Forgotten History: Rio de Janeiro was once Antarctica France!

Escrito por Thiago Pinheiro

ArqBahia team of authors.

Welcome to ArqBahia, everyone! Today we will explore a fascinating story that involves Rio de Janeiro and its dispute between Portugal and France…We go from Rio de Janeiro to Maranhão, unraveling this intriguing chapter of European maritime expansion in the 15th century!

Treaty of Tordesillas and French Unrest

It all starts with this treaty! In 1494, Portugal and Spain were the greatest maritime powers in the world – and colonized much of the world. The two powerful, together with Pope Alexander VI, signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, what divided the world (and Brazil!) between the two. Do you think the other nations accepted it quietly?

map treaty of tordesillas brazil portugal spain

Of course! It is in this context that the French attacks against the Portuguese part of Brazil emerged! To give you an idea of how angry they were, there are records of the French king Francis I sarcastically questioning in which part of Adam's will the world had been bequeathed to the Iberians.

The beginning of conflicts

Colonization attempts

The first French colonizing expeditions, however, did not begin here in South America! And it took a long time for it to work out at all…

They started up there, in the North, as it was closer to France. In 1524, a Florentine navigator explored the coast of the United States in the name of France. Ten years later, Jack Cartier led an expedition that explored the region of Canada now known as Quebec.

It was only in 1541 that a French expedition attempted to establish the first French settlement in the Americas, in the region that is today Brazil. However, the harsh climate and resistance of the natives made this attempt fruitless. It is also worth remembering that, at that time, Portugal said that Brazil was theirs. Imagine the fight...

Since we can't colonize...

Even without being able to directly colonize a location, France did not give up its attempts to profit from the Portuguese colonies. The presence of privateers (a type of state pirate), French sailors and traders on the coast of Brazil became common in the first decades of the 16th century. They explored resources such as wood and interacted with local indigenous populations. In 1594, the first contact was recorded with Tupi-speaking indigenous people who were taken to France.

the emergence of Antarctic France

In 1555, France decided to make a new attempt. An expedition commanded by Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon arrived at Guanabara Bay and established a settlement on the island of Sergipe, making alliances with the Tupinambás. With indigenous alliances, staying local has become much easier.

This French colony, on which Rio de Janeiro was built, was named… France Antarctica!

antarctic france map

French intentions

France, which was no fool, had a clear intention of establishing a nucleus of resource exploration in Brazil during the 16th century. His main interest was in the exploration of valuable products, such as brazilwood, which was highly coveted at the time due to its reddish color used in textile dyeing and which was a very profitable resource. Furthermore, there was hope of discovering precious metals, which could further enrich the French crown.

Who were the residents of Antarctic France?

The French colonists who settled in the region were mainly Huguenots, members of the French Reformed Church, which was in conflict with the Catholic Church predominant in France at the time. These Huguenots were fleeing religious persecution in France and saw the Brazilian colony as an opportunity to escape this religious violence.

The hope of these Huguenots in the colony was largely related to the attitude of Villegagnon, a military commander and leader of the colony. Although he was Catholic, Villegagnon sympathized with Protestants and opposed religious persecution. This more tolerant stance created a relatively safe environment for the Huguenots and other French settlers, allowing them to establish a stable presence in the region.

But not everything is perfect… The colony also had religious conflicts between Villegagnon and Calvinists. Villegagnon even had three missionaries executed!

The prosperity of the colony

As more settlers, including Catholics and Calvinist missionaries, arrived in the colony, it began to prosper. The French colony in Brazil grew and developed economically, becoming an important center for commercial activities and resource exploration in the region. However, this prosperity also triggered military conflicts with the Portuguese, who claimed the region as part of their colonial territories. These conflicts resulted in tensions and clashes between the French and Portuguese colonial powers in the region.

Villegagnon's concerns

Although the colony was doing well, Villegagnon had a strong fear that the lack of military reinforcements could cause the colony to be easily destroyed by the Portuguese. In 1559, he goes to France to try to get more resources to stop this and leaves his nephew in charge...

And he discovers from there that his worries were true. The following year, a Portuguese military expedition left Salvador, commanded by Estácio de Sá, and received reinforcements from the captaincy of São Vicente. The fights lasted from March 15th to 17th and ended with the expulsion of the French and conquest of the colony.

Where did the colonists go?

During the conflicts with the Portuguese, many French people from the French Antarctic colony took refuge on the continent and found shelter among the indigenous peoples, especially the Tupinambás. These Frenchmen, known as “brothers-in-law,” established cultural and family ties, even marrying indigenous women. This interaction resulted in a practice that anthropologist Darci Ribeiro called “coinlawism.”

The Rio de Janeiro Foundation

painting the foundation of rio de janeiro

Tensions and conflicts between the French and Portuguese did not cease after the expulsion of the French from Guanabara Bay. To protect the region from new French attacks, the city of Rio de Janeiro was founded in 1565, with the purpose of establishing a permanent Portuguese garrison there. Rio de Janeiro became an important strategic point in the defense of Brazilian territory, and wars with the French persisted over the years.

The sad end of the Tupinambás

image of tupinambás mantle

After years of conflicts and territorial disputes, the last French were finally expelled from the Cabo Frio region, in 1575. During this period, the French had the support of the Tupinambás (at that time called Tamoios), allies at that time. However, as a result of the expulsion of the French, the indigenous people who supported the invaders were harshly punished.

Tens of thousands of natives lost their lives, and many were enslaved as a result of the fighting and siege of villages.

The Impacts on Culture and History

French colonization attempts left significant marks on Brazil. The island of Villegagnon, where Antarctic France was established, still houses the Brazilian Navy's Naval School. Furthermore, several documents and reports produced in this context influenced French writers and help to understand the history of Brazil.

Brief French Incursions in Maranhão

old map São Luis do Maranhão

France also maintained a presence in Brazil, especially in the Northeast and North regions. In 1594, a French trading post was established on the island of Maranhão. In 1612, a colonization attempt led by Daniel de La Touche reached São Luís, in Maranhão.

However, this French colony did not last long, being expelled by the Portuguese in 1615, just three years after its founding.


The history of French colonization in Brazil is full of curiosities and twists and turns. They were caused by French interest in the wealth of the colonies and the military consequences occurred due to rivalries with Portugal. The French attacks left profound marks, from the founding of Rio de Janeiro to the cultural and historical impacts. This forgotten history deserves to be remembered and explored, as it helps us understand the roots of Brazil.

Furthermore, after reading this article, you will be able to tell someone: “Did you know that… Rio de Janeiro was once called Antarctica France?”. If you want to share this curiosity, you can now share this article! I hope you enjoyed this journey through time and the intriguing pages of Brazilian history. To the next!

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