This article examines how French revolutionaries envisioned a republican imperial future in Africa between the decreed abolition of slavery and its restoration under Napoléon. Drawing on proposals within the Ministry of the Marine and the Colonies and analyzing French activities in the Senegambian holdings of Saint-Louis and Gorée, the author argues that, although the French Revolution included numerous creative imperial processes vis-à-vis Africa, they did not amount to an imperial revolution in their own right.
Cet article étudie la manière dont les révolutionnaires français envisageaient un avenir impérial et républicain en Afrique entre le décret d'abolition de l'esclavage du 4 février 1794 et sa restauration sous Napoléon. S'appuyant sur des archives manuscrites du ministère de la Marine et des Colonies et analysant les activités françaises à Saint-Louis et Gorée, il démontre que, bien que la Révolution française ait été synonyme de processus impériaux novateurs vis-à-vis de l'Afrique, ces derniers ne constituaient pas pour autant une véritable révolution impériale.
In the summer of 1797 the central government in Paris contacted François Emilie Blanchot, chief commander of the French colony in Senegal, inquiring about the current situation and future potential of France's holdings in West Africa. Since the decreed abolition of slavery in 1794, these territories had lost their purpose as facilitators of the French slave trade. The Executive Directory therefore wished to evaluate whether France should now abandon or find new uses for them. Blanchot, who had poured his energies into preserving Saint-Louis and Gorée since the French Revolution erupted, responded that the republic's African holdings had great potential. They were, however, in dire need of supplies, people, and capital to realize it. As he wrote:
The gradual elimination of men and means, caused by the near-absolute loss of communication with France, and the agitated spirit during the tremors of a grand revolution in the metropole, have increasingly alienated this colony from the condition best suited for it, if it is to succeed in all of the activities of which it can be the source. But a new well-articulated organization, a continual influx of suitable men and of goods that are necessary for difficult enterprises . . . can open Senegal and its natural dependencies to a new field of industry that is worthy of the efforts and the means of the French Republic.1
Blanchot's exchange with the central government captures a moment in the French Revolution in which metropolitan policy makers attempted to galvanize the republic's colonial ambitions after Caribbean slave revolts, transatlantic warfare, and the decreed abolition of slavery had undercut France's lucrative plantation complex. As they did, a growing number among them viewed Africa as an ideal stage on which to roll out the republic's imperial ambitions and launch a colonial empire compatible with the ethos of the French Revolution. To local officials such as Blanchot, however, sporadic metropolitan contact during the revolutionary decade disclosed a central administration out of touch with the political and commercial situation on the ground—a center unable to offer the support that a translation of republican ambitions into colonial realities required.
Analyzing plans to revitalize the French colonial empire that circulated within official metropolitan political institutions in conjunction with the responses they garnered in Senegambia provides an intriguing focal point from which to contemplate whether the French Revolution was also an imperial revolution. Such an analysis, however, leads to no easy answer, not only because the period between the outbreak of revolution in 1789 and the elevation of Napoléon to first consul for life in 1802 witnessed a kaleidoscope of French imperial opportunities, but also because the essence of what we mean by French Revolution and imperial revolution are hard to distill into simple clear descriptions.2 To bring this question into sharper relief, it is therefore useful to clarify what historians believe to be unique about the French Revolution and to use those characteristics as a means to assess if similar assets undergirded revolutionaries' engagement with colonial empire. In his recent critique of the “global turn,” David A. Bell argues that the most important feature of the French Revolution was how “revolutionaries tried to sweep aside centuries of accreted customs, practices, laws, and institutions and to build their world anew, in a moment of unprecedented political promise and political peril.” To Bell, however, what made the French Revolution revolutionary “was not the ‘source material’ with which it did so but the process by which it was melted down and reforged into something new.” Bell calls this process “mysterious,” “poetic,” and infused with a “chiliastic fervor,” something which a broader global perspective cannot explain but which requires “other approaches.”3 Though silent about what “other approaches” he has in mind, Bell's comment may help determine what to look for when thinking about the French Revolution as an imperial revolution. Did French revolutionaries' engagement with the imperial question vis-à-vis Africa capture, if not the mysterious poetics of the revolutionary process, then an effort to “melt down” old colonial practices? Did they try to “reforge” older approaches to colonial empire into “something new”? Or did they invent wholly new tools for empire making?
In what follows, I tackle these questions by surveying how some revolutionaries contemplated a role for Africa within the French colonial empire between the abolition of slavery and its restoration in 1802, while keeping track of what materialized in the main French holdings in Senegambia. Such foci reflect the different agendas about the future of Senegal and other African territories that circulated through government organs. Policy statements fluctuated on the waves of revolutionary upheaval and in the hands of ministers who came and went through the revolving doors of the Ministry of the Marine and the Colonies. Plans in Paris, moreover, were often incompatible with French activities in Senegal. Warfare disrupted communication and depleted state finances, shoving the responsibility for imperial survival onto the shoulders of local officials such as Blanchot. It also exacerbated the already precarious nature of French colonial power in Africa and amplified French reliance on the goodwill of local African elites and European commercial networks.
Despite these volatile circumstances, three unifying features undergirded many of the republican agendas that bore on West Africa between 1795 and 1802. The first was that within most proposals authors mobilized a discourse of French revolutionary superiority—industrial, moral, and cultural—to validate imperial incursions into Africa in pursuit of land, labor, and markets. This sense of superiority foreshadowed France's later self-proclaimed imperial “civilizing mission” (mission civilisatrice) that accompanied expansion in Africa under the Third Republic. The second feature was that the proposed strategies were pitted against the ancien régime colonial system rooted in slavery, while the third—somewhat paradoxically—reflects that these very strategies drew on logics that echoed rather than opposed ancien régime colonial ideas and policies. In my view, such reliance on ancien régime ideas, a theme that Elizabeth Cross and Manuel Covo also develop in their contributions to this forum, tempers the revolutionary aspect of the French Revolution as an imperial revolution. Instead, it situates the French Revolution within Jeremy Adelman's broader Age of Imperial Revolutions between circa 1760 and 1840, a period that saw European empires strive to adapt to shifting global circumstances, internal tensions, and the rise of the nation-state, sometimes revitalizing “the notion of empire itself.”4 Yet if Bell is right that it was not the source material but the process that constituted the most important feature of the French Revolution, the door remains open for the possibility that the imperial processes that pervaded it were extraordinarily creative—if not outright revolutionary—in their own right.
The Future of the French Holdings in Senegal
Blanchot's view that Senegal could open a new field of industry to the French Republic was crafted in response to a query written by Laurent Jean François Truguet, minister of the marine and the colonies between 1795 and 1797. An aristocrat, Truguet had embraced French republican principles and was committed to rethinking the purpose of Senegal after the abolition of slavery. Equally supportive of abolition in his response to Truguet, Blanchot expressed relief that “the odious” French slave trade “no longer takes place.” He also struck a promising tone with respect to France's postabolitionist future in Senegal, emphasizing the possibilities of a great commerce in agriculture, gold, ivory, and gum arabic.5
Senegambian gold and ivory had long fascinated Europeans, while gum had become an essential resource for Europe's eighteenth-century textile industry. Along with a desire to foil the French slave trade, access to gum arabic was the main reason that Britain conquered Senegal in the Seven Years' War (1756–63) and also that France recaptured it in the American Revolution.6 Instantly augmenting the gum trade was not without it challenges, however, due to the ongoing warfare between marabouts and Arab merchants in Upper Senegal who supplied the gum and local slave traders along the Senegal River.7 As Blanchot stressed, warfare “between the different Moor tribes” as well as their war with “the Blacks [nègres] at the trade stations along the river where the trade is taking place” complicated trade relations. Furthermore, British naval threats and the persistent lack of provisions in food, building materials, and military supplies inhibited an immediate opportunity to reignite French commerce in the region.8
In spite of these obstacles—or perhaps because of them—Blanchot praised Senegal's agricultural potential in his letter to Truguet. Taking a stab at France's activities in West Africa in the preceding centuries, he noted that while Europeans who had traded in Senegal the last two hundred years were convinced that cultivation in Senegal was impossible, this was so only because “no one until now had been advised to even try it.”9 In reality, Europeans had tried to cultivate cash crops in West Africa since the seventeenth century. Blanchot was merely resuscitating these designs, and he was not alone.10 With the prohibition of slavery M. Gourg, the former director of the French fort of Juda (Whydah) on the Gold Coast, suggested in 1795 using the trade station of Podor up the Senegal River to cultivate food and cash crops associated with the Americas, such as sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton. To Gourg, the initial focus should be on the cultivation of cotton, because this plant was indigenous to Senegal, and then followed by tobacco, indigo, and coffee cultivation, while rice, corn, millet, beans, vegetables, and various fruits should be cultivated for local use. Gourg urged using penal labor from France to cultivate these commodities and recommended sending “wives” for these laborers, who could “take care of the domestic chores.” Once the convicts had established an agricultural colony, they could turn to local sources of labor. In line with France's increasingly pejorative view of Africans, Gourg speculated that “the indigenous population” might “leave their state of apathy” and begin to emulate the French settlers and “attach themselves to Europeans,” which would have the happy result of “turning the nations bordering the Niger River [sic] into Agricultural societies.”11
Though floated in a fast-paced revolutionary context, Gourg's and Blanchot's proposals echoed older ideas on how to build and manage a colonial empire, particularly ideas that had proliferated since the Seven Years' War. During the reign of Louis XIV, France had shipped the so-called filles du roi to New France to further colonization, but the possible use of women as tools of empire reached new levels in the late 1760s. In those years the comte de Modave, who wished to create a new colony on Madagascar, advocated marriage between local women and French skilled laborers as a means to attract the latter to the island. In his words, women of Madagascar were capable of “tenderness and attachment” and came “in all colors, even white.” Moreover, the notion that Africans should emulate Europeans and start producing sugar, cotton, and coffee in their homeland to then exchange such cash crops for European manufactured goods had circulated since the late 1750s. As political economists such as Pierre-Samuel Du Pont de Nemours and Pierre-Joseph-André Roubaud lectured in their economic writings between 1759 and 1775, doing so would lead to a profitable yet humane exchange between France and West Africa and would be based on mutual interests. In the following decades abolitionists on either side of the Atlantic coupled their antislavery views with such schemes for agricultural expansion in West Africa.12
Ancien régime precedents notwithstanding, how particularly the word attachment figured in proposals in the 1790s merits attention. While not unseen before the Revolution, it appeared in numerous proposals on West Africa (as well as the Caribbean) after the abolition of slavery as stakeholders of empire worried that the transition from slave labor to freer forms of labor would reintroduce the difficulty of securing a reliable labor force for cash crop cultivation. As a tactic for empire, attachment became loaded with suppositions about disparities between African and European stages of development and, as with Gourg, usually coupled with the view that Africans were intellectually inferior to, and less industrious than, Europeans. An internal memorandum of 1797 noted that if the inhabitants along the Senegal River “discovered that industrious and intelligent Europeans were able to cultivate a more precious produce than millet, there [could be] no doubt that they would seek to partake in such work.” Treating them well, the memorandum stated, would “attach” them to us, and possibly become a means to help African peoples “stop entering into warfare which perpetually destroy[ed] them and whose sole goal [was] to turn each other into slaves and to deliver them to Europeans.”13
Blanchot depicted the population on Saint-Louis as lacking “industrious” inclinations as well. In response to Truguet's query about the preferred organization for the colony, he advised against an implementation of the Constitution of Year III in the West African holdings on such grounds. As Megan Maruschke describes in her contribution to this forum, this constitution aimed at drawing the whole French Empire into a “single legal framework” but remained ambiguous in its practical applications in the colonies. In Senegal it was never applied in accordance with Blanchot's counsel. The latter noted to Truguet that Saint-Louis, the main site of the French government in Senegal, was inhabited by a considerable number of locals (les naturels de l'isle), a French garrison, and French merchants who resided there temporarily. To govern this population, he advised electing a mayor from among the locals who would be subordinate to the chief French commander of the colony “as has been practiced with success for a long time.” This was important, he argued, to “profit from the little industry that the [indigenous population] are capable of.” Allowing them to “exercise the rights of French citizens to their full extent, or giving them even a little influence over the local administration or governmental policy” would merely disturb or confuse them. A similarly hierarchical structure was critical on the island of Gorée, where locals according to Blanchot had come under the influence of “vague floating ideas” about “the true principles of liberty.”14
These views on the damaging effects that the Constitution of Year III could have on the governance of French holdings in West Africa suggest that Blanchot's own understanding of the “true principles of liberty” were in flux, both with regard to abolition and with respect to how locals might embrace French constitutional rights. Since his arrival in Senegal in 1786, and with the appointment to chief commander in 1789, Blanchot had overseen the French slave trade and dexterously navigated local challenges to it, including the Fuuta Tooro Revolution. Spearheaded by the Almaami, Abdul Kader Kan, this revolution prohibited French and indigenous slave traders along the Senegal River from enslaving Muslims of the Peuls, or Fulbe (Poules), ethnic group. To help slave traders maintain their trading especially at Galam, Blanchot brokered a treaty with Almaami representatives in 1789 on behalf of the French Compagnie du Sénégal that allowed Muslim clerics to come on board the company's ships and search for Peul captives if they otherwise left the French and their collaborators at Saint-Louis to their trading. Continuing on as commander of France's Senegalese holdings until his death in 1807, Blanchot also seamlessly slipped back into the role of protector of the French slave trade in 1802.15
Blanchot's view that the indigenous inhabitants on Saint-Louis were indolent yet capable of fulfilling the role of mayor was another inconsistency in his reasoning. Since the days of the Compagnie des Indes, the French had relied on local support networks to sustain their presence in the region, be it as interpreters negotiating annual tributes to local rulers on whose land the French built their forts, as sailors on the Senegal River, or as mediators between French traders and indigenous commercial centers. Particularly Gorée and Saint-Louis had seen the rise of the powerful signares in the eighteenth century, local women whose commercial contacts and domestic slaves were crucial to the survival of the French. Continuing into the era of French crown rule in 1763, French officers, including Blanchot, formed temporary domestic partnerships with these women and had children with them, many of whom would go on to occupy elite positions among the islands' growing mulatto population. References to their “idleness” and potential confusion over the French Constitution thus had little basis in reality. Rather, it was a strategy used to protect Blanchot and domestic elites from a Directory that tried to meddle in local affairs that they felt it had little understanding of.16
While Blanchot advocated against an application of the Constitution in Senegal, he did propose changes, particularly with regard to the military protection of the colony. He noted that the population of Saint-Louis had expanded from five or six thousand to eight thousand since the outbreak of the Revolution, an increase mostly made up of slaves. In one of his rare references to the continuation of slave trading during the years of abolition, he admitted that “in spite of the suppression of the slave trade” captives continued to arrive from Galam (the trade station farther up the Senegal River where local merchants on Saint-Louis acquired the majority of their slaves). Yet while the population of Saint-Louis kept growing, the French garrison had been reduced from four hundred to virtually nothing since the outbreak of war with Britain. To ensure local safety from internal and external threats of aggression, Blanchot therefore proposed letting “a certain number of men born in the region form a company” for the various neighborhoods.17
That slave trading continued from Saint-Louis and created a local security problem is not surprising. It was difficult to prevent completely “without adequate means,” he remarked in his letter to the minister, though he did not go into detail as to why that was the case. Nor did he indicate that he was participating in it. Yet we know from the autobiography of François Belon, a merchant from Nantes who traded in and out of New York in the 1790s, that Blanchot tolerated French slave trading under foreign flag and traded slaves with Danish and US merchants in exchange for much-needed supplies. These explicit references to Blanchot's slave trading are absent in the official correspondence, but the central administration was aware of his trading with neutral powers. An internal note from 1799 underlined that “until now, the Americans and the Danes have provisioned this colony,” not the French. Surely, the administration would have understood that international slave traders were not handing off provisions for free.18
The lack of “adequate means” to enact a repression of the slave trade and the steady arrival of captives from Galam prompted Blanchot to propose acquiring the island of Babagué at the mouth of the Senegal River from the ruler Moyout Guiob (also known as Jean Bar) and relocate the surplus population to that island “by gentle means.” He further proposed expanding upriver and reestablishing the fort at Podor, formed by the Compagnie des Indes. As Gourg had pointed out in 1795, the area around Podor was fertile and could produce food for local needs as well as cash crops for exportation. Echoing such ideas, Blanchot also wanted to reestablish Fort St. James at Galam at the intersection of the Senegal and Félémé Rivers, which would offer great advantages “with respect to commerce and cultivation” and open the road to “the wealthiest of mines” (referring to the gold mines of Bambuk). Yet none of these projects would materialize, Blanchot reminded the minister, without medical assistance, a functional garrison, fresh workers, and further supplies from France.19
When Paris responded to Blanchot's letter, Truguet was no longer at the helm of colonial policy. The factionalism of revolutionary politics had put Georges René Le Peley de Pléville in his place. The new minister expressed his gratitude to Blanchot but noted, in response to the latter's many requests for supplies and reinforcement, that little could be done in the midst of war. He encouraged Blanchot to “use the means you may have at your disposal to prepare the road” to a bright colonial future in Senegal and to “breathe new life into [people's] hope and confidence in the government.” The minister was also supportive of Blanchot's proposition to relocate Saint-Louis's surplus population to the island of Babagué, praised Blanchot's suggestion to form local troops to restore order, and gave the commander free reign in how to muster local troops.20 Yet if Le Peley showered Blanchot with praise, the undertone of his response was that no help was forthcoming. In early 1799 a bureaucrat noted that “the Republic's employees” in Senegal “had not been paid in over three years,” nor did Blanchot have any way to pay the annual customs to African rulers. Storage houses were empty, and with no military reinforcement arriving from France, Blanchot had been forced to evacuate the garrison at Gorée to defend the colony of Saint-Louis from a British attack.21 Consequently, warfare, a scarcity of resources, ongoing slave trading, and indigenous rivalry kept Blanchot from opening Senegal to a new field of industry as envisioned in his recommendations to Truguet.
The Search for “Cultivators” for the French Antilles
The recipient of the abysmal report about the French holdings in Senegal in 1799 was the new minister, Eustache Bruix. During his administration Blanchot finally received much-needed support from the metropole. Such aid was likely the result of Bruix's agenda to reignite the transfer of African labor to the French Caribbean. In this period Victor Hugues and Toussaint Louverture tried to revivify the production of sugar and coffee on Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue by imposing a strict labor regime of what they described as “cultivators.” A cultivator was traditionally “a person who cultivates the land,” but the term became intimately associated with Africans in French colonies after Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, commissioner of Saint-Domingue between 1792 and 1797, referred to freed slaves as “cultivators” in his decree to abolish slavery in the northern part of Saint-Domingue in 1793.22 The concept gained further currency in the late 1790s among people looking to Africa for labor. That Bruix was supportive of finding African cultivators for the Caribbean colonies was evident in his instructions to Blanchot, in which he charged—unlike his immediate predecessors—that Senegal was of great importance to the republic because of its role as a source of labor for the French Antilles.23
Bruix's instructions disclosed the minister's careful reading of Blanchot's recent letters and requests. He immediately instructed Blanchot to retake Gorée and promised that the government would “send to Senegal a company of blacks as well as provisions,” which would enable Blanchot “to defend the colony.” According to Bruix, such a company of blacks from the Caribbean colonies would further “offer Africans an idea of the manner in which they will be treated if they joined us,” dropping the first hint of his plans to ship African labor to the Caribbean. Blaming the “primitive” state of coastal West Africa on the “odious commerce” of the slave trade, he noted that the abolition of slavery and the “presence of free blacks chosen for the defense of the colony” would signal to local Africans the liberties and future opportunities that they could expect as cultivators in the French Antilles.24
Reminiscent of slave traders and plantation owners' claim that African captives were better off in the French colonies, Bruix presented his argument as compatible with revolutionary principles. Blanchot should “use all occasions to remind [locals of] Article XV of the Declaration of the Rights of Man” of Year III, which stated that “any man could offer his time and his service [to another], but could neither sell himself or be sold.”25 Yet this did not mean that they could not go as cultivators to the Antilles. If Blanchot found a way to “reconcile the principles of humanity” and “constitutional laws” with the “laudable goal” of procuring workers for the French Antilles, he would help enhance “the esteem and benevolence of the French government.” “If there was a way to engage Blacks through the appeal of liberty” and “the promise of a happier destiny, the Executive Directory authorizes the commander of Senegal to do so.” Should such means be insufficient, Blanchot should “perceive of the objects of exchange offered to [local rulers to] cover the cost of a slave as a veritable redemption [rachat].”26
The idea of finding volunteers had featured in a number of reports in the mid-1790s, most clearly in a proposal by a C. Girod written in the months prior to the composition of Blanchot's instructions. Girod, who may have been the Swiss naturalist Justin Girod-Chantrans, who had stayed in Saint-Domingue between 1781 and 1783, submitted a proposal to found a new colony in Senegal and to create a Compagnie de Commerce d'Afrique de la Grande Nation, whose main purpose should be to obtain workers for the Caribbean colonies.27 Girod claimed that, after a time of error (referring to the use of enslaved labor) and years of revolutionary tumult, it was time, under “the wisdom of the Executive Directory,” to construct in Senegal a colony rich in agricultural products and that would supply “free field hands for the cultivation of our islands in the Antilles.” Creating this colony, Girod opined, required dealing effectively with African princes with “savage manners relative to our own mores and superior knowledge,” princes familiar only with European slave traders and not with people “who will ask them not for slaves but for free men with whom to create voluntary and good cultivators.” France should make treaties with these princes that allowed the French to obtain “voluntary subjects” from Africa to go to the Americas, who would be “shipped on small boats to the French Antilles with their wives and children” in a manner that did not resemble the one used “in the past.”28 Government advisers had praised Girod's proposal because it set out to procure “cultivators for our colonies” but dismissed it because of his idea to put a privileged company in charge. Yet Bruix clearly agreed with many of Girod's suggestions, since they reappeared in Bruix's instructions to Blanchot a few months later.29
On the receiving end of the central administration's shifting tone, Blanchot's responses to Bruix's instructions reflect the chief commander's increasingly seasoned pragmatism. Blanchot, whose answers were received by Bruix's successor, Marc Antoine Bourdon de Vatry, noted that the central government's desires to “attach Africans to the French at Senegal . . . were followed with little success” because Africans' “prejudices, their nature, and their practices are too often in contradiction with our own.” In his view, “only time will be able to bring such successes.” Moreover, the Directory's ambition to remind Africans of article XV of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was challenging. It required him to “perpetuate ideas of liberty to a multitude that appears rather indifferent, since the meaning of the word slave is unknown.” At Saint-Louis, he explained, “the captives are only domestic laborers who live together with their masters.”30
Blanchot was equally pragmatic in his response to Bruix's proposal to obtain volunteers for the French colonies in the Antilles from within the domains of African princes but also offered a savvy solution to its potential shortcomings. He did not think that finding volunteers would be possible, let alone tolerated by local rulers. Nevertheless, he understood what Bruix was asking of him. As he noted, “Given the need to revivify agricultural production in our colonies, it is possible to obtain cultivators by means of commerce under the denomination of redemptions.” In Blanchot's view, shifting from a trade in slaves to an industry of redeeming captives could work if France continued to pay tribute and taxes to local rulers (as was the custom before the abolition of the slave trade). This, of course, meant that local rulers could continue business as usual, regardless of whether the destiny of African captives was that of slaves or of redeemed cultivators in the French colonies. To Blanchot, moreover, redemption should require a formula of contractual obligation between the ship owner (armateur) and the redeemed captive (whom he now referred to as an engagé), since a contract would make it “possible to avoid the inconveniences of absolute and unlimited slavery.”31 Putting his imperial creativity on display, Blanchot articulated a way for the administration to acquire African laborers that would circumvent the “inconveniences” that a continuation of slavery entailed under the Constitution of Year III while leaving intact customary practices of slave trading in Senegal.
The Colonization and Civilization of Africa
While the Directory increasingly found utility in the French possessions in Africa as a source of “cultivators” to the Antilles, some Frenchmen continued to encourage agricultural and commercial expansion in Senegal. After the Egyptian expedition commenced in 1798, imperialists proposed carving out a large portion of Africa for France through parallel expansions in North and West Africa. One promoter of this strategy was none other than the former Saint-Domingue plantation owner Pierre François Page, who—albeit a famous opponent of abolition in 1794—had subsequently joined those who “had evolved and reflected.” In a memorandum of January 29, 1802—four months prior to Napoléon's reinstatement of slavery—Page argued that it was too late to reinstate slavery on Saint-Domingue because the “Blacks” there had “enjoyed using their force for too long.” As he saw it, free African and European laborers might reactivate production but would never be able to produce what eight hundred thousand slaves had produced prior to the Revolution. France should therefore channel its colonial ambitions toward Egypt and Senegal. Page claimed to have developed methods for the cultivation of sugar, indigo, cotton, and coffee on his plantations on Saint-Domingue, which could be transferred to Egypt together with fifty to sixty of the island's “cultivators.” Sugar, cotton, coffee, and indigo could also be cultivated in the region of Saint-Louis and Gorée, where “eight thousand whites, Blacks, and mulattoes . . . sit idle,” estimating that another “twelve to fifteen hundred thousand Blacks . . . also sit idle on a surface of sixty lieues of coastline [reaching] three hundred lieues deep.” On this land, France could set up plantations “either with recruited Blacks who would like to work,” or with people rented from the villages, or “slaves that France could obtain as property.”32
Though ambitious, Page's proposal paled compared to a report submitted by Joseph Philippe Bournet and Charles Alexandre Modeste Marquis in Year XI. Bournet was a former employee within the administration of the Marine while Marquis's career had blossomed in the military since 1791. The two had been arrested for fraud and were currently kept at Dijon. The submitted “Essay on the Civilization of Africa” by Bournet and detailed plan for military advancement into Africa from Tripoli and Senegal by Marquis were, according to an internal note, their “plea for clemency,” which the first consul should pay close attention to—“especially in the current circumstances.” Though Napoléon never acted on their proposal, it is worth exploring because of its remarkable mixing of capitalist agendas and cultural imperialism by two young men, neither of whom was previously associated with the ancien régime colonial system.33
The preface to Bournet's essay was a call to fight British global dominance. While the author believed that it was too late to counter British hegemony in the Americas but still possible in India, in his view the real competition was in Africa. On this continent, France should “establish our domination and reap all the advantages that an active industrious nation can procure through the exploitation of gold and iron mines, given the scope and fertility of land suitable for all of the [agricultural] products of the four corners of the world.” In creating this vast colony, the methods France should pursue should differ from Europe's earlier approaches of “conquest, persecution, massacre, and conflagration” in the New World. France should introduce the sciences and the arts to Africa and “prepare it for the brilliant destiny of which it is capable.” Colonization should happen “by means of the civilized man's power of persuasion” and by “descending among [Africans] to elevate them imperceptibly and more easily to our level” by using sentiment and reason “rather than squash them with the weight of our superiority.”34
Concretely, Bournet and Marquis envisaged penetrating the continent from the coasts of Tripoli and Senegal. From these positions, France should send in a “colonial legion” whose aim should be to form colonial settlements by repressing the brigandage of the Moors (Maures) against the Blacks and signing treaties of alliance and commerce with African rulers. Once settled, the legion—which apart from military men should be formed by “cultivators, crafts men, artists, and free blacks from our American colonies”—should be joined by white women from France destined to form conjugal bonds with Africans. Such marriages, Bournet argued, would strengthen bonds between France and Africa.
Using marriage as a tool of empire was a familiar idea were it not for the fact that Bournet and Marquis's proposal hinged on marrying off white French women to indigenous populations rather than the centuries-old practice of official and semiofficial conjugal bonds between Frenchmen and indigenous women or women shipped from the metropole. In pitching it to Napoléon, they displayed an attitude toward interracial marriage that was in conflict with the emerging domestic consensus. A ministerial decree banned marriage between blacks and whites in 1803, while sexual relations between white women and men of color in the French colonies were not only extremely rare but also seen as dishonorable.35
Conjugal bonds, moreover, were not the only tool of empire Bournet and Marquis proposed. They envisioned using architecture, furniture, and fashion as well. Marquis submitted sketches of a palace and of a military uniform the legion should offer to the African rulers. The palace would look impressive and “required very little” to construct but would, once equipped with French furniture, induce in the African royal family a craving for le luxe. The suit (fig. 1), in turn—modeled after those for the colonial legion and resembling uniforms of the French revolutionary army—as well as “clothing à la française for [the ruler's] wives,” would generate in Africans an admiration for Europeans and “attach” them to the French. It would allow Africans to see that proper representation commands respect and that “a king, a prince, a governor, a rich man cannot dress as a slave, with his body, legs, and feet naked.”36
The next phase in Bournet and Marquis's plan centered on agricultural production. Like a variant of the proposal to create “cultivators” for the Antilles, they envisioned targeting slaves held in indigenous African households into the colonies who should be “declared free in law and liberated from all perpetual servitude, though free in actuality only after a service of five consecutive years during which they would be at the disposal of the colons” as laborers. Such conditional emancipation was as old as slavery itself and a feature of the so-called mighty experiment of nineteenth-century abolitionists.37 To Bournet and Marquis, the colons, in turn, should feed, dress, and treat the cultivators cordially, demands reminiscent of Article 22 of the Code Noir of 1685. The project would render the transatlantic slave trade superfluous, secure French access to cash crops, and create a market for French manufactured goods. Based on the exchange of African raw commodities for French manufactured goods, an African-based French colonial empire would be “equally beneficial to the French and to the Africans.” Speaking like true imperial capitalists, they concluded that civilizing Africa would be “advantageous to a nation rich in culture and industry” because all it meant was that France would “introduce our habits, our customs, our practices [to Africans] and give them new needs as well as the means to satisfy them.”38
The French Revolution as Imperial Revolution?
By the time Bournet and Marquis unveiled their imperial ambitions in Africa, Napoléon had declared the restoration of slavery in the colonies and was pulling French forces out of Egypt. The window that had opened for a reorientation of French colonial empire after the abolition of slavery was closing. Yet so was the opportunity for France to restore its ancien régime prominence as the world's greatest producer of sugar and coffee. Restoration led to Haitian independence. In combination with the rise of Cuba as a key site for the world's sugar production, the loss of Saint-Domingue precluded France from reclaiming its former position. In the French holdings in West Africa, the restoration of slavery meant the return of legal slave trading, albeit only briefly. France abolished the slave trade in 1815, while the abolition of slavery had to await the Revolution of 1848. Looking to perpetuate colonial empire, France embarked on colonial expansion in Africa in the mid-nineteenth century, eventually colonizing much of North and West Africa as part of its self-proclaimed civilizing mission.39
Did the French Revolution constitute a pivotal moment within this larger imperial reorientation toward Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Was it an imperial revolution in its own right? With regard to French interests in Africa, it is certain that the years between 1795 and 1802 pushed French imperialists to rethink a path to empire. That this project was less a product of metropolitan efforts to “sweep aside” the ancien régime colonial system than a reaction to the enslaved's violent rejection of slavery in the French Caribbean colonies—neither the Constituent Assembly nor the Legislative Assembly initiated abolition—emphatically robs the process of its “poetics.” Nevertheless, efforts to find ways to “build anew” French colonial power genuinely animated republican imperialists, whether their focus remained fixed on the Caribbean or pivoted to Africa.
To those who continued saddling France's colonial future to the Caribbean, Africa could be a source of “cultivators” whom France should recruit to go to the Caribbean voluntarily or obtain through redemptions. Both strategies, their authors argued, would enable the French to reconcile revolutionary principles with the need for plantation labor. In contrast, those who thought that France's role in the Americas was over believed that Africa should be the theater in which the Republic should develop its colonial ambitions. Transporting Europeans to West and North Africa to launch cash crop cultivation would secure imports to Europe, inspire Africans to emulate industrious Europeans, and, with time, “attach” Africans to France by means of cultural assimilation. Mutually beneficial economic ties would see the development of “civilization” on a continent yet to attain the European state of development.
Most of these ideas were not direct products of the French Revolution but had animated French debates on colonial empire for decades and some even for centuries. Most recently, the Seven Years' War that stripped France of its territories on the North American mainland set in motion processes of imperial innovation and experimentation across western European powers and their colonies, launching an Age of Imperial Revolutions between circa 1760s and 1840. Yet within this broader moment, imperial revitalization did not happen at a consistently rapid pace or evenly across empires. For France, the outbreak of slave revolt in the French Caribbean and the decreed abolition of slavery fueled the immediacy of a need to accept that change was underway and that French imperialists would have to get ahead of events so as not to be overtaken by them. The French Revolution heightened the stakes of imperial innovation and accelerated imperial processes of regeneration at an ideological level, even though these latter were often blocked or altered at the local level.
Were the processes by which revolutionaries tried to reforge colonial empire within this moment of upheaval “mysterious,” “poetic,” and infused with a “chiliastic fervor”? From the perspective of French imperial interests in Africa, they were no such thing. Instead, the process was chaotic, chauvinistic, and ruthlessly creative. It was chaotic because the framework within which the reforging of empire could happen was inherently unstable. The French Revolution broke down ancien régime institutions, factionalism within the Directory and Consulate undermined ministerial consistency, and particularly Franco-British global rivalry and warfare depleted funds necessary for a centrally supervised reorientation of empire and severed colonial-metropolitan communication. It was chauvinistic in its increasingly assertive belief that France was culturally, economically, and scientifically superior to Africans, whom French imperialists depicted as languishing in an inferior state of human development. The creative side was expressed through responses to the concerns over labor supplies that abolition gave rise to. Aiming to reconcile labor needs and a self-proclaimed French republican ethos, revolutionaries considered using penal labor in the colonies. They also shifted the meaning of the term cultivator away from its older associations to refer instead to freed or redeemed Africans intended for cash crop cultivation. Equally creatively, they accelerated a discourse of a French civilizing mission in Africa to justify military conquest, colonization, and capitalist expansion. Creativity was also visible in Blanchot's advice to create a militia composed of Saint-Louis's indigenous population and his suggestion to couple a redeeming of captives with labor contracts to avoid the “inconveniences” of absolute slavery. His part in generating answers illustrates the vital role of colonial officials during the French Revolution in crafting workable solutions. Although men like Blanchot took the initiative, they did not immediately revolutionize the French mode of colonial empire. As Blanchot wrote to Bruix in 1799, it was not the Revolution that could generate a quick transformation of empire in West Africa: “Only time will be able to bring such successes.”40
The author thanks Megan Maruschke and Manuel Covo for their invitation to participate in this forum and for their constructive feedback. She also thanks Amir Syed, the anonymous reviewers, and the editors of French Historical Studies for their valuable and constructive comments on the manuscript.
“Considérations sur l'organisation du Sénégal par Blanchot,” July 3, 1797, Aix-en-Provence, Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer (hereafter ANOM), COL C6 20, fols. 50–54.
The transformation of colonial empire overseas between 1795 and 1802 has been studied chiefly with attention to the French Caribbean colonies, Egypt, and the Indian Ocean. A far from exhaustive list of works includes Dubois, Colony of Citizens; Régent, Esclavage, métissage, liberté; James, Black Jacobins; Dubois, Avengers of the New World; Cole, Napoleon's Egypt; Coller, “Egypt in the French Revolution”; and Wanquet, La France et la première abolition de l'esclavage. Few scholars have focused on West Africa, but see Dorigny, “La Société des amis des noirs”; Gainot, “La décade”; and Gainot, “Le Dahomey dans la ‘colonisation nouvelle.’”
Bell, “Questioning the Global Turn,” 23–24. Bell engages historians such as Lynn Hunt, Pierre Serna, Laurent Dubois, and Jeremy D. Popkin who study the French Revolution in global and colonial contexts. His main critique is directed at Hunt's comment that the study of the Revolution finds itself in an “explanatory cul de sac” and that the global turn might serve as a new paradigm for it. On Hunt's proposition, see Hunt, “French Revolution in Global Context,” 34; and, more broadly, Desan, Hunt, and Nelson, French Revolution in Global Perspective.
Adelman, “Age of Imperial Revolutions,” 320. See also Fradera, Imperial Nation.
“Considérations sur l'organisation du Sénégal par Blanchot.”
Webb, “Mid-Eighteenth Century Gum Arabic Trade.”
This local conflict is known as the Fuuta Tooro Revolution. It broke out in 1771 and lasted into the 1790s. For more on this, see the subsequent discussion and n. 15.
Blanchot to Truguet, Senegal, 1 Thermidor Year V [July 19, 1797], ANOM, COL C6 20, fol. 15, written in response to a letter by Truguet from 11 Ventôse Year V [Mar. 1, 1797]. On lack of food, see “Considérations sur l'organisation du Sénégal par Blanchot.” On the Fuuta Tooro Revolution, see Searing, West African Slavery, 155–62; and Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, chap. 7.
“Considérations sur l'organisation du Sénégal par Blanchot.”
On early attempts to cultivate cash crops in Africa, see Law, Schwarz, and Strickrodt, Commercial Agriculture.
“Sur l'utilité d'un établissement projetté a Podor dans les Rivière du Sénégal,” by Gourg, Paris, 21 Pluviôse Year V de la République française une et indivisible [Feb. 9, 1797], ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 37–40. On shifting views of Africa and Africans in the French Revolution, see Røge, “Rethinking Africa in the Age of Revolution.”
On the filles du roi, see Landry, Orphelines en France, pionnières au Canada. On Modave, see Pluchon, Histoire de la colonisation française, 283. On political economists and French efforts to relocate cash crop cultivation to Africa, see Røge, Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire, chap. 2.
Marked “Labarthe,” N. 3833, 21 Messidor Year V [July 9, 1797], ANOM, C20, fols. 56–57.
“Considérations sur l'organisation du Sénégal par Blanchot.” On the Constitution of Year III and its colonial impacts, see Spieler, “Legal Structure of Colonial Rule.” On claims to citizenship on Gorée, see Aubert, “‘Nègres ou mulâtres nous sommes tous Français.’”
For Blanchot's treaty with representatives of the Almaami, see “Traité avec le village de Guédé,” Aug. 4, 1789, ANOM, Ministère des Colonies, 131 MIOM/5, dossier 412. In 1804 Blanchot orchestrated a raid on the Peuls and Almaami to spread “terror in the minds of the Blacks of the interior,” an expedition that included burning down 10 villages, killing 160 Peuls and capturing 620 men and women of all ages to be shipped to the Americas. See Blanchot to the Minister of the Marine, 9 Vendémiaire Year XIII [Oct. 1, 1804], ANOM, COL C6 21, fols. 156–57. On Blanchot's appointment and death, see Jore, Les établissements, 126, 230. On the Fuuta Tooro Revolution and Muslim resistance to the transatlantic slave trade, see Ware, Walking Qur'an, chap. 3.
On the signares on Saint-Louis and Gorée, see Searing, West African Slavery, chap. 4.
Blanchot to Truguet.
For Belon's testimony, see “French Businessman's Autobiography, Nineteenth Century,” manuscript, 1820, chap. 10, Temple University Library, Special Collections Archives. I am grateful to Manuel Covo for sharing this document with me. More broadly, see Covo, “I, François B.” On Blanchot's trade with Danish and American merchants, see also the Report of Letter from Blanchot to Executive, 7 Thermidor Year VII [Jan. 16, 1799], ANOM, COL C6 20, fol. 12. On trade with neutral powers during the French Revolution, see Marzagalli and Müller, “‘In Apparent Disagreement with All Law of Nations in the World.’”
“Considérations sur l'organisation du Sénégal par Blanchot”; Blanchot to Truguet. Moyout Guiob would later sell Babagué, as well as Safel and Guébair to Blanchot. See “Copie de l'acte d'acquisition des Isles à Babagué, Safal et Guébair,” ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 25–26.
Paris, 29 Germinal Year VI [Apr. 18, 1798], au C. Blanchot, commandant au Senegal, ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 31–32.
Senegal, Report of Letter from Blanchot to Executive, 7 Thermidor Year VII [Jan. 16, 1799], ANOM, COL C6 20, fol. 12.
The ancien régime definition is from Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (1787–88), www.artfl-project.uchicago.edu (accessed Feb. 15, 2019). On Sonthonax's use of the term cultivator, see Gainot, L'empire colonial, 170. On the evolution of this term in the nineteenth century, see Barthélémy, “Aux origines d'Haïti.”
“Instructions pour le C. Blanchot, Commandant au Sénégal,” 23 Ventôse Year VII [Mar. 13, 1799], ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 5–6.
“Instructions pour le C. Blanchot, Commandant au Sénégal.”
For article XV, see “Constitution du 5 Fructidor An III,” Conseil Constitutionnel, Constitution de L'An III (accessed Mar. 19, 2021), www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr/les-constitutions-dans-l-histoire/constitution-du-5-fructidor-an-iii.
“Instructions pour le C. Blanchot, Commandant au Sénégal.”
“Mémoire sur un établissement à faire au Sénégal,” 25 Messidor Year VI [July 13, 1798], ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 38–47bis, and “Second partie de mémoire du 25 Messidor an six,” 16 Thermidor Year VI [Aug. 3, 1798], ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 50–61bis. On Justin Girod-Chantrans's voyage, see Girod-Chantrans, Voyage d'un Suisse.
“Mémoire sur un établissement à faire au Sénégal,” 25 Messidor Year VI [July 13, 1798], ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 38–47. On the company, see “Second partie de mémoire du 25 Messidor an six.”
“Observations” on Girod's proposals, ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 68–69, undated.
Blanchot to Minister, 5 Brumaire Year VIII [Oct. 27, 1799], ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 25–27.
Blanchot to Minister.
Page, “Notes sur l’établissement des cultures colonials en Egyptes et au Sénégal,” 10 Pluviôse Year X [Jan. 30, 1802], ANOM, COL C6 20, fol. 63. On Page's evolution, see Benot, La démence coloniale, 53.
On Bournet's and Marquis's activities prior to imprisonment, see Marquis and Bournet to Minister of Justice, Prairial Year XI [May–June 1803], Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, Série AF Archives du Pouvoir Exécutif (hereafter AF), III 209, fol. 20. On their plea for clemency and need to pay attention to their proposal, see Internal note, AF III 209, fol. 18.
Joseph Philippe Bournet, “Essai sur la civilisation de l'Afrique,” Year XI, AF III 209, fol. 22.
On the 1803 decree and its impact, see Heuer, “One-Drop Rule in Reverse?,” 515. See also Marvin, “‘Ambroise Affair.’”
Bournet, “Essai sur la civilisation de l'Afrique.”
On conditional emancipation in antiquity, see Zelnick-Abramovitz, Not Wholly Free. On the nineteenth-century context, see Drescher, Mighty Experiment.
Bournet, “Essai sur la civilisation de l'Afrique.”
On nineteenth-century French expansion in North and West Africa, see Sessions, By Sword and Plow; and Conklin, Mission to Civilize.
On Blanchot's comment, see 5 Brumaire Year VIII [Oct. 27, 1799], ANOM, COL C6 20, fols. 25–27.