Webs of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the French Empire

AHA Session 204
Western Society for French History 2
Society for French Historical Studies 5
French Colonial Historical Society 4
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Jennifer Sessions, University of Iowa
The Audience

Session Abstract

The papers on this panel engage the concept of “webs of empire”, developed by scholar of British imperialism Tony Ballantyne. This concept moves beyond models of imperialism that focus primarily on exchanges between individual colonies and their respective metropoles; Ballantyne’s concept of an imperial “web” by contrast illustrates the tangled, interconnected networks of people, places, and ideas between and within empires. The papers on this panel present French imperialism as a “web” by showing a variety of actors, including military officers, migrant laborers, “coolies,” colonial officials, and technocrats, moving between French colonies, semi-colonized regions, France, and British colonies. As these papers show, this movement within the larger interconnected imperial web was at times marked by violence, challenges to entrenched racial hierarchies, exploitation, and the development of new policies. In some cases, these crises and abuses revealed the challenges and vulnerabilities of French imperialism; elsewhere they contributed to new racial theories and legal loopholes that served to enrich colonial elites and embolden conservative ideologues.

Caroline Campbell’s paper explores military officers rotating between a number of French colonies, committing terrible acts of violence, and ultimately bringing these experiences with them to France. During the interwar period, these returning officers drew on their colonial experience when applying new, ethnographically-based ideas of race to their developing fascist ideology. Molly Giblin’s paper also speaks to the connections between empire, human rights abuses, and metropolitan concerns about race. As part of a desire to keep France “racially pure”, French authorities sought to control the movement of non-European populations. This led to exploitative policies that enabled businessmen to ship indentured Chinese laborers between China, France, and the Caribbean, before essentially selling them to British planters. Whereas Giblin’s paper illustrates French diplomats and businessmen successfully controlling labor movements within the empire, Margaret Andersen’s paper illustrates that sometimes French officials struggled to keep colonized populations from moving across borders within the empire, something that challenged the racial hierarchies they sought to construct and colonial order more generally. Andersen’s paper looks at Algerians moving clandestinely to Morocco and successfully claiming family benefits otherwise reserved for French settlers, much to the dismay of French officials. In a similar vein, Yan Slobodkin’s paper also presents a case of French colonial officials struggling to realize their objectives, in this case responding to outside pressure from international organizations to prevent famine in a number of their African colonies. Like the other three papers on this panel, Slobodkin’s paper illustrates the centrality of race as he shows how French officials understood famine and malnutrition in their African colonies in a racially-specific way. All four of these papers present themes in French colonial history that speak to larger interconnected questions of colonial violence and human rights abuses, migration and rights, and the responsibilities of metropolitan governments to their colonized subjects. As all four of these papers cut across borders both within the French Empire, and between European empires, they situate France within broader discussions of transnational and world history.

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