Zeal and Inequity: Reporting Secretly on Colonial Administration, 1758–65

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 4:10 PM
Wilson Room B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Alexandre Dubé, Washington University in Saint Louis
In 1758, the fortunes of the Seven Years War (1754/1756-1763) were threatening to bring defeat to the French armies in the Americas. Voices were being heard in various political and commercial circles about the state of the French colonial world: something appeared to be wrong. Allegations of mishandling the King’s money were coming in from Canada and Guadeloupe: a royal commission set up to examine the debts of the Navy and the Colonies was finding disturbing sings of mismanagement. A new Minister, Nicolas-René Berryer set out to bring the methods he had employed with some skill as lieutenant-général de police of Paris to the analysis of the colonies. His man would be Charles-François de Kerdisien-Trémais, an (initially) unassuming clerk from Brittany who was sent first to Canada, and then to Saint-Domingue, with a secret mission: to spy on his superiors and report in coded letters, on the state of the administration.

Confronted with local practices which could differ from those he knew at Brest, Kerdisien-Trémais had to exert judgement over what could be deemed corruption, and what must be deemed expedient, over what could be reported safely, and what must be kept silent.  Faced with networks of power in which he was both actor and observer, Kerdisien-Trémais had to ground his actions and decisions in a series of moral judgements which delineated the contours of good professional behaviour and an appreciation of local conditions. The missions of Kerdisien-Trémais asked of him what, more than rules and regulations, should hold the King’s service together? This presentation thus uses the material conditions of Kerdisien-Trémais’ term in Canada and Saint-Domingue to investigate the notions of mission and service as evolving values and as fundamental parts of an institutional framework of imperial control – that of the Ministry of the Navy.

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