P. Røge: Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire

Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire. France in the Americas and Africa, c.1750–1802

Røge, Pernille
New Studies in European History
€ 90,85
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Damien Tricoire, Marin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Pernille Røge’s book explores an important but neglected topic: it studies how the French colonial empire was rethought in the second half of the eighteenth century. Its greatest originality is to link an exploration of ideas on colonies with a history of colonial ventures in, and colonial policy towards the Lesser Antilles and West Africa. The author could have written a purely intellectual history, and this history would surely have been already very valuable. But she chose to examine the reception of ideas, and this led her to study a far greater corpus of sources, i. e. archival sources, which are often neglected in intellectual history. She explores not only how philosophes, but also how merchants, planters, and ministerial employees argued. Doing so, she does not hold that the Bordeaux merchants, Antillean planters or ministerial secretaries were “influenced” by physiocratic thought, but shows rather how they appropriated parts of this thought in order to promote their own agenda.

Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire makes thus not a case for the “influence” of physiocrats (called “économistes” by their contemporaries) properly speaking. But the findings presented in this book indeed shall lead us to re-evaluate the importance of physiocracy. Although not an unknown topic, common narratives of the Enlightenment do not address physiocracy adequately. Physiocratic thought appears above all as a kind of early (and defective) stage in the invention of economic liberal theory. Perhaps this neglect results from the fact that physiocracy does not fit into the “Enlightenment_s_” that historians like to define (it is neither republican nor liberal, neither radical nor moderate, neither secular nor religious). But the author shows that physiocrats invented major ideas that had an enormous long-term influence on political debates. At the same time, she does not seek to create new heroes, and point out to the shortcomings of physiocratic writings. Thus she escapes the tiring controversy between postcolonial critique and apologists of the Enlightenment.

Chapter 1 and 2 study how “économistes” came to reconceptualise colonial policy in several ways. A case is made for the importance of Marquis de Mirabeau (father of the better-known revolutionary), who has penned a highly influential bestseller that plays an astonishingly small role in common narratives of the Enlightenment. Mirabeau, sensitised by his brother who was governor of Guadeloupe, was the first philosophe to develop a critique of the “exclusif” (the prohibition for colonies to trade with foreigners), of commercial monopolies, and of slavery. He reconceptualised colonies as overseas provinces that should not be “enslaved” by the motherland, and pleaded for their legal assimilation. He set into the world the idea that American colonies will necessarily become independent, and that slaves will probably take over control in the sugar islands. Quesnay, by contrast, while more popular a figure in scholarship, had little to say on colonial policy. Røge re-evaluates also the importance of the “second generation” of physiocrats: Beaudau, Dupont de Nemours and Roubaud. These philosophes revitalised and renewed the arguments against slavery, thus laying the foundations of Enlightenment abolitionism. They invented the idea that colonial expansion in Africa may be an alternative to the slavery-driven sugar islands. They linked commerce, agriculture and civilisation, and were the first Enlightenment authors to plead for colonial expansion through civilising policy. They thus departed in central points from Marquis de Mirabeau’s thought. Especially the case for the importance of Roubaud is stimulating: Røge shows the seminal role of his Histoire générale de l’Asie, de l’Afrique et de l’Amérique, a work almost unstudied in scholarship. By contrast, she argues persuasively that Raynal’s and Diderot’s Histoire des deux Indes only repeated physiocratic ideas. The significance of this Enlightenment bestseller is rather to have ensured a broader and long-term circulation of these ideas, while the group of the physiocrats disaggregated in the 1770s.

Chapter 3 shows how the planter elite in Martinique appropriated partially physiocratic thought (liberty of commerce, redefinition of colonies as overseas provinces, but not the critique of slavery or the worthlessness of trade in luxury goods). Røge gives many new valuable information about political dynamics on Martinique. She provides also new insights into ministerial policies in the 1760s and 1770s, showing among others that the reform of the “exclusif” was not so much due to the influence of Martiniquean planters, but rather to the fact that Versailles courtiers possessed themselves plantations in the Caribbean. This is why they did not endorse the physiocratic idea of expansion in Africa as an alternative to sugar islands.

The next chapter explores a much-neglected topic, the first colonisation attempts in West Africa. The author resists the temptation to attribute these colonial ventures to physiocratic influence, and studies local dynamics and initiatives, that were usually not endorsed by Versailles. This chapter also shows how changes in the ministry of the Marine led to changes in policy towards West Africa (above all, to the creation of trade monopolies granted to companies dominated by courtiers).

In the last chapter, Røge shows how French revolutionaries took over physiocratic ideas. The Revolution was not a turning point towards a new kind of empire, as is often claimed. Mirabeau and Talleyrand developed hardly new ideas. However, physiocratic ideas were only partly applied in the revolutionary era. Røge thinks that the Directoire constitution did not mark a breaking point towards a legal assimilation of the colonies, as is often asserted. This would have to wait until the second half of the twentieth century. Doing so, she underlines the continuities between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial history, thus holding that the common contrast that is made between a “first” and a “second” French colonial empire is misleading in several ways.

There is nothing to criticise in all these analyses but details. Marquis de Mirabeau was not a polygenist, as Røge asserts following Andrew Curran. As is common in the intellectual history of the Enlightenment, the study neglects discourse by clerical actors. Therefore, Røge does not into account that it were Jesuit authors who laid the foundations of the ideas of civilising policy and civilising mission. An under-explored topic is also the dynamics of court factions and their link to colonial policy. Røge writes of “the Crown” as if it were a political agent. Policy was not made by the “state”, however, but by groups of courtiers concurring with others. Lastly, though this book can hardly be reproached not to have included a broader sample of cases, it may be noted that it would be time to break with the geographical framework of “Atlantic history”. This approach, which is very popular in North America, has the unintended consequence to isolate somewhat artificially the “West” from the “East Indies” in scholarship. Many parallels could be drawn between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean histories, which were tightly connected. But all these points do not diminish in any way the merits of Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire, which is without any doubt a major contribution to scholarship on both colonial and Enlightenment history.

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