Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE FRENCH IN AMERICA. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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THE FRENCH IN AMERICA. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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THE FRENCH IN AMERICA.
Spain drew immense treasures from Mexico and Peru—which, however, have not greatly enriched them in the end—at a time when other nations had not a single colony in the other parts of America that was of any advantage to them; this naturally excited their jealousy and determined them to follow the example of the Spaniards.
Admiral Coligny, who had great ideas in everything, formed a scheme in the year 1557, during the reign of Henry II., to establish a colony of French of his own sect in the Brazils. The chevalier de Villegagnon, at that time a Calvinist, was sent thither. Calvin himself embarked in the undertaking. The Genoese were not at that time such good traders as at present, and Calvin sent over a greater number of preachers than laborers. The former wanting to have the upper hand, there ensued a violent quarrel between the commandant and them, which terminated in a sedition. The colony, thus divided, was attacked and ruined by the Portuguese. Villegagnon renounced Calvin and his ministers as a set of religious incendiaries; they stigmatized him for an atheist, and France lost the Brazils.
It was said that the family of the Incas had taken refuge in that extensive country, whose frontiers join to those of Peru; that the greater part of the inhabitants of that country had fled thither from the avarice and cruelty of the European Christians, who occupied the central part, and had settled near a certain lake named Perima, the sand of which was gold; and that they had there built a city, the houses of which were all tiled with that precious metal. The Spaniards were for a long time employed in searching after this city, which they called Eldorado, or the Golden City.
This name roused the attention of all the powers of Europe. In 1596 Queen Elizabeth sent out a fleet, under the command of the ingenious and unfortunate Sir Walter Raleigh, to dispute these glorious spoils with the Spaniards. Raleigh actually discovered a country inhabited by a people of a red complexion; and he pretends, in his writings, to have met with a nation whose shoulders were as high as their heads. He had no doubt that the country furnished mines; and he brought back to England with him a hundred large plates of solid gold and several pieces of the wrought metal; but, after all, there was no Dorado nor Lake Perima to be found. The French, after several fruitless attempts, made a settlement in 1664, on the island of Cayenne, a point of that extensive coast not more than fifteen leagues in circumference, and to which they gave the name of Equinoctial France, though the whole colony did not consist of above one hundred and fifty houses, partly wood and partly earth: and the island of Cayenne was never worth anything to France, till the time of Louis XIV., who was the first of the French kings that truly encouraged maritime commerce. This island was taken from the French by the Dutch in the war of 1672. But a fleet, sent over by Louis XIV., took it again. Its present produce is a little indigo, and some very bad coffee. Guiana was reputed the finest country in all America, and where the French might have made settlements with the greatest ease; and this was the very country the most neglected by them.
They had heard of Florida, a country lying between the old and new world, part of which the Spaniards were already in possession of; and it was they who first gave the name of Florida to this part of the continent of North America. But, as the captain of a French cruiser pretended to have landed here nearly about the same time as the Spaniards, the right to it was to be disputed; for, by our law of nations, or rather of robbers, the lands of the Americans should be the property not only of the first invaders, but also of any one who pretended to have first discovered them.
Admiral Coligny, in the reign of Charles IX., and about 1564, had sent thither a colony of Huguenots, being desirous of establishing his religion in America, as well as the Spaniards had established theirs. The Spaniards destroyed this country, and hanged up all the French they found in the place on the trees, with a label to each, saying that they had been hanged not as Frenchmen, but as heretics.
Some time afterwards, one Chevalier de Gourgues, a Gascon, having put himself at the head of a number of pirates to endeavor to recover Florida, made himself master of a small Spanish fort, and, in his turn, hanged up all the prisoners, taking care to affix a card to each, signifying that they had been hanged not as Spaniards, but as robbers and infidels. And now the unhappy natives of America began to see their European despoilers avenge their cause, by mutually destroying each other: a consolation which they had frequently enjoyed.
After having hanged the Spaniards, in order to protect themselves from the same treatment, the French were obliged to evacuate Florida, and made a formal renunciation of their pretended right to that country; which was, in many respects, preferable even to Guiana. But the bloody disputes concerning religion, which at that time spread destruction through all the kingdom of France, left the people no leisure to go and butcher and convert these savages, or contest the possession of this fine country with the Spaniards.
The English had for some time been in possession of the best lands, and the most advantageous in point of situation, that could be wished for in North America, on the other side of Florida, when a few merchants of Normandy, on the simple prospect of establishing a small trade for skins and furs, established a colony in Canada, a country covered with ice or snow during eight months of the year, and inhabited only by savages, bears, and beavers. This country, which was discovered some time before 1535, had been afterward abandoned; but at length, after several attempts badly supported by the government for want of a sufficient naval force, a small company of merchants of Dieppe and St. Malo founded Quebec, in 1608; that is to say, they built a few huts there, which did not take the form of a town till the reign of Louis XIV.
This settlement and that of Louisburg, as well as all the rest in New France, have been always very poor, while there are no less than fifteen thousand coaches driving through the streets of the city of Mexico, and still more in that of Lima. Nevertheless, the poverty of these countries has not exempted them from being the theatre of continual wars, either with the natives or the English, who, though already possessed of far the best territories, were still anxious to divest the French of those which belonged to them, in order to make themselves sole masters of the trade of this wintry region of the world.
The natives of Canada are not the same as those of Mexico, Peru, or the Brazils. They resemble them in the want of hair, of which they have none except on their eyebrows and head; but they differ from them in their color, which approaches nearer to ours; and still more in their disposition, which is very fierce and brave. They were always entire strangers to monarchical government, the republican spirit having always prevailed among the northern nations, both of the old and new world. The inhabitants of North America, of the Appalachian mountains, and of Davis’s Straits, are all peasants and hunters, living together in little towns or villages, which is an institution natural to the human species. We very seldom give them the name of Indians, having erroneously appropriated that name to the people of Mexico, Peru, and the Brazils; which country has been called the Indies, only because as much treasure comes from there as from the real Indies; but content ourselves with calling them North American savages, though they are less so in some respects than the country people on some of our European seacoasts, who have so long assumed the barbarous right of plundering all vessels that are wrecked on their shores, and murdering the poor unhappy sailors. War, the crime and scourge of all times and all countries, was not with them as it is with us, a mere motive of interest; it was in general the result of vengeance meditated for injuries received, as it was also with the Brazilians and all other savage nations.
The most horrible thing belonging to the Canadians was their custom of putting their captives to death by the most cruel torments, and afterwards eating them. This barbarous practice they learned from the people of Brazil, though fifty degrees from each other. Both nations feasted on the flesh of their enemies, as on the produce of the chase. This is a custom that has not always prevailed; but it has been common to more than one nation, as we have shown in the foregoing pages.
In the frozen and barren climes of Canada men were frequently cannibals; but they were not so in Acadia, which is a better country, and produces greater plenty of foods: nor in the rest of the continent, excepting only some parts of the Brazils and on the Caribbean islands.
The infant colony of Canada was formed by a few Jesuits and Huguenots, who had met together there by a strange fatality: they afterwards entered into an alliance with the Hurons, who were at war with the Iroquois. These latter did great damage to the colony, and took several Jesuits prisoners; and, as it is said, ate them. The settlement at Quebec suffered considerably from the English, who attacked it almost as soon as it was built and fortified. They afterwards made themselves masters of all Acadia, which indeed was doing little more than destroying a few fishermen’s huts.
The French then had no foreign settlement at that time, either in Asia or America.
The company of merchants who had ruined themselves by these projects, hoping to repair their losses, applied to Cardinal Richelieu to be included in the treaty made with the English at St. Germain. The latter consented to restore the little they had taken, and of which they made small account; and this little became New France. This settlement continued a long time in a deplorable condition, save only that the codfishery brought in some little profits which served to support the company. But as soon as the English were apprised of these small profits, they seized Acadia again.
They restored it by the Treaty of Breda. After that they took it five several times, and at length made it their property by the Treaty of Utrecht; a treaty which, though regarded as a happy event at the time it was made, has since proved most fatal to the peace of Europe: for we shall see that the ministers who drew it up, not having properly determined the limits of Acadia, which the English have endeavored to enlarge, and the French to confine; this corner of the world has proved the subject of a furious war, which broke out between the rival nations in 1755, and drew along with it the war in Germany, with which it had no kind of connection. But so complicated are the political interests of the present times, that a shot fired in America shall be the signal for setting all Europe together by the ears.
The French, in 1713, remained in possession of the little island of Cape Breton, on which is Louisburg; the river St. Lawrence, Quebec, and Canada—possessions which were rather useful, by being a nursery for seamen, than profitable in any other respects. Quebec contained about seven thousand inhabitants; but the war carried on by the government to preserve this country cost more than the country itself will ever be worth, and yet it appeared absolutely necessary.
New France is an immense tract of country, which joins on one side to Canada, and on the other to New Mexico; and whose limits toward the northeast are not known. This country is called the Mississippi, from a river of that name, which falls into the gulf of Mexico; and Louisiana, from the name of Louis XIV.
This tract of land lay convenient for the Spaniards; but having already too large an extent of dominion in America, they neglected the possession of it; and the more so, as it produced no gold. Some French belonging to Canada undertook to travel into this country, partly by land, and partly by sailing along the Illinois river; in which trial they underwent the most shocking hardships and fatigues. It was as if you were to go to Egypt around the Cape of Good Hope, instead of taking the route of Damietta. This extensive part of New France, till 1708, was peopled only by about a dozen families, who led a wandering life, in the midst of deserts and woods.
Louis XIV., who at that time was ready to sink under his misfortunes, and saw Old France on the point of falling to ruin, could not think of the New. The state was exhausted of men and money; and here it may not be improper to observe, that, during these times of public calamity, two men acquired fortunes of nearly forty millions each; one by a great private trade he carried on in the East Indies, while that company which had been established by Colbert was entirely ruined; and the other, by lending money to an unsuccessful, necessitous, and ignorant ministry. This great merchant, whose name was Crozat, was rich and venturous enough to risk a part of his fortune to purchase a grant of Louisiana from the king, on condition that every ship that he or his partners should send thither should carry over six young persons of each sex, in order to people the country, where trade and population were equally at a stand.
After the death of Louis XIV., Law, a Scotchman, a very extraordinary person, many of whose schemes had proved useless, and others hurtful to the nation, made the government and the people believe that Louisiana produced as much gold as Peru, and that it would soon be able to supply as great a quantity of silk as China. This was the first epoch of Law’s famous scheme, called the “Mississippi Scheme.” Several colonies were sent to that country, and a plan was drawn of a magnificent and regular city, to be built there, by the name of New Orleans. The settlers almost all perished from want; and the city was confined to a few paltry houses. Perhaps one day, when France shall have a million or two of inhabitants more than she may know what to do with, it may be of some advantage to her to people Louisiana.