Unsettling Animals: French Colonial Administration and the Lives of Non-human Laborers

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 2:10 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Kit Heintzman, Harvard University
When France opened the world’s first veterinary schools in the 1760s, the Crown newly acknowledged the centrality of non-human animals to the kingdom’s economic self-sufficiency and military defense. Colonial administrators were quick to follow. In 1773, Isle de France (contemporary Mauritius) in the Indian Ocean became the first colony to import a veterinarian, Marie-François Eloy de Beauvais, from the metropole. The colonies of Guadeloupe, Saint-Domingue, and Cayenne would soon expand their own governance strategies to include veterinarians, reimagining their control over animal health. Colonial administration explicitly calculated which labor would best be performed by beasts and human slaves, what transportation costs would be associated with each population, as well as costs for the housing, feeding, and medical needs associated with keeping them alive. Such calculations, however, varied substantially, and while the intendant who called for Beauvais’s services believed that a veterinarian would be instrumental to ensuring the island’s economic self-sufficiency, others disagreed. Beauvais’s contract was terminated seven years after his arrival, and then he was rehired and fired twice more before his death on the island in 1815. Beauvais’s repeated terminations and re-enlistments expose the diverse visions of animal function within French colonial governance, especially in relation to slave labor and slave trade. The belief that veterinary medicine, as a new science, would have a critical contribution to colonialism was part of a long-term plan for expanding the role of animals in the island’s agriculture. This framework saw settlement and settler prosperity as central to the economic benefits of colony back to the French metropole. Such long-term visions among colonial administrators, however, were hampered by the short-term status of their posts, measured in years rather than decades.