The Reluctance of French Historians to Address Atlantic History

By Vidal, Cécile | Southern Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Reluctance of French Historians to Address Atlantic History


Vidal, Cécile, Southern Quarterly


It may seem paradoxical to entitle a paper that deals with Atlantic history in French historiography, "The Reluctance of French Historians to Address Atlantic History," if one considers that the only recent synthesis of Atlantic history has been published by Paul Butel, emeritus professor of Bordeaux University, exactly fifty years after one of the first survey books on the subject by another French historian, Jacques Godechot.1 However, the paradox is only apparent, since Butel's work, despite its vast scope, only partially comes to terms with the new Atlantic history that has developed in American and British universities during the last twenty years.2 On the one hand, his book is mainly a geopolitical and economic history, written from the perspective of the mother country at least for the colonial period; the formation of new societies and cultures is completely ignored by the author. On the other hand, except for a few pages about the depopulation suffered by Native Americans and the slave trade, the book does not include Amerindians, Africa and Africans.3 Far from a multiracial and multiethnic history which would analyse the exchanges and interactions among Amerindians, Europeans, and Africans, Butel focuses solely on the relations between Europe and America. In the same way, while most professors teaching Atlantic history start their courses with the Portuguese explorations along West Africa's coast or, more often, with Columbus' "discovery" of America and finish at the end of the revolutionary age in 1830 or at the end of the slave trade in 1850, Butel concludes his study at the end of the twentieth century. Therefore, he stands far removed from an Atlantic history conceived as "a style of world history with a particular regional and chronological emphasis."4

Butel's book is symptomatic of the weak reception of the new Atlantic history among French historians. The treatment of certain topics chosen for the early modern period at the agrégation5 in history is also very revealing. In her article about the French Atlantic, Silvia Marzagalli has already pointed out that when the theme of the exam was "the Europeans and the sea during the eighteenth century" in 1997-1999, most of the books written at that time hardly used the concept of the Atlantic world or mentioned the historiographical movement that considers this world a united and integrated space and thus a coherent unit of analysis.6 Since then the situation has only partially evolved. Indeed the agrégations most recent question dealing with "revolts and revolutions in Europe and America between 1773 and 1802" included a comparative dimension between the two Atlantic borders, even if its chronological boundaries were irrelevant for the study of the New World.7 Most of the books published to aid students in their preparation also recall the debate about the concept of "Atlantic or Western revolution," presented first by Robert Palmer and Jacques Godechot in 1955(8); they contested the idea of a unique revolution, but recognized the existence of a revolutionary wave in the Atlantic world.9 However, they always emphasize the exceptionality of the French Revolution in comparison with the American one, despite Annie Jourdan's attempt to challenge this assertion.10 Most of all, these new works neglect the slave revolts in the Americas, hardly mentioning the African influences on these rebellions, as John Thomton has demonstrated for SaintDomingue." They deal similarly with the impact of the French Revolution on events in the Caribbean area, but rarely study the influence of the Haitian Revolution on the French case and in the Atlantic world, despite the works of Caroline Pick, David Geggus, and Laurent Dubois.12 In fact, with the exception of Marcel Dorigny's textbook,13 they do not even use the expression "Haitian Revolution," operating under the assumption that there are only two great revolutions during the period, the American one and the French one, the events in the Islands being only part of the French Revolution. …

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