Early French Commerce

France was rather a late arrival in the world of commercial shipping. Quebec was settled in 1608, and Richelieu, who was the real ruler of France from 1624 to 1642, adopted a decisive commercial policy. He encouraged shipping and founded the famed Company of One Hundred Associates to compete with the British and Dutch in America and also trading companies to settle islands in the West Indies. However, his maritime objective was soon overshadowed by one that he regarded as far more important -- to break the power of the Austrian Hapsburgs. At his death, France was the supreme power on the Continent, and the king's power was absolute in France. Succeeding Bourbon monarchs had it within their power to develop France as a maritime nation.

Soon after Louis XIV started his regime in 1660, his financial minister Colbert promulgated a policy embodying three means of strengthening France as a commercial and maritime power: (1) increased production both agricultural and industrial, (2) shipping both merchant and navy, and (3) markets and colonies, which were identical because of the navigation laws of the day. A French East India Company was organized as well as a West India Company. The merchant fleet was expanded far beyond anything France had ever owned previously, and the navy increased to exceed Britain's in size. Colbert's efforts had just begun to be felt when Louis, embarking on a policy aimed at continental expansion at the expense of his neighbors, invaded the Spanish Netherlands in 1667. From that year until his death in 1715, France was almost continually at war. Hostilities not only swallowed up the resources of the country but were doubly injurious, because they left France's commerce and colonies defenseless. After 1667, no great French merchant fleet put to sea during Louis's reign.

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