Rio de Janeiro Turns 450: a Portuguese City that the French Arrived at First

The inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro have been celebrating the 450th anniversary of the city’s founding by Estacio de Sa. Whilst Brazil’s history is inextricably linked with that of its former colonial master, Portugal, it was the French who first created a permanent European presence in the Rio area.

A giant cake has been at the centre of Rio's anniversary celebrations
A giant cake has been at the centre of Rio’s anniversary celebrations

In 1555, Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon established the colony of France Antarctique on the island of Serigipe in Guanabara Bay, just offshore from present day Rio de Janeiro. A Catholic – albeit a far from devout one – Villegaignon’s colonists were made up of a mixture of Catholics and Huguenots, the latter seeking to escape religious persecution back in France. Sponsoring the expedition was Gaspard de Coligny, himself a Huguenot convert and leader during the French Wars of Religion.

Both the French and the Portuguese had already traversed much of the Brazilian coast – some merchants and fishermen probably prior to Columbus’ voyage of 1492 – and had made contact with the native Tupinamba people who populated the dense rainforest off Guanabara Bay.

The Tupinamba's cannibalistic rituals - whilst exaggerated - fascinated European readers
The Tupinamba’s cannibalistic rituals – whilst exaggerated – fascinated European readers

In 1557 the struggling colony was replenished by a shipment of Calvinist colonists from Geneva, in addition to more French Catholics. Unsurprisingly, given the religious discord between its various emigrants, France Antarctique was far from a success and Villegaignon proved himself to be a weak and tyrannical ruler. He eventually expelled the Calvinists to the mainland where they were forced to live among the Tupinamba, before he turned his back on the colony in 1558.

It was not until 1560, five years after the foundation of the colony, that the Portuguese Governor-General of Brazil, Mem de Sa, sent a military force to expel the French who, according to the Papal-sanctioned Treaty of Tordesillas, were encroaching upon Portuguese sovereign territory.

Despite overwhelmingly superior numbers and equipment, it took the Portuguese seven years to destroy the French colony, by which time Rio de Janeiro had already been established. As they had in Canada in the 1530s and 1540s, and in Florida in the 1560s, the French had failed to upset the Iberian monopoly on New World colonies in the 16th century.

Yet in the case of Brazil they at least left an interesting legacy of early contact with pre-Columbian peoples. Jean de Lery, a Calvinist who had been expelled from France Antarctique, would write one of the first true ethnographies, based on his encounters with the Tupinamba. His History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil would make a great contribution to early South American history and was often devoid of the proselytizing that characterised many of the Catholic works of the period.

Villegaignon Island - the former France Antarctique - now home to Brazil's Naval School
Villegaignon Island – the former France Antarctique – now home to Brazil’s Naval School

As Rio’s population celebrates its historic links to the early Portuguese explorers, it would be interesting to discover how many people know of their city’s older, if less significant, French connection.

Further Reading

Eriksson, J. (2009), “Travelling savage spaces: Jean de Léry and territorialisations of ‘Antarctic France’, Brazil 1555-60” in K.G. Hammarlund (ed.), Borders as Experience, pp. 68-91

Léry, J. (1992), History of a voyage to the land of Brazil

Lestringant, F. (1991), “The Philosopher’s Breviary: Jean de Léry in the Enlightenment”, Representations, Volume 33 (Special Issue), pp. 200-211

Lestringant, F. & Blair, A. (1995), “Geneva and America in the Renaissance: the dream of a Huguenot refuge 1555-1600, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 26(2), pp. 285-95

McGrath, J. (1996), “Polemic and history in French Brazil, 1555-1560”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 27(2), pp. 385-397

Nowell, C.E. (1949), “The French in Sixteenth-Century Brazil”, The Americas, Volume 5(4), pp. 381-393