothes and surrounded by his Scottish bodyguard. The new settlers, including some married women, arrived on three ships which also brought victuals, cattle and seed to the hard-pressed colony.
It is possible that de Villegagnon originally thought that the purpose of his expedition was to provide a place of refuge across the Atlantic where persecuted French Calvinists could practise their religion freely. But we need to treat with care the evidence of Jean de Léry, who wrote his account of his Brazilian adventure in 1578, by which time he had himself become a pastor and denominational positions had become that much clearer. There is no evidence to support the view that de Villegagnon was already a fully ‘signed-up’ Calvinist in 1557. And events were soon to show that he did not share the Calvinist interpretation of the Eucharist as a memorial service, not as a sacrifice. He still adhered to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. This exposed him to the charge of being a ‘God-eater’, a charge that seemed all the more serious as the Brazilian Indians liked to devour the bodies of their defeated enemies. A dispute broke out between de Villegagnon and his Genevan entourage. While the pastor, Chartier, was sent back to Europe to seek Calvin’s opinion, his flock downed tools, whereupon de Villegagnon denied them food. In order to survive, they began to trade with the Indians on the mainland. Pastor Richer decided to worship only at night in order to avoid trouble. After some months, de Villegagnon ordered the Huguenots to quit the fort and the island. They settled at a place called ‘the Brickyard’ until January 1558, when they were offered a ship back to Europe. But a storm wrecked the ship and five Huguenots returned to the colony. De Villegagnon had them put into irons and tried to convert them to Catholicism; three, who resisted, were forcibly drowned in Rio de Janeiro bay.
A year later de Villegagnon returned to France. Hoping that his appeal for help to Calvin would be forgotten, he tried to enlist the support, first, of the Jesuits and, then, of the Franciscans. This time he wanted irreproachable Catholic missionaries. But in the course of the negotiations he learnt that, in March 1560, Fort Coligny, which de Villegagnon had entrusted to the command of his nephew, Bois-le-Comte, had been seized by a Portugese force led by Mem de Sá. In Histoire d’un Voyage de Léry repeatedly blames de Villegagnon’s intolerance and perfidy for the loss of the French colony.
De Léry survived the débacle and became a Calvinist pastor in 1562 on his return to France. He was soon caught up in the horrors of the religious wars and in 1573, after narrowly escaping the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, experienced the dreadful siege of Sancerre by Catholic forces. A year later he published a graphic account of this event. The case of parents driven by hunger to eat their own daughter triggered a recollection in his mind of the cannibalism he had witnessed among the Brazilian Indians. His Histoire d’un Voyage became a best seller and has been acclaimed in the twentieth century by Claude Lévi-Strauss as ‘that breviary of the anthropologist’. In it de Léry was extremely critical of André Thevet’s earlier work, accusing him of exaggerating the role he had played in Brazil and of whitewashing de Villegagnon. De Léry provided an engrossing account not only of the hazards of sea travel in the sixteenth century, but also of the flora and fauna of Brazil and of the life style of the natives. He drew interesting comparisons, suggesting that the elaborate fashions worn by Frenchwomen were far more titillating to the opposite sex than the the nakedness of their Brazilian sisters. Cannibalism also fascinated him. Two Indian tribes – the Tupinamba and the Margaia – regularly fought each other with primitive weapons, not to acquire land, which they had in plenty, but to avenge their ancestors who had been vanquished and eaten. They meted out the same fate to their prisoners of war, fattening them like pigs, before killing and barbecueing them. Though shocked, de Léry again drew a parallel with the horrors he had witnessed in France:
Let us henceforth no longer abhor so very greatly the cruelty of the anthropophagous – that is, man-eating – savages. For since there are some here in our midst even worse and more detestable than those who, as we have seen, attack only enemy nations, while the ones over here have plunged into the blood of their kinsmen, neighbours, and compatriots; one need not go beyond one’s own country, nor as far as America, to see such monstrous and prodigious things.
A comparable lesson was drawn by the French essayist, Montaigne:
It does not sadden me that we should note the horrible barbarity in a practice such as theirs: what does sadden me is that, while judging correctly of their wrong-doings we should be so blind to our own … I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead, more barbarity in lacerating by rack and torture a body, still fully able to feel things, in roasting him little by little … in the name of duty and religion than in roasting him and eating him after his death.
Another survivor of the Brazilian fiasco was de Villegagnon. Soon after returning to France he wrote three diatribes against the Calvinists, as well as some theological treatises in Latin on the Eucharist. He devoted the rest of his life to fighting for the Catholic faith. After being wounded in the siege of Rouen in 1562, he joined the Guise camp and in 1565 was among the entourage of the cardinal of Lorraine. A year later he accompanied Henry, the third duc de Guise, to Hungary. He was back in France for the Second and Third Religious Wars, when, as governor of Sens, he defended the town. In 1570 he became a gentleman of King Charles IX’s chamber. De Léry never forgave de Villegagnon for his actions in Brazil:
I firmly believe that, if Villegagnon had remained true to the faith, there would be at present more than ten thousand Frenchmen over there who, besides staunchly protecting our island and fort against the Portuguese, who then would never have taken it (as they did after our return), would now possess under allegiance to our King a great country in the land of Brazil, which one could rightfully have continued to call ‘Antarctic France’.
Historians, however, have cast serious doubt on this verdict. By 1578 the religious division of France had become clear, whereas in 1555 many Frenchmen were still undecided as to whether to follow Rome or Geneva. Although de Villegagnon appears to have had some sympathy for the Reformation, he was evidently taken by surprise by the Calvinist stance on the Eucharist. One cannot assume treachery on his part. The tragic events in Rio may be seen as a rehearsal in miniature of the terrible French Wars of Religion that were to break out in 1562.
- Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (ed. Janet Whatley, Univ. of California, 1990)
- Frank Lestringant, André Thevet, Cosmographe des derniers Valois (Droz,1991)
- Arthur Heulhard, Villegagnon, roi d’Amérique (éditions Leroux, 1897).
Robert Knecht is the author of The French Renaissance Court (Yale, 2008).
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