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The Failed Settlements of Kourou and Môle Saint Nicolas

Updated on July 20, 2017

From the ruins of the French colonial project in 1763, after defeat by the British overseas which had stripped away France’s North American colonies, came a variety of plans for rebuilding the French overseas Empire. France had lost its North American colonies, so proclaimed (probably correctly), French reformers and planners, due to a dearth of sufficient population, and particular sufficient white population, that would have enabled these colonies to cope with their British counterparts across North America. To counter this, the number of whites had to be increased, producing purely white societies capable of fulfilling the hopes of French administrations and of the Psyiocrats, the premier French economic school which believed in the primacy of agriculture in economic production, seeing these as the only roots of wealth. Opposed to slavery, for economic reasons as threatening the rise of free markets, and for reasons of natural law, their preference in colonial empires being to encourage agricultural development built on small white farmers instead of a global slave underclass. From this, came schemes stretching across the remaining French colonial empire - principally the Caribbean - which aimed to bring these schemes to fruition, in particular by using the exiled Acadians from British-occupied Acadia.

The Kourou river, the site of a French colonization effort.
The Kourou river, the site of a French colonization effort.


Much of this is lost to history, but if one of these appears more markedly from the foggy annals of time, it comes from a project in French Guinea, with the French settlement at Kourou. French Guinea in the middle part of the 18th century was one of the more forgotten parts of the empire. Despite its dependence on slavery, only two slave ships had stopped there from 1744 to 1763 and these had been due to disease and other problems. The population stood at the lowly level of 600 whites and 7,000 slaves. Often these slaves escaped into the surrounding wilderness, forming rebel bands of maroons. Dreams of mineral resources had been quickly crashed. When British corsairs had raised off the coast in the Seven Years War, slaves themselves had to be armed to defend the colony.

In other words, a ripe colony for the implementation of a program of imperial re-birth. An initial plan was put forwards by Chevalier Jean-Antoine Bruletout de Préfontaine, calling on an ambitious but reasonable plan for 300 whites and 600 blacks, which would have more food production but would still be eventually devoted cash-crops economy. The plan was relayed to Paris, where the Psyiocrats discovered the plan, and determined a more ambitious program; instead of settling less than 1,000 settlers, they would send 10,000, for a white-only colony, growing food crops and livestock to supply the French Caribbean islands. In this, they thought of a useful labor pool; Acadians exiled by the British, scattered across the Atlantic. Gripped in poverty and with little for them to do, as well as being sturdy Catholic peasant folk with loyalty to the King, they would make excellent settlers for Kourou. Préfontaine also thought of them as good workers, something not necessarily shared among his counterparts in the 18th century, who had an opinion of the Acadians as lazy. Their settlement would also enable them to be removed from the poverty rolls in France, where their numbers and an inefficient French administrative system made them costly burdens on the French treasury. Combined with settlers drawn from the war-ravaged regions of Germany, a flourishing colony would be established on the banks of the Kourou river.

In reality, the project went less well than planned. Initially, the project looked to be reasonably successful, with death rates kept below 5% in the new colony. The settlers worked on building a fort, draining marshes, planting gardens, and surveying. This did not last long, and soon enough a ship carrying smallpox docked, leading to the infection of the settlers. Death rates soared, and the colony was abandoned shortly thereafter, the survivors fleeing back to France except for a few scattered remainders in Guiana.

Mole Saint Nicholas, found near the Passage du Vent in the northern part of the country.
Mole Saint Nicholas, found near the Passage du Vent in the northern part of the country.
A map of Mole Saint Louis
A map of Mole Saint Louis

If French Guiana was on the edges of the French colonial empire, poor, backwards, and forgotten, French Dominique was not. French Dominique, later to become Haïti, was the most prosperous colony in the world, producing unimaginable quantities of wealth for France. This wealth however, did not trickle down to the slaves who formed the base of this work force, who lived in equally unthinkable conditions. Slavery’s dichotomy produced tremendous fears and concerns on the part of the French class present in the region, terrified of the prospect of slave uprisings and of poisoning at the hand of their slaves. Furthermore, when the Seven Year’s War exposed the deficiencies of French military defenses, faced with British encroachment, the lack of a large white population for providing for military forces further undermined the security of those present in the region. In response, a variety of propositions presented themselves; to attempt to increase the number of regular troops present in the region, and to increase the white population to provide for self-defense and for the development of the colony. The former, costly and unpopular (much as in the Americans to the north where the quartering of British troops resulted in significant opposition), was undertaken never the less, but it would be the second that would fascinate many bureaucrats. Arcadians would be settled to build up

This led to a project in the poor and underdeveloped region of Môle Saint Nicholas. Here, several hundred Acadian peasants were settled, to make a new colony. Their objective was to clear fields for agriculture, build up buildings, and provide for infrastructure, establishing both as an agricultural community producing foodstuffs for export and a defense against British attacks in the northern part of the island as a naval base. Acadians were brought in from across the Atlantic seaboard, and work began in building the settlement.

Problems soon emerged, as it was a difficult land where every parcel had to be cleared, and where the land was poor and ill suited for farming. Acadians faced horrifyingly hard labor, including having to dredge the river by themselves. Slaves were not used in this practice, but the Acadians themselves faced conditions little better, working without pay on the projects, with the hand of the state which fed and clothed them preventing any rebellion. High mortality rates resulted, and the colony collapsed, being replaced with slave settlement instead.

Both of these projects were disastrous, and their effects upon the Acadian population, the principal tool in the operations, were terrible. Acadian society, once rich and complex, was collapsed into that of a collection simple peasant farmer refugees as they were manipulated by French bureaucracy and faced with brutal conditions on the ground. Tragedy upon tragedy had piled upon them, from their ethnic cleansing from Acadia by the British, to their neglect in France and the British Empire, to deaths strewn across the tropic. A once prosperous and content people had been set on a course of near-genocide by the actions of the English.

For France, it proved the failure of settling whites in the tropic, and led to intense recriminations in government. The attempted rebirth of the French Empire met with little results; it would take until 1830 for the French Empire to begin to recover from the disaster of 1763. The dreams and follies of men had been crashed and torn asunder upon the rocks of reality.

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