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  • Kourou (French Guiana)
    – From disaster emerged a Guyanese Acadia
Geographic map of French Guiana (author Sémhur, license CC BY-SA 4.0)

In February 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, France had great ambitions for Guiana, one of the possessions it had retained in Tropical America. The project of the new colony of Guiana, at the mouth of the Kourou River, was daring. The plan was to recruit 10,000 white peasants to raise cattle and grow food crops for all-powerful landowners in exchange of a salary and a stipend from the king. The Duke of Choiseul, Secretary of State for War and the Navy, recruited most of the settlers on the eastern borders of France, in Bavaria and Alsace (so-called “German”). In 1763, the successful operation attracted so many German migrants that it spiraled out of control and the following year turned into a humanitarian disaster in Guiana. Among the surviving settlers who remained in Guiana, some Acadians initially managed to resist assimilation into the Guyanese society. To the point of forming a “Guyanese Acadia”? Let’s go back to the end of the year 1763…

Port of Rochefort
The port of Rochefort, where the German settlers gathered (source Charente-Maritime departmental archives, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

The port of Rochefort had just been invaded by about 11,000 German migrants, doubling the town’s population. The French authorities were unable or unwilling to channel these unprecedented flows of migrants through the kingdom. To be sure, the king of France’s offer was convincing and communications efficient. The king pledged to provide generous assistance to migrants with a view to facilitate their journey to Rochefort as well as a three-year settlement in Guiana. However, in Rochefort the sanitary conditions were deplorable on the muddy docks of the Charente. The local authorities feared that diseases would break out among the multiple families crowded together. Despite these warnings Choiseul, incredibly, ordered the migrants to embark at all costs. At the same time, around 200 Acadian refugees were gathered in Le Havre, Saint-Malo, Morlaix and Boulogne to also embark toward Guiana. Furthermore, they were not the only Acadians taking part in the Kourou expedition convoys, which already seemed to be on the brink of disaster…

Acadian culture of French Guiana

Devil’s Island seen from Royal Island
Devil’s Island seen from Royal Island, two of the three Salvation Islands, with Insula Saint-Joseph, off Kourou (author Cayambe, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

In February 1764, when the first German migrant vessels arrived in Cayenne, the new colony of the Kourou River was absolutely not ready to receive them. The migrants were directed to the Salvation Islands, off the coast of Kourou, where precarious reception conditions, disease and malnutrition wreaked havoc. According to ethnologist Bernard Cherubini, of the 14,000 white settlers sent to Guiana in 1764, around 11,000 perished during their journey or in the first months after arriving in the colony. Of the 3000 remaining settlers, about 2000 were repatriated and barely a thousand, including roughly 400 Acadians, survived the disaster and remained in Guiana under more or less difficult conditions. Starting in 1765, some forty Acadian peasant and fishing families came together in communities on the Guyanese coast, in Kourou, Sinnamary and Iracoubo, based on family alliances and bonds of solidarity.

Bernard Cherubini wondered, in a 2009 article in the Port Acadie magazine, about the ability of these 40 families to survive and prosper on the fringes of the Guyanese Creole society and Guiana’s major economic development projects. In reality, they were Acadian and Canadian families from Isle Saint-Jean (now Prince Edward Island) and Isle Royale (now Cape Breton Island), joined by a few German families, survivors of the Kourou expedition. As Cherubini indicates, “… the Acadians came together within kinship stemming for the most part from family alliances made up, prior to their arrival in Guiana, by blood, biological ties and a few other people bounds, such as godparents, godmothers and witnesses of marriages. Quite often, these relationships were based on localized groupings (coves, sub-districts, etc.) … ”. We can therefore opine that these communities had the will to maintain a cultural and economic unity, outside political and economic power centres. This process contributed during three or four generations to the emergence of a “Guyanese Acadia”. Today, this Acadian identity seems to have been diluted in the dominant Creole culture, in the form of a new cultural identity sometimes called “Créoles de la côte” or “Coastal Creole”.