Ryan loves learning about lesser-known aspects of history by reading and reviewing the literary works of historians.
In 1815, France had nothing left of its previous colonial empire save for a few scattered islands and trading posts around the world between its defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, the revolution, and the scars of the losses of the Seven Years War half a century before. From this nadir, over the next fifty years, France would begin a long, often slow, and always somewhat stumbling process toward rebuilding its colonial empire.
It would be built on dramatically different bases and structures than the first empire and in different territorial regions, even if the old empire served to provide bases for the construction of the new in places, such as Senegal. It is this period—not quite an interregnum, not quite a continuation—that is the subject of Jean Martin's book L'Empire renaissant 1789–1871 (The Empire Reborn, 1789–1871). Despite being written with a somewhat old fashioned (for English-speaking scholarship at least) focus on politics above all else, it provides a good base for creating a framework in which to place this odd period of French colonial history.
In the introduction, the focus is on the French empire of the Ancien Regime and its secular decline from glory during the 18th century. It was an empire based upon slavery, mercantilism, plantations, and its exclusive economic links to the motherland.
At the start of the French Revolution, France had its jewel in the crown of the industrious slave-colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), the archipelago of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon in Canada, a scattered number of islands in the Antilles, Guyana, trading colonies in West Africa, Bourbon and Ile de France (Reunion and Martinique today), and a few trading posts in India.
The first part of the book is devoted to the French Revolution and then Napoleon in the colonies, particularly the French-Caribbean colonies and the debate over slave emancipation. Much of this concerns the Société des Amis des Noirs, a group dedicated to ending slavery, and its opposition groups. Although slavery was theoretically universally abolished across the French colonial empire, in practice, it varied dramatically from place to place, with some areas ending it (often replacing it with forced labor of another sort) and others never actually implementing this directive from Paris or receiving extensions.
From this, the first part of the book goes on to look at how the situation developed in different colonies, particularly Saint Domingue, which descended into civil and racial war and whose governing white elites contemplated secession. Strongmen arose both here and in Guadeloupe and Martinique, as Victor Hughes, a commissar of the Republic, enforced Jacobin rule and a vicious fight against the English, while Toussaint Louverture became the defacto leader in Haiti.
Guyana, a prison colony, was little impacted by the revolution and kept up its former role. Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon suffered full-scale deportation of the inhabitants to Nova Scotia. Senegal provided a tiny bastion of resistance in Saint Louis, while the revolution troubled it little save for the English taking other parts of the trading posts.
In Bourbon and Reunion, the revolution was all but ignored. The French trading posts and cities of India were rapidly occupied. The final part of the chapter concerns Napoleon's colonial project with the Egyptian expedition and the ideal of a Middle Eastern empire, the attempt to retake Haiti, a tragic failure, the sale of Louisiana, and the fighting and loss of colonies to the English.
The second part of the book looks at picking up the pieces, examining the themes of establishing trading and refueling depots, rebuilding the navy, the renewed drive for emancipation, scientific investigations, and missionary activity. Small islands in the Pacific and near Madagascar were the most numerous French conquests, but the most important one was Algeria, taken in an effort to secure the French king Charles X a popularity boost. This failed, as he was overthrown shortly thereafter, and the succeeding government only narrowly decided to maintain its presence in Algeria.
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Algeria would face a long debate between partisans of occupying it and partisans of occupying it and turning it into a settlement colony. Algeria is the keystone of the book, as it covers at length the various Arab leaders and Arab states formed to resist the French colonization of Algeria, and who managed at times to inflict severe defeats on the French. These defeats were never enough to drive them out, however, and the French began to filter into the country in greater numbers, particularly to the cities, and dominate it and its economy.
There are also a variety of photos and drawings provided in this chapter about various French colonial possessions, people, and the conquest of Algeria.
Part three concerns the return in force of France to the colonial project under Napoleon III but starts with the French Second Republic and its assimilation tendencies and emancipation of the slaves but continues with Napoleon III and his focus on catholic imperialism and a focus on infrastructure works abroad, notably in Egypt with the Suez Canal.
Like before, the Second Empire pursued an entrenchment of its influence abroad, although not always successfully as in the case of Madagascar, which would face colonization only later during the Third Republic in France, as well as the continuing administrative question of Algeria (was it a military colony or a settlement colony?). Napoleon III would launch a policy of attempting to establish an "Arab Kingdom" with either one of his family members, such as his son, or an Arab puppet king, but this ultimately came to nothing in front of the resistance of the French colonists, and Algeria was struck by terrible famines and great death and suffering at the end of the Second Empire.
Senegal was another dramatic project in Africa of the French colonial empire under Napoleon III led by the French governor Faidherbe whose infrastructure projects, military expansion, and economic exploitation of the colony would be vital to French expansion in West Africa. The French also gradually expanded their territory in Gabon and Benin and fought a war with Vietnam in the late 1850s that led to their occupation of the south of the country and Cambodia becoming a French protectorate, which, like Senegal, was a prosperous colony under the Second Empire and served as a base for further French exploration and expansion in the region.
The conclusion of the book takes a look at the relatively modest French colonial empire of 1871, its degree of influence, and its effect on French home opinion, both culturally and in the degree to which the French valued their empire. While the empire of 1871 was small, it left behind a focus and colonial ambition that would be the building block of the massive colonial expansion of the French Third Republic.
Compared to more "modern" books on colonialism, L'Empire Renaissant can appear strange—there is little about the cultural meaning of colonialism or its effect on societies, morality, and the broader impact on France and the colonizing society. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the subject, as it covers an extremely diverse array of territories and over a broad period of time; As a result, no single place or period can be examined in that much detail.
But it does do a commendable job with the subjects it devotes itself to—the politics of French colonial expansion, some of its military and administrative components, economic development in the colonies themselves, and how French rule was developed. Certainly, there is much more that could have been included, such as statistics and tables about the importance of the colonies to France, but it gives an effective general impression of how the colonies developed.
Back in the homeland, it also effectively discusses what the French government wished to gain in its colonial activities, and what some of the key themes of the various epochs were the colonial period. It could have used greater characterization and examination of local interest groups, but as a general picture of the state of the French government and its interest in colonialism, it does a quite reasonable job.
Overall, this book is a useful addition to the understanding of the French colonial empire and its rebirth, particularly in Algeria. It might be rather encyclopedic and lack some of the structural theory and accouterments of later works on the subject of French colonial history, but it takes a look at a time that is often glanced over and gives a broad-based and detailed look into how an array of French colonies around the world came into existence.
If one is truly interested in the subject, further books would be advisable to give a more nuanced and detailed perspective of the French colonial empire, and in particular to examine cultural aspects, but for an introduction and general summary of the French colonial empire during the period, the book is an easy read (if you speak French).
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