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In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670-1730 Review


The French have always had an odd imperial history. Be it the contradiction between republicanism and imperialism, between its continental European focus and colonial expansion, between assimilation and association, or its geographic scattering and its lack of definite center, or its limited European population and heterogenous models - everything seems to defy easy classification. James Pritchard, whose writings on 18th century France vary from naval administration to military expeditions, shows in his book In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas just how unique, odd, scattered, and different the French colonies were, and how the critical period of 1670-1730 defined their social, economic, and political structures until either their loss or the end of the Ancien régime. An excellent book at exploring the economic and political systems in the colonies, as well as certain elements of their societies and why they developed the way they did, it does have the unfortunate omission of culture and mentality, of how the colonies were perceived and how the colonists thought, as well as doing little to advance a new great narrative to replace the old ones it tears down. But it still is a tremendously useful, and brilliantly researched examination of French colonial history at a crucial period.

French colonies in the Caribbean

French colonies in the Caribbean

Broadly speaking, Pritchard's book can be divided into two sections: the first being an analysis of the social, political, and economic systems of the colonies, including their population, vital indexes, demographics, economic development, resources, settlement patterns and communication, immigration, social groups, women, state economic involvement, trade, commerce, position in international exchange, slave trade, government institutions, metropolitan administration of the colonies, and justice. The second focuses on their military history during the various wars from 1670 to 1730, such as the Franco-Dutch War, Nine Years War, War of Spanish Succession, and War of the Quadruple Alliance, as well as piracy afterwards, and how the colonies were defended, how the wars went, what their impacts were, and the relevance to both the colonies and metropolitan France.

The final conclusion, the ninth chapter entitled "Elusive Empire", covers the unstable and poorly integrated French colonial policy and empire in the years after 1715, and makes the case that France's empire was for it an afterthought, and one which never constituted a real cohesive empire.

For the sheer amount of research that went into Pritchard's book, it alone receives compliment. It is a humbling thing to read through the vast amount of work which Pritchard did, with its huge and lengthy bibliography, and to realize just how much Pritchard read and assembled for this. For anybody interested in the subject of French colonialism in the Americas, just reading through the bibliography is a very valuable experience, as it gives a huge variety of books on the subject.

This is very well used by Pritchard to advance his arguments about structural elements in the French colonies and their evolution. This is particularly true for the eocnomic side of things, showing how the various resource commodities traded, extracted, exploited, grown, by the French - sugar, furs, slaves, tobacco, indigo, coffee, fish, etc. impacted colonial development. Pritchard does a great job showing the nature of each commodity and how it was implanted, such as tobacco cultivation in the French West Indies and the labor system of small farmers and limited capital which enabled quick set up but had the inherent limitations of excessive wear on the soil and limited potential of the land compared to the English North American colonies along the Chesapeake. Furs had an even greater built-in structural reliance on individual initiative, while sugar was diametrically opposed, reliant on heavily controlled labor on plantations. The book's analysis goes far beyond this however, in an excellent examination of market forces and government intervention, in both the Caribbean and Canada.

This breakdown of the political economy of the Ancien régime shows how the nature of economics was heavily deformed by state intervention - and not in a good way, as it caused negative impacts on the development of a rational economic structure in the Canadian fur trade, preventing the market from carrying out the concentration and rationalization of production which was ongoing in the 1680s. The same is shown in the Caribbean, as it was only the liberalization of government control - more precisely, its breakdown - during the War of Spanish Succession which enabled the economic take-off of the French colonies, accelerated by widespread looting of slaves from competing colonial territories.

In addition to its excellent coverage of the development of the institutions of French colonialism and the French empire, the subject covering the military history of the French colonies in the period is just as well done. This shows very well how the colonies were essentially left to their own devices for their defense - and how despite this they managed to hold their own, against far larger enemy populations and resources. Pritchard's work both gives an excellent blow by blow account of the various wars which French colonies were involved in, for their military effect and economic development effects caused by the war, and how it impacted France back home - particularly the degree to which French peace terms were impacted, and the financial contributions of the colonies to the war, as well as the various objectives which the French government had for their colonies such as bases for infiltration of the Spanish Empire during the War of Spanish Succession.

The great lacking element for the book is its weakness in regards to culture and mentality. While colonial societies and the nature of their development receive enough attention, there is little about the way that colonists thought, the contours of their life for culture, and how being in such a vastly different environment impacted their horizons and among alien people. How did the cultural life of French colonists develop, and were they as set on their path as the other structural developments were in the 1670-1730 period? Pritchard does an excellent job with structuralism, but not with giving a sense of the life of French colonists as they experienced it. There are occasional, tantalizing hints of how ideas evolved, most notably with regards to slavery, as the book notes that the French Caribbean saw an increasingly racialized society develop which took into account color to a greater and greater extent - but it could have been developed much more.

There are also occasional sections which could have received more elaboration. For example, the book notes the increase in infant mortality in French Canada, rising from around 200 deaths per 1000 to 250 per 1000 during the period - but doesn't cover why this occurred. Was it increasingly urban and dense populations? Most of the time, Pritchard does give a good overview of the reasons for why there were such changed, particularly for economics, but the occasional lack is frustrating.

Despite these failings, Pritchard's book is an incredible resource and great resource for understanding the French American colonial empire. It is impressively detailed, incorporates massive amounts of information to give an unparalleled view of the development of French institutions and economic life in the colonies, and presents a convincing and well argued argument against the idea of the French government as an enlightened absolutist policy maker for the colonies and against the idea of homogeneity in colonial affairs. Blowing up previous historiography however, leads to the question of producing a new greater narrative: is the only one which exists the idea that the French were drawn to their colonial empire by vastly different reasons, and that the empire lacked a common meaning, scheme, or development, a helter skelter scattering of colonies across the map, without any internal reason or logic? It would have been nice to have an extended final chapter to tie together the various threads Pritchard assembled and to reflect on them, but this is something which seems to be left to the reader: to reflect on the massive pile of information bequeathed to him and draw his own conclusions. It still makes for a brilliant history book - but one which could have been even better.