The French Protestants, also known as Huguenots, faced heavy persecution in France during the 1500s and 1600s. Despite the growing number of Huguenots in France, the country was still predominantly Roman Catholic. As a result, numerous conflicts and terrible acts of violence, such as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place. Countless French Huguenots fled to the New World in the 1500s and 1600s in an attempt to escape these atrocities. They sought refuge from the ongoing religious conflicts and persecution in France. However, many French Huguenots began their expeditions to South Carolina, Florida, and Brazil even earlier, in the sixteenth century.
French Huguenots’ Landing in Brazil
On November 1st, 1555, a small fleet of two ships and 600 sailors and soldiers, led by French Vice-admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, took hold of a small island named Serigipe in Guanabara Bay. This island is located near present-day Rio De Janeiro. There, he established Fort Coligny, named after Gaspard de Coligny, a French nobleman, Admiral of France, and a Catholic Statesman who would go on to become a Huguenot later. Teaming up with the local Tamoio and Tupinambá Indian tribes, who were battling with the Portuguese at the time, Villegaignon was able to secure his position.
With Fort Coligny on Serigipe Island secure and no imminent threat or challenge from the Portuguese, Villegaignon decided to expand the colony. In 1556, he dispatched a ship to France carrying letters for Gaspard de Coligny, King Henry II, and the Protestant leader John Calvin. Three ships returned under the command of Villegaignon’s nephew, Sieur de Bois le Comte, with three hundred people. Among them were five women who were to be wed, 10 young men who would be trained as translators, and 14 Calvinists/Huguenots sent from Geneva by John Calvin.
Unfortunately, a year later, in October 1557, they expelled these Calvinists/Huguenots from the colony due to doctrinal disagreements regarding the Eucharist. For the next four months, these exiled Huguenots lived with the Tupinamba tribes. In January 1558, some of them made their way back to France with expedition writer Jean de Léry. Five of the Calvinists traveled back to Fort Coligny, where three of them were drowned for refusing to renege on the Doctrinal disputes they had regarding the Eucharist.
Intervention By The Portuguese
Unfortunately, the vision of an expanded French colony in Brazil held by Coligny and Villegaignon would last just twelve years. Their aspirations came to an abrupt end when Mem de Sá, the Governor-General of Brazil, received orders from the Portuguese government to expel the French, which includes the Huguenots. Sending a huge fleet of twenty-six warships with more than 2000 soldiers on board, he launched an attack on Fort Coligny but the French battled hard.
Despite destroying Fort Coligny itself in just three days, Sá was unable to drive away the inhabitants and those that stood strong in defense. Escaping to the mainland with the help of the Tupi Indian tribe, those who were left settled among the tribe, living and working in their community. Following the attack, Admiral Villegaignon returned to France in 1588, expressing his disgust with the continued tension between French Hugeonots and Protestants.
With Villegaignon out of the picture, Mem de Sá began planning another attack on the French. He ordered his nephew Estácio de Sá to assemble a group of men to take on the French. Estácio founded the city of Rio De Janeiro and continued to fight against the French for a further two years. The French – both Catholics and Protestants – put up an incredible fight and battled valiantly. In the end, Estácio reached out to his uncle for help and definitively beat the French in The Battle of Rio de Janeiro, or the Battle of Guanabara Bay, on 20 January 1567. Hit by an arrow that perforated his eye, Estácio de Sá, would die a month later from this injury that he sustained during the fighting.
The Portuguese Expand Their Colonization Efforts In Brazil
Later, in the seventeenth century, the French would make two further attempts to conquer different territories in Brazil. However, the Portuguese were able to stifle their attacks and keep the French from colonizing. The ongoing threat from the French compelled the Portuguese crown to strengthen their colonization efforts in Brazil, allowing them to retain control until 1824. It was in that year when the last Portuguese soldiers departed, marking the end of Portuguese rule in Brazil. Subsequently, they signed the Treaty of Rio De Janeiro on August 29th, 1825, officially acknowledging Brazil’s definitive independence from Portugal.