Famine, Nutrition, and Race in the French Empire

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:15 AM
Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Yan Slobodkin, Stanford University
French observers often described their empire as a land of chronic famine, a plight many of them saw as inevitable wherever “degenerate” races lived in unfavorable environments. It was only during the interwar period that colonial administrations considered themselves responsible for easing the suffering of their hungry subjects. After the Great War, the high modernist confidence in the scientific ability to mitigate famine, coupled with a feeling of political responsibility to do so, marked a turning point in the French Empire’s relationship to its subjects and to nature itself. The discovery of vitamins in 1912 inaugurated a new science of nutrition, providing administrators with new tools to fight hunger. International organizations dedicated to nutrition in colonial areas put pressure on European administrations to implement anti-famine policies. The problem of colonial famine, which had previously received only cursory attention, became a central preoccupation of policymakers throughout the empire, to the extent that the Popular Front’s new minister of colonies wrote in 1936, “In taking over the direction of the Ministry, I could have nothing else for my first concern than the study of what I am forced to call, without wanting to use euphemisms, the famine dossier.” But as the scope of the investments that nutritional policy called for became clear, the costs and benefits of maintaining an empire began to be questioned. The history of the science of nutrition in the French Empire reveals a dramatic rethinking of the purpose and purview of the imperial state, suggesting that once the French took their civilizing responsibilities seriously, the project of colonialism itself became unsustainable.
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