In my post on La Rochelle, I mentioned that the Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny urged his co-religionists to travel to Brazil with a view to religious refuge and developing trade.

What follows is the story of what was then known as France Antarctique. The map from the first trip in 1555 (courtesy of Wikipedia) shows Guanabara Bay — already named Rio Janeiro. This is where Rio de Janeiro is today.

File:Rio 1555 França Antártica.jpg


Gaspard (Caspar) II de Coligny — to give him his full name — came from an old and influential line of noblemen in Burgundy. They had been in direct service to French kings since the Middle Ages, often distinguishing themselves in battle. They also had a distinguished bloodline which carried through to every European royal family today (emphases mine):

Coligny is directly descended from notable individuals such as Alfred the Great, Rollo the Viking, William the Conqueror, Hugh Capet and various Kings of England, Kings of France, Counts of Savoy and crusaders.

Through Gaspard’s daughter Louise de Coligny the Princess of Orange, fourth wife of William I, Prince of Orange, Gaspard is the progenitor of a line of Princes of Orange, Kings and Queens of the Netherlands

The inheritors of former thrones such as the Russian monarchy are also directly descended from Coligny, including notable individuals such as the Tsars of Russia Alexander III and Nicholas II. Coligny is the ancestor of King William III of England, Frederick the Great and the present British Royal Family also directly descends from him.

Every monarchy in Europe currently has Coligny’s blood embodied on its throne.[1]

By the 1550s, a number of French noble families and members of the merchant class had converted to Calvinism. Coligny was among them, influenced by his brother d’Androt. Tensions were beginning to build between Catholics and Protestants.

Coligny sought to protect his fellow Protestants whilst doing something productive for France. Therefore, he proposed to King Henry II an expedition to Brazil with a view to settlement.

Yes, the Portuguese had discovered it in 1500, but, having settled some of the northern coastline, they had not yet fully colonised this expansive territory. This left the south coast open to the French. French traders from Dieppe and Saint-Malo had already been trading in the territory with the Indian tribes since the late 15th century.

Coligny’s commercial objective was to expand the French trade in Brazil wood — Pau-Brasil (now endangered) — highly prized for its durability and its red dye. He also hoped to find precious stones and metals, which earlier explorers believed existed.

Henry II was eager to develop what came to be known during that time as France Antartique. This also had the added benefit of getting rid of Huguenots by sending them far, far away.

Whether French trade in Brazil should have been expanded is questionable; some historians say that the Papal Bull of 1493 and the subsequent Treaty of Torsedillas forbade it.

First colonisation, 1555

Henry II provided the fleet of ships for Coligny’s first expedition. Coligny himself did not go, but was the patron for this trip and the second. He enlisted the services of his naval colleague Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon (or Villegagnon) to captain the fleet.

In 1555, Villegagnon set sail with two ships carrying 600 colonists and soldiers. Although Catholics were among that number, most were Huguenots, some from La Rochelle as well as Geneva. They arrived in Guanabara Bay and settled on the island of Serigipe. There, they erected a fort which they named for their patron Coligny. The island itself was renamed Villegagnon. Today, Villegagnon Island is home to the Brazilian Naval School. Villegagnon named a coastal village Henriville in honour of Henry II.

Villegagnon carefully positioned himself as an ally to the native tribes, the Tamoio and Tupinambá, who had been fighting the Portuguese. The Portuguese hardly noticed the French colony, strategically positioned to fight off any attacks.

Second fleet, 1557

In 1556, Villegagnon sent one of his ships back to France with petitions for another fleet with more colonists. His petitions were addressed to Admiral Coligny, Henry II and, possibly, John Calvin.

Henry II quickly responded with three ships. They were under the command of one of Villegagnon’s nephews, Sieur De Bois le Comte.

Coligny organised the people who would accompany him. Three hundred colonists went. John Calvin sent 14 Genevans, including the theologian Pierre Richier, under the leadership of Philippe de Corguilleray. Corguilleray was a Burgundian nobleman enjoying retirement outside of Geneva. The Genevans asked him to lead their group. Among the other passengers were, curiously, five women who were engaged to be married and ten boys who would be trained as translators.

Fascination — and tension — in the camp

Another notable Huguenot and Burgundian was Jean de Léry, who wrote about his experience when he returned to France several years later.

His History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Also Called America (1578) described the fascination and hardship the colonists endured. His Wikipedia entry tells us (emphases mine):

Throughout this book, Léry describes his fascinating voyage across the Atlantic to Brazil. On the way he encounters never before seen ocean wildlife that foreshadows many more discoveries to follow. While on the ship he and his men develop new skills of judging and navigating the winds, stars, currents, and tides. Upon arrival, Léry and his men are exposed to what seems to be an entirely new world. Throughout … the crew encounters a wide variety of people in an area not yet affected by European colonization. With the main goals set at Protestant Reformation, these men face many more challenges than expected, however make discoveries and encounter new things beyond their wildest dreams. [2]

The settlers appear to have made friends with the tribes. There were no forced conversions or hostilities.

Although most of the colonists were Calvinist, there were also Catholics. Villegagnon was himself a Catholic with Calvinist sympathies. The French had a difficult time categorising him. The Austrian author Stefan Zweig wrote a book in 1941 called Brazil, Land of the Future. In it, he described Villegagnon:

Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, half pirate, half scientist, a dubious but attractive figure, is a typical product of the Renaissance (…) He has been brilliant in war and a dilettante in the arts. He has been praised by Ronsard and feared by the Court, because his character is incalculable. Hating any regular occupation, despising the most enviable positions and the highest honours, his volatile spirit prefers to be free to indulge unhampered its fantastic moods. The Huguenots believe he is a Catholic and the Catholics believe he’s a Huguenot. Nobody knows which side he is serving, and he himself probably doesn’t know much more than that he wants to do something big, something different from anyone else, something wild and daring, something romantic and extraordinary.

With a mix of Huguenots and Catholics at Fort Coligny on Villegagnon Island, it wasn’t long before tensions arose in the camp. Religion was a frequent topic of conversation, understandably. Combine that with Villegagnon’s mercurial personality, and arguments erupted frequently. These eventually divided the settlers into factions.

Jean de Cointac was a Dominican friar who became a Calvinist. He was among the men who arrived in 1557. Having studied at the Sorbonne, he attracted Villegagnon’s interest as an excellent debater. The two had intense discussions about Christianity. Over time, they devised their own doctrine which denounced both Catholicism and Calvinism. Villegagnon came to believe that Calvin was an arch-enemy of the Church. Later on, he and Cointac disagreed with each other to the extent that they became enemies.

The Guanabara Confession of Faith, 1558

The religious disagreements, especially about the nature of Holy Communion, swung Villegagnon into high gear. He expelled Cointac from the island.

He also took exception to the Huguenot settlers Jean du Bourdel, Matthieu Verneuil, Pierre Bourdon and André la Fon, arresting them.

He gave the four just time enough to write the first Protestant confession of the New World before hanging them.

This document is the Guanabara Confession of Faith. As I write, it is being translated from Portuguese to English, which accounts for the blank space on the Wikipedia page.

The Guanabara Confession of Faith is clearly Calvinist, drawing heavily on the New Testament and St Augustine. This is Article VIII:

VIII. The holy sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not food for the body as it is to the souls (because we realize nothing fleshly, as we declare in the fifth article) receiving by faith, which is not fleshly.

In October 1557, Villegagnon expelled the Calvinists from his island. They went to live peaceably among the Tupinambá for four months. However, life was hard and unsuitable for the long term.

In January 1558, nearly all the surviving Huguenots sailed back to France with Jean de Léry.

Five others returned to Fort Coligny where Villegagnon wasted no time in drowning them because they refused to recant their religious beliefs.

Defeated by the Portuguese, 1560

In 1560, the Portuguese government ordered the Governor General of Brazil Mem de Sá to expel the French.

Although he and his men — 2,000 troops on 26 ships — destroyed Fort Coligny within three days, many of the French escaped to the mainland to live and work among the Indians.

Jean de Cointac — the man with whom Villegagnon developed a new religious doctrine — was so angry with him that he and Jacques Le Balleur, who had also fallen out with the leader, gave the Portuguese information about the settlement, enabling them to attack it. A century later, the Portuguese built a new fort on the island.

Afterward, two Portuguese Jesuits made friends with the indigenous Tamoios, resolving prior hostilities. Mem de Sá later gave the order for his nephew Estácio to get rid of the French once and for all. Estácio de Sá founded the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1565 and launched attacks on the French. It would take two more years before they were finally defeated.

What happened next

The French made sporadic attempts to colonise Brazil over the next 140 years, including Rio de Janeiro. One of these new attempts was called France Équinoxiale. Ultimately, all were unsuccessful.

Villegagnon astutely fled his island before the Portuguese invasion of 1560. He said the religious arguments drove him back to France. That same year, he challenged John Calvin to a debate on the nature of the Eucharist; Calvin declined.

To ensure that Villegagnon would not return to Brazil, the Portuguese Crown gave him a handsome sum of money, which he accepted.

In 1561, the theologian from Geneva who was on the first voyage to Brazil — Pierre Richier — wrote a pamphlet denouncing Villegagnon’s behaviour on the island. He had returned to France in 1558 and became the notable Minister of the Church in La Rochelle. He helped to make the city a centre for Calvinist belief.

In 1569, Villegagnon wrote another treatise on the Eucharist, denouncing Calvinism. Two years later he became a Commander of the Order of Malta in Beauvais. He died there later that year, aged 60.

In 1572, a Catholic from the first expedition, André Thevet, wrote a denunciation of the Huguenots in Villegagnon’s colony.

Jean de Léry‘s response to this was his book, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Also Called America (1578). Once he returned to France, de Léry was never the same. On the positive side, he became a Calvinist pastor. On the other hand, his marriage was an unhappy one. He also led a group of Huguenots during the Siege of Sancerre, saying that his time in Brazil enabled him to make do with little. He taught his men how to endure hardship during a time of persecution.

Fortunately, this story of French colonisation has not been forgotten, even today. A French-Portuguese-Brazilian television series called Rouge Brésil/Vermelho Brasil (Red Brazil) aired in 2012. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard played Villegagnon.

Next time: The Huguenots in St Kitts