RECAP: “Mapping the French Atlantic,” Colloquium w/ UVA Prof. Laurent Dubois

After delivering a Thursday night lecture tightly focused on theatre and revolution in Saint-Domingue, University of Virginia John L. Nau III Bicentennial Professor of the History & Principles of Democracy Laurent Dubois zoomed out in his October 29 presentation at the Kinder Institute’s Friday Colloquium Series, providing an overview of a new book project that traces the long, complicated history of France’s Atlantic empire. In some ways, Prof. Dubois explained, the draw of the research is that the narrative of the French Atlantic deviates sharply, at least in places, from more familiar models of imperial history. Unlike in the U.S. and Great Britain, the empire doesn’t serve as the gravitational center of France’s national storytelling. Rather, it reveals itself in what he described as the more subterranean ways that colonization impacted culture, for example, and landscapes both built and natural.

This was true, Prof. Dubois continued, from the history’s 16th-century beginnings. When merchant fishing vessels set out east from the Seine’s terminus at Le Havre to New Finland and Brazil, it’s unlikely that those aboard anticipated the waves they would make in the world of Parisian fashion. Brazilwood and the red dye extractable from it quickly became the major export from the imperial expeditions to South America, while beaver pelts from New Finland filled the void created when the Baltic fur trade dried up and would come to be a centerpiece of French mercantilism. And, of course, none of this exists without a common hallmark of colonialism: infiltration into and exploitation of Indigenous peoples. The French boys left behind on Brazilian coasts in order to establish advantageous relations with the communities there became connectors of the French empire; and when the King of France visited Le Havre in the mid-16th century, he found an island in the Seine transformed into a piece of Brazil, with parrots, hammocks, houses, and a battle between two Indigenous groups re-enacted by Brazilian and French actors. With more and more Brazilians traveling to and staying in France, the American experience had, by 1550, firmly rooted itself as a part of French culture.

The cultural impact of colonization grew in the 17th century, as settlement of Canada introduced the adventure novel to France’s literary salons and indigenous religion, as documented in great detail by Jesuit missionaries, to its citizens and theologians alike. The through-line of exploitation would also continue, and become even more violent, as France moved into Louisiana and negotiated possession of Saint-Domingue with the Spanish later in the 17th century. Trafficked from the West African interior to French ports in Senegal, and from there to the Caribbean, the largest group of people moving into the French Americas during this era were enslaved Africans, many of whom were held in bondage on plantations in Saint-Domingue, the most profitable settler colony in the world and the heart of the French imperial economic system. (To underscore the centrality of Saint-Domingue to French Atlantic history, Prof. Dubois added that the Haitian Revolution, followed closely by the sale of Louisiana, all but ended France’s “American story.”) That said, the rise of the plantation model in Saint-Domingue was something of an anomaly in the French empire. Any thought of extending it inward and northward into the Mississippi Valley, for example, ended with the failed attempt to establish plantations at Natchez. And this speaks, Prof. Dubois pointed out, to an idiosyncrasy of imperial configuration. Functionally speaking, the French empire wasn’t made up of controlled territories, but rather nodes of French governance—in Montreal, Quebec, New Orleans, and Caribbean port cities—that were surrounded by huge swaths of lands that remained primarily Indigenous spaces into which very few French emigres ventured. Some have argued that this signifies France’s lack of success as a settler colonial empire, but we might likewise treat it, as Prof. Dubois’ current research does, as an opportunity to reconceptualize the empire as an interconnected system of rivers and deltas across different parts, and on different sides, of the Atlantic (a task made easier by France’s relentless interest in cartography). Viewed this way, we see that the reach of French imperial—and, importantly, transimperial—power was far more extensive than it might appear, capable of reshaping a broad range of landscapes, markets, and populations in the Atlantic world by serving as nexuses of connection and interaction between them.