The Protestant Huguenots formed seventeenth-century France’s largest religious minority population. In a majority Roman Catholic kingdom, their status was precarious. They had gained religious liberties after a lengthy period of religious warfare in the previous century, but French monarchs were dissatisfied. King Louis XIV, in particular, sought to restore Catholic hegemony in France. The Huguenots were an obstacle to his quest for greater power.
After years of provincial persecutions against French Protestants, Louis abolished the Huguenots’ remaining freedoms in October 1685. His Edict of Fontainebleau forbade them from fleeing France, but over 150,000 Huguenots still did so. They would settle in countries across Europe and the Atlantic world. Louis XIV’s European enemies were all too happy to employ French refugees in order to wear France down.
1. Florida: The Huguenots’ (Attempted) Refuge
Florida was not technically part of the Huguenot Refuge. French Protestant attempts to flee across the ocean actually predated the main Refuge by 120 years. Chronology aside, however, the Huguenots’ efforts in Florida marked their first major flight from persecution back home.
The French Wars of Religion began in 1562, consuming France until 1598. Almost as soon as the conflict had started, some Huguenots devised a way to escape from the violence. Their solution? Establishing a colony on the other side of the ocean, with the backing of France’s teenage king. Captain Jean Ribault led the initial mission to Florida. In 1564, Ribault’s subordinate, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, founded a settlement called Fort Caroline, in modern-day Jacksonville.
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Unfortunately for the Huguenots, none of their Florida settlements survived for long. They had encroached on Spanish-controlled territory, and Spain would have none of it. In the autumn of 1565, Spanish troops besieged and destroyed Fort Caroline. France would retaliate in 1568, but the Huguenots would not try to settle in Florida again.
2. Great Britain
Our first true stop along the Huguenot Refuge lies in Great Britain, particularly in England. England was one of the oldest destinations for Huguenots fleeing persecution. The first French settlers in London had established a church as early as 1550. Huguenot numbers in England truly ballooned, however, after the seventeenth-century persecutions. English authorities had welcomed as many as 25,000 Huguenots to their country between 1685 and 1700. From the Huguenots, the modern word “refugee” entered the English language.
The attitudes of ordinary Londoners towards the French newcomers occasionally contrasted with those of their country’s leaders. The Huguenots’ specialized skills led to accusations that they were stealing jobs from English laborers. However, the French consistently had royal support.
The Huguenots quickly integrated themselves into the English economy, occupying roles in lucrative industries such as finance, silk production, and book publishing. British authorities took a tolerant stance toward the Huguenots’ religious practices, even though they initially did not conform to the Church of England. By the second half of the eighteenth century, English culture had largely absorbed the Huguenots. Some even converted to the Anglican faith.
3. The Netherlands
Along with Britain, the Netherlands was the country that absorbed the greatest number of French refugees during the main Refuge. Some 35,000 Huguenots relocated to the Netherlands between the 1680s and 1700. This was on top of an existing community in the region that was already thousands strong.
The Dutch made a concerted effort to attract Huguenots with valued economic knowledge and skills. Authorities essentially ran a sophisticated (and dangerous) public relations campaign. Smugglers trafficked French-language pamphlets, advertisements, and newspapers into France, promoting Dutch towns and offering privileges to French families seeking to resettle. Evidently, these tactics worked, sucking crucial human capital out of Louis XIV’s reach.
Religion was another major drawing point for both the Dutch and their French guests. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Reformed Church dominated the Netherlands’ religious scene. It shared its roots with the Huguenots’ form of Protestantism, dating back to the Reformation theologian Jean Calvin. The historical affinity between the Dutch and French Reformed traditions allowed for the Huguenots to establish themselves rather easily in the Netherlands.
One of the Netherlands’ most famous Huguenot residents was the philosopher Pierre Bayle. Bayle had escaped from France shortly before Louis XIV closed down the Protestant Academy of Sedan in 1681. He settled in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. In his writings, Bayle described the Netherlands as a kind of safe haven for religious minorities — not just the Huguenots. His philosophical work dealt mostly with religion and the nature of truth.
Bayle was controversial during his lifetime. His opponents, including fellow Huguenot Pierre Jurieu, attacked his defense of non-traditional morality, such as the idea that atheists could be moral people. Today, scholars most remember Bayle for his relative defense of religious toleration.
Although not as large as the Huguenot communities in Britain or the Netherlands, a community of over five thousand Huguenots formed in Ireland. The modern cities of Dublin and Cork still feature two old Huguenot cemeteries — the last in all of Western Europe.
As a destination in the Huguenot Refuge, Ireland differs greatly from the previous two entries on our list. At the turn of the eighteenth century, Ireland was not an independent country. It was actually a British colony, one where a Protestant nobility lorded over the predominantly Catholic masses. The Huguenots thus received a mixed welcome — supported by the British government but viewed suspiciously by some Irish Catholics.
The Irish Huguenots’ connection with Britain’s rulers extended to military matters as well. Some elite Huguenots commanded troops in the Williamite War of 1689-91, following the so-called Glorious Revolution. The new English King, William III, granted land at Portarlington, Ireland, to one Huguenot leader, Henri de Massue de Ruvigny, in 1696. Ruvigny would become the Earl of Galway, intimately aligned with the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.
With their close military and religious ties to the British upper classes, the Huguenots of Ireland assimilated to their host culture after a period of self-preservation. Issues did arise when Portarlington’s Huguenots had their land seized to pay for British war debt. A large number of French Portarlington residents left town in frustration, rather than converting to the Church of England. Overall, however, the Huguenots entered into Ireland seamlessly and received important backing from their British hosts.
5. South Africa
The Huguenot community in South Africa represents another intriguing case study for us. Like Ireland was for Britain, South Africa (then called the Cape Colony) was a possession of the Netherlands. The Irish and South African Huguenots differed in a major regard, however: population. The Cape Colony’s Huguenots were the smallest part of the global Refuge, with no more than a few hundred French settlers at its peak.
The largest group of Huguenots arrived in the Cape Colony in 1688-89, numbering around 159 Frenchmen. According to Professor Karen de Bruin, these Huguenots came from provinces all over France. Some of the more prominent Huguenot colonists were highly skilled in winemaking, using their knowledge in the service of their Dutch benefactors. Some families, such as the De Villiers brothers and their descendants, accrued large profits. Huguenot winemakers comprised an elite group among their fellow Frenchmen in the Cape Colony.
While the Huguenots may have played an outsized role in Dutch colonization of South Africa, they also quickly faded away. It seems they acculturated smoothly to Dutch society. By the mid-eighteenth century, they no longer spoke French. Yet they would witness a revival in the nineteenth century. Those South Africans of European heritage (the Afrikaners) highlighted their Huguenot forefathers’ accomplishments in an exercise in nationalism. Afrikaner nationalists’ “heroic” European background, in their eyes, defined their superiority to indigenous Black African communities.
Afrikaner nationalism served as the foundation for the twentieth-century policy of apartheid. Under apartheid rule, South African authorities classified Black and multiracial citizens as inferior to the White minority. Apartheid would not end until 1994, with the election of Nelson Mandela as President. Interestingly, F.W. de Klerk, the final apartheid-era leader of South Africa, had Huguenot ancestors. In a way, the Huguenots’ story in South Africa had come full circle.
6. The Huguenots in British North America
Great Britain’s North American colonies mark the final spot on our global tour of the Huguenot Refuge. North American Huguenots’ numbers were never huge, probably not exceeding two or three thousand. Yet scholars have directed a disproportionate amount of attention toward colonial America’s French refugees. This is partially due to the Huguenot backgrounds of some famous American figures like Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
It seems most American Huguenots had originally settled in England before making the trans-Atlantic crossing. One unnamed French refugee claimed in a letter that he had had to go through a naturalization process in London beforehand. The merchant Pierre Baudouin also had to settle in the British Isles before the government approved his relocation to North America. In short, Britain’s American colonies were not immediately on the minds of the majority of the French refugees.
Those Huguenots who did settle in colonial America lived precarious lives, especially in New England. Out of the three major French settlements in New England (Oxford, Narragansett, and Boston), two of them collapsed within a decade of their foundation. Due to their small size, the Huguenot communities of New England struggled to finance themselves. Boston lasted the longest, but the city’s French Church did have to shut down in the mid-eighteenth century. Still, the French arrivals were mostly accepted by colonial authorities.
Like their counterparts in New England, the other American Huguenots eventually assimilated into the majority English colonial culture. However, they managed to preserve their history more completely. One French Church remains in Charleston, South Carolina — the last in the United States. In the cities of New Paltz and New Rochelle in New York, local museums continue to commemorate the towns’ Huguenot forebears. Commemorative societies, like the Huguenot Society of America, also keep the legacy of the Huguenots in America alive.