Kourou, the American dream of Choiseul

Kourou, the American dream of Choiseul

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  • View of the New Cayenne.

  • Colonial landscape - Offering to Governor Turgot.


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Title: View of the New Cayenne.

Author :

Creation date : 1762

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 32.4 - Width 49.4

Technique and other indications: Colored print, intaglio, laid Production site: Imprimerie Beauvais The landing of the French for the establishment of the new colony, in the port of Cayenne or equinoctial France

Storage place: MuCEM website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (MuCEM) / Jean-Gilles Berizzisite web

Picture reference: 03-012047 / inv.43.16.198D

View of the New Cayenne.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (MuCEM) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

To close

Title: Colonial landscape - Offering to Governor Turgot.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 70 - Width 90

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Quai Branly Museum - Jacques Chirac website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet web site

Picture reference: 94-050829 / 75.10042

Colonial landscape - Offering to Governor Turgot.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: February 2013

Historical context

Kourou, or revenge against the English

In 1763, the French lost the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), a World War I as military operations took place not only in Europe, but also in the American colonies and in India. The Treaty of Paris which was signed on February 10, 1763 thus enshrined the victory of England. In France, some believe, like Voltaire, that Canada represents only "a few acres of snow".

In 1763, therefore, the Kourou expedition was launched, a revenge which claimed to be masterful of a settlement without slavery, and with as many colonists as New York's inhabitants.

Because this expedition was intended as a political revenge, it is the subject of numerous engravings and a painting intended to show its success (now kept at the Aquitaine Museum in Bordeaux). The multiple colored prints produced for the occasion have the same theme: an ideal landing. The images are produced in France, by artists who lack a precise description of the places and the progress of this landing.

The oil on canvas, of beautiful dimensions, is on the other hand the only known painting which features the governor of the expedition, the knight Turgot nicknamed "Le Borgne", elder brother of the intendant of Limousin, and whose stay in Cayenne does not exceed a few months. The term "offering" is interesting to mark a colonial context.

The stake is therefore a political production, as much for the French elites, as an advertisement to the decision taken, as for the English who have here a precise idea of ​​the answer which the French government tries to bring to the fiasco of the war of Seven years. Is it a will of power?

Image Analysis


These images bear little relation to reality, however.
When it comes to printmaking, the clothes are not quite what you wear in the colonies. They are particularly poorly adapted to the equatorial climate which is that of Cayenne. Then there are no banks or streams that could be represented in this way. Near the mouth of the Amazon, the waters are brown in color due to heavy plant decomposition; as for the Kourou river, it flows frankly into the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, due to the shallow depth of the water, the ships had to anchor off Kourou, at the Devil's Islands (they did not become the Salvation Islands until after the expedition).

The picture painted on the occasion of the expedition, however, is more realistic. Indeed, it represents the arrival in Cayenne of Governor Étienne-François Turgot (more than a year after the intendant in fact). On the left you can clearly see the Jesuit Church, in the background the "palace" of the congregation and, almost perpendicular to the right, the governor's hotel. Likewise, the moats of a town whose fortifications were designed by Vauban are well represented.
More astonishing, this cross which rises in the background, while Choiseul has just pronounced the expulsion of the Jesuits from the kingdom (1763). Here too, one can wonder about the artist's intentions as to the political importance of a governor in this colony, and the reality of a city, Cayenne, which is not its seat (it is found in Kourou, thirty kilometers to the north) and on the contrary symbolizes all the imperfections of the colonies (corruption, vice, slavery) that the governor wanted to avoid. Here too the question arises of the conditions of production of this painting.

These images do little to reflect the events they evoke. The disembarkation took place in the rainy season, in haste and disorganization. Turgot, who arrived more than a year later (December 1764), was sent there by the Duc de Choiseul who, alarmed by the letters from the intendant, intended to understand what was happening and save what could be. But it was a terrible epidemic that raged in Cayenne and throughout Guyana at that time. There follows the risk of a state affair for those in power, in particular for Choiseul, whose position is threatened.


Kourou's propaganda

The Kourou expedition was one of the important events at the end of the reign of Louis XV. The legal consequences of the company, to which the standoff between parliament and the king testifies, took place against a backdrop of the resumption of power (flogging speech of 1766). Only the dissolution of parliaments and the death of the queen slowed down what began to be an "affair" in 1768. Kourou then retained an important symbolism for seventy years.

Under the French Revolution, refractory priests and politicians like Collot d'Herbois were deported there, who encountered the last survivors and perpetuated their history. In 1840, when thinking about the opening of convicts in Guyana, the story of Kourou resurfaces. This political fiasco must then be rewritten so that the deportation does not appear as a death sentence. In fact, Kourou will suffer from this past and the collective imagination associated with it. In reality, it was a vast undertaking that marked a first for the government, an "imperial" projection and a geopolitical mastery of a territory.

  • absolute monarchy
  • colonial history
  • Louis XV
  • Seven Years' War (1756-1763)
  • shipping


Marion GODFROY, Kourou 1763. The last dream of French America, Paris, Vendémiaire, 2011.

· Marion GODFROY, "The Seven Years' War and its Atlantic consequences: Kourou or the invention of a new colonial system", in French Historical Studies, n ° 32-2009.

· Marion GODFROY, "Passengers to the West - from Coblenz to Kourou: recruitments and strategies for transcontinental and transatlantic migration in 1763 ", in Annals of historical demography, forthcoming.

Pierre-Étienne BOURGEOIS DE BOYNES, Journal 1765-1766 unpublished. Follow-up of the dissertation submitted by the Duke of Choiseul, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2008.

To cite this article

Marion GODFROY, "Kourou, the American dream of Choiseul"

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