Few other colonial empires have undergone as profound of transformations as the French Colonial Empire, in terms of territory, ideology, importance, and influence. At times the second largest in the world, at others reduced to a few islands. Sometimes of tremendous economic importance to France, constituting the bedrock of its balance of payments and a vital part of its prosperity: at others marginal and in decline. From a conservative monarchy to a radical republic, from assimilating its subjects to the fatherland to promoting their autonomy, and with the eternal question of just how much this colonial empire meant to France - whether it defined French culture and opinions, or whether it was marginal and mostly ignored by an insular and continental French public. It makes for a rich story, and at least some of these questions are dealt with in the book Histoire de la France coloniale: des origins à 1914 written by four French exports, " " . Although certainly riddled with certain flaws, including some odd writing styles by Jean Meyer in the first section of the book, inadequate colonial social analysis, and a certain tendency to scattering (although this is partially beneficial, in enabling a wide range of subjects to be studied), it nevertheless represents a highly impressive and extraordinary work which makes for an excellent reference piece on the French Empire.
An exceedingly long book, there are four basic sections of L'Histoire de la France coloniale
- Dès origines à 1763 is a rather heterolytic section, covering the formation of the First French Colonial Empire, principally in the Americas, with a wide range of subjects that it covers associated with this ranging from French emigration (the failure of France to send significant colonists to its empire), to the formation of French sailors, resentment and projects for independence among colonists, and the widespread number of French colonial projects.
- De l'apogée économique à l'effondrement du domaine colonial by Jean Tarrade focuses on a paradoxical period of French colonialism: when the empire had its most profound influence on France's economic life, forming a critical part of its balance of accounts and a vast part of its foreign trade, it was also reduced to a very few, very small, tropical islands. This section also covers the Revolution and the collapse of the empire, as well as Napoleon's colonial projects.
- La France coloniale de 1830 à 1870 by Anne Re-Goldzeigeur is overwelmingly devoted to Algeria, covering the conquest of Algeria, the reasons for why the French were economically interested in Algeria and the French colonial policy, the role of interest groups and the rise of different ideologies and philosophies concerning colonization in France, the struggle over association vs assimilation, various French colonial projects around the world, and the evolution of French governments with the revolutions of 1848 and 1870 particularly.
- La France coloniale de 1870 à 1914 looks at the wide range of French colonial projects and conquests around the world, with the huge number of different French expansion projects, and then looking at the economic development and organization of the scattered French colonies around the world.
The beginning of the book is at times difficult to understand due to the first author - Jean Meyer's - writing style. There are four authors in the book, so this doesn't concern ALL of the book - but the beginning writer has a some definite odds features about his composition. He jumps from idea to idea, without intermission, in a way which can be hard for the reader to understand. In a section talking about housing in the First French Colonial Empire (this is his subject after all) in North America, centered around Canada, he suddenly jumps from describing the cabins and houses to talking about palm trees, without any preamble or note of the shifting focus. At a single swoop, he instead shifts the focus to the French Caribbean and life there! It is disconcerting to go from Canada's pine forests to the Caribbean's palms without any real connection or intermission. He also has a tendency to return again and again to the subject of cod fishing, repeating the same thing over and over again. This must be his most studied subject, and while it is utilized to good effect, it gets a bit tiresome to have it pop up again and again.
Histoire de la France coloniale does its best work in regards to economic aspects of French colonialism, most prominently during the First French Colonial Empire in the Antilles and Saint Domingue, and in Algeria, both for its internal relationship and economic relationship with the metropole. Algeria is definitely one of the great strong suits of the book for showing its complicated relationship to the metropole, particularly the less well known projects - least in the Anglophone world - of ideas such as Napoleon III's Arab Kingdom. The author of this section does an excellent job of exploring how Algeria was portrayed in France, and the competing visions of its future - of a relative tolerance and respect for the Arabs, or for it to be transformed into a simple extension of Greater France, becoming France on the other shore of the Mediterranean to give rise to a greater strategic unit. So too, the author shows why Algeria was of such profound economic interest for French industrial and commercial interests, particularly from Marseille, showing how Algeria was at the heart of Marseille's colonial economy. Furthermore, it shows how colonial activities were related to municipal imperialism, as different French cities specialized in different parts of the French colonial empire and encouraged its expansion - Bordeaux in West Africa, Marseille in Algeria, Lyon in Indochina and Syria.
For those who love statistics and tables, the book comes with plenty, backing up its points with an excellent amount of quantitative information ranging from the population and demographics of the French Caribbean colonies in the 18th century, to the role of the French colonial empire in French trade, to railroad lines in Africa and French bank and capital investment - the book doesn't quite overflow with statistics, but it definitely has an impressive amount.
Unfortunately, the book does not do nearly enough for discussing the impact of French colonialism upon the native people of the French colonial empire. It sometimes talks about this in general terms for Algeria, but elsewhere it is almost entirely missing, and there is a lack of information for the cultural transformations which occurred in the places that the French colonized among the indigenous societies. French colonization had massive impacts for societies such as the introduction of Catholicism, reform and revitalization movements in the Second Colonial Empire which would give birth to nationalism, commercialization, and introduction to the wider world, not even speaking of local developments such as the promotion of conservative ruling elites to ensure order in society or exposure to ideas of French liberty and democracy. These are simply not touched on in the book.
The book is also restrictive in its sphere of French colonialism, with little attention paid to the "soft empire" of the French, those territories where they weren't formally present but nevertheless exercised significant influence and power. There were significant regions in Latin America, the Ottoman Empire, and China where the French did not formally exercise control, but nevertheless had massive influence. These do not receive any focus, which shows the continued focus on formal French possession - in contrast to studies on British imperialism, which have placed much greater emphasis on British informal empire, particularly in Latin America.
It does do a good job of looking at the French colonists themselves, particularly in Algeria and in the Caribbean. The Caribbean and the independence movement which existed there is particularly something which is little known, at least in the Anglophone world, and is genuinely fascinating to read about - providing exposure to the different logic of an era, beyond just patriotism and national pride, but instead hard-headed commercial objectives where French colonists played around with the idea of attachment to the British colonial sphere out of a belief of their commercial interests being better served there, or even considered outright independence. This matches another well done part of the book, of relations between the European colonists and the natives - or the subjugated classes - as the book shows in excellent detail the absolute rejection of the "gens de couleur libres," and general fanatical resistance of the White French colonists to any assimilation, even by their most valuable potential allies.
For such an impressively lengthy period of time and scale, Histoire de la France coloniale manages a very good shot at covering it all, with a very authoritative reference work. Certainly, there are some sections that it misses, and its first author, Jean Meyer, has his problems, but it still is to be praised for its ambition and managing to cover such a wide range of subjects. For anybody who speaks French and is interested in the history of French colonialism, particularly in Algeria and the economics of the French Empire, this is a very good and necessary book.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Ryan C Thomas