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  • Print publication year: 2000
  • Online publication date: July 2012

10 - French Catholicism in the Era of Exploration and Early Colonization



France's claim to have discovered Brazil is doubtless a legend, but it seems that the French did indeed explore the Brazilian coastline before 1500. Nevertheless, Captain Binot Paulmier de Gonneville, who spent six months in Brazil in 1503, brought home the son of a Tupinamba chief, called Essomericq, whom he had baptized and to whom he bequested his fortune. Essomericq, who married into the Gonneville family, founded a line and died in 1583. A century and a half later, one of his heirs, Jean-Pierre Paulmier de Courtonne, canon of Lisieux, became an ardent promoter of a mission to the “savages” he claimed to be his ancestry, publishing his Mémoires touchant l'établissement d'une mission Chrétienne dans le troisième Monde, ou la Terre Australe, par un ecclésiastique originaire de cette même terre. It is to be noted how easily the Brazilian convert integrated into French society and how entitled his heir felt to boast about his mixed origins.

Throughout the sixteenth century, stories of assimilation followed the same pattern and paved the way for the charter of the Company of the Hundred Associates – created in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu for the colonization of Canada – which stipulated that baptized Amerindians would become naturels français and enjoy the same privileges as those born in the mother country. Although showing a propensity toward relative racial openness on the part of the French, this policy equated becoming Catholic with becoming French.