The Compagnie des Indes occidentales was a trading company that drove France’s colonial economy from 1664 to 1674. Its name translates to West Indies Company. King Louis XIV gave the company exclusive rights to trade and govern in all French colonies. Its territory extended from the Americas to the Caribbean and Western Africa. In addition to natural resources such as furs and sugar, the Compagnie traded enslaved people.
This company is not to be confused with the French trading company founded by John Law and renamed Compagnie des Indes in 1719.
Founding and Mission
Mercantilism is an economic policy of national self-sufficiency. In other words, it is a way for nations to meet their own needs through trade with their colonies. The colonies may only trade with the mother country. This system is a driving force behind colonialism.
In the 17th century, France’s colonists were selling much of the colonies’ resources (e.g., furs from the fur trade) to other countries. The colonists had customers in England and Holland. This defeated the purpose of France having colonies. King Louis XIV’s controller-general of finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was a strong proponent of mercantilism. He could not help but notice the colonies bleeding their resources to foreigners. This led to Louis XIV signing a royal edict (order) on 28 May 1664. The edict created the Compagnie des Indes occidentales to secure greater control over France’s colonial resources.
The Compagnie was granted a vast territory extending from Canada, Acadia and Newfoundland to Virginia and Florida, the French Caribbean islands, South America between the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. French posts along the west coast of Africa from Cape Verde to the Cape of Good Hope also fell under the Compagnie. The king retained 60 per cent of the shares in the company. This gave him majority ownership of the business and its related profits. A separate company, the Compagnie des Indes orientales (East Indies Company) was granted rights to territories from the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) to India.
DID YOU KNOW?
In colonial times, Canada referred to the part of New France consisting of the valleys of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries.
The right to govern the territory included the right to give out land and to name governors. It also came with the duty to arrange
for the immigration of settlers and clergy. (The role of the clergy was to convert Indigenous people to the Catholic faith.)
At first, the Compagnie’s efforts to organize the immigration of French settlers to New France did not go well. Intendant Jean Talon complained about this in a 1667 letter to Jean-Baptiste Colbert. “Instead of four hundred good men,” Talon wrote, “I have received only 127, very weak, of low age, and of little service.” Overall, the Compagnie managed to bring an average of only 200 workingmen per year to Canada. In some years, it brought none at all.
To attract skilled workers to Canada, an article of the edict creating the Compagnie des Indes occidentales offered an incentive; it allowed a craftsman practising his trade in the colonies to earn master craftsman status after only 10 years. (A similar enticement had appeared in the 1627 charter of the Compagnie des cent associés.) Craftsmen practising their trade in France had to work longer to achieve this status. The title of master craftsman came with the right to own one's own workshop.
Most importantly, the Compagnie des Indes occidentales received sole trading rights in its entire territory for 40 years. This gave it a monopoly over the fur trade in Canada, France’s sugar trade in the Caribbean, and its slave trade in Africa. The monopoly extended to other industrial sectors, too.
Enslavement of Africans
The Africans enslaved by the Compagnie were mainly destined for the Caribbean. Sugar plantations had been introduced in the French Caribbean in 1640. It takes a great deal of labour to grow sugarcane and refine sugar. The number of French and Indigenous Caribbean workers proved insufficient to the task. The Compagnie chose to emulate Spain, which had been importing enslaved Africans to its colonies since 1611. None of the slaves are known to have been brought to Canada or Acadia. (See Black Enslavement in Canada; Olivier LeJeune.)
The Compagnie des Indes occidentales achieved the goal of retaining France’s colonial resources and trade. It accomplished this well within its 40-year mandate. Indeed, in October 1670, only 6 years after the Compagnie’s founding, Jean-Baptiste Colbert noted the vast increase in the number of French ships requesting permission to participate in the Caribbean trade.
In December 1674, Louis XIV signed an edict putting an end to the Compagnie des Indes occidentales. This broke the trade monopoly, allowing the citizens of France and its colonies to freely trade within the king's realm. The French state then took over management of the colonies (see Ministère de la Marine).