Accommodation and Power Sharing

by Silvia Castro Shannon, Saint Anselm College

The relationship between the failed French colonial efforts in Brazil and the religious struggle in France from 1555-1615 offers a notable example of accommodation, power-sharing, and confessional tensions in religiously mixed communities in the early modern world. Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon established the first colony in Rio de Janeiro (1556 - 1560) and the second colony in the North of Brazil at Maranhão (1612-1615) was established by the Huguenot Daniel de la Touche and the Catholic François de Razilly. The failures of the French in Brazil were not caused by the events in Brazil but by the continuing confessional struggles between Catholics and Huguenots in France. The colonial history must, therefore, be examined in the context of the confessional struggles in France.

The two colonies presented contrasting experiments in religious coexistence. The colony in Rio de Janeiro collapsed as a result of conflicting expectations of the Catholic commander, Villegagnon, and the colonists sent by John Calvin. Villegagnon had met Calvin at the University of Paris in the 1520s during the period of the préreforme and, most likely, requested the delegation from Geneva without knowing that an irreparable theological breach had developed between Catholics and the members of the Reformed Church. While Villegagnon sought to populate his colony with moral and hard working Christians, he never intended to create a Protestant refuge. To the men from Geneva, including two pastors sent by Calvin in 1559, France Antarctique was to be a Protestant refuge or a place where the Gospel would be pure. At the first celebration of the Lord's Supper, the religious conflict between the colonists was apparent. Villegagnon initially suspected that the pastors from Geneva were misrepresenting Calvin's views. Villegagnon exiled the delegation from Geneva and eventually executed three men, creating the first martyrs of the Reformed Church in the New World.

In contrast to the religious acrimony in Rio de Janeiro, the second colony in the North of Brazil, established after the Edict of Nantes, was a very successful experiment in religious coexistence. From 1612-1615, French Huguenots and Catholics lived and worked together in Maranhão. What made this cooperation remarkable was that most of the funding for the colony came from French nobles with very strong ties to the Catholic Reformation. The colony had been founded to protect the French trade in brazil-wood and other commodities with the Tupinamba, a tribe with a century-old alliance with the French. The French established the city of St. Louis and sheltered many Tupinamba in villages for three years. Since the colony was established not only after the Edict of Nantes but following the intense Catholic Reformation, lay and religious supporters of the Catholic Reformation were interested in contributing funds and missionaries to covert the Indians to Catholicism. French Capuchins functioned effectively as missionaries in a colony where power was equally shared by a Huguenot and a Catholic. The success in religious coexistence was probably attributable to very clear arrangements of power sharing, delineated boundaries of civil and religious jurisdications, and physical isolation from Europe.

Despite the fact that the colony in the North of Brazil was successful in developing a power sharing arrangement between Catholics and Huguenots, the French Crown decided not to repeat the experiment in future colonial ventures. Surprisingly, the lesson that would be learned by the French from the North of Brazil was to allow only Catholics in future colonies in the New World. Possibly the most revealing fact about the unique nature of religious coexistence in Maranhão was that François de Razilly and Daniel de la Touche, who worked so well together to establish the colony in Maranhão, found themselves on opposite sides of the battlefield once the wars between Catholic and Huguenot nobles resumed in the 1620s in France.

Suggested Readings

  • Shannon, Silvia Castro. "Villegagnon, Polyphemus, and Cain of America: Religion and Polemics." Changing Identities in Early Modern France. Ed. Michael Wolfe. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • -----. "Apostles of the Indian in an Age of Imperial Competition: French Capuchins in 17th-Century Portuguese Brazil." The Franciscan Life in the New World, American Society for Franciscan History (forthcoming).
  • -----. "Religious Struggle in France and Colonial Failure in Brazil, 1555-1615." Essays in French Colonial History. Ed. Dale Standen. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000.
  • Conley, Tom. "Thevet revisits Guanabara," The Hispanic American Historical Review 80 (2000): 753-781.