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France: Colonial Empire

Last modified: 2013-11-25 by ivan sache
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History of the French Colonial Empire

French colonies in the Americas

Nouvelle France (New France). In its narrowest sense, this term refers only to the French colony of Canada. Indeed, some old maps show the inscription Nouvellle-France ou Canada. In its usual sense, the term refers to the three main North American colonies: Canada, Acadia and Louisiana (see below). In its most inclusive sense (used by Marc Lescarbot in 1609 in his Histoire de la Nouvelle- France), the term refers to all the French possessions in the Americas (French Guiana and Caribbeans included; Lescarbot even includes settlement attempts in Florida).

Canada (1534-1763). Originally this term referred to the valley of the Saint Lawrence river (today's southern Quebec). As settlement progressed westward in places like Detroit and Michilimackinac, Canada came to include the Great Lakes area as well (today's southern Ontario and adjacent parts of the USA). Some old French maps also consider today's New Brunswick as part of Canada (see below Acadia). Note that though "discovered" in 1534, the first trading post (Tadoussac) was only established in 1600, and the first permanent settlement (Quebec City) in 1608.

Acadie (Acadia, 1603-1713).In its narrowest sense, the term refered to the peninsular part of modern Nova Scotia, often with adjacent areas in today's southern New Brunswick. Though they sometimes had their own governors, Isle Royale and Isle Saint-Jean (today's Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, respectively) are usually considered part of the French colony of Acadia. After the British conquest of the area, British maps tended to consider most of modern New Brunswick part of Nova Scotia. In reality, most of it was a contested area between France and England until 1763, which explains why French maps tend to include what is modern New Brunswick in colonial French Canada. Note that the original colony settled on Sainte-Croix island (today in Maine, USA) in 1603, moved in 1604 to Port-Royal (today Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) and finally the settlers moved again to found Quebec City in 1608. The modern-day Acadians are descendents from Frenchmen who settled mainly in the 1660s. Note also that until the French definitely gave up Acadia to the English, it changed hands six times between the two European powers.

Louisiane (Louisiana). Originally, the French claimed all of the Mississippi valley from the Rocky Mountains to the top of the Appalachians as part of their Louisiana possession. In 1763, they lose the oriental half (east of the Mississippi, except for New Orleans). The rest was bought from France by the USA in 1803 after being under Spanish control for several decades. In this vast territory however, the French only colonized two areas: what is today southern Louisiana and an area known as Le pays des Illinois, centered around the current city of St. Louis, Missouri, which the French founded, and other nearby villages such as Sainte Geneviève, Missouri; Kaskaskia, Illinois; Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Cahokia, Illinois, Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. At the periphery, there were also settlements in Vincennes, Indiana; Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and in Minnesota.

Terre-Neuve (Newfoundland) was also French for a while, and included Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon and the Îles-de-la- Madeleine (Magdelena Islands), which today belong to Quebec.

Saint-Pierre and Miquelon is the only territory in North America left today under French sovereignty.

Luc Baronian, 23 April 2005

In the Carribean, the French Crown possessed various islands.
The largest territory was Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti).
Guadeloupe's jurisdiction included la Désirade, Dominica, La Frégate, Marie-Galante, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Martin, les Saintes and a few other rocks.
Martinique's jurisdiction included Saint Lucia and Tobago. Grenada has also been French for some time.

In South America, the French Crown possessed one of the Guyanas, today French Guyana.

Pierre Gay, 14 October 1999


French colonies in Asia

In the Near East, the territories under trusteeship of the French Republic consisted of the Alaouite State (Lattaquié), Alep, Hatay (Alexandretta), Lebanon, Syria and the Sanjak of Damas and the Jabel Druze (Souaida). These territories are included today in the modern states of Syria and Lebanon.
The French also held Cheik Said's Territory on the Yemenite coast.

In the Far East, the French Empire consisted in Annam and Paracel islands, Cochinchina, Laos, Cambodia and Tonkin. All these territories were united into the Indochinese Union. They later became the independent states of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.

The French also possessed large concessions in China, such as in Canton, Nanking or Shanghai. Some other Chinese territories were under French sovereignty, such as Hankéou, His-men, Kouang-Tchéou-Wan or Tien-Tsin.

The French Crown ruled most of India between 1742 and 1763. After this date, various smaller territories and enclaves remained under French sovereignty until the 1950s: the towns of Pondichéry (1673-1954, possessed by the United Kingdom at some moments; there are here some privileges granted by the Indian government to thank the fact that France gave without reluctance its Indian possessions, that was not the case of Portugal), Chandernagor (1686-1951), Mahé (1721-1954), Karikal (1738-1954) and Yanaon (1751-1954), and the enclaves of Balassar, Cassimibazar, Calicut, Dacca, Goréty, Jouqdia, Masulipatam, Patna, and Surate.

Pierre Gay & Pascal Vagnat, 14 October 1999


French colonies in Africa

In Western and Central Africa, French possessions were organized into two main federations: Afrique Occidentale Française (French West Africa) and Afrique Equatoriale Française (French Equatorial Africa). These federations included territories of different status, such as colonies and mandates.
The common and specific flag for all of these possessions was of course the French Tricolore, but some possessions eventually hoisted a flag of their own during French rule. These flags are to been found on the pages of the various countries which resumed sovereignty after independence.

French West Africa

French Equatorial Africa

Colonies

Mandate

Colonies

Mandate

Pierre Gay, 13 October 1999

  • Senegal: Yellow five pointed star in the center of green field, based in the one of the Senegalese progressist union (the same but with red star);
  • French Soudan: French tricolour with a black Kanaga in the center of white stripe(the proposal for including the Kanaga was made by L. Sedar Senghor);
  • Middle Congo: green over yellow horizontal bi-colour flag with French Tricolore in the canton (1/3 of the high of the green stripe). The flag was presented to Parliament on 18 August 1959 and rejected. A flag similar to the current one was then adopted;
  • No specific official flag for Ubangui Shari, except the one of the main party: white flag with black hand and blue star;
  • Mauritania: the flag was adopted under instructions of Uld Dada, and was included in the Constitution on 22 March 1959, but only adopted officially 1st April 1959;
  • Chad adopted the current flag on 6 November 1959, and had previously no other flag than the French Tricolore. A special flag for the governor (ochre with red circle containing blue bird?) was reported but seems older (Second World War?).

Jaume Ollé and Nozomi Kariyasu, 17 June 1998

In North Africa, the French colonized Algeria which was considered as integrated French territory (depending from the Minister of the Interior, whereas all other colonies depended from either the Colonial, Naval or Foreign offices); the French flag seems to have been the only national flag flying there. Morocco was a protectorate and had a specific civil ensign. Tunisia was also a protectorate and hoisted its current flag.

In East Africa, the French ruled the French Somali Coast, which became the Overseas territory of the Afars and the Issas, and finally, upon independence in 1977, the Republic of Djibouti.

Pierre Gay, 14 October 1999


French colonies in the Indian Ocean

In the Central Western Indian Ocean, the French Crown possessed the Bourbon island, the Isle de France (today's Réunion and Mauritius, respectively), and the Seychelles islands for a short period of time. The Republic added Madagascar and the Comoros to the French Indian Ocean colonies. While the Comoros became independent, Mayotte island stayed French.
Madagascar adopted a flag on 16 October 1958 similar to the current one. Previous other flags were used in the revolt of 1947, and at least three different patterns are reported, all using the colors white, blue and red.

In the Southern Indian Ocean, the French colonized various islands (Kerguelen, Crozet, New Amsterdam, and other rocks) which were later regrouped into a single territory named French Austral and Antarctic Territories, to which the French slice of the Antarctic (Adelie Land) was adjoined. No specific flag under French royal colonial administration is yet reported here. However there is today a flag for the Senior Administrator of the French Austral and Antarctic Territories.

Pierre Gay, 14 October 1999


French colonies in the Pacific Ocean

In the South-Western Pacific, the French colonized New Caledonia. The overseas territory of New Caledonia is currently facing a change in status within the French Republic, towards larger autonomy. Up North-East, colonial Wallis and Futuna islands have used various local flags under colonial administration. Wallis and Futuna islands are currently an overseas territory of the French Republic.
The French and the British also held a condominium over the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).

In the South-Eastern Pacific, French Polynesia is currently an overseas territory of the French Republic, and is the only French territorial entity to have a specific flag enforced by law. Before this, colonial French Polynesia and its components have used various local flags before and during colonial administration.

Pierre Gay, 14 October 1999


Flags used in the French colonies

Possessions of the first French Colonial Empire (until 1763) mostly used flags such as the White Cross or the Fleurdelysé flags, while the French Republic used mostly the Tricolore, and a few specific flags, such as governor's flags (see below).
Despite the numerous and various administrative statuses of its overseas possessions (colonies, mandates, protectorates, trusteeships and other overseas territories in general...), and however large the Empire, France has always considered itself together with its colonial Empire as a single united political entity in which each part was only a piece of a whole. As thus, it is logical that such an entity, and its parts, used mostly the French flag.
The use of the French flag is therefore the rule, while the use of local flags is the exception.

Pierre Gay, 14 October 1999

There was a somewhat unusual arrangement whereby Governors of French Colonies were authorised by Ministre de la Marine Circular 29 of June 1833 to grant ships of any nation, and of a certain size, liberty to use the French flag, and the right to be treated in all respects as French ships, within certain defined limits.
One defined area was New Caledonia, Australia, New Zealand, and all islands of the South Pacific Ocean, and in 1872 the British Vice-Consul in Nouméa, New Caledonia, reported that two British ships were flying the French flag while under contract to act as transports in Cochinchina.

Source: Public Record Office MT 10/168

David Prothero, 23 January 2001


Governor-General's flag

[Flag of French Colonial gouverneurs-généraux]

Flag of a Governor-General - Image by Pierre Gay, 11 July 2000

Flaggenbuch (1939) [neu92] shows the Governor-General's flag as a blue square flag with a square French ensign (blue 30%, white 33%, red 37%) in canton. The today's flag of the Ministry (or Junior Secretary) for the Overseas, is a square version of the former colonial Governors' flag.

Pierre Gay, 30 September 1999


Misattributed flag

[Misattributed flag]

Misattributed flag of "Algeria" - Image by Eugene Ipavec, 17 February 2012

The 1950's Topps "Flags of the World" trading cards show for Algeria a light blue flag with a tricolore canton (photo), maybe a misinterpretation of the Governor-General's flag.

Eugene Ipavec, 17 February 2012


Governor's flag

[Flag of French Colonial gouverneurs]

Flag of a Governor - Image by Pierre Gay, 11 July 2000

Flaggenbuch (1939) shows the Governor's flag as above but with a swallow tail added. Actually, this flag was for all Governors of particular French colonies. For instance, Senegal, a federated colony inside the French West Africa, which itself was ruled by a Governor-General, was administred by a Governor, just like French Sudan, Guinea, or any other colony in French West Africa. The same hold for Indochina, ruled by a Governor-General, with Tonkin, for example, administred by a Governor.

Pierre Gay 30 September 1999


Community of French States (Communauté)

[Flag of the Communauté]

Flag of the Community of French States - Image by Mark Sensen, 11 July 2000

The Community was officially abolished only in 1995 in the French Constitution, when it had already been obsolete for quite a long time. The Community had since given way to Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie organisation, established in 1970 and gathering 52 members and observer states, very much more successful because it was not as "Empire-oriented" nor as neo-colonial.

Barraclough [c2b81] shows the flag of the Community, or "Standard" as the image is labelled, as square with a gold fringe. The words "LIBERTÉ ÉGALITÉ FRATERNITÉ" are written one above each other in gold vertically touching each three stripes. The flag has a special finial in the form of a wreath containing two clasped hands. Since the principle of the Community itself does not seem to have taken root, the banner has fallen from use. Originally several copies were made, of which one remained in Paris whilst the others were sent to the capitals of the member countries.

Pierre Gay, Pascal Vagnat and Mark Sensen, 6 May 1999