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3.4: Alternate Modeles of Control - The French and Dutch in the Americas

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    Because Spain and Portugal were the first to establish colonies in the Americas, the patterns that they established served as the first models of colonization and control of American colonies. The biggest challenge that they faced in administering their colonial holdings were those of time and space. Communication between colony and mother country was difficult, and it took months for messages, orders, and news to travel across the Atlantic. The distance between Europe and the Americas played a very important role in shaping colonial administration along with patterns and methods of imperial control. The ways in which the Iberian powers politically and economically administered their colonial holdings were also a reflection of the relationship between mother country and colony. The American holdings were settlement colonies that would be shaped in the image of Spain and Portugal. Spaniards and Portuguese came from the mother country to populate the colonies; they desired to recreate their homeland in their new land, and so sought (sometimes unsuccessfully) to live in a Spanish or Portuguese manner. As a result, they set up a direct system of governance that exerted tight control of the colonies. The American colonies were to economically benefit the mother country; thus, colonial trade was also tightly controlled.

    When other European powers became active in the colonization of the American hemisphere, political and economic models of control were similarly a result of time, distance, and the relationship between mother country and colony. The French and Dutch both provide very different models of control in the Americas than their Iberian counterparts. Both of these nations took a primarily economic interest in the American hemisphere; both shaped their models of colonial administration largely around trade. For the French, this meant engaging in the fur trade in the North American frontier in the Great Lakes region and later along the Mississippi River. The Dutch established their foothold in the Caribbean, a move which proved to be very lucrative.

    Politically, both France and the Netherlands wanted to weaken the Spanish (and to a lesser extent, the Portuguese) hold on the Americas. The French actively contested Spanish power by trying to establish a colony in Florida, a strategic area which would allow them to interrupt Spanish shipping lanes coming north out of the Caribbean. The Dutch were much less overt in their contestation of Iberian power; instead of establishing large, rival colonies that encroached on the Spanish, they instead concentrated on weakening their Spanish competitors through piracy. The Dutch took on the Portuguese more directly, conquering small but important lands in Brazil, wresting these areas from Portuguese control.

    French in the Americas: Canada and Florida

    The French were most active in North America as participants in a thriving fur trade. However, French activity in the New World did not begin as successfully; the earliest French expeditions to North America, and particularly in Canada, were largely unsuccessful ventures. The first voyages, led by Jacques Cartier between 1534 and 1542, established contact with local peoples, including the Huron and Iroquois. They were eager to trade with Cartier; in fact, on Cartier’s second voyage, the headman of the Iroquoian town of Stadacona tried to prevent Cartier from leaving so that his village, through control of Cartier, could by extension control and dominate the French-Indian trade. For the French, these early voyages established that the area contained no natural or human resources that proved to be valuable to them at the time. As a result, the French retreated from Canada and spent much of the next fifty years trying to establish themselves elsewhere in the Americas, most notably in Florida in 1564. Eventually, the French came back to Canada to participate in the developing trade in beaver pelts, and came to successfully dominate much of the interior trade.

    French Struggle to Control Florida

    The French next turned their attention to the south and towards taking action to weaken the Spanish political hold on the Americas. In 1564, René Goulaine de Laudonnière led an expedition to Florida, establishing Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. John’s River in modern Jacksonville. Florida was a strategic and valuable area for its proximity to the rich Spanish Caribbean. The French hoped to establish a successful settlement in Florida, and thus a stepping-off point to contest Spanish power in the Caribbean. A foothold in Florida could also provide the opportunity to weaken the Spanish Crown through piracy; the prevailing currents and winds of the Caribbean and Atlantic ensured Spanish shipping lanes, including the transport of the treasure fleets, traveled up along the Florida coast before venturing out across the Atlantic. The settlement at Fort Caroline was also a reflection of French concerns at home; religious tensions between Catholics and Huguenots (Protestants) had intensified. Many of the Huguenots had been cast out of France; some came to Fort Caroline to seek refuge.

    Screenshot (204).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Pedro Menéndez de Avilés | Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of St. Augustine. artist: Francisco de Paula Martí Source: Library of Congress

    The Spanish, hearing of the French incursion into Spanish territory, established their own colony slightly south of Fort Caroline at San Agustín (St. Augustine). The expedition was led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who later became adelantado (the governing official) of la Florida, which encompassed much of North America, from the Chesapeake Bay south to the tip of the mainland and west to modern-day New Mexico. Spanish attempts to establish a settlement in Florida had been ineffective in the past, but the St. Augustine settlement proved successful, in part because of the relationship the Spaniards cultivated with the Timucua Indians. As a result, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously-settled European settlement in the continental United States.

    In September of 1565, Menéndez de Avilés led a force against the French settlement at Fort Caroline. The Spanish quickly overwhelmed the French forces, killing many of the men, but sparing most of the women and children. Twenty-five of the Frenchmen escaped, making their way along the Florida coast. The Spanish caught up to them about fifteen miles outside of St. Augustine, where Menéndez de Avilés ordered the men executed, securing Spanish dominance in Florida. The Catholic Spanish offered the Protestant Huguenots the chance to renounce their “apostate” faith and embrace Catholicism; their refusal was part of what sealed their fate. The massacre of the French settlers and soldiers marked the end of the French experiment in Florida and their attempts to undermine Spanish political control in the area.

    Canada—Control and the Fur Trade

    Defeated in Florida, the French turned their efforts back to Canada at the turn of the century. In 1603, Samuel de Champlain established the colony of New France in modern-day Quebec. Champlain was well aware of the value of trade with local groups, and established alliances with groups such as the Algonquin and the Huron. This alliance shaped local patterns over the long term; when Champlain allied himself with the Huron, their long-standing enemies, the Iroquois, allied themselves with the British.

    Few French came to the settlement at New France. In part, this was because New France was primarily a trading operation rather than a settlement intended to establish a new, growing colony. Champlain was very conscious of how his traders interacted with local peoples, and established many rules of conduct that focused on French traders fitting into indigenous groups. For example, traders were to rely on Indians for food and support, living by the cultural rules of the local Indians, and were to fully honor indigenous ritual and ceremonial practices. Champlain, too, was held to this standard. For example, the Huron and other Northeastern groups did not see the French/Indian relationship as merely economic; it was a relationship that was both economic and political. Champlain found himself drawn into a war with the Iroquois after a year of trading with the Huron. The powerful local groups were eager to exploit the Europeans and their technology to their own ends in their own wars.

    Although the French mission in Canada was primarily economic, they did try to Christianize some groups of Indians, most notably the Huron. In 1615, the first Jesuits (a monastic order of the Catholic Church) arrived in New France to go out among the Indians—particularly the Huron—to Christianize them. Over the next fifty years, the Jesuits worked among the Huron, learning their language and their culture. The efforts to Christianize the Huron were largely unsuccessful, with very few converts: perhaps less than ten converts in fifty years. However, The Jesuit experience in Canada is very significant as they wrote copious amounts of letters back to the Order in France, detailing the practices and beliefs of the Huron. Much of the information we have about the Huron and other groups in the Quebec area come from these letters.

    Dutch in the Americas

    The Netherlands won independence from Spain at the end of the European Thirty Years’ War. During the war and its aftermath, the Netherlands had emerged as the most important trading center in Europe, bringing great power and riches to the new nation. The Dutch had a long history in seafaring, mapmaking, and boatbuilding, and quickly entered the global spice trade competition. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) was founded. The DEIC was financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange, making it the first multinational corporation. The company was granted a two decade long monopoly to carry out colonial activities in Asia on behalf of the Dutch government. As a result, the DEIC possessed quasigovernmental powers, including the powers to wage wars, coin money, negotiate treaties, and establish colonies. The DEIC also possessed judicial powers, and was allowed to imprison and execute convicts.

    The DEIC was by far the most successful European operator in Asian trade. They established colonies throughout the Malaccas, including the modern-day city of Jakarta, Indonesia. These port colonies allowed them to dominate the trade from within. Outside of the spice trade, the DEIC began a trade monopoly with Japan in 1640 at the trading post of Dejima, further empowering the Netherlands.

    In 1652, the DEIC established an African colony near the Cape of Good Hope. The settlement of Cape Town was originally intended to be a way station for ships to resupply on the way to and from the Spice Islands. Instead, Cape Town quickly transformed into a permanent and growing colony known as Cape Colony. It grew into a sizable colony, and became one of the most developed European colonies outside of the Americas. Dutch farmers displaced local groups such as the pastoralist Khoikhoi. The colony’s strategic location meant that almost every ship travelling from Europe to Asia stopped in Cape Town to resupply.

    The Dutch were involved in the Americas in two main areas: the Caribbean and modern-day New York. By far, the Caribbean was the more important, richer area because of its sugar production. In the 1620s and 1630s, large fleets employed by the Dutch West Indies Company (DWIC) dominated the Caribbean. During these decades, the company was an instrument of war as well as a business; it waged war, but tried to turn a profit in the meantime. In the 1620s, much of Europe, including the Netherlands, was at war. The Republic of the Netherlands set up the DWIC in 1621 primarily to carry this European war into the Caribbean through piracy and conquest.

    Much like the Dutch East India Company (DEIC), the DWIC was authorized to carry out trade and set up colonies. Unlike the DEIC, the DWIC focused on naval and military ambitions. The two companies were set up to function in tandem; the state assigned the DWIC a twenty-five year monopoly in every territory not given to the DEIC, including the Caribbean and the Americas. Like the DEIC, the DWIC’s stock was listed on the Amsterdam exchange; this reflects that the Dutch colonial experience was primarily an economic one. Through the activities of the DEIC and the DWIC, the Netherlands sought to empower their nation through control of markets on a global scale, from Indonesia to the Caribbean.

    In 1624, the DWIC launched large-scale attacks in the Caribbean with three goals in mind. First, they sought to occupy the rich Portuguese sugar plantations in Brazil. Second, they tried to conquer the Portuguese slave-trading ports in West Africa, another lucrative trade. Finally, they sought to seize the treasure fleets that carried Peruvian and Mexican gold from Havana to Seville.

    In all these efforts, the DWIC enjoyed initial victories but later failed. The Dutch conquered large parts of Brazil in the early 1630s and captured Portuguese slave-trading forts in Africa in the late 1630s. For a brief time, the DWIC successfully controlled the international sugar trade and the Atlantic slave trade. However in 1645, Portuguese Catholics in Brazil rose up in revolt and swept the Protestant Dutch out. While they were busy in Brazil, the Dutch were likewise busy in the Caribbean. They plundered Spanish merchant shipping, tried to capture the Spanish treasure fleets, and ran highly-successful smuggling operations in Spanish ports. The Dutch became the economic powerhouse of the Caribbean; the Spanish feared them, and English and French colonists often would prefer to trade with Dutch merchants (for their prices and reliability) than with their own mother countries. The Dutch, in great part because of the success of the DWIC, successfully contested Spain’s economic hold over the Caribbean. Politically, the Dutch were less successful, able to maintain only six small islands of the Lesser Antilles as colonies.

    The greatest economic victory for the Dutch came in 1628 when DWIC ships managed to trap the entire Mexican treasure fleet in Matanzas Bay off Cuba. They took an enormous treasure in gold, silver, and goods, and the company paid its shareholders a cash dividend of seventy percent in 1629. Until 1635, the company continued to mount large and costly expeditions to pillage Spanish settlements and shipping in the West Indies. Overall, the DWIC sent out 800 ships with 67,000 men between 1621 and 1637. But, the take was meager, and the shares sank on the Amsterdam exchange. However, the company’s attacks, together with those of smaller fleets of Dutch, French, and English pirates did succeed in destroying Spanish commerce and communications. From 1625 to 1635, the Dutch maritime force changed the balance of power in the Caribbean, making it possible for Dutch traders to control most of the region’s commerce for decades.


    Both the French and Dutch provided alternate models of colonial control in the Americas. Each of these countries sought to establish a foothold in the Americas through trade and commerce. Both sought to weaken the Spanish hold on the American hemisphere. After experimenting with colonization in Canada, the French attempted to directly contest Spain’s claim on la Florida (and thus their political control of North America) by establishing the colony of Fort Caroline, a move which proved to be a dismal failure. In the wake of their failure to secure Florida, the French established their main foothold in the New World in New France in Canada. French activities in the New World focused mostly on trade with groups such as the Huron and Algonquin in the fur trade. Because there were relatively few French in the colony, Samuel de Champlain’s policies for French traders encouraged them to closely associate themselves with local groups.

    The Dutch became the most important force in the spice trade under the aegis of the Dutch East India Company. Established in 1602, the DEIC was the first multinational company, and possessed quasigovernmental powers. The DEIC established trading posts and colonies in modern-day Indonesia and South Africa (Cape Colony). These ports established seats of power for the Dutch to take control and amass great wealth from the lucrative spice trade. The Dutch established their presence in the Caribbean through the Dutch West Indies Company, an institution that was authorized to carry out trade and set up colonies. They approached the Caribbean with three goals in mind: occupy the Portuguese sugar plantations in Brazil, conquer the Portuguese slavetrading ports in West Africa, and seize the treasure fleets that carried Peruvian and Mexican gold from Havana to Seville. The Dutch were able to control parts of Brazil’s sugar trade and the West African slave ports for only a short time. They proved much more successful in controlling both legitimate and black market Caribbean trade, becoming the most powerful shipping empire in the Americas. The Dutch also practiced piracy in the Caribbean, and captured a Spanish treasure fleet in 1628, a major blow to the Spanish.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    _________’s expeditions in Canada established the local Indians’ interest in French trade when the leader of Stadacona tried to detain him in order to control French and Indian trade networks.

    1. Samuel de Champlain
    2. Stadacona
    3. Jacques Cartier
    4. René Goulaine de Laudonnière


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The French settlement in Florida was settled by Protestants unwelcome in France known as _____.

    1. Huguenots
    2. Anabaptists
    3. Apostates
    4. Catholics


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The Jesuits

    1. were a group of missionaries.
    2. were largely unsuccessful in converting local Indians.
    3. were a great source of knowledge about the Indians of New France.
    4. all of the above


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    The Dutch practiced which of the following practices in establishing themselves as an economic powerhouse in the Caribbean?

    1. legitimate trade
    2. piracy
    3. smuggling
    4. all of the above


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    The Dutch East India Company possessed the power to

    1. establish colonies
    2. punish criminals
    3. negotiate treaties
    4. wage war
    5. all of the above


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