Attempts to reframe the Age of Revolutions as imperial in nature have not fully integrated the French Revolution. Replying to this gap and criticisms of the Revolution's global turn, this essay positions the Revolution as both a moment of imperial reorganization and a sequence of political reinvention that exceed our current categories of empire and nation-state. These arguments open a forum comprising five contributions set in transimperial contexts that span from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean. The forum offers some points of reflection regarding the narratives, periodizations, and concepts that guide historians of the French Revolution as they navigate the global turn.
L'effort historiographique consistant à placer l’ère des révolutions dans leur contexte impérial n'est pas encore parvenu à pleinement intégrer la Révolution française. Cet essai propose de pallier ce manque tout en répondant aux critiques émises à l'encontre du « tournant global ». Il invite à interpréter la Révolution à la fois comme un moment de réorganisation impériale et comme une séquence de réinvention politique, dont le contenu déborde les catégories contemporaines d'empire et d'Etat-nation. Cet essai introduit cinq articles qui analysent la Révolution française dans une variété de contextes transimpériaux, des rives de l'Atlantique à celles de l'océan Indien. Le forum propose quelques points de réflexion critiques sur les récits, les périodisations et les concepts qui informent les modalités d'après lesquelles la Révolution française se voit « mondialisée » par les historiens.
French universalism has become, once again, the subject of intense public debate, reigniting and expanding discussions on the place of the colonial past and its role in anti-Black racism and Islamophobia in France today. Energized by a transatlantic and Europe-wide movement, protests, petitions, op-eds, and TV documentaries have drawn attention to the many ways that the colonial past was integral to French national history and continues to shape the republic today.1 However, some historians, philosophers, and political scientists publicly objected to the decolonial movement's “exaggerated” interpretation of the French past.2 Many national leaders and politicians, such as French president Emmanuel Macron, weighed the crimes associated with the imperial past against the French Revolution's affirmation of universal rights. In reaction to international discussion of his policies, President Macron lamented to the New York Times that foreign—especially American—journalists' criticisms of French republicanism were misguided: Americans and French people have shared values, but “our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he explained.3 Mentioning specifically the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, President Macron suggested that his policy derived from the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 and was steeped in colorblind assumptions of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
President Macron's reasoning, however, rests on its own misconceptions and misunderstandings: it ignores the embeddedness of French national history in the global history of empire. Citizenship, republicanism, and universalism have gendered and racialized imperial pasts that hearken back to the French Revolution and France's entanglements in the Age of Revolutions. These national narratives need to be overturned or qualified: they have implications for the questions we ask as historians and for the answers we uncover as much as they impact current debates about citizenship, immigration, and integration.4 A number of scholars have attempted to remedy the erasure of people of color in the revolutionary narrative by shedding light on the crucial interaction between the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, which, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued, had been silenced for decades.5 This work is important and must be continued. It is also critical to expose the longue durée of imperial and colonial history in which the Revolution unfolded, as well as the imperial history the Revolution shaped. There was a French Empire between the loss of French North America in 1763 and the settlement of Algeria in the 1830s: this empire survived and reorganized during the revolutionary upheaval at the end of the eighteenth century. The following essays continue the effort to challenge the bifurcated understanding of the French Revolution as a strictly national event, on the one hand, and as an unambiguous moment of colonial liberation, on the other.
The conceptual framework that we have at the moment for reframing the Revolution is not completely satisfactory. In an important article from which this forum takes its name, Jeremy Adelman claims that the Age of Revolutions was “imperial in nature.” This reframing, he writes, enables historians to “see more clearly how the legacies of empire and colonialism endured through, or were reproduced by, the very revolutions that were said to have brought about their ends.”6 His article received relatively little attention from historians of the French Revolution, despite the crisis of empire that preceded the Revolution, the colonial crises that unfolded during the revolutionary decade, and the warfare and annexations in Europe that paved the way for the Napoleonic empire. Attempting to bring the French Empire into conversation with the Spanish, the British, and the Portuguese empires, Adelman focuses mainly on Haiti's break with France, but integrating the French Revolution into Adelman's age of imperial revolutions remains a challenge. The Haitian Revolution was not merely an offshoot of metropolitan turmoil. Unlike its counterparts, the French Empire experienced a revolution in the metropole.7 The French Revolution thus remains distinct from the American, Haitian, and Spanish American independences, despite decades of scholarship locating the French Revolution at the heart of an entangled Atlantic Age of Revolutions.
Since 1989 the global turn has greatly influenced historical writing on the French Revolution, but its relationship to imperial history remains in need of articulation. In that regard, there is a significant divide between Francophone and Anglophone historiographies. In Aimé Césaire's and Yves Benot's footsteps, Marcel Dorigny and Bernard Gainot have proposed the notion of colonial revolution to explore the period from 1750 to 1850 while remaining cautious of an Atlantic history they thought was too geographically narrow and premised on neoliberal assumptions.8 They also challenged global historical narratives' tendency to downplay the significance of the French Revolution. For example, David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam's collection The Age of Revolutions in Global Context devoted no more than one chapter to a French Revolution provincialized within a broader narrative of global change, though this volume contributed to an important and ongoing search to contextualize the Revolution on a global scale. At the intersection of the Anglophone and Francophone traditions, Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson's French Revolution in Global Perspective positioned French responses to globalization processes as key to understanding the Revolution and its global causes, opening up exciting new directions for research.9 In so doing, they called for a more “capacious” rather than “monolithic” understanding of the Revolution that “links the democratic revolution to an imperial one.”10 Despite their emphasis on empire, scholars have not yet fully reconsidered the larger narrative arc in which these entangled revolutionary histories are embedded.11
Pursuing a line of investigation carried out by François-Xavier Guerra, Latin Americanists such as Adelman and Clément Thibaud ask historians not to reduce the Atlantic revolutions to a teleological story of inevitable imperial demise and the triumph of the nation-state.12 This is an important point: for all that we think the global turn has done to shed new light on the Revolution, in the background its outcome, the birth of the French nation-state, remains. “If the nation-state is not considered the automatic post-cursor to empire, the variety of routes, including a host of ‘might-have-beens,’ needs to be restored to the narrative about the age of revolutions.”13 We hope that this forum contributes to this productive conversation by restoring the ambiguity and plurality of origins, developments, and outcomes of a French imperial revolution. The Revolution that emerges from this research was an empire-wide transformation set in motion by an entangled constellation of reforms and revolts that redefined the relationships between the metropole and the colonies, but also within the metropole and between colonies, and rearticulated France's boundaries, positionality, and connectivity to other societies.
In this forum, we feature early-career historians who conceive their research through a global, imperial, or transnational/transimperial French historical perspective. These authors have been trained at a time when historical scholarship in their respective academies in France, Britain, the United States, and Germany has been influenced by the global turn. We noticed that, despite our contributors' similarities, they approached their research in different ways shaped by national, imperial, postwar, and Cold War legacies and current politics. Scholars from the global South likely would have written different essays. The contributors to this forum did not agree on everything, which is one reason that multiauthored efforts strengthen global history.14 Our collective approach revealed a variety of perspectives, which we synthesize in this introduction. Placed in the broader historiography, this forum offers some critical points of reflection regarding the narratives, periodizations, and concepts that guide historians of the French Revolution as they navigate the global turn.
Some historians of France have also pushed back against the global turn and its institutionalization, generating debates between skeptics and enthusiasts of global history approaches beyond French history. We offer a reply to that skepticism while highlighting the importance of bringing the empire into the history of the French Revolution. Most notably, David A. Bell, in an influential article published in French Historical Studies, questioned whether the global turn should become a new paradigm for the study of the Revolution.15 Bell doubts the extent to which influences from outside France, and from French colonies in particular, impacted the causes and course of the Revolution. He was hardly alone in his critique. Sarah Knott expressed her perplexity with a neoliberal history that is content to narrate cross-border revolutionary circulations at the expense of an explanatory analysis.16 Adelman responded to Hunt's Writing History in the Global Era by calling for a resurgence of national history.17 Paul Cheney cautioned against naive enthusiasm for globalization as a contest between the mobile, the cosmopolitan, and the enlightened against the inert, the provincial, and the unplugged.18 Some of these authors argue that, due to the recent rise of nationalism and strongman politics around the world, historians would do better to return to a national framework.
We agree that the global turn in the study of the French Revolution needs refining and qualifying, but we disagree with Bell when he argues that the significance of colonial history has been overstated in recent scholarship on the French Revolution. Like Desan, Hunt, and Nelson, we believe that the global turn reveals that the Revolution is too complex to be captured by one perspective, and like Richard Drayton and David Motadel, we maintain that global history informs critical approaches to national and imperial histories and vice versa: furthering our understanding of imperial and colonial history helps historians approach “the global” more critically.19 Indeed, empire is too often overlooked when global stands in for every process, event, or actor situated external to the national scale. Though we think a global perspective does open new avenues of research, terms like global and transnational can also gloss over more specific frames of action. The global umbrella, in its so-called neutrality, groups together vaguely connected phenomena without necessarily providing hermeneutic resources to decrypt the historical causality of interconnectedness. We propose to focus on the imperial question as one that remains flexible and to resist the tendency to position dynamics in a global-local binary when there are scales in between, including the local, the regional, the national, and the imperial; we approach these scales as social constructions, not essentialized containers.20 Moreover, as Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper write in reference to the French Empire and revolution, “An imperial perspective lets us avoid the false dichotomy between continuity and change.”21
For Bell, challenging the global turn is also about recentering the role and place of the French Revolution in global history narratives.22 The emerging field of global history has indeed tended to downplay the Revolution's significance in two ways. First, both Jürgen Osterhammel and Christopher A. Bayly have taken up the French Revolution in their world histories of the long nineteenth century, but the Revolution is only of moderate importance in these seminal works.23 Still, Bayly foregrounds a period of “crisis” from about 1750 to 1860, in which the Revolution and many other revolts unfolded, as crucial to the development of the modern world. Second, the importance Bayly places on this period in his synthesis contrasts with much of the empirical turn in global history, such as research published in the Journal of Global History, which tends to focus on processes of globalization and internationalization from the late nineteenth century forward.24 We think that scholarship on the Age of Revolutions should receive more attention from imperial and global historians of later eras. The transregional connections of the late nineteenth century that paved the way toward today's globalized world were shaped by imperial, national(izing), and local normative frameworks for organizing societies and their respective infrastructures. The French Revolution both enabled and constrained the possibilities and norms these interconnected empires and nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could turn to in order to manage processes of globalization. Several recent volumes have sought more concretely to anchor the Revolution in different world and global historical narratives.25
Clarification is necessary, as some of the above criticism of the global turn transitioned into a criticism of global history. This is a two-way street: we think that scholars interested in situating the French Revolution in a broader context could do more to consider concepts and methods developed by global historians. Although critics allege that global history fetishizes connections and circulations, global history also focuses on structure, control, and places and people neglected by capital and information flows.26 It also introduces terminology that highlights how few processes are truly global.27
The French Revolution's global turn not only has its origins in current global history debates but also traces its roots back to at least three historiographical developments. The first set the French Revolution within a series of democratic revolutions, thus challenging its claim to exceptionality. There has been, in the last decades, a historiographical resurgence of the “Atlantic Revolution,” conceptualized by Robert Palmer and Jacques Godechot in the 1950s (and sidelined by Albert Soboul and François Furet). Both Palmer and Godechot reprised, refined, and expanded an older historiography on French-American exchanges to conceive the Revolution as part of a democratic wave that swept over Europe and the Americas. This perspective inspired later histories in which the French Revolution became part of a vast movement of revolts and insurrections, including the American and the Dutch Revolutions. The interest in “patriotic” movements made it possible to rewrite the history of representative regimes, citizenship, and constitutions in a broader perspective, helping to qualify the so-called French exception. The fall of the Berlin wall, which coincided with the French Revolution's bicentennial, the rise of the 1990s buzzword globalization, and, more recently, the Arab Spring, revived enthusiasm for this approach.28 In this historiography, the French Revolution's legacy was unequivocal. The Revolution was a spark that lit future national movements, particularly in nineteenth-century Europe.
This history, though, was often more comparative than it was connected, and it minimized or ignored the Haitian Revolution, embracing a traditional understanding of the West. New interest emerged in the Black Atlantic, Latin America, and the Red Atlantic. This second strand of historiography widened the Atlantic perspective by including the participation of non-Western actors and knowledge. Research focused not only on the construction of independent nation-states but also on the people white elites excluded from the search for a new social order—Indigenous societies, free and enslaved Black people, and other dispossessed men and women—who nevertheless contributed to its foundations.29 These debates differed from prior Atlantic approaches to the Age of Revolutions in their emphasis on the central role of the Haitian Revolution, which marked the unprecedented victory of African or Afro-descended enslaved people over a European colonial power and led to the creation of the second independent and first free-soil state in the Americas.
For more than two centuries, Haitian historians had been vocal about the global significance of the Haitian Revolution, but most European and American scholars paid little attention to this research.30 First published in 1938, C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins made a similar argument about the centrality of the Haitian Revolution from a Black Marxist perspective.31 Despite its celebration among Pan-Africanists, historians largely ignored it in the great historical accounts of the French Revolution until Anglophone scholars such as David Patrick Geggus, Carolyn Fick, and Laurent Dubois took up, developed, and refined its main argument.32 In France, at the time of the bicentennial, colonial historian and activist Yves Benot was virtually alone in situating the colonies at the core of a French revolutionary narrative, but a new generation of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic soon joined him in developing the field.33 Within the field of French revolutionary studies, Dorigny, Florence Gauthier, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, Jeremy Popkin, Rafe Blaufarb, and the members of the Institut d'Histoire de la Révolution française at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne—Gainot, Frédéric Régent, and Pierre Serna—decisively challenged the hierarchy between colonial and metropolitan events. Over the last several decades, the history of Atlantic revolutions intersected with and profited from “history from below” and, in so doing, recognized the essential role of subaltern men and women.34 This iteration of Atlantic history placed the colonies back at the center of the revolutionary process, but there is no agreement among these scholars as to how including Caribbean colonies alters the revolutionary story.
What the French Revolution lost in these debates was its role as a Eurocentric benchmark against which historians could define revolutions. As Marlene L. Daut and Chelsea Stieber argue, Haitian universalism offered a powerful critique of the blind spots and denials of French universalism.35 Especially in American historiography, the Haitian Revolution and its global impact have taken center stage, downplaying the radicalism of the French Revolution. The key concepts behind these Atlantic revolutions no longer trace their origins to a “Western civilization” paradigm.36 When extra-European actors and spaces are added to a long history of uprisings and turmoil, even the category of revolution begins to lose its exceptionality. The French Revolution became no more than an episode in the struggle against all forms of imperial oppression that included the insurrection of the United Provinces against the Spanish Empire in the seventeenth century, the revolt of Túpac Amaru II in Peru, the American War of Independence, the revolution in Low Countries (Belgium), and the Bolivarian uprising in New Granada. By breaking free from national history approaches, the French Revolution took its place in a new global narrative: the history of the first decolonization—a decolonization in the colonies and in the metropoles.37 This history spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Ho Chi Minh strategically referenced the American Declaration of Independence and the French Constitution of 1791 in his proclamation of Vietnam's independence from the French Empire in an attempt to thwart a variety of imperialisms past, present, and future. By incorporating the American and French Revolutions in the broader history of decolonization, these revolutions became formative moments in the development of key concepts central to a two-hundred-year history of “cascading” human rights and national sovereignty.38 But this mise-en-série within a “revolutionary script” poses the risk of obscuring specific contexts and boxes the narrative into an imperialist/anti-imperialist divide.39
In a third but related approach, the focus on extra-European actors and spaces has led historians to investigate return effects, namely, the role of the colonies in the origins and dynamics of the Revolution. This perspective follows a path opened up by the new imperial history, which elucidates how colonies and imperial subjects have shaped metropolitan history. With a strong British focus, this historiography developed under the influence of postcolonial theoretical frameworks that reinterpreted the imperial past.40 The many important histories of the Haitian Revolution have shown that actors and events in Saint-Domingue influenced the course of the French Revolution in the metropole, a claim that Bell contemplates with suspicion, arguing that the Revolution's causes are still internal. Beyond Saint-Domingue, it is, from his perspective, doubtful whether Pondichéry, Guadeloupe, Gorée, or Guyane played a significant role in influencing the course of the Revolution at all.41 Implicit in Bell's skepticism is the place of the French Empire in the construction of modern France and therefore in the Revolution itself. The French Empire, he argues, was not as significant to France as the British Empire, with its greater size and scope, was to the formation of modern Britain.
Global history narratives often overlook French history precisely because global history draws on the strong historiography of British imperialism.42 In the British and Iberian contexts, the imperial question has already been tackled, but there is no equivalent in French history.43 For a long time, historians failed to acknowledge the eighteenth-century existence of a French colonial empire, which was almost invisible on world maps after the loss of Louisiana and Canada in 1763. From a territorial point of view, French possessions in America, Africa, and Asia were tiny confetti compared to the extent of the British, Spanish, and Portuguese Empires. The “quirky assemblage” (assemblage biscornu) of an overcrowded hexagon, scattered island colonies, and fragile trading posts clinging to Indian and African kingdoms appears to be an “empire” only with the use of quotation marks.44 In the past decade, early modern historians have started challenging that erasure, making the case that a new French colonial empire developed after the loss of New France in a context of European imperial reform.45 In particular, work on French racial history, from the perspective of gender and family history, has shown how productive this path can be.46 More numerous than scholars previously thought, people of color did live in the Old Regime metropole, were visible in public spaces and in the arts, entered the French army, and influenced the course of the Revolution locally.47 Muslim individuals throughout the French Empire contributed to shaping the Revolution's response to Islam before the Egyptian Expedition.48 The study of geopolitics and the political economy of the French Empire is another promising avenue: the French Empire's territorial limitations and its number of European settlers mattered less than its massive economic significance and the powerful elite who weathered the period's turbulence.49 Yet, in most “Atlantic” histories of the French Revolution, decolonization seems to happen without prior acknowledgment that France was an empire.50 The Revolution, in this perspective, marked the end of a continuously shrinking colonial project, a failure presaging British imperial hegemony.51
Other reasons for neglecting the empire are specific to French national history. Traditionally, scholars in the field identify empire with the Napoleonic period and with a form of government antithetical to the Republic. The French Revolution appears as the paradigmatic moment in the foundation of the nation-state—the Jacobin state, centralized and delimited by “natural” borders. Godechot's expansionist “Great Nation” is not understood in imperial or colonial terms, and imperial realities rarely intrude on reflections about universalism and cosmopolitanism.52 In the French context, when we associate republic with empire, we invoke, consciously or not, the Third Republic, the speeches of Jules Ferry, the “civilizing mission,” and the colonial exhibition of 1931, as if earlier experiences with republic and empire, though certainly brief, did not matter or had never existed. In the past twenty years, though, historians have started connecting the “first colonial system” and the “second colonial empire” and placing the history of abolition in the context of the “second slavery.”53 This rich body of scholarship has made this forum possible.
In addition to qualifying the narratives of an inevitable imperial decline or a celebratory moment of decolonization, we believe the imperial approach can also productively reframe a misleading binary model. Bell's doubt that influences from outside (metropolitan) France were consequential in shaping the Revolution relies on a national rather than an imperial framework. On this point, we take inspiration from historiography on the revolutions in the Americas, which challenges the divide between “outside” and “inside.”54 Within vast early America, histories on the margins and in the borderlands shaped national stories, even if these actors and spaces—such as Native peoples and formerly enslaved men and women in Spanish Florida and the Gulf Coast—neither were part of the thirteen revolting colonies nor would all become US citizens. The entanglements of multiple communities in imperial contexts were central not only to the revolts that challenged the Old Regime but also to state, nation, and empire building. From this perspective, why should we be so certain of where France is and is not, who is and isn't French, what is external and internal to France, and thereby what is and is not French history?55 In the revolutionary era, Frenchness and its relation to politics, economic reform, and territory were up for negotiation, reaching beyond the formal boundaries of the French Empire. In Cuba, white refugee planters from Saint-Domingue reestablished the capital of Caribbean racial slavery, but negros franceses, like the “French Negroes” who arrived in Spanish Louisiana and the United States, brought the emancipatory message of the Haitian Revolution with them.56 White planters demonized revolutionary Frenchness, and Black revolutionaries at times strategically brandished it. As Julius Scott suggests, a massive Caribbean revolution led by Black men and women weaponized some of the French Revolution's vocabulary while also expanding the ideational and spatial magnitude of its reach.57 These developments should not be appropriated by a French national narrative, but they open up avenues for research that deserve to be taken seriously.
Shifting scales and decentering the narrative highlight the complexity of the French Revolution in the metropole, which was as entangled, multifaceted, and fluctuating as in the colonies. We are not arguing that colonial matters were more important for revolutionary origins than the religious schism or the debate over monarchical power.58 However, religious and political infighting had imperial ramifications that informed revolutionary developments in a fluid geographic arena. New scholarship on the assignats, property, or the problematic “Terror,” among many other research themes, could lead to explorations of such topics at the imperial level.59 The well-trodden subject of the relationship between la Grande Nation and European sister republics, with their subsequent integration into the Napoleonic polity, could be fruitfully reread from this angle.60 The reception of the French Revolution in Indian Country also challenges our view of the reach of the Atlantic world and shows the changing nature of French imperialism and its lasting legacy.61 Bridging these various perspectives, the articles in our forum reveal that the boundaries between the categories of national, foreign, colonial, and imperial were not so clear. The Revolution was a key moment when a variety of actors—in newfound positions of power as well as actors “from below”—sought to reform, overhaul, or revolutionize these definitions and delineations. Debates took place in metropolitan France, in and across the colonies, and in conversation with other empires. We need some guidance from other histories of these imperial revolutions in opening up the black box of the French nation-state.
We should not turn the “imperial” page too quickly since this chapter has not yet been written. The global turn and critical approaches to empire still have more to teach us about France and its revolution. To write this history, we have everything to gain by borrowing insights from specialists of the British and Spanish Empires, from the growing empirical and conceptual work on transimperial histories, and from research on the modern French Empire.62 Indigenous studies scholars have likewise shown through myriad experiences around the world how Indigenous people found themselves both facing and shaping empire in this revolutionary era.63 These historians have problematized empires in a particularly stimulating way, depicting them as flexible polities marked by constitutive imbalances and the politics of difference.64 They show that the emergence of the nation did not hinder the continuation and expansion of imperial projects.65 Citizenship accommodated and even strengthened hierarchies between metropolitan and colonial citizens; this project was hardly as “colorblind” as current French mythologizing suggests.66 The empire, far from passively being defined by its metropolitan center, was an entangled formation, elaborated locally, with fluid borders and layered sovereignty.67 To reestablish the role of the French Empire in transimperial relations and in a globalizing economy, we must assume the polysemic character of the term empire. Empire was a space constituted hierarchically and polycentrally by an agglomeration of territories and peoples, a political and economic project produced through interactions and power relations by multiple actors, a category used by contemporaries, and an analytic tool for the historian. Instead of reifying empire and naturalizing established chronologies, we reveal the ambiguity of the French Revolution as an imperial moment that is not reducible to the story of anticolonial emancipation but that is also no longer relegated to the antechamber of the Napoleonic Empire or the colonial empire of the 1880s.
In this forum, we feature authors whose scholarship centers on different parts of the empire and who consider the role of the global turn and empire in their work. The contributions do not aim to be exhaustive: other actors, themes, periods, and spaces, such as the Mascarenes, Egypt, Corsica, and Italy, to name just a few examples, could have been included in our analysis.68 Each addition would have provided depth. Nevertheless, this forum goes beyond the Caribbean and the Atlantic sphere that has long dominated the global turn with four empirical essays and one conceptual contribution. The articles are set in complex, transimperial contexts that challenge traditional geographic categories. Contributors to this forum examine how imperial actors have considered the place of the empire in the Revolution and the role of the Revolution in the empire.
These essays begin from different spatial and temporal vantage points within the French Empire. Manuel Covo examines the contest over federalism in Saint-Domingue between free people of color and white planters who, taking inspiration from both metropolitan and non-French experiences with federalism, sought to alter the colony's relationship with the metropole while also maintaining the institution of slavery. Elizabeth Cross expands the view of the French Empire to include an important player, the Compagnie des Indes, and its changing status in the metropole from the 1780s to 1793. Extending the chronological scope of the Revolution, she sheds light on the intertwined geographic contexts the company navigated. Mathieu Ferradou returns our forum to Paris, where Irish Republicans in the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man (Société des Amis des Droits de l'Homme) were key in redefining and opposing British imperial and French republican concepts of nation and citizenship. Pernille Røge explores French inroads into West Africa between 1795 and 1802 through both the lens of French revolutionaries' visions for these holdings and the initiatives of local officials. In a conceptual article that also draws on this forum's contributions, Megan Maruschke examines the respatialization of the French Empire during the Revolution in order to engage global history and new imperial history debates on the place of empires and nation-states in the historical narrative of the nineteenth century. In addition to the findings presented in individual essays, collectively they allow for several methodological insights as well as preliminary conclusions about what we gain by integrating (and what we lose by ignoring) global and imperial approaches to the Revolution.
First, most articles share a focus on small spaces, albeit often outside the metropole, such as the tiny French comptoirs of Senegal and India or the parishes of Saint-Domingue. These localities were connected to emerging global capitalism and confronted with imperial rivalries. The actors situated in these places had to deal with the Revolution's reverberations and its material after effects in an age when transport and communication were slow and unreliable. It was not just the ideals of the Rights of Man that posed problems for officials in Pondichéry and Saint-Domingue. Lack of funding, diverted provisions, and imperial war were just as serious. Examining the empire from this local perspective allows historians to view the shifting scales and spatialities in various imperial contexts and to detect a multiplicity of “unfinished” projects and contested visions.69 While extending the constitution and citizenship across the empire in 1795 sought to counter unrest in Saint-Domingue, the governor of Senegal hardly found the move stabilizing. The Compagnie des Indes was a small institution that operated in and across a multitude of geographic contexts, but as the Revolution progressed, the perception of its role in the empire changed in both Paris and London. These jeux d’échelles are difficult for historians to trace, but in our forum we go beyond the invocation of “global” as a stand in for all experiences and processes emanating from outside the metropole.70 We thereby draw on global history methodologies that prioritize place to make large, abstract processes tangible while overcoming the global/local binary that hides more than it reveals.71
Second, the actors we analyze took on ambivalent roles and positionalities in their various contexts.72 The Irish republicans who admired the Revolution's universalism found themselves identified with the category of English-speaking foreigners in France during the Terror and discriminated against in Britain because they were Catholics. They nevertheless remained privileged as white men in the British imperial project. Some individuals appear more than once in the forum essays: their agendas and even their identities changed depending on their context. Arthur Dillon, for instance, was an Anglophile white supremacist colonist in the Antilles and a moderate revolutionary Irishman in Paris. Similarly, the planter Pierre-François Page was a staunch autonomist in Saint-Domingue in 1791 and a republican lobbyist for the West Indian colonists in Paris in 1793 before developing proposals for the future of the French plantation economy in Senegal in 1802. These individuals connected parts of the empire without necessarily involving the metropole. Misunderstandings, sometimes deliberate, also circulated among the individuals who tied the empire's many places together. Between whites and free people of color in Saint-Domingue, for example, it was impossible to discern who was on the side of revolutionary law in 1791. François Blanchot, governor of French Senegal, spent months without knowing who occupied the position of minister of the navy in periods of frequent ministerial changes. Unintended consequences resulted from actors' inability to decipher shifting political currents, as well as the new rhetorical space opened by the Revolution. To get a clearer picture, historians must examine the archives with a magnifying glass, pay attention to chronology, and consider the constraints on the circulation of information. All of our articles reveal the revolutionary uncertainty that coincided with intertwined crises whose outcomes were only rarely long lasting.
Third, a fundamental problem, as postcolonial scholars have long insisted, is that of the sources produced by colonial and national archives. We know that European or creole elites monopolized written speech, thus distorting the histories of the colonial and national past, the French Empire during the Revolution being no exception. It is crucial to read along and against the grain when examining planters' letters, governors' reports, company memos, revolutionary pamphlets, and National Assembly debates.73 Blanchot, for example, claimed to have ended the slave trade at the same time as French merchants, under Danish or American flags, kept buying and deporting captives. Conversely, it was the Almamy of Fuuta Tooro, not a weak French colonial government, who thwarted the European slave trade. The Compagnie des Indes served the interests of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, more than he served French interests, as he planned to use the Revolution to establish an alliance with France that would improve his position vis-à-vis the British East India Company. The planters' revolutionary maneuvering in Saint-Domingue and the governor's effort to placate conflicting parties make no sense absent the relentless challenge enslaved people posed to their authority. In their correspondence, Irish revolutionaries in Paris brandished their ties to French republicanism and antislavery causes, but the declaration of a “French Republic” does not mean that historians should overlook that France remained an empire. Contrary to what they claimed in their correspondence, the agents of empire featured in this forum reacted more than they acted and adapted more than they imposed; they sometimes pragmatically seized opportunities, but they often imagined more than they implemented.
Fourth, the interconnected Atlantic world, defined by converging political ideals and entangled uprisings, also shows signs of fracture under the scrutiny of an imperial and transimperial perspective. The contributions go beyond diffusionist approaches and think critically about intercultural transfers.74 Actors in the colonies and those in the metropole certainly picked up shared terminology and concepts across the empire in and beyond the Atlantic, but they did so to address different grievances and social realities. For instance, a surprising array of institutions and actors embraced the capacious idea of regeneration. The small white planters in the West Indies found in this notion the opportunity to emancipate themselves from metropolitan constraints, while free people of color espoused revolutionary regeneration to challenge white supremacy. The Parisian abolition of slavery in 1794 aligned with the revolutionary development in Saint-Domingue, but abolition remained elusive and flawed in many parts of the empire. The meanings of free and slave labor did not line up neatly across Gorée, Guyane, Réunion (Bourbon), and Maurice (Ile-de-France), where planters refused to implement abolition altogether.75 Despite universalist rhetoric, the social and racial configurations in which liberty, equality, and property were deployed differed substantially at every level—even the colony of Saint-Domingue itself displayed massive legal discrepancies.76 Especially in places with close interaction with other polities, these concepts developed with reference to other imperial contexts and consequently took divergent paths. The trajectory of the Compagnie des Indes revealed unexpected possibilities for French-British collaboration, even against the backdrop of imperial rivalry. The clash between the European history of cosmopolitanism and the American history of colonialism came to the fore in the Irish case, as the Irish republicans were torn between two empires; depending on context, they might be either dominant or dominated. Though the US Articles of Confederation were barely known in France, they influenced white planters in Saint-Domingue anxious to rework their colonial relationship with the metropole. These planters engaged in the Revolution in a manner that on the surface mirrored metropolitan developments but that prioritized the continuation of racial slavery. Through debates and uprisings, competing social actors continually renegotiated the meanings of freedom in a context of metropolitan and colonial chaos that opened new, divergent, and often fleeting political possibilities.
To conclude by situating these articles in the wider field of scholarship, we find that revolutionary rhetoric interacted and clashed with realities that escaped the “chiliastic fervor” of the Revolution.77 Historians have shown that there was something truly revolutionary at play in the 1790s: long-term commitments and contingent circumstances made certain moments of breakthrough possible.78 The articles in this forum, however, attenuate that position. With the partial exception of Saint-Domingue, the colonies appear more as fortresses of the Old Regime than as laboratories of modernity.79 A global understanding of revolutionary dynamics does not make sense without taking a multifaceted global counterrevolution into account as well.80 Moreover, decentering the political narrative leads us to be more critical to what stood as “revolutionary.” Although some local reforms were implemented during the French Revolution, those measures were not necessarily groundbreaking. In Senegal, the abolition of slavery led to “new” projects such as the use of indentured servants—not new at all. The colonial exclusif perpetuated “the economy of privilege,” yet the company faced reform rather than defeat. Acknowledging that revolutionary changes and events played out differently across the empire does not mean discarding the histories of radicalism or (transnational) solidarities in the metropole. We think that it is crucial to restore this ambiguity: the French Empire did survive and reorganize, but our authors, establishing a history of “might-have-beens,” also remind us that actors in the metropole and in the colonies imagined and fought for more than our current vocabulary of empire or nation-state allows.
An imperial perspective also highlights ambivalences in the Revolution's legacies. Concepts that are key to traditional histories of the French revolutionary experience, such as federation and republicanism, need to be understood in an imperial context. Republicanism in its universalist sense was altered by the “revolutionary government” and was also shaped by colonial debates. The republican regime combined assimilationist, white supremacist, and antiracist ideas and institutions: universal rights served as a veil of unity covering the fractures of sovereignty in a kingless imperial polity. The département, so emblematic of the Revolution and of the birth of the French nation-state, was part of a global history of geographic knowledge shaped by transimperial encounters. During the revolutionary decade, the department functioned to stabilize France's colonial empire and consolidate European expansion, and departmentalization remained an option for organizing colonial territory for the next two centuries. The echoes of the 1790s resonated in Martinique and the metropole in 1848, and a century later Suzanne Césaire and Aimé Césaire drew inspiration from both departmentalization and the Haitian Revolution to imagine a new political and artistic framework for the French Caribbean.81 Departmentalization was an alternative but fraught pathway to decolonization, one that did not end in independence.82 Léopold Sédar Senghor's revolutionary call for a postimperial and postnational federalism took into account at least three legacies of the Revolution: the post-1789 continuity of French imperialism, the precedent of Toussaint Louverture's 1801 constitution, and the radical promises of revolutionary France.83 “Empire” may never explain the causes of certain revolutionary developments, but it informed the legal, political, and spatial categories that underpinned societal reforms, including the conceptual building blocks of French imperialism, responses to decolonization, and today's French nation.
The decision to highlight imperial aspects of the Revolution and the varied ways different parts of the French Empire experienced it is not neutral because it exposes realities that have been actively silenced. There may be a risk of overestimating the empire's importance to the Revolution, but the risk of denying these connections is even greater. Imperial history tells us something about the Revolution in a classical sense. It shatters the linear and reassuring narratives that its contemporaries produced by challenging the trope of progress. It debunks the myth of origins without erasing the revolutionaries' and insurrectionists' aspirations for rights in the colonies, in the metropole, and beyond the confines of the French polity. It sheds new light on what was supposed to be the “Old Regime” and what would later be called the “new imperialism.” It points to nineteenth-century tensions around the construction of nation-states with imperial extensions. It does so by profiting from and contributing to a growing multinational body of scholarship on the long, entangled history of nation-states and their empires, the worlds to which the French Empire under revolution belonged.
This forum originated in a panel organized by Megan Maruschke and Julia Stählin at the European Network in Universal and Global History at Central European University in Budapest in 2017. The authors thank the panel commentator, panelists, and audience for their helpful comments, especially Mathieu Ferradou, Alan Forrest, Florian Kappeler, Darina Martykánová, Friedemann Pestel, José Damião Rodrigues, Sujit Sivasundaram, and Juan Luis Simal. The authors have presented and circulated drafts at several venues. They thank the Arbeitsgruppe “Globalgeschichte und Transnationalisierung” at Leipzig University, in particular Katja Castryck-Naumann, Lena Dallywater, Antje Dietze, and Steffi Marung; and the Long-Term Fellows Working Group at the Huntington Library, in particular Sara Austin, Daniela Bleichmar, Kristen Block, Katherine Cox, Andrea Denny-Brown, Steve Hindle, Jessica Rosenberg, Alexander Statman, Louis S. Warren, and Danielle Terrazas Williams. Other colleagues who provided valuable critical remarks include Geert Castryck, Quentin Deluermoz, Gilles Havard, Lasse Heerten, Matthias Middell, Yasmine Najm, Pernille Røge, Romy Sanchez, and Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall. Finally, the authors thank this forum's anonymous reviewer for an instructive review and French Historical Studies editor Carol Harrison for her support and helpful comments. Megan Maruschke was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) through the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199, “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition,” at Leipzig University.
Among many examples, see Niang and Suaudeau, “Pour un universalisme antiraciste”; and Blanchard and Korn-Brzoza, Décolonisations. Although the discussion now reaches a wider public, scholars articulated many of these arguments in the context of unrest in France's suburbs in 2005, which was accompanied by heated debates on the value of postcolonial studies in France; see, e.g., Bancel, Blanchard, and Lemaire, La fracture coloniale (published just one month before the outbreak of unrest); and Bayart, Les études postcoloniales. What is probably newer is the explicit connection made in these debates between the history of French slavery and that of the modern colonial empire. For memory politics on slavery and antislavery, see Chivallon, L'esclavage; Hourcade, “L'esclavage”; Fleming, Resurrecting Slavery; and Cottias and Diptée, “Esclavage, mémoire et pouvoir.”
Le point, “Le ‘décolonialisme’”; Le monde, “Une centaine d'universitaires alertent.” Le monde quickly published another “tribune” (op-ed) with a counterpetition signed by two thousand academics: “Université.”
Smith, “President vs. the American Media.”
Dubois, “La République Métissée”; Boittin and Stovall, “Who Is French?”; Vidal, “Francité et situation coloniale.”
Trouillot, Silencing the Past.
Adelman, “Age of Imperial Revolutions,” 320, 339.
Including the Dutch case would temper this view.
See Césaire, Toussaint Louverture; Benot, La Révolution française; Dorigny and Gainot, “La Révolution et la ‘question coloniale’”; and Gainot and Saunier, “Des Antilles aux Indes orientales.” In fact, Césaire and Benot disagreed on whether there was a single colonial revolution or distinct revolutions, but both emphasized the significance of Caribbean events.
Armitage and Subrahmanyam, Age of Revolutions; Desan, Hunt, and Nelson, French Revolution in Global Perspective.
Desan, Hunt, and Nelson, French Revolution in Global Perspective, 10–11.
Hunt reiterates this in Cheney et al., “La Révolution française.”
Thibaud, “Après l'esclavage.”
Adelman, “Age of Imperial Revolutions,” 320.
A point made by an unexpected best seller in French publishing, Patrick Boucheron's Histoire mondiale de la France, translated into English as France in the World.
Bell, “Questioning the Global Turn”; see also Bell et al., “L’âge des révolutions.”
Knott, “Narrating the Age of Revolution.”
Adelman, “What Is Global History Now?”
Cheney, “French Revolution's Global Turn,” 578–79.
Drayton and Motadel, “Discussion.” Bell demonstrated in his analysis of the assassination of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville at the outset of the French and Indian War that national history can build on and inform imperial history: Cult of the Nation.
For a critique of scales, see De Vito, “History without Scale.”
Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History, 232.
Bell expands this perspective with Yair Mintzker in Rethinking the Age of Revolutions.
Osterhammel, Transformation of the World; Bayly, Birth of the Modern World.
The Journal of Global History does feature early modern scholarship, but the Age of Revolutions is nearly absent. An exception is Hill, “How Global Was the Age of Revolutions?”
Forrest and Middell, Routledge Companion; Bell and Mintzker, Rethinking the Age of Revolutions; Maruschke and Middell, French Revolution. For the Revolution and the history of empire, see Fradera, Imperial Nation.
Circulation implies that there is a structure (not necessarily the globe) within which goods, ideas, and people move: Gänger, “Circulation.” Cooper's critique of the concept of globalization two decades ago has been taken seriously in the field (“What Is the Concept of Globalization Good For?”).
Middell, Routledge Handbook; Drayton and Motadel, “Discussion.”
Potofsky, “One and the Many”; Stammers, “La mondialisation”; Palmer, Age of the Democratic Revolution; Godechot, France and the Atlantic Revolution. Important examples are Jourdan, La Révolution; Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World; and Polasky, Revolutions without Borders.
Linebaugh and Rediker, Many-Headed Hydra.
Zavitz, “Revolutionary Narrations”; Célius, “Crise du discours colonial.”
James, Black Jacobins. Before James, historians overlooked other Marxist analyses. Jean Jaurès (Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française) and Anna Julia Cooper (L'attitude de la France), whose thesis was defended in 1925, were very much aware of the role of slavery in the debates of the National Assembly. Nathalie Frédéric Pierre made this point in “Haitian Statesmen and the African Presence.” In a 1961 essay W. E. B. Du Bois treated Africa and slavery as central to the course of the French Revolution and reframed the Louisiana Purchase as possible only thanks to Toussaint Louverture in an issue of Freedomways that linked Black people in the American, French, and Cuban Revolutions with contemporary freedom riders in the United States and with decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean (“Africa and the French Revolution”).
Fick, Making of Haiti; Dubois, Colony of Citizens; Dubois, Avengers of the New World; Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies. On the reception of the Black Jacobins, see Forsdick and Høgsbjerg, Black Jacobins Reader.
Benot, La Révolution française. For an overview of the scholarship on the Haitian Revolution in a global perspective, see Covo, “La Révolution haïtienne”; and Sepinwall, “Beyond the Black Jacobins.”
McDonnell, “Rethinking the Age of Revolution”; Eldridge and Sessions, “French Colonial Histories.”
Daut, Baron de Vastey; Stieber, Haiti's Paper War.
Thornton, “‘I Am the Subject.’”
Serna, “Every Revolution Is a War of Independence”; Bourhis-Mariotti et al., Couleurs.
Hunt, Inventing Human Rights; Armitage, Declaration of Independence.
Baker and Edelstein, Scripting Revolution.
The multiple influential areas of scholarship are summarized in Howe, New Imperial Histories.
Spieler, Empire and Underworld.
Todd, “French Imperial Meridian.”
Marshall, “Empire and Authority”; Guerra, Las revoluciones hispanicas; Rodriguez, Independence of Spanish America.
Meyer et al., Histoire de la France coloniale, 118. For an analysis of that historiographical impensé, see Ruggiu, “Des nouvelles France.”
We refer here only to the post-1763 context. The pre-1763 scholarship focusing on New France is considerable: Vidal, Français?; Crouch, Nobility Lost; Gainot, L'empire colonial français; Houllemare, “Seeing the Empire through Lists and Charts”; Malègue, “L'empire en tableaux”; Wood, Archipelago.
Palmer, Intimate Bonds; Peabody, Madeleine's Children.
Noël, Dictionnaire des gens de couleur; Lafont, L'art et la race; Gainot, Les officiers de couleur; Gauthier, L'aristocratie de l’épiderme.
Coller, Muslims and Citizens.
Shovlin, “Selling American Empire”; Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce; Kwass, Contraband; Marzagalli, Bordeaux et les Etats-Unis; Régent, Les maîtres de la Guadeloupe.
Dubois, Colony of Citizens.
Forrest, Death of the French Atlantic.
Godechot, La Grande Nation.
Benot and Dorigny, Rétablissement de l'esclavage; Sessions, By Sword and Plow; Røge, Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire; Dorigny and Gainot, La colonisation nouvelle; Todd, “Retour sur l'Expédition d'Alger”; Larcher, L'autre citoyen; Semley, To Be Free; Mitchell, Vénus Noire; Lewis, “Legacies of Slave-Ownership”; Tomich, Politics of the Second Slavery; Scott and Hébrard, Freedom Papers; Flory, De l'esclavage; Lesueur and Rogers, Libres après les abolitions?; Almeida Mendes and Thibaud, “Citoyenneté et contre-citoyenneté.”
Calloway, American Revolution in Indian Country; Landers, Atlantic Creoles; DuVal, Independence Lost; Perl-Rosenthal, Citizen Sailors.
Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History, 225.
Ferrer, Freedom's Mirror; White, Encountering Revolution; Johnson, Fear of French Negroes.
Scott, Common Wind. On the interaction between the French and Caribbean revolutions, see Régent, “Revolution in France”; and Terrien, “Essai de géographie historique.”
Bell, “Questioning the Global Turn,” 16.
Blaufarb, Great Demarcation; Spang, Stuff and Money; Martin, “La Terreur.”
Serna, Républiques sœurs. Recent important interventions on the nature of the Napoleonic empire include Broers, “Cultural Imperialism”; Belaubre, Dym, and Savage, Napoleon's Atlantic; and Antoine et al., L'empire napoléonien.
Crouch, “French Revolution in Indian Country.”
Hedinger and Heé, “Transimperial History.”
Havard, Empire et métissages; Havard, Histoire des coureurs de bois; Fullagar and McDonnell, Facing Empire; Sivasundaram, Waves across the South.
Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History.
Fradera, Imperial Nation.
Saint-Louis, “Le surgissement du terme ‘Africain’”; Hébrard, “Esclavage et dépendance.”
Benton, Search for Sovereignty; Gould, “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds”; Gaffield, Haitian Connections.
The open-access journal Age of Revolutions (ageofrevolutions.com) showcases new scholarship on some of these topics.
Darwin, Unfinished Empire.
Revel, Jeux d’échelles.
For an overview, see Baumann, Dietze, and Maruschke, “Portals of Globalization.”
Dietze and Naumann, “Revisiting Transnational Actors.”
Stoler, Along the Archival Grain.
Espagne, Les transferts culturels franco-allemands; Adam, Intercultural Transfers.
Wanquet, La France et la première abolition de l'esclavage; Marvin, “Bourbon Island Creoles.”
On revolutionary universalism from a colonial perspective, see Sepinwall, Abbé Grégoire; and Getachew, “Universalism after the Post-colonial Turn.” On propriété in the Age of Revolutions, see Greer, Property and Dispossession, 389–436. On legal disparities in the colonies during the Revolution, see Régent, Niort, and Serna, Les colonies.
Bell, “Questioning the Global Turn,” 24.
Popkin, You Are All Free; Serna, “Que s'est-il dit.”
Some historians have challenged the “modernity” of the Haitian Revolution. Malick Ghachem explains that much of the French revolutionaries' reformist program in Saint-Domingue had roots in the Old Regime (Old Regime). Cheney argues that Haitian elites had an Old Regime agenda despite their commitment to abolition (“La persistance de l'Ancien Régime à Haïti”). In contrast, Jean Casimir's model of counterplantation offers a radical counterhistory (Une lecture décoloniale). Ada Ferrer shows the legal framework of postrevolutionary Haiti's antislavery foreign policy to have both European Old Regime and revolutionary roots (“Haiti, Free Soil”).
Jansen, “Flucht und Exil.”
Césaire, Toussaint Louverture; Forsdick, “Haiti and Departmentalization”; Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation.
Gainot, “La naissance”; Childers, Seeking Imperialism's Embrace.
For an analysis of both Césaire and Senghor, see Wilder, Freedom Time.