The French Overseas Empire

The French Overseas Empire

The French Overseas Empire

The French Overseas Empire

Synopsis

For more than five centuries France has been both a European and a global power. French explorers, traders, settlers, soldiers, and missionaries journeyed to the world's farthest reaches establishing colonies, bringing millions of people under French influence and claiming vast expanses of forests, jungles, deserts, and rich mineral and maritime resources. Through continued wars with rival powers, including Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and Germany, France lost large portions of its empire and gained others. This is a story of colorful personalities and dramatic events: Cartier's exploration of Canada, Richelieu's and Colbert's global trading companies, Champlain the colonizer, the French presence in Louisiana, the vast but short-lived French empire in India, the nefarious slave trade, and France's defeat in its prosperous Caribbean colony, St. Domingue. Century-long conflict with some of its most valued possessions, such as Vietnam and Algeria, further hastened the empire's demise after World War II.

Excerpt

From the early 16th century, when French fishermen sailed westward in the uncharted North Atlantic, to the closing years of the 19th century, when explorer-soldiers tracked inland to the Sudan and fought rebellious populations in Indochina, a basic continuity marked the history of the French Overseas Empire. Backed by the government and the heroic effort of its proconsuls, the Empire grew, tentatively at first in North America and the Caribbean, then, after setbacks, more rapidly in Africa and the Far East. Finally, it encompassed several million people around the globe, who increasingly identified themselves with France, whose economic and civilizing mission progressively transformed indigenous societies and profited the French economy.

This, in outline, is a popular theory of empire, but it is an inaccurate one. It reflects the empire of the popular press and the colonial handbooks of the early 20th century, a fabrication explicable in the context of the times. Theories of evolution, presented with the authority of scientific discoveries, provided a framework to describe the harmonious progress of the white race. Romanticism reinforced a cult of the exotic, of the less civilized cultures of Africa, America, and the Orient; and the militant nationalism of period historians depicted overseas societies responding to French initiatives in much the same way Europeans, in a pre-Copernican world, believed the spheres revolved around the Planet Earth.

Seen from a later period, and a more inclusive perspective, the story of the French Overseas Empire is often one of disjunctures and contradictions more so than of continuities. It was as much the product of chance exploration as of . . .

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